Day 363–Our Year In Review

budget

What is going on with the time? It seems like the months are moving in warp speed. It is hard to believe our year experiment is almost up! I’ll be reworking the blog a bit (and hopefully not crashing everything!) and returning on January 1 to start again, this time with a new challenge and a slightly different twist.

This is the time of year when everyone is doing some kind of retrospective on the past 12 months and since we started out with a year challenge, it seems fitting that we will do this, too.

The goals of our family challenge were threefold:

  • Eat at least 75% of our food from local and/or sustainable sources
  • Spend no more than $100 per week on groceries
  • Increase our walking destinations.

How did we do?

Well, we did pretty well for our first time out! Overall, we kept our average spending to just under $100, but missed our mark of 75%. Here’s how the numbers break down for the 43 weeks that I recorded our budget and menu (I’m missing 9 weeks due to schedule craziness, vacations, and whatever else was going on, but I believe those weeks would probably even out to about the same numbers).

  • Total amount spent on groceries:          $4,199.51
  • Grocery $$ spent on local food:             $2,684.91
  • Percent of food budget that was local:  64%
  • Average spent per week:                            $97.66

That averages included our Christmas and Christmas Eve feasts, which were way over budget (but also supremely awesome). I did not include trips to Whole Foods as local, although they were organic and sustainable, because they did not reflect a direct payment to farmers. So for the year, almost $2,700 of our food budget stayed within our community. I’m pretty proud of that!

Where we have not done so well is increasing our walking to local destinations. That is definitely going to be on the agenda for next year.

I personally had some good health outcomes this year. I dropped 15 pounds, lowered my overall cholesterol by 17 points and raised my good cholesterol by several points.

More importantly, I have met some wonderful new people, reconnected to eating seasonal foods, reignited a love of cooking, learned how to can my own food and all around, just had a great time!

What’s next?

Here are some goals for next year:

  • Work on my food photography skills
  • Incorporate more plant-based dishes into our diet
  • Visit our local farms and include our experiences outside the farmer’s market

What would you like to see in this blog for next year? More recipes? Fewer recipes? More research-based information?

I’ll see you back here in 2013–just a few short days away. Have a happy and safe New Year!

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Day 321–Talking Turkey

Turkey

Turkey (Photo credit: wattpublishing)

I love turkey. I have been known (several times) to head to the store the day AFTER Thanksgiving to purchase another turkey (on sale) because I didn’t get enough of the first one. It’s not only the turkey itself, but all the yummy, comfort food leftovers that come from extra turkey–turkey pot pie, turkey hash, turkey sandwiches, turkey soup…

We recently had a conversation at work about turkey preparation and the subject of washing the turkey came up. Personally, I hate that part. There are few things more irritating than trying to rinse out an 18 pound turkey in a regular sized sink.  What a mess. I have a friend (not naming names, but you know who you are) who actually rinses her turkey in a bleach and water mixture. I’m all for avoiding bad bacteria, but not enough to ingest toxins in place of them.

So, I was delighted to find information from the US Department of Agriculture that directs consumers NOT to wash poultry. Why not? Apparently a study in the UK found that washing your chicken or turkey can spray salmonella bacteria up to 3 feet away from your sink, accidentally contaminating food prep surfaces (and other foods). Washing doesn’t remove the bacteria, it just spreads it around. In addition, if you are cooking your birds to the prescribed 165 degrees, all bacteria will be killed by heat anyway.

So here are some tips for enjoying your turkey and making sure you don’t get some horrible family reputation for making everyone ill:

  • If you buy a frozen turkey, thaw it in the refrigerator, not on the counter and NOT in a sink of warm water.
  • Wash your hands, utensils and all food prep services that come into contact with raw poultry with soap and warm/hot water.
  • Cook your turkey to an internal temperature of 165.
  • Do not leave leftovers out for more than 30 minutes.

Food habits are hard to break, but I feel better about being a little lazy and not “cleaning” my turkey this year.

Tomorrow I will post our planned turkey cooking strategy!

Day 72–Learning to Can-Can

Preserved food in Mason jars

When I was in my mid-twenties, and had vast stretches of free time, I learned to make apple butter. I liked it, but that’s about as far into canning as I ventured. I think a trip to the mountains of North Carolina spurred that experiment. Faced with an abundance of apples that were brought back as tasty souvenirs, I decided to do something constructive with them. Along the way, I stopped canning apple butter and moved on to other things.

