Loca-busy? Locavore?

Despite a busy life, I work very hard to make sure meals at home are from local and/or organic sources. I welcome you to follow my adventures in meal preparation; I will share some recipes, some advice, and some gastronomic accomplishments and disasters.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Lucky Pierre Bakers--treats for everyone!

So, I realize in my last blog post I said I would follow up with a honey-related topic (forthcoming), but I’d like to take a break in our regularly scheduled programming of local people food to talk about a new product out there for man’s/woman’s best friend. And, woof!

This is my Persimmon. And this is the face she makes when you have something in your hand that she really really likes.

Notice Persimmon's eye boo-boo, which makes her begging even more convincing....

In this case, the thing was Lucky Pierre Bakers’ dog treats.

You see, Persimmon had a birthday recently, so my friends Rey and Taidghin—two thirds of the Lucky Pierre baking team—stopped by to wish her a happy birthday and drop off one of their specialties. This one is Henny Penny (chicken), but they also have Billy Goat Ruff (goat). All ingredients for these dog treats are local within a 50-mile radius, and the ingredient list is simple and nutritious.

And, from the look on Persimmon’s face and her tail-chasing when I bring out the bag, absolutely delicious. Lucky Pierre takes the parts of local, organic meats that are considered “less desirable” for humans, but are packed with all the stuff that dogs love and need, such as the calcium of eggshells and the high iron content of organ meats. The farmers are glad to be able to put this product to good use, meaning no part of their animal is wasted. The ingredients are all fresh with no preservatives added, so not shelf stable; but the Bakers are going to be working on a freeze-dried version that will last outside the refrigerator, and will stay fresh longer than a loaf of (preservative-free) bread.

OK, so, you’re thinking to yourself, I don’t have a dog, what’s in it for me?

Well, glad you asked! A few months ago I also had the privilege of a tasty preview of Lucky Pierre’s other product, and this one is for humans. Doughnuts. 

Photo courtesy of Prairie Fruits Farm Facebook Page
Not just any doughnuts, these doughnuts are fried in clarified butter, which takes the common doughnut to a whole other dimension of decadence. Try one and you’ll know what I’m talking about. They have a Cardamom Vanilla and a Cinnamon Sugar, and sometimes a surprise flavor of the day. Yum! You’ll kiss your Krispy Kremes goodbye with nary a backward glance.  They’re available on weekends at Flying Machine Coffee in Urbana, but get there early, before they run out! Sometimes they pop up in other locations around town, such as Prairie Fruits Farm or Clutch Cuts. I highly recommend visiting and liking Lucky Pierre’s Facebook page for updates. They also have a brand new website, at--you guessed it!--luckypierrebakers.com!

And if that wasn't enough, these lucky bakers were featured in the January 1, 2017 News Gazette! Take a look at the article here!

Meanwhile, I’ll be in my kitchen, torturing my dog with promises of more Henny Penny treats.

But what’s that little pool of water on the floor?, you ask.
That’s not water, I answer. That’s doggie drool.
Ew, you say.
Yeah, I say. That’s because they’re just that good.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Blog Resurrection--Bridging the Gap with Food

Lately I’ve felt a bit down.

The world has been shaken up, rattled, thrown on its ear. And it seems like people with differing opinions and ideologies are being nastier to each other than ever before. People I thought I knew as sweet and loving are coming out on social media or in person and being openly hostile to those they disagree with. Now, me, I’ve got some strong opinions, and I’m not afraid to talk about them. And I welcome dialogue, as long as it doesn’t become a personal attack. But attack seems to be the plat du jour, and it’s cooked rare:  folks are out for blood.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As I consider the political landscape, and the fear of the future that is there, I’ve been wondering what my part is to play, what my lasting contribution to the world should be. So far, to my name I’ve got:  a jettisoned career in international education, a surly teenage son, two sadly abandoned blogs (make that four, but two never really got off the ground in the first place), a wilted and incomplete draft of a book-length memoir, a dusty and moldy first draft of a novel (could I still even find that file on my hard drive?), and almost equally moldy vegetables in my refrigerator drawer. If I were taken away by a sudden aneurism or a bad fall on the ice, what would be my legacy right now?

