Sunday, December 16, 2007

Eating Local in the Winter: Dinner Tonight

Tonight's dinner:

  • A thick slice of meatloaf made with essentially the same ingredients as mentioned in this post, chiefly local grass-fed beef and forest-fed pork out of the freezer, but topped with a North Carolina barbecue sauce instead of ketchup;

  • four small, local potatoes (a mix of red skins and white) saved from the farmers' market (potatoes are getting a little soft and sprouty, but still seem to be fine for eating), zapped in the microwave and topped with butter, salt, and pepper;

  • and half a head of the very nice local broccoli that I found recently at Integral Yoga Natural Foods (I was hoping to find local collard greens, but thought the broccoli looked good for dinner vegetable of the week), steamed and then tossed with a lot of butter and a little lemon juice.

It's been a long week. One advantage of this meal was that I could prepare the potatoes and (leftover) meat loaf in the microwave while steaming the broccoli on the stovetop. Since the meat loaf was already made, the preparation was quite easy. Good for exhausted me.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Chicken with Apples and Bacon

Ingredients of the latest dish I've cooked:

  • a whole, small chicken from Reynolds Natural Grassfed in Schuyler, VA

  • several apples from local orchards

  • bacon from Double H Farm

  • cider from Showalter Orchard

  • onions from the farmers' market

  • dijon mustard

  • balsamic vinegar

  • thyme

  • salt and pepper

(I could have used some of the local thyme from Brightwood Vineyard and Farm that I've got hanging up to dry, but I decided to use up the end of the store-bought thyme instead. Next recipe will be the local stuff!)

The big adventure in cooking the chicken with apples and bacon was cutting the chicken up into parts. This is the first time I've done that, although I have taken apart a half chicken before. I followed the instructions in the Joy of Cooking. I didn't do a very professional job of it, but in the end I got the chicken broken down into two breasts and two legs. I put the wings and backbone into a plastic bag in the freezer for making stock in the future.

Also cooked recently: chili with local ground beef, onions, peppers, tomatoes and dried oregano. (Plus some non-local beans, spices, and additional tomatoes.)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Putting Food By

I've been wanting to do an entry about "putting food by" for winter. Finally, here it is!

I didn't get to fulfill all of my grand schemes for canning, pickling, drying, and freezing while fresh local foods were abundant this summer, but I managed to get a fair amount done.

I canned strawberries in syrup:

. . . and did the same with sliced peaches. I haven't gotten into the canned fruit yet, but have thought that I will use it over the winter as toppings for oatmeal, mix-ins for homemade yogurt, ingredients in smoothies, and as dessert in its own right. I might also investigate the Joy of Cooking recipe for "winter peach pie," which I think calls for canned peaches.

I made cherry jam, and took several photos of the process. First I bought several pounds of sour cherries--they don't show up for long or in large amounts at the farmers' market, so one has to go early and pounce on the goods when they're in season--and pitted them, using a cherry pitter, which is a marvelous invention.

I've pitted cherries before without the pitter, and can tell you that pitting this many . . .

. . . is quite a chore if all you have is a paring knife.

Next, I cooked the pitted cherries with sugar and commercially prepared pectin to make jam; when the jam was ready, I canned it in sterilized glass jars. Here is my canning setup:

The big shiny stock pot in the front is what I use to cook the jam. Behind it you might just barely make out a smaller stainless steel sauce pan; it holds hot water and the lids for the canning jars. To the left, the gigantic white-enameled "lobster pot" (which is too big to fit on one burner, but too small to completely bridge two burners!) is what I've been using lately to boil the jars.

Here are some jars of the finished cherry jam:

The two tall ones are standard canning jars; they have special lids made to create a vacuum seal. The smaller, square one in front is my first experiment with re-using an ordinary food jar from some other grocery item to can my homemade jam. It has a layer of paraffin wax sealing it. The USDA does not currently recommend this method of sealing for home-canned goods, but paraffin seals have been used for a long time, and I figure that on a high-acid, hard-to-spoil food like jam, they shouldn't be too dangerous. I think I'll be able to tell, when I open this jar up, whether the paraffin seal has been compromised or not. (I doubt it will be.) I grew up eating jams and jellies from paraffin-sealed jars, and never knew of any problems with them . . . unless you count a certain family story about the potential hazard of plunging one's thumb into the jam while trying to remove the seal!

Later, after my July trip to New York, I made a small batch of gooseberry jelly. For the gooseberry jelly, I used a completely different style of canning jars: the smallest size of these beautiful Weck tulip jars, a gift from my friend Jessie. Instead of the metal bands and lids that I'm familiar with from the Ball/Mason jars shown above, the Weck jars use glass lids and rubber rings to form the seal.

Another adventure in home canning: I finally got around to making pickles for the first time! Well, I had made "quick pickles" before, but I didn't find those very satisfactory; I wanted to make proper pickles.

I picked a classic dill pickle recipe for my first pickling attempt. (I may have been influenced by the fact that dill pickles are one of the traditional ingredients in an Italian sandwich.) I bought the cucumbers and fresh dill at the farmers' market, of course, and I assembled the pickling spices from the bulk spice sections of various stores around town: I started shopping at Integral Yoga and Rebecca's Natural Foods, both of which are good purveyors of locally-raised foods (although I doubt any of the pickling spices were raised in Virginia!). I ended up getting the last few items on my list at Whole Foods.