At the Dig In! conference last weekend, Ellie and I took a class on home canning and I was reminded of how satisfying it was to can my own creations. Now we are inspired to make the most of our spring strawberries and summer tomatoes and–the most fun part–we will be doing it together as a mother/daughter project. Hopefully this will help us make the most of our local produce and eliminate our need to purchase preserves (although the preserves we currently purchase are all locally made).

According to our instructor, beginning canners should heed a few rules:

  • Cook from well-tested recipes to start
  • Use real canning jars (not other recycled jars from home)
  • Buy canning tongs–do not remove hot jars with your hands (from the chuckles around the room, this is apparently more common than I would have thought)
  • Use the hot water bath method, not the inverted jar method of sealing jars as it is more reliable and consistent
  • Make your own pectin or cook the old-fashioned way (cook your food longer) so that you don’t need it. Commercial pectin has very suspicious origins that involve slaughterhouse by-products.

The first two points were very useful, the third and fourth had never occurred to me and the fifth was just gross.

I also learned that, at least in NC, food stamp (EBT) recipients can use their grocery funds to purchase vegetable or fruit plants. I had no idea! There is a movement afoot to get this information out to folks so they will have the opportunity to have, for example, tomatoes all summer for the same price as a few tomatoes. And if folks can preserve their food, that extends the quality and availability of local, sustainable foods for people in food desert areas.

Do any of you can your own produce? What works well for you? We won’t have any strawberries to start with until next month, so in the meantime we will be reading up on the process and on interesting recipes!

 

Day 67–There’s An App for That

My phone knows where my food comes from. That seems like crazy talk to me. Wasn’t it just yesterday I was using my brother’s super fast Commodore 64K to play Space Invaders?

I don’t think I can say it enough, but I love my iphone. My poor little laptop is becoming more of a doorstop as I marvel at the possibilities of my phone. The number and variety of apps continually amazes me, even if most of them are fluff. And as much as my daughter loves Plants vs. Zombies, I tend to favor those apps that help me get through my days in a more practical way. My newest find is HarvestMark, an app that actually tracks the source of your food. For reals.

There are limits, of course. Your food has to include a bar code or QR code, which does limit the possibilities. But for me, food with a bar code is where I have more concerns. I typically know where my whole foods come from–the processed and pre-bagged foods are more of a mystery. The database of bar codes is still improving, so while some things like canned soup are not listed yet, others like packaged fruits and meats, are. It isn’t perfect, but it is the start of something exciting. Another tool to help me be an informed consumer.

I’m enjoying using the tool, but trying not to irritate other shoppers in Trader Joes by becoming one of “those people” who blocks food access by busying myself on my phone. Lord knows, I am usually the person not-s0-patiently tap, tap, tapping my foot while waiting for someone to back away from the Greek yogurt. So for now, you will find me in the empty aisle by the fiber supplements, scanning my food. I am not playing Plants vs. Zombies. Probably.

Day 62–A Locavore’s Lunch–The Busy Bee

The Busy Bee is located in what was the Busy Bee Cafe in the 1920s.

I have to say that lately, I’ve had such great lunches from home that I haven’t been eating out for lunch much (good for my health and my wallet!). But when I do get lunch out, I typically frequent one of our many downtown lunch spots that serve local food. The Busy Bee on Wilmington Street (www.busybeeraleigh.com) is one of my all time favorites. They were, in fact, the catalyst for my new love of the fish taco!

Located in a former cafe of the same name, the Busy Bee features fresh, local, organic produce and NC sourced seafood. Their beef apparently comes from a distributer (according to my server), but much of the rest of the menu comes from local and/or sustainable sources. My favorites are the fish tacos and the spinach and artichoke burger (a hand-made veggie burger with spinach, artichoke and feta). Their sides are also wonderful. If you are a mac & cheese lover, get thee to the Busy Bee! Lighter than many mac & cheese dishes, it is very flavorful and filling. I usually go the unhealthy route on the sides with either the mac & cheese, tater tots (seriously–so good) or the fried green tomatoes.

I’ve also gone to the Busy Bee for staff happy hour, and the place has a terrific vibe in the evening. If you like beer, they have a pretty incredible selection of artisanal brews. If you don’t like beer, I can vouch for the Queen Bee martini with local honey and elderflower (a note: I do not sample adult beverages at lunch. Not that I haven’t been tempted, but still…).

