Day 365–A New Blog Is Born!

Happy New Year’s Eve! Thanks to all of you who have commented, emailed or texted me information about what you like in this blog! I’ve used your comments and some goals of our own to create a NEW blog SOLE Food Kitchen, http://www.solefoodkitchen.com (since the link is not apparently working) that focuses on eating Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethically-sourced food. Please check it out!

This is very much a work in progress, but I’ve posted my first entry and hope you’ll take a look! I still have a LOT to do. A GINORMOUS thank you to Heather at Sugar Dish Me, who provided a lot of information. Heather, I still have lots of questions (like why are my links not working!), but I’m starting to figure things out–thank you!

Year of Healthier Living will still be up–no worries. Eventually, I will transition some of the better recipes to the new blog and add some additional yumminess!

Happy New Year, happy new beginnings and happy eating!

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Day 239–Starting Week 35–Budget and Menu

What is it about school starting that throws the world into a tailspin? Or maybe it’s just MY world that goes into mild chaos… Suddenly, there are evening meetings, tutoring, extra-curricular clubs and ridiculous amounts of laundry. I really enjoyed the lazy pace of summer, and my adjustment to the school year…well, let’s just say it hasn’t gone well. So this is another easy menu week that takes advantage of what is available at the farmers markets. I’m not tackling anything crazy or time-consuming because I’d like to keep what little grasp on reality I still have! The good thing is we’re on budget at $95.42 for the week and that includes some very fresh, lovely NC fish. Yay!

Budget

  • The Produce Box (apples, watermelon, tomatoes, corn, sweet peppers, organic zucchini/yellow squash, sweet potatoes): $23.00
  • Hilltop Farm ( organic cherry tomatoes, organic basil): $9.00
  • Homestead Farm (eggs): $4.00
  • Locals Seafood (black sea bass): $19
  • Farmhand Foods (hangar steak): $12.00
  • Trader Joes (frozen fruit, yogurt, soy milk): $28.42

Menu

  • Wednesday–Pan seared sea bass with cherry tomatoes, creamed corn, roasted okra
  • Thursday–Barbecue quesadillas (carryover from last week), roasted okra, field peas
  • Friday–Pasta with cherry tomatoes and roasted vegetables, salad
  • Saturday–Red pepper tart, cucumber and onion salad; peach pie
  • Sunday–Leftover red pepper tart, oven baked sweet potato fries
  • Monday–Grilled hangar steak, peppers and onions, corn; peach pie
  • Tuesday–Southwestern black bean pizza with leftover steak, veggies and cheese

Day 173–The Dirty Dozen Plus

I’ve posted before about the wonderful list of high and low pesticide foods called the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. GREAT shopping resource. Most of us can’t afford to buy everything organic, so it helps to know which foods are higher in residual pesticides (after washing and standard prep for eating) and which are the lowest. This list is compiled by the Environmental Working Group, an organization that doesn’t get nearly enough press.

The 2012 Dirty Dozen list is out and this year it is called the Dirty Dozen Plus. What is the “plus”? This year, the EWG added a new category to the Dirty Dozen list for crops that don’t meet the standard criteria used to identify a “dirty” crop, but contained enough neurotoxic chemicals to be of concern. Ok, all you kale lovers (I am definitely included in this category), take notice! Kale and green beans are on this new “plus” list!

My only complaint with the new list is that they have not yet updated the phone app, which is very helpful when I’m at the farmer’s market. I have enough to remember–the app is a great help! Maybe soon?

http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/

Day 168 B–What’s Fresh at the Market

This may be the first day of summer, but from the looks of our farmers markets, summer is already in high gear! This is what my brain sounds like while I’m walking through the market:

Ohhh, look at those tomatoes…tomatoes are on my list and…

Wait! Eggplant! Not on my list, but it looks so…

Blackberries! Gotta have some! Would make really good jam and…

Is that OKRA??? Hmmm, would be great with tomatoes…

Wait–where are the tomatoes again???

Yeah, it takes me a looooong time to get through the market. I’ve been to the State Farmer’s Market and the Downtown Raleigh Farmer’s Market this week and here is what I’ve found:

  • Blueberries
  • Blackberries
  • Raspberries
  • Peaches
  • Summer squash
  • Patty pan squash
  • Zucchini
  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Swiss Chard
  • Lettuce
  • Beets
  • Okra
  • Tomatoes (heirloom tomatoes are ready!!!)
  • Cucumbers (all kinds)
  • Green beans
  • Wax beans
  • Butter beans
  • Eggplant
  • Herbs (all kinds–can’t keep up)
  • Potatoes (red, white and blue!)
  • Celery
  • Green peppers

I’m sure there is more that I’m forgetting! This time of year, it is hard for me to stick within my budget because everything is sooooo tempting! And distracting. And lovely. Happy shopping!

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 116–Controversial Pickled Asparagus

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Fresh, local asparagus was the start of our pickled asparagus with mustard seed!

I’m adding asparagus to my list of controversial subjects. So far, they include politics, religion, college basketball and cobbler. And now asparagus.