The recipe I was following was good, but underestimated the yield. I ended up with this wall of pickles:

That picture doesn't show you all the jars I filled with pickles! I think there were eight or nine pint-and-a-half jars total.

The recipe called for the canned pickles to be left unopened for a certain number of weeks, but out of curiosity (and impatience) I opened a jar early. The pickles tasted good and seemed fully brined.

The problem now is what to do with nine jars of dill pickles . . . hmmmmm . . .

Well here's another way in which I've been working on putting food by: for the first time this summer, I tried drying herbs.

I bought several different kinds of herbs at the farmers' market and hung them up to dry. The first group of herbs that I tried drying, I hung up in the storage closet out on my balcony. Here's the rosemary, with a pouch of fabric suspend it below it to catch any loose leaves which might fall off:

I also dried oregano and marjoram in the same manner.

Since that experiment was a success, I later dried smaller batches of sage and thyme indoors, suspending them under the upper cabinets in the kitchen.

I've already started using the dried local herbs in my cooking--especially the oregano. I think I am going to use that up quickly and will probably have to re-supply with imports from the grocery store.

The final stop in this tour of my food preservation efforts is the freezer. I look forward to the day when I will have a big chest freezer and will be able to freeze lots and lots of nice local veggies to tide me over in the winter. This year, I wasn't able to freeze much, but I did vacuum-pack and freeze a small batch of spinach--about a pound, I think, enough for one recipe of something-or-other--and a few servings of asparagus. I recently got out one of the packets of asparagus spears, zapped them in the microwave, and had them as a side dish with my dinner. They were not as good as fresh, of course, but they were still quite tasty, and a treat--a taste of Virginia springtime in the fall.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Fine Picnic

Yesterday I opened up my mailbox and found a very nice surprise: I had won the prize package in one of the C-ville Weekly's monthly wine trivia quizzes! I was so excited, I did a little hokey-pokey dance in my apartment.

I couldn't wait to redeem my certificate for one of the prizes, a "wine tasting picnic bag" from Feast!, so I went to the shop straight from the farmers' market this morning. One of the Feast! managers assembled the following goodies for me:

Clockwise from top: a fresh baguette from Albemarle Baking Company, a third of a pound of Boucheron goat cheese, a packet of dark chocolate pieces with dried cranberries from Hunt Country Foods, a tub of mixed olives, a pair of sausages of some sort, and a third of a pound of Piave Vecchio cheese.

Yes, Feast! gave me a third of a pound of Boucheron. If you are not jealous yet, it can only be because you have never eaten Boucheron.

I have been pretty stressed out lately, with loads of work, but I decided that the "picnic bag" from Feast! combined with the gorgeous weather we had today were signs that the universe was telling me to take a break . . . and take a picnic. So I re-packed the Feast! goodies into my backpack and went for a walk at the Ivy Creek Natural Area. After tramping through the woods for about thirty or forty minutes to work up a healthy appetite (the better to savor the treats from Feast!) I spread out a picnic blanket under the oak tree in the meadow near the barn. Here is the view I had during my lunch today:

And here is another view of my lunch, mid-nosh:

In this picture you can see the items that I added to the picnic: a fresh, local, crispy-juicy apple, which went nicely with the Piave Vecchio; and a little jar of fig spread, which I made from fresh figs recently. (After buying figs at the farmers' market, I ate most of them out of hand, but cooked a few with just a smidge of sugar.) Fig spread + Boucheron + fresh baguette = HEAVEN.

I did not, alas, taste any wine along with my "wine tasting picnic." Too much work to do after lunch! It would have been very nice, though, to indulge in a glass of Virginia viognier along with the cheeses and bread and olives. I'm looking forward to enjoying one of the other prizes from the C-ville wine trivia drawing: a three-month membership in the Virginia Wine of the Month Club!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Market Day!

I had a grand time at the Charlottesville City Market (or as I call it, simply "the farmers' market" or "the Saturday farmers' market") this morning. With the fall break ahead of me, I was feeling optimistic about the opportunity to do some cooking and canning. I ended up spending about $120 and hauling away approximately 42 and a half pounds of food. (I made two trips to the car.)

When I got home I unloaded all of my purchases onto the dining table and weighed them on my kitchen scale, just to revel in the bounty of it all. I took pictures, but I can't upload them just now because I neglected to bring the camera with me to the library.

Among my purchases:

  • almost 15 lbs of tomatoes (from Waterpenny Farm and the Farm at Red Hill), to try canning

  • a petite three-pound whole chicken and a dozen eggs from a farm whose name I can't remember; I'm thinking about doing a recipe with chicken, apples, and bacon

  • a piece of pork (Boston butt) from Babes in the Wood; I'm planning to slow-cook it somehow with Bone Suckin' Sauce from North Carolina

  • fresh herbs from Brightwood Vineyard and Farm and Radical Roots

  • figs (!)