I know I have a talent for bringing people together, or so I’ve been told. And although people are divided and angry and resentful these days (and some for good reason), there is one thing that will always bring them together:  food. Food is offered at almost every gathering of religious groups. Food is always offered at holiday times. We all need food, and we all appreciate delicious food; it is the great equalizer, the great unifier.

So it is with that thought, and that thought alone that I am resurrecting this blog from the ashes. I still see the value of bringing people together with food. In the same way that local food is the best for your health, well-being, and the local community’s economy, healing differences of opinion is best done at the local level. With your neighbors, your acquaintances on Facebook, your barista, the cashier at the grocery store….you find connection, love, support, and you remember what’s important. To love your neighbor, even as you love yourself. (Even if you must love them from afar.)

And, to love local food.

Being a locavore still plays a huge part in my life, and it has become ingrained in me to look first for local sources of the goods I buy. I leave you today with a little sweetness from local honey, imbued with almost magical powers, helping strengthen the immune system and fight off all the ills of winter. Pure. Local. Raw. (Kind of like our nerves right now.)

I hope to be exploring local honey in depth more in the coming posts. In the meantime, may I suggest that you make a meal and come together with others? Give out cookies for the holidays. Pay for another family’s meal, especially if they are in need. Let's all make food a way to come together for good during this divisive time.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


I’ll be the first to admit, I have trouble getting in my Omega-3s.  I take a daily supplement, but we all know very well that real food is the best medicine. Sure, I could add a scoop of ground flaxseed to everything, but who wants all that grittiness?  So, despite being almost as far away from an ocean as one can possibly get, I welcome the opportunity to get wild-caught, ethically and responsibly harvested fish and seafood.  Tricky, that; most seafood and fish in grocery stores is what’s contributing to over-fishing our finite supply and farming using a variety of questionable and unhealthy methods. 

So…what to do?

I was presented with a solution from an unlikely corner.

My fair twin cities hosts a fantastic weekly farmer’s market every Saturday morning in the temperate months, The Urbana Market at the Square.  Trouble is, that leaves me with fewer options during the week.  The answer?  Tah-dahh!  Enter the new Land Connection Champaign Farmers’ Market!  The first market, from 4-7 p.m. on Tuesdays, was held right in the center of town.  I saw some familiar faces and products, such as Prairie Fruits Farm’s goat cheeses and Pekara’s bakery temptations; I also saw some new names that I hadn’t seen before.  The most surprising, of course, was to see a picture of a fish introducing Sitka Salmon Shares.  Now, before you start scratching your head and consulting Google maps to find out if Illinois has somehow moved closer to Alaska, I will assure you that salmon is not a local product.  But Sitka Salmon Shares operates in the manner of a local CSA; you buy a share up front, and Sitka will deliver extraordinary fish, frozen at its peak of freshness, to your door; or, in this case, to your local market.  Yes, this fish has traveled thousands of miles, but the spirit of a CSA is in the minds of the company, in the form of a “CSF,” a community-supported fishery.  As quoted from their website, “In the last 20 years, there has been a growing consensus that there's something valuable about reestablishing the connections between eaters and the land for the benefit of both the consumer and the producer. We do the same for salmon.  At Sitka Salmon Shares, all salmon travel from small boat family fishermen and their cooperatives in Southeast Alaska to your door.

“As important, these small boat family fishermen take great care of your fish. Every fish is processed on board the boat, and as soon as it is processed it is down in the boat's hold on ice. Within hours, the fish is down to 32 degrees, locking in your salmon's freshness and quality, before it's brought on shore, turned into 1-pound, portion-sized fillets, vacuum-sealed, and blast frozen to 40 below. This allows your fish to taste just as it did off boats in Southeast Alaska.”

