Day 130–Blueberry Jam

Blueberry

Blueberry jam always seems like such a luxury to me and I’m not even sure why. It’s not as though blueberries are rare, but somehow they seem a bit precious. They are not as treasured as blackberries, which will always be my favorite, but they’re still pretty special. North Carolina blueberries, when cooked, seem to have so much more flavor than they do when they are raw. I don’t think this is true of wild Maine blueberries, which are much smaller but packed with flavor. My Produce Box this week included a container of this year’s first blueberries and I added on 6 more to my order for good measure (!). What to do on an evening when Ellie has homework and Tom is playing softball? Make jam, of course! Just me and my boiling cauldrons of goodness bubbling away. Here is the recipe I used. Judging from the last bits that Ellie and I sampled from the bottom of the pot, this recipe is a keeper! It is from “Put ‘Em Up!” which is a terrific book on home food preservation.

Quick Blueberry Jam (this recipe made 6 half-pints)

  • 1-2 c. sugar (depending on your taste; I used 2)
  • 2 tsp. Pomona’s Universal Pectin
  • 8 c. blueberries, stemmed
  • 1/4 c. bottled lemon juice
  • 2 tsp. calcium water (included in the Pomona box)
  1. Combine the sugar and pectin in a small bowl and set aside.
  2. Combine the berries with a splash of water in a medium nonreactive saucepan and slowly bring to a boil over low heat. Add the lemon juice and calcium water. Stir.
  3. Pour in the sugar/pectin mix and stir to dissolve.
  4. Return to a boil and them immediately remove from the heat and let the jam rest for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to release air bubbles. Skim off any foam.
  5. From here, you can ladle the jam into jars or bowls, cool, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Or you can can the jam.
  6. To can, ladle the jam into hot, sterilized half-pint jars, leaving 1/4″ of headspace. Release the trapped air.
  7. Wipe the rims clean, center the lids on the jars and screw on jar bands. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the canner lid and let the jars rest in the water for 5 minutes.
  8. Remove jars without tilting them and set aside for 24 hours. Check the seals and then store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.
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Day 129–Lemon Blueberry Muffins

A pack of blueberries from a organic farm co-o...

We received some fresh, local blueberries in our Produce Box this week and I can’t wait to use them! Will make some muffins for our campout this weekend and for me, nothing beats blueberries combined with some lemon. I love that flavor combination! I also like using buttermilk in my muffin recipes as it cuts through the sweetness and gives the muffins a fresh taste. Here is the recipe I use–you can substitute any other berry for the blueberries. I think raspberries would be terrific also!

Blueberry Muffins

  • 2 c. whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 c. organic cane sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 c. butter, melted
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • 1 Tbsp. grated lemon zest
  • 2 c. blueberries
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 12 muffin cups or line with paper liners.
  2. Sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
  3. In a separate bowl, wisk together melted butter, egg, buttermilk and lemon zest.
  4. Fold in blueberries.
  5. Fill muffin cups 3/4 full of batter.
  6. Bake until golden, about 18 minutes. Test for doneness with a bamboo skewer.
  7. Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes. Remove muffins from pan and cool on a cooling rack.

Day 128–Garden Update

Our burst of 90 degree weather seems to be making the garden happy! The tomatoes are putting out flowers, as are the bush cucumbers. Our squash plants are just now recovering from our cold snap and have started growing again. Although my little side yard gets the most sun of any location in my yard, it is clear that one side is doing much better than the other. My two plastic raised beds are going gangbusters, but the wooden beds are just puny looking. Weird.

Overall, though, things look pretty healthy. The herbs are doing especially well, with parsley, dill, mint and lemon balm starting to go a little crazy (time for cutting!). Ellie has decided to dry the herbs we don’t use and try making her own teas. Should be a fun project!

Interestingly, the plant that is doing the best is not something we intentionally planted. We have a volunteer squash or cucumber that must have survived the compost bin and it is growing in our flower garden among the hydrageas! Not only did it survive, it looks like it came out of Jurassic Park. It is HUGE!! Too early to tell if it will actually produce something or if it’s all just

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Day 127–The Inside Scoop of Product Pricing at the Farmer’s Market

I came across this wonderful article on the Western Wake Farmer’s Market website. Thanks to Madison Whitley for giving me permission to reprint it here. I think it does an excellent job of describing why prices for fresh, locally grown food differs from what is charged at the grocery. For additional insight into why prices differ (and why they are worth it), watch Food, Inc. It’s available on Netflix and is really an amazing documentary.