  • a pound of "free" chevre from Satyrfield Farm

  • chestnuts

  • loads of apples (about six and three quarter pounds)

  • just over four pounds of peaches: when are those trees going to quit for the season?

  • a whole bunch of different vegetables

Earlier today I made myself a late lunch / early dinner of stir fry with:

  • onion from Radical Roots

  • yellow summer squash also from Radical Roots

  • carrots from Roundabout Farm Roundabout Farm

  • green beans from the farmers' market

  • baby bok choy from (the embattled) Double H Farm

  • red bell pepper from the farmer's market

  • tofu from Twin Oaks

  • ginger root

  • some soy sauce, vinegar, salt, etc.

The colors of all the veggies were so pretty, I should have taken a picture, but I was in too much of a hurry to eat the beautiful food, not photograph it!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Peach Tart II

In the oven right now: a second, even unclassier version of the peach tart. (Apparently those "last of the season" peaches were not quite last of the season.)

This time I pressed the cornmeal crust into an 8" x 8" baking pan and crammed it with six small, thinly-sliced peaches. I also doubled the custard recipe, but needn't have; the first cup that I poured into the pan was plenty. So I poured the extra custard into a second baking pan and sliced more peaches into it. I figure it will be like a sweet, crustless peach quiche. As a time-saving measure, I omitted the thyme and cornmeal crumble that the recipe calls for as a topping.

I'm really looking forward to tomorrow's peachy-custardy breakfast!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Charlottesville Carnivore

Recent dishes:

Delicious (but not very photogenic) meatloaf made with

  • "forest fed" ground pork from Babes in the Wood

  • grass-finished ground beef from another local farm

  • a local egg

  • cracker crumbs

  • worcestershire sauce

  • various dried herbs that I don't remember off the top of my head

  • and topped with curry ketchup from Montebello Kitchens

Delicious (but not photogenic, either) "Indian burgers" made with

  • grass-finished ground beef from a local farm

  • my homemade yogurt

  • mint from the farmers' market

  • onion from the farmers' market

  • ginger root

  • various dried spices that I don't remember off the top of my head

  • topped with slices of tomatoes from Waterpenny Farm and cucumbers from the farmer's market

  • and served between slices of sunflower wheat bread from BreadWorks

In the stock pot right now:

  • a local chicken

  • with basil from Waterpenny Farm

  • and garlic from the farmers' market

. . . soon to be joined by

  • carrots from Roundabout Farm

  • onions from the farmers' market

  • celery from Double H Farm

  • potatoes from the farmers' market

  • parsley from the farmers' market

I'm looking forward to some nice soup!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Peach Tart

Things have been busy since I got back to Charlottesville, with not enough time for cooking and even less for blogging. But recently I saw this recipe for peach and thyme polenta tart and decided that I wanted to try it out. I bought last-of-the-season peaches and a little bundle of thyme from the farmer's market, and used local eggs in the dish, too.

End result: as delicious as it looks in the other blog's picture.

Process: had some complications.

The recipe specifies a nine-inch tart pan, which I do not have. So, at first I tried to use a nine-inch pie plate. I figured that the sloped sides would reduce the volume somewhat, but I did not think it would be too far off from a tart pan. Well, when I pressed the cornmeal dough into the pie plate, it made a very thick crust. After I baked the crust and it puffed up a little in the oven, it had consumed (I would estimate) more than half the interior volume of the pie plate. There was absolutely no way that I was going to be able to fit five sliced-up peaches in there, let alone the custard.

After pondering my options for a while, I transferred the crust to a deep cast iron skillet that was about nine inches in diameter. The crust broke up in the process, of course, but it was still warm and soft, so I just pressed the crumbs into place and figured it would be OK if some of the custard ran down through the cracks in the crust. I wasn't sure I could fit the fillings into the crust, but I decided I would rely on the straighter, higher sides of the skillet to keep everything contained.

Even with the larger pan, there was still no way that I could fit all five medium-sized peaches into the tart. I cut three peaches into very thin slices and crammed the slices into the crust standing up on their long inside edges, with their skin side edges up. Then I poured the lemon-thyme custard over, added the crumble topping, baked the thing, and ate the extra peaches raw. (They were perfectly ripe and delicious.)

Although my tart came out nowhere near as pretty as the one pictured at the Apartment Therapy site, it does taste quite good. It is rich, with all that butter in the crust and the eggs and cream in the filling, so I have been eating one small slice per day, usually for breakfast. The crust is very thick; if I were making this recipe again, I think I would either reduce the crust recipe or try to put it into a bigger pan. I really like the sweetened cornmeal crust, though; I might try making it again for different fillings sometime.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

In the woods for a while

Just a quick update to say sorry about the lack of updates. I recently drove up to Maine from Charlottesville, and before I left, I was too busy with work to do any blogging, and now that I'm in Maine with more leisure time, I'm lacking a good (and free) internet connection. I am writing today from the adorable but very tiny (and only open 3 days a week) Raymond Village Library, where there is a public internet service. I am on my way to buy fresh local corn--a mission that I should resume now!

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Weekend in New York

I recently spent a long weekend visiting my brother Erik and his wife Eppu in New York.