As expected, the price tag exceeded what I usually pay for anything at a farmers’ market.  Offerings included everything from King Salmon to Black Cod.  I thought I would start modestly with the Coho Salmon.  The color alone persuaded me I wouldn’t regret the purchase.

I thawed the salmon overnight in the fridge, then prepared it my favorite way, fried skin-side-down only, doused in lemon juice and a touch of sea salt.  I drizzled a bit of my fancy olive oil on the top of the rare (OK, so almost raw) fish after it came off the flame.  Served alongside my truly local roasted asparagus from Claybank Farms, it was a treat well worth the miles the fish traveled, and the splurge to support a really fantastic product.

This week I may go back for the King Salmon…
My new bag--the perfect size and shape for carrying salmon!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What's that smell?

Well, somebody’s gotta talk about it, right?  It happens every year; asparagus season arrives, and we’re excited to get this once-a-year delicacy, so we gorge ourselves on steamed asparagus, asparagus soup, grilled asparagus wrapped in bacon, asparagus quiche…..or at least I do, anyway.  And then…we go to the bathroom.  We’ve forgotten about the inevitable result of ingesting large amounts of asparagusic acid (yes, it’s a real thing).  Asparagus pee.  Stinky asparagus pee.

A Google search of “asparagus pee” renders some interesting results.  Apparently, although all of us who eat asparagus expel the stinky sulfur compound in our urine, only about 75% of us possess the gene to be able to smell it.  If you are of the 25% that cannot, consider yourself lucky.  My favorite bit of trivia from my search was a quote from the famous French author Marcel Proust, who declared that asparagus:  ..transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume,” which makes me wonder what else he’d eaten or drunk with his asparagus.

Despite this pesky side effect, I’ve been enjoying this week’s haul from Claybank Farms, three pounds of brilliant green, thin, tender spears of the stuff.  I’ve still not found a way to prepare it so that my 12-year-old finds it palatable, but he did manage to choke down a spear or two. (When I mentioned my research for this blog post, he exclaimed, “that’s why my pee smelled so bad!  Like peanut butter that had been rotting for a thousand years!!”) But my husband and I won’t find it difficult to quickly do away with the three pounds of spring deliciousness.  

Here’s a photo of my favorite way to eat asparagus, the day after it’s been steamed for dinner; I cut the spears into bite-sized pieces, shred some carrots, cut up some grape tomatoes, boil a couple of eggs, and top the thing with a lemon vinaigrette (1 part Maille mustard, 1 part lemon juice, salt, 3-4 parts walnut oil).  Nothing tastes more like the arrival of spring!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Soup again...with a side of snow

The calendar says March, but a hefty new snow and temps falling to zero assure me that we’re still in winter.  And I’m still dutifully making winter soups.  I’m still getting oyster mushrooms from Greg at Claybank Farms every couple of weeks, too.  Sometimes I have a plan for them when I buy them, sometimes I don’t.  I’ve found it’s nice, though, to have a fallback recipe for these gems when I don’t know what else to do with them.  My latest fallback recipe might be one of my all-time favorites, and so very easy to do.  You don’t need local oyster mushrooms, but if you’ve got a mix of cremini (mini-portabella), white mushrooms, and/or any wild mushrooms, use any and all!  I make sure I have at least a pound of mushrooms to start with, and more if I have them.

I start by breaking up and browning a pound of bulk Italian sausage from Triple S.  You can use any bulk Italian sausage, including turkey sausage removed from the casings.  If your sausage is mildly spiced, you can always add some red pepper flakes to give this recipe a kick and some added warmth when it’s really nippy outside.