The Inside Scoop of Product Pricing at the Farmer’s Market

by Madison Whitley and Juliann Zoetmulder

Ever wonder why farmers’ market eggs cost $4 a dozen? Are you curious about why meat and produce cost double what it costs in the grocery store? These are valid questions that are on many customers’ minds as they shop the farmers’ market. With a little explanation, you may come to find that what you get for your money is really worth it.

Comparing farm fresh eggs and industrial big-box eggs is not an apples-to-apples comparison. You have to lift the veil a bit to understand what you miss from industrial, “cheap” eggs. You may pay more for farm fresh eggs; however, you get more value for the price. In a 2007 testing project, Mother Earth News compared farm fresh eggs taken from hens raised on a pasture to the nutritional data designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for commercially produced eggs. In this test, it was found that the farm fresh eggs contain one-third less cholesterol, one-quarter less saturated fat and two times more omega-3 fatty acids. Furthermore, the farm fresh egg contains two-thirds more vitamin A and three times more vitamin E. Beta carotene, an immune booster, is found in seven times greater proportion than the egg off the big-box store shelf. In general, the eggs from hens that roam around a pasture are richer in nutrients than typical supermarket eggs.

Even if the science does not “wow” you, look at the deep orange color of the farm fresh egg and taste its creaminess compared to an industrial egg. It tastes better and is more nutrient dense. For $2 extra dollars per dozen, you get exponentially more health and taste benefits. That’s sixteen cents more per egg or thirty-three cents more for your 2 egg breakfast that will sustain your body much longer than an industrial egg.

Despite these known benefits, customers are still hesitant to purchase their weekly grocery list at the farmers’ market because prices cannot compete with the low prices found at the grocery store. So why is the food at the farmers’ market more expensive? In actuality, it is the cheapest and healthiest food available. Sustainable agriculture does not rely on government subsidies from the Farm Bill and it does not have the huge environmental costs (transportation, for example) that industrial agriculture incurs. Finally, sustainable agriculture is not laden with chemicals, antibiotics, pesticides, and GMO’s. On the flip side, think about what we would be adding to our future health care bill by eating cheap meat, for instance.

Grass-fed beef has a number of compelling health benefits and since America is eating more meat than ever, we need to pay attention. According to a 2009 study by the USDA and Clemson University in South Carolina, grass-fed beef, often sold at farmers’ markets, is lower in total fat, saturated fat and calories compared to commercially produced beef. Grass-fed beef has higher amounts of total omega-3 fatty acids and a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-fed beef also has higher vitamin A and E (alpha-tocopherol), higher levels of antioxidants, 7 times more beta-carotene, higher amounts of B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, and higher amounts of minerals calcium, magnesium and potassium. The research also indicates higher levels of CLA (cis-9-trans-11), a potential cancer fighter, in grass-fed beef and higher amounts of vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA). Don’t forget that animals raised on small family farms are often treated more humanely than animals in commercial production facilities.

The nutrient density of products found at the farmers’ market is much higher, producing a much healthier product, which means that you don’t have to eat as much to get the same health benefits. So next time you are at the farmers’ market, don’t think about how expensive the products are and how much money you could save at the grocery store. Think about the quality of product you are getting, how many more nutrients are present in the food and what you are getting for you money.

As someone who has a monthly budget for food, I suggest purchasing the items that are at the front-and-center of your meal at the farmers’ market. You can always supplement your grocery list with items at the big-box grocery store. You will notice a difference in the taste and quality of your food, but not in your wallet. I promise.

Day 126–Starting Week 18–Budget and Menu

Our weather this spring is just plain ol’ wonky. Last weekend was in the upper 50s and by Tuesday it was over 90. So things are a little confused when it comes to crops. The chilly weather slowed things down and then the hot, dry weather pushed some greens to bolt. Still, we have a lot to choose from and starting this week we will even have blueberries! Spending was on budget this week at $99.78, thank goodness, although we do have two fewer meals this week. Ellie and I will be heading out with our girl scout troop to a Hunger Games campout (no actual fighting to the death allowed, of course) so we’ll be eating around the campfire instead of at home. Tom will be fishing, so no one will be home eating! Our weeks are getting so busy and juggling eating our precious veggies is getting to be a challenge. I’m thankful that our Produce Box gives us the option of skipping a week, although we haven’t had to do that yet.