Erik is not as interested in eating-local-as-a-hobby as I am, but he says that he does enjoy getting local produce and fish at his nearest farmers' market when he can. He is an enthusiastic cook, and while I was visiting, he prepared several dishes that were largely locally sourced. For instance, there was this berry tart, made with berries from the farmers' market and every bit as delicious as it looks:

There was also a scrumptious vinaigrette-type potato salad that included a mix of local vegetables; some local asparagus (last of the season!) wrapped in prosciutto and grilled; and a melange of other local vegetables (plus some non-local ingredients) to go with the asparagus. And we had bread from local bakers, although I imagine they get their flour from somewhere far away.

I arrived too late to share in the dairy goods from Ronnybrook Farm that Erik had gotten on an earlier market day. Here are the glass bottles:

On the Sunday that I was there, I got to go along for a visit to the neighborhood farmers' market, which is held just down the sidewalk from the gates to Columbia University. This photo shows more of the environs than of the market itself, but you can just make out the white pop-up tents of the vendors' stalls in the middle of this scene:

At that market, I bought four pints of gooseberries, which looked beautiful and were attractively priced. Erik helped me pinch off the stems and blossom ends, and I froze them in Erik and Eppu's freezer before transporting them back to Charlottesville with me. If I can get my act together, I should be making gooseberry jam or jelly soon.

In addition to chowing down on largely-local goodies at Erik and Eppu's place, we ate a few meals out, notably at Pisticci and China de Puebla. Both were really, really good, but I must single out the Green Jade Gazpacho at China de Puebla. It was amazing. This cold soup was made with coconut, zucchini, cucumber, jicama, honeydew and mint. Although I've been enjoying eating local in Charlottesville, it was a treat to savor this simple-yet-complex, fusion-y food made of ingredients from, presumably, far-flung places. (Don't see many coconut trees in New York.) The key word, I am starting to think, is treat: my diet is getting to be dominated by locally-produced foods, but I can still enjoy, on occasion, savoring a dish that brings distant corners of the world together.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Yogurt with . . .

As locally-grown fruits come into season, I've been enjoying delicious rich homemade whole-milk yogurt with . . .

. . . cherries . . .

. . . peaches . . .

. . . blackberries . . .

. . . mmmm. I think this crazy yogurt-making scheme was a good plan, after all.

(Technical note: all of the fruits that I've been stirring into my yogurt have been cooked briefly with a small amount of sugar, as detailed in this post about strawberries.)

Saturday, July 7, 2007


Last night I saw the movie Ratatouille. I wasn't planning to, but then I heard a Talk of the Nation interview with Ruth Reichl in which the movie's food critic character was discussed, and then after that I read this review at Megnut, and my interest was piqued.

Naturally after seeing the movie with its climactic ratatouille-related episode, I had to make myself a dish of . . .


I got almost all the ingredients fresh this morning at the farmers' market:

  • eggplant from the Farm at Red Hill

  • tomatoes from the Farm at Red Hill

  • zucchini from Waterpenny Farm

  • onion from Double H Farm

  • red bell peppers from the farmers' market

  • basil from Radical Roots

  • thyme from Planet Earth Diversified

  • salt and pepper

  • brown rice to serve on top of

The result: not too bad. I haven't been a big fan of ratatouille when I've had it before, but the fresh tomatoes and herbs made the dish.

I loved the fact that I could get every ingredient (short of the salt and pepper, and the rice, which is ancillary) fresh and in season from local farmers. This made me reflect on how nicely attuned traditional recipes are (because in the past they had to be!) to the seasonal and regional availability of produce. Lately I've been eating tortilla espaƱola and gazpacho on a daily basis; I've been making both almost entirely with fresh, local ingredients, apart from a few pantry staples used mainly for seasoning (salt, pepper, vinegar, olive oil).

By contrast, this afternoon I plan to try to make a fruit salad recipe from the recent issue of Cook's Illustrated. The recipe calls for both peaches and strawberries, which are not in season at the same time! As it happens, I managed to get a box of "last of the season" strawberries from the Farm at Red Hill, and of course peaches from Critzer's. Before I started trying to eat more local food, I would not have thought twice about a peach-and-strawberry recipe, but now, it looks a little absurd to me.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

A Couple Things I've Learned Lately

(Warning for Gentle Readers: minor food-related grossness ahead.)

1. A "picnic roast" cut contains the shoulder joint of the pig.

I bought a seven-pound "picnic roast" from Babes in the Wood (who raise delicious pork, by the way) thinking that the arm bone went straight through and I could cleanly divide the hunk of meat down the middle with one cut by a big knife. Hah! I ended up spending a good long while in the kitchen, inexpertly butchering my purchase. It was a much more involved task than I thought I had bargained for, but in the process I gained a food-education dividend. I learned that a "picnic roast" includes the shoulder joint bones going through the roast at a right angle, and I learned a bit about the anatomy of a pig's shoulder joint. I also learned to have some admiration for proper butchers, and some appreciation for the value of a bone saw. (I ended up cutting several smaller hunks of meat off the bones, but I could have made the straight-through cut that I had originally planned if I had had the means to cut through the bone.)