If you’re in the Triangle looking for wonderful, fresh, locally sourced food, give the Busy Bee a try! And if you’re not local, check out their menu for some great flavorful inspirations that you might try at home!

Day 61–Coon Rock Farm

Lately I have been buying produce and eggs from Coon Rock Farm, a family owned farm on the Eno River in Hillsborough. From Harukai turnips to fresh carrots and tatsoi greens, everything I’ve purchased has been delicious. At the Western Wake Farmer’s Market a few weeks ago, I tried a sample of their chorizo (it is impossible to pass their tent without trying it since you can smell it cooking and for “some reason” I am always hungry). It was amazing. I keep forgetting to add it to our rotation, but maybe next week.

Coon Rock Farm (www.coonrockfarm.com) is the epitome of “farm to fork”. The Holcomb family not only operates the farm (which dates back to the 1800s), they also operate two highly reputable restaurants, Zely & Ritz in Raleigh and Piedmont Restaurant in Durham. Both restaurants feature the vegetables, fruit, eggs, lamb, beef, pork and eggs produced on the farm.

According to the Holcombs, farm produce is all organic and mostly heirloom varieties (which explains why my carrots were unbelievably “carrot-y” in flavor). All animals are pasture-raised and grass-fed, with no hormones or antibiotics. I love that this is a family all working together to bring us good food while nurturing the young farmers who will continue to feed us into the future.

Coon Rock Farm sells at three local farmer’s markets–Midtown Farmer’s Market at North Hills, Western Wake Farmer’s Market in Cary and the Chapel Hill Farmer’s Market. They also have a CSA which you can read about on their website.

As for the name? Apparently, the name Coon Rock Farm comes from a large rock that juts into the Eno River and has the historical name of “Coon Rock”.  Regardless, the food produced by this family is wonderful, sustainable, healthy food, and I for one am looking forward to some chorizo on Saturday!

Day 55–Community Gardens

Austin TX

“It is what it is, but will become what you make of it.”  Pat Summit

Spring is just around the corner here in North Carolina, and we are looking forward to planting our garden. I have mentioned before that we have some challenges (some extreme shade, some hot spots, horse-sized mosquitoes and LOTS of tree roots). I’m not only interested in having a successful gardening year for our family, but I am also interested in expanding access to fresh food. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been rewarding to find new local sources for our food and to post recipes and blog about our journey, but a larger issue is nagging at me. While I’m frolicking at the farmer’s markets, packing organic produce in my “green” Trader Joes bags, other families are having trouble finding any access to healthy, fresh food. Living in “food deserts,” these families, children, elders are often dependent on highly processed, overpriced foods available at local convenience stores. And there are many more folks who might have access to fresh food, but have no idea what they are eating (e.g., me six months ago). Food access and food literacy. Two huge issues affecting the health of many families in my area.

So I can let it nag at me, or I can see this as an opportunity for another part of our journey. Maybe I just have the zeal of the newly converted or maybe this is where I’m meant to go. Hard to tell at this point 🙂 In any case, an opportunity came our way and we are seizing it and we will see where it takes us.

Advocates for Health in Action is hosting a “Dig In” workshop focusing on building, maintaining and sustaining community gardens in our area. Topics for the 1/2 day program include garden planning, school gardening, legal issues, fundraising, organic gardening, bee keeping and more. The program looks like so much fun that our whole family is going! I feel fortunate to have this level of enthusiasm for not only improving our garden, but helping with a larger community gardening initiative. The event is in March and we will definitely blog about what we learned!

Taking this locavore journey is shaping us in ways we never expected (but I guess that’s why it’s a journey!). And taking up Lady Vols coach Pat Summit’s challenge, we will see what we can make of it.

 

Day 52–The Sweet Potato Experiment

Sometimes things that seem simple and straightforward are, upon further contemplation, the very things that rock my world. So today, rather than a didactic posting about how our food supply is corrupted on so many levels and how concerned I am about what we are putting into ourselves and our children, I thought I would share this video with you. On the surface, it is a cute science experiment conducted by a little girl and her grandmother. Dig deeper and it is really about what food is available to us in the grocery store, even those foods labeled “organic”.

The video isn’t long, so I hope you watch it. It really reinforced to me the importance of our family journey, and gave me some extra motivation to keep going!