I add a bunch of chopped onion (at least a cup) and some minced garlic (at least four cloves).  If you want to drain the sausage before adding the onion, do so, but make sure to leave some to cook the veggies and bind with flour added later for thickening.  Cook the onions and garlic until almost translucent, then add in the mushrooms.  When the mushrooms are starting to soften and steam, add enough flour to soak up the liquid released, and cook the clumpy mess for a couple of minutes to make sure the flour has been thoroughly combined with the liquid; I usually start with a quarter cup, then add more if necessary.  Add a healthy teaspoon of dried thyme, a tablespoon if you have fresh.  Pour in at least four cups of chicken stock or veggie broth and stir until the clumps disappear.  Since those cartons of grocery store stock are usually four cups, I put in a whole carton, then add a cup or so of water, or part of a carton left over from something else.  I bring it to a boil, then simmer until my family starts whining that they’re hungry, usually about 20-30 minutes. Of course, if you wanted to be super healthy, you could add a few diced carrots or some chopped kale from Blue Moon before bringing it to a boil.  You could throw in leftover rice, if you have some, or pretty much any pasta.  For a really rich treat, add some half and half at the end. None of these is necessary, though; no one will go hungry if you stick to the simple version.  Crusty baguette, goat cheese, and a simple salad of greens (also from Claybank!) in vinaigrette round out this hearty meal. 

Take that, Old Man Winter!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Reaching the Bottom

Bleak.  That’s what it looks like to me, all of it.  My little raised bed, my yard, my house.  At some point every winter that’s what everyone’s yard looks like.  It’s cold.  (The persimmon seed prediction turned out to be fairly accurate, for the record.)  The only 50 Shades of Grey I can see is the sky.  We all react in different ways to the depths of winter; some of us escape into seed catalogues, some of us take to the bottle, some of us get involved with holidays or parties or social outings, some of us escape for real in a plane or car headed to warmer climes.

And…some of us feel a little stuck, not knowing what to do next.  I’ve checked out a little bit, I guess.  I’ve been writing on other projects, distracted by friends’ comings and goings.  The stretch of holidays from Halloween to Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and Mardi Gras—the fattest of all Tuesdays—is calling me to make gumbo and to get in touch with my Catholic alter ego, if only to be part of the Lenten countdown to spring.  But I have to admit I feel a bit lost.  Purse strings and calorie counts are tightened after Christmas, of course, and I’m pretty much on auto-pilot to shop local, eat local, cook local, and even to do some shopping at home.  Trying to get busy to chase away the winter blues/blahs I’ve cleaned out the fridge and a cupboard or two in hopes that I’ll be able to fill them again with summer’s bounty.  I’ve managed to empty and clean out one of my chest freezers, then will relocate the contents of the second freezer to the first and do the same for the second. 

In the course of emptying my freezer, though, I found a metaphor for my dilemma.  Turns out, once I’ve emptied everything out, used pliers to open the drain on the inside, and opened the drain on the outside, and I can see every bit of spilled muck and breadcrumbs and twistie-ties lying on the bottom, I find I can’t actually reach the bottom.  My arms are too short, my frame not elastic enough.  Dammit!  My attempts even to gain a sense of accomplishment from the menial tasks of cleaning have been thwarted.  What to do?  I mean, I can see the bottom from here, and I suppose I could use a mop or a wet vac to get it clean, but I prefer to do the thing that will get the job done best.

I’ll ask someone else for help.

You see, we’re all kind of crabby, stuck inside the same four walls.  And if I ask for help from my fellow Winter Doldrummers, maybe we can all get through this together, and out the other side with a sense of accomplishment.  And maybe, just maybe, though I can see the bottom, it will be a comfort to know that I can’t actually reach it.  And I will always have my team—my little family—to help me get the job done, and get everything back on track.

Now…time to look for gumbo recipes…

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

New Year, New Foods

With the perfume of New Year’s resolutions still in my nostrils, and the crispness of a new fallen snow shocking my eyes, and the cold wind burning my cheeks, and the warmth of The Little Wood Stove That Could pumping out of her vents, I am taking a moment to reflect on 2014.  It was—as any year lived—a mixed bag of tricks.  I had some accomplishments and made some wonderful memories. Unexpectedly low lows, however, make me glad to hit the restart button and put that particular number behind me.