I also added a little bit to my very meager home butchering experience. This is good. I only felt a fleeting bit of light-headedness once, when I made a cut and heard the popping sound of the ball-and-socket joint dislocating. That's not too bad as my squeamishness goes. I would like to be braver and more capable when it comes to breaking down larger cuts of meat.

2A. You can add a spoonful of vinegar to your stock pot to extract more minerals from chicken bones.

2B. But you should be careful not to add too much vinegar.

I was mystified recently when what should have been a lovely, tasty chicken soup, made with a chicken from Double H Farm and vegetables from the farmer's market, turned out instead as this very unappetizing pot full of bland chicken slurry:

It's hard to tell from the picture, but the pieces of chicken became very soft in the broth and broke down into a porridge-like consistency. Yuck. At first I was at a loss trying to figure out what had gone wrong; eventually I remembered adding vinegar to the water at the beginning of the stock-making process, and I think I remember accidentally splashing in more than I had meant to. So, my theory of this disaster is that an overly acidic broth caused the pieces of chicken meat to become mushy, bland, and frankly disgusting.

I haven't decided yet what to do with the ill-fated chicken soup. It's not as easily redeemable as the strawberry rhubarb glop that I created through a similar moment of culinary misjudgment. I don't want to eat the chicken stuff, but it's not strictly speaking inedible, and I would feel guilty dumping the whole mess down the garbage disposal. I already regret having spent something like $15 on that chicken only to mishandle it. For the moment, the soup is resting in my fridge, awaiting sentencing.

Ideas, anyone?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Strawberry Transporter 2000

While I was in Maine recently I attended a baby shower where guests were given strawberry plants as party favors. I was delighted with my strawberry plant, and excited to get it planted out on my balcony, but first I had to transport the plant from Maine to Virginia. I was worried that the strawberry's delicate stem would be snapped if the plant were tipped over in transit, and I was not confident that I could keep the plant upright for the whole trip, especially while going through airport security.

So, I created the Strawberry Transporter 2000 out of a discarded cardboard box, some packing tape, and three pieces of twine.

The reconfigured box closes up in a wedge shape so that even if it is tipped on its side (or, theoretically, upside down, although I did not test this possibility) the peat pot is held in place at the wide end of the wedge and cannot crush the strawberry plant's stem.

I would have taped up the whole box, but I was concerned that security screeners might want to look inside. Hence the twine ties, which could be undone and redone easily.

Was it a kooky idea? Maybe. But the strawberry plant did arrive in Charlottesville intact. Here it is looking out the sliding glass door onto my balcony, yearning to join the other plants.

And here it is a bit later, settled in next to the chard.

If I read the instruction card right, I shouldn't expect this plant to produce fruit until next year. I hope I can get it through the winter all right. If it does produce berries, I will be thrilled.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My Other Locality

I've been away from the blog for a little while, chewing on a tough piece of dissertation.

I've also been away from Charlottesville for a long weekend. I spent five days at home in Maine.

The weather was gorgeous (except on Saturday) and the home cooking was delicious, of course. This is the season for my parents' rhubarb patch to be going gonzo . . .

. . . so I enjoyed some rhubarb coffee cake, some raspberry rhubarb crisp (with home-grown raspberries frozen last year), and some more rhubarb coffee cake! Mmmmm.

And now a side note that has nothing to do with eating, and nothing to do with Charlottesville, but does have to do with localness:

While I was home, my old high school had its graduation, and the local Project Graduation sent busloads of graduating seniors on a victory lap through the school district, with a bleating and blaring escort of emergency vehicles.

Here are two things that small towns are proud of, and will defend fiercely: their schools and their fire trucks.

I like seeing the graduating seniors get this local-heroes' treatment. It's pretty nearly the closest thing that a small town can do to throwing the classic ticker-tape parade. When the town sends its fire trucks and ambulances out to escort you down the main drag, the town is saying, "You are special. We are so proud to have you here and call you ours."

Friday, June 1, 2007

As Local as it Gets

I have a narrow balcony that gets sun for only part of the day. In past summers, I have raised edible plants out here with mixed success. I have found a variety of yellow pear tomatoes that seem to do OK in planters on my balcony, but "patio" tomatoes have had almost no success. My many attempts at raising herbs have all ended poorly—even with herbs like mint that are supposed to be foolproof.

It's too early to say what this summer's balcony harvest will be like, but so far, things are looking promising.

Early in the season, when I met people selling seedlings at the farmers' market, I asked them whether they had anything that they thought might be suitable for container growing in a spot that only gets sun for half the day. One candidate turned up by this search was this huckleberry bush which so far appears to be growing amazingly well:

It was just a few inches high when I bought the seedling, and it has grown at a startling rate!