Day 50–Starting Week 8–Budget and Menu

The Earth flag is not an official flag, since ...

It’s hard to believe we’re at Day 50 of our sustainability challenge already. Starting our eighth week of sustainable eating and healthier living, many of our changes like shopping at the farmer’s market, carefully reading the labels of those things we buy from the store, and cooking meals at home have become part of our regular habit. We have detoxed our cleaning supplies and replaced our plastic food storage with glass. And we have changed some of our health and beauty products to kinder versions without phthalates and parabens. What we need to work on is walking more, but I think that will improve when the weather is consistently warm.

This week, we did well on eating what we purchased. We have some beets that might not make it, but that’s it. I’m getting better (I think) at anticipating how much food we will eat. That was a bigger problem before we had a budget. I was so tempted by all the beautiful vegetables at the farmer’s market that I would over buy and then feel frustrated that we were basically composting money! In truth, we eat a lot less than I would have thought and it has taken me a while to adjust my buying to what we will really eat, not to what looks appealing. Knowing I am accountable to my budget each week has definitely made me a more careful shopper!

Here is how our shopping budge worked this week:

  • Coon Rock Farm (carrots, sweet turnips): $6.00
  • Locals Seafood (fresh monkfish): $17.00
  • Farmhand Foods meat box (beef braising ribs): $15.00
  • Hillsborough Cheese Company (fresh Greek yogurt): $4.00
  • Whole Foods (ground bison): $12.97
  • Trader Joes (Ezekiel bread, zinfandel, burger buns, soy milk, frozen fruit, broth, harvest grains, etc): $39.97

The total for this week is $94.94! A tad under budget this week! And what are we eating for $94.94? Here is the menu for this week:

Sunday–Zinfandel braised beef ribs with rosemary, garlic mashed potatoes, sautéed kale with pine nuts

Monday–Pan seared monkfish with lemon, risotto with leftover butternut squash, sweet turnips

Tuesday–Carryover ribs and potatoes, broccoli

Wednesday–Scrambled egg tortillas, leftover risotto, leftovers

Thursday–Bison burgers, harvest grain cous cous

Friday–Broccoli pesto pasta with pine nuts

Saturday–Homemade pizza night, salad

Here’s to another great week!

 

Day 46–Escazu Chocolate and Gorilla Bars

A cacao tree with fruit pods in various stages...

Did you get enough chocolate yesterday? Are you laughing at the mere thought of having “enough” chocolate? Yeah, me, too. I thought I might have to go without chocolate during our journey to eat local and sustainable (or at least sneak it when no one was watching). But lo and behold, I have found a local chocolate source at last! My research never ends, I tell you. You’re welcome.

Escazu Artisan Chocolates in Raleigh is conveniently located next door to Market Restaurant on Blount Street. They make all of their chocolates and bars from the cacao bean itself. They source the beans, sort them, roast them and turn them into chocolate using small batches and a level of hand crafting that is impressive. My only other experience with chocolate making was the Chocolate World tour at Hershey Park. In case you’re wondering, this was waayyy better. Escazu doesn’t have dancing M&Ms, but they do have a small group of artisans who care deeply about making beautiful chocolates. And now that I’m over 10, that’s more important.

The chocolates they make come in a wide variety of sophisticated and fun flavors like bacon, rosemary and sea salt, white chocolate and cardamom, goat’s milk ganache, NC strawberry and balsamic, piaroa chili, coffee, mint, passion fruit and sour cream and vanilla. They also sell chocolate by the bar with chili flavor, sea salt and chocolate with cacao nibs.

Cocoa nibs are the pieces of roasted, deshelled and cracked cocoa bean before it is ground and turned into the paste or liquor that becomes most chocolate. Because the nibs are straight from the cocoa tree, they are very high in theobromine, a natural chemical used to reduce high blood pressure and alleviate circulatory problems. Cocoa nibs are crunchy, slightly bitter and a wonderful addition to baked goods! Good and good for you!

I purchased a bag of organic cocoa nibs at Escazu and used them in this delicious Gorilla Bar recipe from Creative Noshing. We made these the other night and they are not only tasty and high in protein, they were a great way to use up our remaining pecans, peanut butter and banana.

So if you haven’t had “enough” chocolate, check out Escazu, and eat lunch at Market. Then go home and make Gorilla Bars. A win-win kind of day!