Budget

  • Locals Seafood (scallops, flounder): $40.00
  • The Produce Box (blueberries, strawberries, broccoli, bok choi, onion, carrots, tomato): $23.00
  • Melina’s pasta (spinach fettucine): $6.00
  • Trader Joes (soy milk, frozen mango, peanut butter, lemons, baby zucchini): $26.78
  • Water Oaks Farm (eggs): $4.00

Here is what we’re having this week!

Menu

  • Sunday–Spinach fettucine with scallops and fresh peas, salad
  • Monday–Cornmeal dusted grouper, stir fried kale, baby zucchini
  • Tuesday–Egg salad sandwiches, carrots
  • Wednesday–Scrambled egg tortillas
  • Thursday–Spicy peanut vegetable stir fry over whole wheat cous cous
  • Friday–camping
  • Saturday–camping

Day 125–What’s Fresh at the Market and Strawberry Bread

We are just winding down on our strawberry season and at the farmer’s market this week, farmers were predicting another two weeks of berries. Nooooooo!!!! So, of course, I had to stock up like a hoarder. I made 6 more half pints of jam, froze 2 quarts and made some strawberry bread. I had never made that before and it was very good! The recipe is below. My freezer is now getting pretty darn full, so my request for Mother’s Day is a deep freezer and my goal for the week is to carve out some space for that in an area that won’t blow a fuse. I’m up for the challenge!

Here is a list of what’s available this week in our area of central NC:

  • Strawberries
  • Lettuce (red, green, romaine)
  • Greens (swiss chard, kale, spinach, bok choy)
  • Radish
  • Hothouse tomatoes
  • Sugar snap peas
  • English peas
  • Hothouse cucumbers
  • Asparagus
  • Spring onions
  • Fresh garlic

Hope you enjoyed shopping at the market this week. What’s new in your area?

Strawberry Bread (makes 2 loaves)

  • 4 c. fresh strawberries, sliced
  • 3 1/8 c. whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 3/4 c. vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/4 c. chopped pecans
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Butter and flour 2 loaf pans.
  3. Place sliced strawberries in a bowl and sprinkle with sugar. Set aside.
  4. Combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt and baking soda in a large bowl; mix well.
  5. Blend oil and eggs into strawberries and add strawberrie mixture to flour.
  6. Blend until dry ingredients are just moistened. Stir in pecans.
  7. Divide batter into pans and bake for 45-50 minutes.

Day 124–Ten Tips for Locavore Food Shopping (on a budget)

Continuing the theme of how to shop efficiently and affordably while still eating local, I have 10 tips from our own experience since January 1. I told you I like a list 🙂 Share your tips and ideas in the comments section!

Tip One–Know your farmers, know your farmers, know your farmers.

Before starting our locavore journey, my only experience with asking produce questions was asking the “produce manager” in our local grocery store, who usually knew almost nothing about produce or cooking. So, I was pretty shy and hesitant about asking farmers information. I thought it might be rude. But you know what?  Farmers LIKE answering questions and they LOVE talking about what they grow. And guess what else? Many of them cook this food themselves! Also, farmers, in my limited experience, are pretty practical folks. If you say you’re on a budget and you have xx to spend on vegetables, they can give you lots of ideas for how to stretch your dollars and feed your family. Try THAT at your local grocery store!

Tip Two–Use Social Media

You know those picture books with Farmer Brown plowing a field? Well, those books need a major update. Most farmers who sell to local markets are pretty media savvy (or at least they are getting there). They probably have a Facebook page, an email newsletter and/or Twitter account. Crazy, right? I get weekly postings on what is available from local farmers and farmer’s markets in my area. That saves me a LOT of time when planning menus because I’m not guessing at what I’ll find.

Tip Three–Pre-order the Important Stuff

Related to Tip Two, I’ve found that I can easily pre-order cuts of meat, types of cheese, seafood, eggs and large amounts of produce (like strawberries for jam) and pick them up at my local farmer’s market. Farmer’s like this because they know they are bringing items to market that will be sold. And I love it because I don’t have to get to the market only to find out that no one has any chicken breasts left.