Another farmers' market seedling recommendation was chard. It never would have occurred to me that chard might do well in containers, but just look at this stuff, which I brought home when the leaves were coin-sized:

And here are my two tomato plants and one of two blueberry plants that I'm trying for the first time this year:

Tomato blossom close-up:

I am not a huge enthusiast for vegetable gardening, to tell the truth, but I have been daydreaming about having a house with some land where I could raise all sorts of fruit crops: blackberries, raspberries, apples, pears. So I got excited when I read online that blueberry bushes are tolerant of shady conditions and that there are some varieties of blueberry that can be raised in containers. As soon as I could find the opportunity, I went to a local plant nursery and picked out two different varieties that seemed, according to the information on their tags, like they might be suitable for my balcony. It's too early to tell how well they'll take to the spot long-term; they haven't changed much since I bought them (they came with the green berries already on the branches). I have hopes, though.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Further Notes on Dairy in Virginia

Shortly after finishing my post about converting (putatively) local milk into yogurt, I came across this post at the Eat Local Challenge. The writer deems Shenandoah Pride to be not really local because it has been bought out by a larger corporation. I have not been able to find any definite information on where the milk in a Shenandoah Pride carton actually comes from: does it all come from Virginia herds? Does some of it come from Virginia herds and get mixed with milk from a larger region? I don't know. I more or less took the Virginia address on the carton at face value.

One issue here is the question of why I am trying to eat more local foods and what I consider "local" to mean. I intend to do a longer post or small series of posts on this topic soon. For now, let me just observe that there are many reasons for eating local, and sometimes whether a particular food fits with your reasons for seeking out local food will not be entirely clear. Reducing "food miles" is one reason to eat local; putting money into the local economy and dealing with smaller, locally-owned businesses is another reason. Usually these two reasons go together, but it's possible for them to be in conflict. Let's assume for the moment that the milk inside a Shenandoah Pride carton does, indeed, come from dairy herds in Virginia, and let's assume that the milk is processed and bottled locally as well. Does the fact that Shenandoah Pride is not locally owned mean that the milk does not count as "local"? What about the opposite situation, with a small local business that imports foods from far away. Several of the food suppliers that I have been considering "local" for my purposes—such as Bantry Bay and Kite's Hams—would fit that description. Imported cinnamon from Bantry Bay or a midwest-raised ham from Kite's would have a lot of food miles behind it, but its purchase would benefit a small, local business. How fully local does "local" have to be?

For me, the short answer to that question is that a product which satisfies some of my reasons for trying to eat local is preferable to a product which satisfies none of them. And I am not, at this time, willing to restrict my diet to foods that meet every conceivable criterion for localness.

Another question raised by the post at the Eat Local Challenge is the issue of rBGH in milk. I'm not thrilled to have rBGH in my dairy products, and I always appreciate when dairy is produced without the cows being given extra hormones, but at the moment, it is not a high priorty for me to seek out rBGH-free dairy products exclusively.

Finally, I was interested to see Kathryn Russell of Majesty Farm responding in the comments on the Eat Local Challenge post. I thought about mentioning Majesty Farm in my post about yogurt, but decided to skip it. I think their cow share program sounds fantastic, and the argument in favor of raw milk sounds pretty good. I drank raw milk from a local farm on many occasions as a kid, and I remember it tasting wonderful. I've decided that I don't drink enough milk currently to make it worthwhile to buy into the Majesty Farm cow share program (assuming they have cow shares available), which is why I went to C'ville Market looking for the next-best, next-most-localest thing.

The Yogurt Experiment

One of the sticking points for me in trying to eat more locally-produced food has been the dairy category. I go through lots of yogurt and cheese, plus the occasional package of cream cheese or sour cream. There are several sources for locally-made cheese, such as cheddar and jack cheeses from Marshall Farms, fancy sheep's milk cheeses from Everona Dairy, free chevre and "andaluz" goat cheese from Satyrfield Farm, and gouda-style cheese from Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. But the other categories are not as well represented. I used to be able to get yogurt from the Shenville creamery, but Shenville has since gone out of business (which is too bad not only because we lost a source of local dairy products, but also because that yogurt was really tasty).

Recently I was reading on the web about how to make your own yogurt. It sounded pretty foolproof, actually: mix a spoonful of yogurt from the store into a jar full of milk, set it in a warm place for several hours, and that's it. You've made yogurt. The exact quantities and temperature range are not, apparently, all that important. So, I decided try buying some locally-produced milk and converting it into yogurt myself.

I bought a tub of this commercially-produced yogurt and a half gallon of Shenandoah Pride milk from C'ville Market.

I scalded the milk (though I'm not sure now where I got the idea that this should be the first step), poured it into a clean jar, and mixed in a generous spoonful of the starter yogurt.

The remainder of the starter yogurt got combined with some of the strawberry rhubarb glop to make a rich, sweet treat. In the picture below, you can see the yogurt-and-fruit dessert on the left, and the yogurtmaking experiment on the right. The jar is wrapped in a dish towel to help it hold heat for a while.

The heat from scalding the milk would not go on indefinitely, so I needed a heat source to keep the wee beasties in the yogurt-milk mixture happy and active. The first obvious choice was the interior of my car while it was parked in the sun. After the sun went down, I brought the yogurt jar inside and placed it in a pan of hot water from the tap. Before going to bed, I set the pan on the rear burner of my stove, which is over the vent from the oven. I turned the oven on to its lowest temperature and left it on for the night.

The next day: hurrah, yogurt!

The yogurt that resulted from this experiment was very watery. That was OK, because I had been planning to strain it anyway, since I like Greek-style strained yogurt. Here is the first phase of the straining:

When I had drained off most of the liquid and transferred the thicker yogurt to a jar, I assessed the yield from this experiment in yogurtmaking. I started with a pint and a half of milk, and ended up with just under a pint of whey and around half a pint of thick yogurt.

