Saturday, May 15, 2010

Local Challenge

This week, Derek and I attended a forum on the economics of local food in Jamaica Plain (my old stomping grounds that I miss every time I visit).  It was a thought-provoking, but also somewhat frustrating conversation about the need to go back to a local food economy and the challenges of doing so.  They had some great panelists, including Jamey Lionette, former owner of Lionette's market in the South End, now Don Otto's, which mainly focus on selling local, pasture-fed and humanely raised meats, and also has a great selection of local produce and dairy.  I've mentioned this place before - its right down the street and one of my favorite shops.  There was also a farmer from Allandale Farm, a full scale farm right in Brookline.  The owner of City Feed, another shop selling local products in JP, and the founder of Hardwick Beef, which raises natural grass-fed beef, also contributed to the conversation.  Rounding out the panel was a woman who started the area's first CSF (community supported fishery), Cape Ann Fresh Catch,  and is working to support local fishermen while encouraging sustainable fishing practices.  All of these speakers were insightful and inspiring, and it was great to hear what they've done to make local food work.  But its also frustrating when we talk about the corporate American food system that we're up against, a system that despite being broken and harmful, is very difficult to change.

The basic problem with our system is that it produces food that's too cheap.  And that's what Americans have come to expect, that is their main criteria for buying food.  Ridge Shin from Hardwick Beef used as an example the slogans of Shaw's Supermarkets ("Good Food Costs Less") and WalMart ("Always Low Prices" - which he interpreted as "Always Somebody Gets Screwed").  This system has resulted in the mass production of food that has become harmful to consumers, damaging to the planet and impossible to sustain.  The food producers can't make a living in the current food system without being government subsidized, or our food gets shipped in from South America where workers are paid $5 a day.  60 years ago, Americans spent 22% of their income on food.  Today we are spending less than 10%.  And that food from 60 years ago?  It was food grown close to home, eaten in season.  Eating local is not some impossible feat - its how people have lived and thrived for centuries!  In our self-indulgent modern society, we've gotten far too used to having everything we want at any time.  And its killing us and killing our planet.  We're spending less than ever on food, but yet we're fatter than ever and spending more than any other country on our healthcare.  Our food system is broken and its killing us.

Yes, buying local and naturally raised and grown food is often more expensive, but that's not because the food producers are trying to make a big buck.  We heard from all the panelists that they are not making money, they're just getting by.  You're paying more for food because it was actually raised and grown by a person, not a machine.  A person who is paying attention what happens to your food, who cares about what you're putting in your body.  A person who is making a fair wage for their work.  Cheap food doesn't only hurt the person eating it , but it also hurts the person producing the food because they can't make a living off of it.

I find some hope in forums like this, where people who see that we have a problem get together and discuss how to fix it.  The panelists were all shining examples of people who are making a local food system work, and providing that food to our community.  The tide is definitely changing.  There is so much information out there about the problems with our food system.  More farms are being started, more people are shopping at farmer's market and joining CSAs, more restaurants and chefs are cooking with local products.  But what I find so frustrating is that it seems like for every person who is making an effort to eat outside of our messed up food system, there are about 10 who have heard all the information about how broken the system is and just don't care.  They still want their cheap food.

The reality is, even though people lived off local diets for thousands of years, food habits are hard to change and a eating strictly local diet is not easy.  I try very hard at it and its pretty rare that I eat a 100% local meal.  We eat mainly local eggs and dairy and try to eat local produce.  Its easy in the summer when we get our CSA, but 6 to 7 months out of the year there just aren't as many options in New England.  And there's so much more that goes into our food that you don't always think about whether its local or not.  Flour, sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate, spices, grains - do you know where all of that is coming from?  I took a good look in my pantry and realized I did not.  I was very excited to post a seasonal, local rhubarb compote recipe today, then realized I had no idea where the sucanat and ginger came from that I added to the rhubarb.  Or the pecans and almonds that I sprinkled on top for serving.  Very likely they did not come from New England.  But thinking more about it, you can make this with local maple syrup or honey and skip the ginger.  It will still be delcious.  There are solutions if we take the time to look for them.

Here's where I've come around to - all we can do is our best.  We just need to pay attention and think about what we eat.  We need to ask, where did this come from?  We can all do a better job of that, but we can't beat ourselves (or anyone else) up about it.  We need to educate ourselves, our children and our friends.  Some people will care and some people won't, but we have to keep talking, keep trying, and keep supporting our farmers!

So, with a little bit of guilt and a lot of deliciousness, enjoy some rhubarb.

