Loca-busy? Locavore?

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The True Cost of Food--Part 1

Recently I came across an article that I found deeply disturbing on so many levels, and I urge you to read it on your own in its entirety. “The great nutrient collapsehttp://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/09/13/food-nutrients-carbon-dioxide-000511?lo=ap_a1written by Helena Bottemiller Evich is a fairly easy read, but for brevity’s sake, I will summarize:  a mathematician, in pursuit of a love of biology, sets about to explore the effect that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere have on our plant life. Dr. Loladze found that, not only is there a dearth of research in this area, but also that cross-disciplinary research grant and funding opportunities are hard to come by. Finally he was able to find the evidence to support the hunch he’d had for many years:  the increase in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere was making plants grow bigger and faster, but at the expense of using this advantage to store glucose instead of nutrients--vitamins and minerals previously abundant in these plants. The result? Our food source, and the food source for animals and insects we depend on, is becoming “junk food” at approximately the same rate at which carbon dioxide is increasing in our atmosphere.

At the risk of sounding alarmist and setting off all sorts of unwelcome climate change debate, this could ultimately mean an early demise of the human race. Not only have we sabotaged ourselves by limiting the species and varieties of plants, fruits, and vegetables we eat (insert discussion of “heirloom varieties” and “ancient grains” and “Monsanto” here), but we’ve indirectly sabotaged the plants we do use for food to contain a lower level of nutrients and a higher level of glucose. We already have health problems related to too much sugar and processed foods in our diets; how the plants themselves are changing may be contributing to the obesity/diabetes/heart disease epidemic as well. Are we doomed?

Well, my sincere hope is that the success of this recent research will spawn more much-needed research into the area. Of course, navigating the relentless political quagmire into passing regulations that both decrease CO2 emissions and increase consumer information is difficult at best. But is there anything we can do at home to offset this crisis?

Well, we can start by realizing the true, positive impact of eating local products. Even if we are getting a less nutrient-rich product than our great-grandmothers grew in their gardens, we know we are getting a more nutrient-rich product than that sad supermarket head of lettuce that’s been traveling for a week, or that off-season plum from South America. Planting pollinators in our yards instead of grass to encourage those endangered bees to thrive, avoiding harsh chemical pesticides and herbicides, and using homemade compost to enrich the soil can help offset the damage that’s being done in the atmosphere.

Busy bee doing his job in my tomato garden 

This is the first post in a series about the cost of food--local and otherwise. Is buying from a market or co-op more expensive than going to your big box store? You bet it is. But what is the ultimate cost to our health, and the health of our children, if we don’t? We can’t solve the problem of carbon dioxide overnight, nor can we fight the powers that be who don’t want to support change through legislation or study with funding, but we can make small changes now to get the best out of our own food sources. We can start small, right here, at our own table.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Salad Days

I find myself forced to come clean:  I haven’t posted here for ages because I’m on this crazy restricted low-calorie, low-carb diet, and the food choice has been, well...lackluster, to say the least. I mostly eat lean protein, non-starchy veggies, and a whole lotta salad. Local greenhouse salad, of course, but the sheer volume of salad is kind of ridiculous, and hasn’t been that inspiring to write about. I’m very compartmentalized about my food temperatures vis-a-vis the temperature outside, so salad in the winter is extremely unpleasant for me, but I’ve managed to muscle through.

But now it’s officially spring. I know this because:

1. Rabbits.

2. Cold foods are appealing again.

3. Asparagus.

Now, I just had to take a picture of this bad boy salad before I gobbled it up.

I have to admit, I got impatient and bought some non-local asparagus at the store the other day (from Mexico, maybe? Who knows.). Once I got it home, I regretted it. It never got to that brilliant green color, so I accidently overcooked it, and if there’s anything I hate more than salad in winter, it’s limp asparagus. Then Greg from Claybank Farms called me and told me to expect asparagus in his list of offerings this week! I usually hate throwing food away, but this time I gleefully tossed the remainder of the esp├írragos in the compost.

I’ve eaten the whole bunch from Greg by myself in two days. Last night, I steamed the whole pound for dinner, but no one ate it but me (in my family’s defense, and fortunately for me, there were lots of leftovers to take care of). It was a shocking shade of green, and sweet as can be, not a trace of that bitterness you sometimes get in the stalk. Today, I treated myself to the half-pound that was left in the fridge to make the salad.

I’ve probably posted this recipe before, but I’mma do it again, just ‘cuz I’m nice:

Hard boil an egg or two, then chill in cold water or the fridge. Take ½ pound of asparagus, break off the tough ends and wash. Steam for about two minutes or until tender (don’t overcook! If you can smell it, take it off the heat!), then immediately dump it into a bowl of ice water to chill. Cut up a couple of tomatoes (can’t get local this time of year, but try to find some that have flavor). If you can’t find a good organic Campari tomato, the little grape tomatoes cut in half will do just fine. Cut up the asparagus into bite-sized pieces, add tomatoes and one or two diced hard-boiled eggs. Salt generously. Add a couple of tablespoons of homemade vinaigrette.

My vinaigrette is a heaping teaspoon of Maille mustard, about ⅓ cup white wine vinegar and ½ cup olive oil, walnut oil, or other light salad oil, salt and pepper to taste. Adjust these proportions to your own liking. Lemon juice can be subbed for the vinegar, too.

The best part is, this is totally legit on my diet! Not boring at all! Now, to find something to go with it. Hmm...maybe I should try to find that rabbit….

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!