Tip Four–Allow Flexibility for the Unexpected

From menu planning/shopping system, you might think I’m a control freak. Well, that would be partially true, but I also love getting to the market and finding out that something new is available. If I’ve planned my menu right (see below), I may be able to add something unexpected into our menu. Or maybe it becomes a lunch snack. I can also make a note of it and work it in next week. The point is, don’t make yourself so controlled that you miss the beauty of the market.

Tip Five–Incorporate Some “Go-To” Flexible Recipes

There are some recipes (roast chicken) that are pretty straightforward, simple and easy on the brain. I like to have some other, flexible, veggie-loving recipes that are always in rotation and can use almost anything in the refrigerator. These recipes are a good way to use up what’s left at the end of the week and a great way to incorporate those unexpected purchases. Here are some examples:

  • Stir-fry (one protein + chopped up veggies + onion + a whole grain)
  • Quiche/frittata (basic quiche/frittata recipe + 1 c. vegetables)
  • Pizza (one whole wheat crust + 2 c. chopped veggies + sauce/olive oil + cheese)
  • Roasted vegetables and pasta (16 oz. pasta + 2-3 c. roasted veggies + sauce/olive oil + cheese)
  • Saladpalooza (bowl of washed greens + assortment of chopped veggies + 1 protein + dressing)
  • Soup (4 c. chicken stock + pasta/rice + 3 c. sautéed vegetables)
  • Quesadillas (2 tortillas + fat-free refried beans + 1 c. sautéed vegetables + cheese + salsa)

Tip Six–Shop With a List

Now that I’ve addressed flexibility, once you have your list, stick to it unless you are POSITIVE you will use it. Back away from the impulse purchases that have no relationship to your menu. If you don’t have a menu that will work, say, rutabegas in, then do not buy them. I mean it…scoot, scoot!

Tip Seven–Make Use of What You Have

Americans throw away an obsene amount of food each year. Sometimes it happens that I get a huge amount of one vegetable in our Produce Box and it’s more than we can eat right away. Or maybe we have a last-minute change of plans and we don’t end up eating all our meals. In this case, the freezer is your best friend. Rather than throw away chicken because we didn’t make a big dinner, I can roast or bake it while we’re finishing up homework, take it off the bone and freeze it for later. Or, like last week when I received WAY more spring onions that we needed, I chopped them up, bagged them in freezer bags in 1 cup servings and froze them for later. Greens, like collards, mustard greens, kale and turnip greens, can also be cooked and frozen to eat later.

Tip Eight–Stock Up and Put It Up

Eating locally does not mean surviving on nothing but sweet potatoes and collard greens all winter. You can enjoy local peaches in February, delicious local corn in December and turnips in July. You just have to plan ahead. We’re new at this, but it’s already become a very enjoyable part of our farmer’s market trips. Food preservation is one of the oldest culinary skills around and guess what? It’s fun! You have three options when preserving your precious bounty–canning, freezing and drying. When fruits and vegetables are at their peak, stock up (prices are also lowest at this time) and save those wonderful flavors for later. You will save money and get high quality, delicious food all year-long!

Tip Nine–Ask. And Then Ask Again!

The local food network in my area (and I’m willing to bet in yours, too) is a close-knit community of farmers, chefs, bakers, cheese makers, etc. If you want something and can’t find it, ask around. I was amazed at what I learned once I started asking. Somehow in my mind, I thought that our local food producers would be highly secretive and competitive. While there may be some competition going on out there, the people I have found are pretty straight up. If I want something they don’t have, they don’t try to sell me something else. They tell me who has it. Sometimes they’ll actually walk me down to the other vendor and help me out. Crazy. And lovely.

Tip Ten–Realize That Sometimes You’ll Blow It

I’m human. And I love seafood. So when fresh seafood starts coming to our local market in the early spring, I go a little crazy. And going a little crazy usually means I blow my budget. Maybe even by a lot. I think this spring we had an entire week of nothing but seafood. At the end of the day, though, it’s like a fun celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of lighter foods on our menu. As long as it’s not a usual occurence, we’re ok. We make up for it over the next few weeks and we calm down our purchases. So stay on budget, but don’t let an occasional celebration ruin your joy.

What are your tips and strategies?? I’d love to hear them!

Day 123–Local Meal Planning On a Budget

An Italian shopping list for groceries.

I am a “list person”.