Rhubarb is a great Spring treat, a lovely preamble to the sweet, luscious berries and stone fruits of the summer.
Rhubarb is one of those foods that you wonder why anyone ever tried to eat it.  Raw and unadaltered it is mouth-puckeringly sour.  Who was the first person to discover that if you cook it with some sugar, it makes a pleasantly tart, perfect pie (not my mother, although she makes a mean one)?  I have fond memories of childhood summers spent at my neighbor's house, picking rhubard from their garden and eating it raw dipped in a little bowl of sugar.  Just a childish excuse to consume sugar, but the thought of it brings me back to long, warm, lazy days running across the grass and splashing in the stream.
Be careful of those fingers!

Spicy grated ginger is a great compliment to the tart rhubarb, but as I mentioned you can leave it out.  I love it and am contemplating whether I can grow it on my patio.

Rhubarb Ginger Compote
8 large stalks rhubarb, sliced 1/2" thick
1/2 cup water
1/2 - 3/4 sucanat, honey, maple syrup or sugar (more or less to taste)
1/2" - 1" piece of peeled ginger, finely grated (more or less to taste)
  • Combine all indregients in a large dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot.  
  • Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to a low simmer.
  • Cook until rhubarb has sofented and started to break down, and mixture is thick.  Taste as you go and add more sugar or ginger if you like.
  • Serve warm over ice cream, or chill and spoon over yogurt for breakfast.

    Monday, May 3, 2010

    Afternoon Snack

    Its 4pm on a Monday.  Lunch was a few hours ago and dinner is a long way off.  And I'm hungry!  Not stomach grumbling, gnaw my left arm off hungry.  But I definitely need something.  This is probably the most dangerous time of day for me.  This is the time when I am most likely to eat something really bad, really sugary, and really fattening.  Luckily, I am prepared.  I keep in my arsenal (AKA my desk) a hearty supply of afternoon snacking treats that are not only tasty and satisfying, but also healthy.

    I always have some good dark chocolate, usually Taza, for an immediate quality sugar fix.  A small amount of rich chocolate is great for my immediate, post lunch sugar cravings.  But later in the afternoon I need something a bit more substantial.  I usually try to have a piece of fruit on hand, and keep some almond butter in my desk for dipping and smearing.  Dried fruit and nuts are good staples, too.  I often keep hummus and cut up veggies in my work fridge, for more savory cravings.  But lately I've been stocked up on an afternoon snack that fills all these requirements.  Slightly sweet, very hearty, a little savory and loaded with health granola bars.
    The biggest challenge I've found with homemade granola bars is getting them to hold together and making them chewy.  In a granola bar or cookie, I always prefer chewy over crispy.

    This recipe definitely got it right.  Its loosely based on a Smitten Kitchen recipe, but liberally adapted and I think a bit healthier.  
    Feel free to be just as liberal with your adaptation.  The basic proportions of dry to wet are all that really matter, but you can use whatever kinds of fruits and nuts and grains and oils and syrups that you prefer. That's the best thing about granola and granola bars - they can be totally personalized to your taste (or to whatever happens to be in your cupboards!).

    Chewy Granola Bars
    1 2/3 cups rolled oats
    3 Tbl sucanat (or brown sugar)
    1/3 cup wheat bran
    1/2 tsp salt
    1/2 tsp cinnamon
    3 cups mixed chopped dried fruit and nuts (I used dried mangoes, cherries, banana chips, crystallized ginger, ground flax seeds, slivered almonds, sunflowers seeds, and unsweetened flaked coconut)
    1/4 cup + 1 Tbl grapeseed oil
    1/4 cup agave
    1 Tbl pure maple syrup

    1 Tbl water
    1 tsp vanilla
    1/4 cup almond butter
    • Preheat oven to 350ยบ
    • line a 7" x 11" x 2" baking sheet with parchment paper, so it hangs over the edges.  Brush sides of pan and parchment with oil.
    • Stir together all dry ingredients, through the fruit and nuts, in a large bowl until well incorporated.
    • In a separate bowl, whisk together wet ingredients through  almond butter until just combined.
    • Pour wet ingredients into dry and mix until all dry ingredients are moist and coated.
    • Spread mixture into prepared baking pan and use spatula to smooth out the top.
    • Bake edges are browned and top is golden, about 30 minutes.  Center will still seem soft.
    • Let cool on rack, then pop in the freezer for about 30 minutes.  Bars will harden and be easier to cut
    • Lift out of pan using overhanging parchment and place on cutting board.  Cut bars in half, then thirds, then half down middle.  You should have a dozen bars.
    • Store in airtight container at room temperature.  If very humid and warm in your kitchen, store in fridge.