Foodwise, it was a year of learning and exploring, of making my first garden in a raised bed, of expanding my repertoire and my preparation horizons.  I have much to be thankful for, and mostly to always have a full larder.  So many in the world, and so many in our history, have gone without.  Too many are suffering from starvation still.

So, being blessed as I am, I am making goals for 2015 (and not a minute too soon!):

1.     To try new foods, challenging my palate and opening my horizons.
2.     To incorporate more fruits and vegetables into every day’s meals, fighting the tendency to center meals around meat and starch in the winter months.
3.     To make “shopping at home” a regular feature, perhaps monthly.

I’ve already gotten started on #1.  The last of the indoor holiday markets was the Saturday before Christmas.  I had pre-ordered from Greg at Claybank Farms, so I went to pick up my order.  On the table in front of me lay some plastic bags containing something that looked like huge bulbs of ginger.  Now that I’ve known Greg for some time, all I had to do was point at the bags and raise one eyebrow to get the full story and inevitable sales pitch.

It seems that Jerusalem artichokes (also known as sunchokes) are like Grape Nuts, in that they are neither from Jerusalem, nor related to the artichoke.  They are actually the tuber roots of a certain kind of sunflower native to North America, and were even cultivated by Native Americans long before the arrival of European settlers.  According to Wikipedia, they contain a large amount of inulin, which we cannot digest in the stomach.  You know what that means?

That’s right.  Gas.

But I digress.  Greg persuaded me to try them and gave me a recipe that seemed simple enough.  I was to wash them (but peeling wasn’t necessary), cut off the end of each where the tuber attached to the plant, then slice them thinly length-wise.  I could toss these with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, salt, some herbs (I used Fines Herbes to get a good mix), and a whole lotta sliced garlic (I used about 5 cloves).  I should spread them out in a baking dish and bake at 425° for 15 minutes, then switch to a high broiler setting for about 5 minutes to brown them on top.  I bought them and thanked him, wished him Happy Holidays, then tucked them into my vegetable drawer to be ignored until the calendar had been switched and the Christmas decorations had been removed.

I’m not sure why I’m nervous about trying to cook new things.  Some things don’t scare me at all.  For Christmas I made two things I’d never attempted:  Beef Wellington (was delicious, but not perfect; perhaps for another blog entry?), and flourless chocolate cake (also deliciously flawed).  And my family ate them both with aplomb.  If they had failed, well, we do have a dog.  And a compost heap.  And other things to eat.  So, I’m not sure why I was procrastinating about preparing those wiggly little sunchokes.  Maybe because they looked like ginger.  Maybe because I thought they’d be hard to slice, and I just wasn’t up to the task.  Maybe because I thought they’d taste terrible, and leave an aftertaste on my palate it would take days to get rid of.  Maybe because I keep hoping my son will like one of these vegetables, but of course he never does.  Maybe I should have worried more about the gas.

I needn’t have worried about making something unfit for human consumption.  I was making pork steaks and green beans, and the ‘chokes would be an optional side dish.  They were surprisingly easy to cut, sort of like a radish.  And they came out perfect after a few minutes in the oven.  The garlic balanced the sweetness.   The flavor is mild, but difficult to describe.  The closest flavor I can think of is a turnip, but without the gritty, mushy texture I despise from turnips.  The simple preparation allowed me to test out this new (to me) vegetable.  I can’t say I’d like to eat them every day, but my son ate one without spitting it out, which is in fact a stunningly positive recommendation.

In all my trepidation and fuss, I overlooked taking the obligatory food shots.  If you want to see pictures of sunchokes, I suggest you visit the Wikipedia page.  I will instead leave you with a shot of our holiday decorations, which every year I am sad to take down.  The end of another year.  The beginning and promise of a new one.