Not to label myself or anything, but I do love a good list. To do lists, errand lists, shopping lists and yes, menu lists. There is something very satisfying about crossing off something on a list. Also, I am slightly absent-minded (I prefer to think of this as “intensely focused”), so lists help me keep track of things that might otherwise get overlooked. I also keep a list of blog topics. And one that has risen to the top is how we plan our meals around local foods. A friend posted in wondering about this as well, so now seems a good time to dive in.

We don’t have a lot of parameters around our eating, but we do have some loose rules for our journey:

  1. At least 75% of our food should come from local sources.
  2. We should keep spending to $100 or under
  3. No processed foods, unless absolutely necessary (see “Girl Scout Cookies”)

In the second week of our journey, I had a major “uh-oh” moment. I had carefully crafted a list of recipes I wanted to try based on what I thought might be available at the farmer’s market. As it turns out, almost nothing I wanted was available, so I ended up buying all manner of random food and then trying to create a week of meals out of it. If you’re up for that challenge, go for it, but it was a stressful learning experience for me and I learned that I need more order than that. I’ve developed a system over the past four months and I’ll share it with you. It probably sounds more complicated than it really is. I’m not recommending anyone adopt my system, but it works for me. And if it works for me, I am probably more likely to be successful, so finding a system that works for YOU will do the same. Here goes:

Thursday–On Thursdays I read emails and Twitter posts from our local farmers markets and farmers so I know what will be available over the weekend. These posts help so much. I highly recommend getting on the e-mail lists of any farmers markets or farmers near you. I can find out what vendors will be available, what they will have, what’s coming up soon and (if I want) I can even order specific products or cuts of meat ahead of time. I start making my draft menu for the next week at this point.

A note about our weekly menu: I try to make sure we have a balance of vegetables and proteins throughout the week. This doesn’t always work out–some weeks have been heavy on seafood and others heavy on chicken or pork–but mostly it works out ok.

Friday–On Fridays, I get an email from The Produce Box letting me know what is in the various boxes for the next week. I usually go ahead and order my box on Friday and, based on what is going to be in my box, I tweak my menu and make a shopping list of the remaining items I will need. Since what I get in my Produce Box is similar to what is available in the market, there aren’t usually surprises here.

Saturday–On Saturday, I go to the farmer’s market (sometimes I do this on Friday, but whatever). Since I know pretty much in advance what will be available to me, I pick up what I need as well as any orders I have placed for meat, fish, etc. While I’m at the market, I make a list (!) of new items that are available or anything interesting that I might consider for next week. Then I go to Trader Joes and get whatever else I need.

Unless something happens and I forget something on the list, I go shopping once a week. Period. And I stick to my list. This has been hard for me, but I try to make myself do it.

So far, this system has worked out well. It does mean that I spend a LOT more time thinking about food. I don’t mind this, but if you don’t like to cook or if you don’t want to sit around and think through a weekly menu, this may not make you happy. To date, we have been pretty good about not wasting food and making good use of the produce and meat we buy. Some weeks are more successful than others, of course. That’s life.

So that is our system for making sure we have local foods and that we eat what we buy. If you are eating local, how do you plan your meals?

Tomorrow I will post 10 Tips for Successful Locavore Shopping. Yay–a list!!

Day 122–All We Want is a Salad Bar

The reactions to our experience watching “What’s On Your Plate?” keep growing as we move forward and study our own eating environments. I asked the group of girls who saw the film what they learned and to them, it was astounding to learn how difficult it can be to change even one small part of the school food system. These girls are typically up for a challenge, so they zeroed in on that. Ok, so here are middle school girls complaining about how horrible the school lunches are and how little choice they have in their diet while on campus (yes, they could bring lunch, but that’s a whole other discussion about middle school social rules). They equate the quality of their lunch with how much the school cares about their well being…and let me tell you, this is one group of girls who do not think the adults in charge really care.

What do they want? A salad bar. How hard will that be? We’re going to find out.

Ellie brought up a very good point during the discussion. She noted that schools spend a lot of time, money and energy dealing with bullying, but they don’t do anything to address one of the personal aspects that encourages bullies to zero in on a target–being overweight. The girls agreed that being overweight or obese raises the odds that you will be bullied or harassed. So why aren’t schools using their bully budget to address that? It was a good point. If young people are asking for help with this issue, we should be listening.

Now this group of 4-6 girls is interested in starting a petition to have a salad bar in the cafeteria. Every journey begins with a single step and they are excited about moving forward. I’m sure it will be an eye-opening experience!