This was a little bit disappointing; I had hoped for a higher yield. But I am thrilled with the yogurt that I made. I haven't eaten it all up yet, but I tried a taste, and it was delicious.

On the next go-round, I might try adding powdered dry milk to the locally-produced milk in order to lower the moisture content. Or I might try stirring some of the whey back into the thicker yogurt in order to make a greater volume of finished product. Or I might just go forward knowing that if I want more yogurt at the end of the process, I need to start with more milk at the beginning!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Difference Between Liking to Cook, and Being Good at Cooking

I like to cook. I enjoy learning new techniques as well as repeating old-reliable recipes, and of course I like consuming the results (usually).

But sometimes when I tell people that I like cooking, they take me to mean that I am claiming to be a good cook.

Ha. Ha ha ha. No, not exactly.

I mean, I guess I would say that most of the time my cooking is pretty OK. It definitely has improved over the years, and I manage to turn out edible foodstuffs a reasonably high percentage of the time. But I rarely even attempt to reach the gourmet heights regularly documented by this other Charlottesville food blogger, and I have my share of culinary screw-ups.

See this red, gloopy mess?

Let me explain the genesis of the red, gloopy mess.

I had an idea that I wanted to do something with rhubarb this spring—I wasn't sure what, but I thought maybe strawberry rhubarb pie. So, when I found some stalks of local rhubarb for sale at Feast! on Tuesday, I snapped them up.

Back in my kitchen, I studied the rhurbarb possibilities in the Joy of Cooking. I had just the right amount of rhubarb for a strawberry rhubarb pie, and I had plenty of strawberries that I had already cooked with a bit of sugar. I figured hey, chop the rhubarb, mix with strawberries and their juice, add a bit more sugar and some corn starch, and we should be in business for pie!

The catch was that I didn't have a pre-made pie crust at hand, and I did not feel like running out to get one, and I certainly did not feel up for making the pie crust pastry myself. (I have made a few attempts with different recipes in the past; none has been satisfactory, except for an olive oil crust that is only suitable for savory pies.)

So, I came up with a CLEVER PLAN. I would mix the strawberry-rhubarb pie filling, put in in the bottom of this casserole dish, cover it with the topping from my mother's apple crisp recipe, bake, and voila! Strawberry rhubarb crisp!

Well. It turns out that strawberry rhubarb pie filling behaves a little differently from a pile of sliced and cinnamoned apples.

It boils and bubbles and flows like molten lava. After thirty or forty minutes in the oven, it completely swallows the crisp topping. So my strawberry rhubarb crisp turned into a strawberry rhubarb bucket o' glop.

It was oversweentened glop, too. In adjusting the Joy recipe, I had tried to allow for the amount of sugar that I had already added to the strawberries. But I erred a little on the high side of my sugar measurement, since I didn't want the rhubarb to be too mouth-puckery. And I didn't take into account the extent to which the cup of sugar in the crisp topping would get mixed in with the fruit glop.

As cooking diasters go, this one is not too diasastrous. The red glop is not unsafe to eat, or completely incinerated; it has, basically, a pleasant flavor, just an overly concentrated one. So, a couple spoonfuls in the bottom of a bowl, pour some milk over, and that's dessert.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


I hate to say this, because it sounds churlish—a little bit like badmouthing Mother Teresa, or something—but fresh strawberries are more trouble than they're worth.

They bruise easily. They go bad quickly. A day or two after you bring them into your kitchen, a quart of fresh strawberries may have become a mushy, mold-infected mess oozing red juice out the bottom of the container.

So I have set a new policy on strawberries this year. On the day that I bring them home, I nibble a few in their fresh, natural state, then process the rest.

My "processing" of strawberries involves the following steps:

  1. Wash and hull them, discarding any that are already bad.

  2. Cut them into halves or quarters and pile them into a saucepan.

  3. Stir into them a small amount of white sugar. I eyeball it, but I would guess maybe one or two tablespoons of sugar per pint of strawberries. Sometimes I add a splash of lemon juice as well.

  4. Gently heat the strawberry-sugar mixture until the strawberries have exuded lots of juices, the sugar is dissolved, and the resulting syrup has just reached the boil.

  5. Pour the strawberries and syrup into a clean container and store them in the refrigerator.

I'm no food scientist, but my theory is that the heat pasteurizes the berries, stopping any bacterial breakdown of the fruit, and the combination of sugar, acid, and heat creates a syrup of invert sugar, which has a preservative effect.

The strawberries in their syrup stay sweet and tasty for days, so I can spoon out small servings at my leisure. I no longer get frustrated by paying for a quart or two of berries and then chucking half of them down the garbage disposal.

One Recent Dinner

I was going to post this last week, but Blogger was giving me attitude. Here's a recent dinner that was largely local:

Pizza made with:

With a simple salad made from:

And for dessert:

  • strawberries from the Tuesday farmers' market in the parking lot at Whole Foods

I'm hoping that this summer I'll be able to can some tomatoes and maybe make tomato sauce, so my pizzas next fall and winter can have a local sauce on them. I don't know of any Charlottesville-area dairies producing pizza-type cheeses like mozzarella. If I feel like going totally local sometime, I'll have to experiment with putting other types of cheese such as Marshall Farms' cheddar or jack on pizza.

