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.)


I can't believe I've created a blog.

I can't believe I've created a blog.

Was it inevitable?

Will it survive?

All I know is that lately I've felt like talking about food. Specifically, my food. The food that I have been shopping for, preparing, and eating, with an eye towards enjoying the bounty of this region: the area around Charlottesville, Virginia.