(Ingredients listed in boldface are locally produced.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Partly Local . . . In More Than One Sense

This afternoon, out of nowhere, I was hit by a craving for an Italian sandwich.

The Italian is a regional specialty from the Portland, Maine area. To me, it is a taste of home, in a different way from the way that my parents' cooking tastes of home. I can go months without thinking of Italians at all, but then a day like today will come along and suddenly I won't be able to get my mind off Italians until I prepare an ersatz version for myself and wolf it down (or, better, get to Maine and enjoy the real thing). It's like when you get a bit of music stuck in your head and can't shake it until you dig out the CD and listen to the whole song.

The ingredients for an Italian the way I like it are: Italian sandwich bread, sliced provolone cheese, tomato wedges, long slices of green pepper, dill pickles, black olives, olive oil, and salt and pepper. (A more traditional Italian would have sliced ham as well, and would probably come with so-called "American cheese" instead of provolone, and would likely include chopped raw onions.) Italian sandwich bread is the one ingredient I cannot get in Virginia. The base for an Italian sandwich is a long, narrow roll, similar to a "sub roll," made of a very soft, slightly chewy white bread. I have never found anything like it outside of Maine. So, when I am in Virginia, I make do with whole wheat sub rolls. Since I can't get real Italian sandwich bread anyway, I figure I might as well go for the benefits of the whole wheat.

Today I prepared this semi-locally-sourced, out-of-region comfort food for myself:

  • tomatoes from the Farm at Red Hill

  • green peppers from the Farm at Red Hill

  • dill pickles from the Charlottesville farmers' market

  • whole wheat sub rolls

  • sliced deli provolone

  • black olives

  • salt, pepper, and olive oil (which in a Maine sandwich shop would be pronounced "salpepperanoil")

I had hoped to make an even more locally-sourced version of this treat. A week ago, I purchased these delicious whole wheat rolls from a vendor at the Tuesday afternoon farmers' market that has started up in the parking lot at Whole Foods:

I was amazed to learn that not only were the rolls baked in Virginia, but the wheat was grown and milled here, too. I had thought that, like James and Alisa of The 100 Mile Diet, I would have a lot of difficulty finding wheat grown in my region--if I could ever find it at all. I was surprised and delighted to find these soft, chewy yeast rolls made by Portwood Gardens over in the Shenandoah Valley from local wheat.

Last week I enjoyed the whole wheat rolls with my cock-a-leekie soup and tomato, basil and goat cheese burgers. They were gone by the weekend.

Today I went back to the Whole Foods farmers' market hoping to buy another couple pans of the rolls. They are the wrong shape for Italian sandwiches, of course, but I figured I could find some way to adapt them. To my disappointment, the baker from Portwood Gardens was nowhere to be found.

So, my Italian sandwich this afternoon turned out to be not as locally-sourced as I would have liked. (Naturally some parts of the sandwich--the olives and olive oil come to mind first--are impossible to find locally raised.) But I enjoyed it nevertheless. It satisfied the craving that I had. And it set off a train of thought about eating local.

I am hoping to do a post sometime soon about my reasons for trying to eat more locally-sourced food. For now, I'll just say that one of the pleasures of eating local is getting to know the flavors of a region. Focusing on eating local food here in Virginia has led me to try things I might not have otherwise, like collard greens (now a favorite) and traditionally-cured slab bacon. But I arrived here in Virginia with a gastronomic history from another region, and sometimes the pleasures of eating local (in a certain sense: clearly olives have never come from Maine) are the pleasures of eating in a locality that is far away.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

These Are the Noshes from My Neighborhood

I was so excited when the Charlottesville farmers' market started up for the season. So far it has inspired me to cook:

goat cheese quiche, with

  • chevre from Satyrfield Farm

  • tomato from the Farm at Red Hill

  • asparagus from the farmers' market

  • eggs from the farmers' market

  • cream

  • a crust made from olive oil, water, flour, and salt

asparagus with hollandaise, made from

  • gorgeous, tender, fresh asparagus from the farmer's market

  • eggs from the farmers' market

  • butter

  • lemon juice

  • cayenne

a spinach quiche, made with

  • spinach from Radical Roots

  • eggs from the farmers' market

  • andaluz goat's milk cheese from Satyrfield Farm

  • "Piedmont" sheep's milk cheese from Everona Dairy

  • onion

  • garlic

  • cream

  • a crust made from olive oil, water, flour, and salt

a "tortillaless steak fajita" (is there such a thing as a tortillaless fajita?) made with

cock-a-leekie soup (maybe it should technically be hen-a-leekie?) made from

burgers with tomato, basil, and chevre, made with

  • ground beef from Wolf Creek Farm

  • tomato from the Farm at Red Hill

  • fresh basil leaves from the Farm at Red Hill

  • chevre from Satyrfield Farm (stuffed inside the burgers)

  • whole wheat rolls from the farmer's market at Whole Foods

(Ingredients listed in boldface are from local sources.)