If you’ve been reading along with us for a while, you know that Ellie and I took a canning class so we can continue to eat some of our favorite local foods all year. Actually, we now have a three-pronged approach to food preservation–canning, freezing and drying. We’re looking at what is available at the market each week and considering whether or not we enjoy it enough to try preserving it for the bleak winter months. It’s fun to seek out new recipes to try–dried fruit leather was a big hit. One of the recipes that piqued our interest is pickled asparagus with mustard seed. We love asparagus. We love pickles. So, what’s not to love about pickled asparagus? And our local grocery sells pickled asparagus for $7 a jar, so I’m all about trying the DIY version.

I couldn’t decide whether this sounded really good or just really odd, so I posted an inquiry to my Facebook page asking the question: “Pickled asparagus. Good? Gross?” The overwhelming judgement was “gross.” Or at least “why?” as in “why would do that to a perfectly good asparagus?” A few people commented on texture issues with asparagus–would they be mushy? Ellie The Brave was all about it though, so we forged ahead. I picked up asparagus at the farmer’s market and apple cider vinegar at the grocery store and we got started. This recipe uses quite a bit of garlic, which made the kitchen smell great. I managed to get over my fear of canning garlic, which seems to be strongly connected to botulism if not done properly.

The end result was some semi-attractive jars, although not as perfect looking as the grocery store variety. I was concerned about stuffing too much asparagus in the pint jars, but in hindsight, the hot water bath cooked them slightly and they shrunk up a bit, so next time I will pack the jars pretty full.

How do they taste? Actually, very good! The asparagus are tender and not crisp like a true pickle, but also not mushy like asparagus from a can. The brine is good–tart, but with good seasoning from the mustard, garlic and pepper. They will be good with salad or even with deviled eggs. The garlic  helps to balance the vinegar and give the pickles a nice savory flavor. If you like asparagus and want to keep it around past asparagus season, this might be something to try (you can also blanch them and freeze them). This recipe is from “Put ‘Em Up” by Sherri Brooks Vinton.

Pickled Asparagus with Mustard Seed (makes about 3 pints)

  • 4 lbs. asparagus, washed and dried
  • 4 cups cider vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon celery seed
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seed
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorn
  1. Trim the asparagus to lengths 1 inch shorter than your pint jars and pack vertically into the clean, hot jars.
  2. Combine the vinegar, water, salt and sugar in a medium nonreactive saucepan. Bring the brine to a low boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar, and then remove from the heat. Divide the garlic, celery seed, mustard seed, and peppercorns among the jars. Pour the hot brine over the asparagus to cover by 1/2 inch. Leave 1/2 inch of head space between the top of the liquid and the lid.
  3. Use the boiling water method. Release the trapped air from the jars. Wipe the rims clean; center lids on the jars and screw on jar bands. Process for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove canner lid and let jars rest in the water for 5 minutes. Remove jars and set aside for 24 hours. Check seals, then store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.

Day 110–Our First Produce Box of the Year!

The Produce Box is here! The Produce Box is here!

Pulling into my driveway last night, I saw an unfamiliar car behind me. The car pulled into my drive and stopped. Someone looking for directions? Someone complaining about my lack of green grass in the yard? Nope. It was my Produce Box Neighborhood Organizer delivering my first Produce Box of the growing season! Life is good.

I’ve blogged about The Produce Box before (HERE), but this is the first box we have received since last fall, so it merits some additional blog time! The Produce Box sources all its vegetables and farm products (cheese, bread, honey, jam) from North Carolina farms, packages them into CSA-type boxes and delivers them to the house. Members also contribute a small fee (I think it was $3 this year) to provide small grants to local farmers to help address issues on their farms (some of this year’s grants included purchasing seed starting supplies, purchasing refrigeration units, educational opportunities, etc).

Because The Produce Box works with several farms, they do offer a greater variety of vegetables than a traditional CSA, which also reduces the risk of not receiving anything if one farmer has a crop fail. Members can pick among several boxes each week, including an organic box and a small box for folks who can’t consume all the veggies in the standard box. And I have to say it, I love having my vegetables delivered. One thing I can cross of my list. But you know, meeting with and talking to farmers has been a real joy for me, so even though I get my produce box delivered, I’ll still be heading out to the farmer’s markets to pick up anything not in my box as well as cheese, pasta, meat, eggs, etc.

What did we get in our first box? Due to a late season frost last week, this week’s box is smaller than usual, but still a very welcome sight! We received two packages of strawberries, sweet potatoes, spinach, a HUGE head of lettuce, greenhouse cucumbers, and carrots so fresh they still have the dirt on ’em. Yum. Just in time for saladpalooza night!

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Day 104–A Locavore’s Lunch–The Little Hen

A recent girls night out had me wondering if sustainable, locally produced food can truly be accessible. A friend and I had dinner at a locally sourced restaurant in Holly Springs called The Little Hen. The restaurant is not new, but it has received a lot of press lately, so we were eager to try it. While I associate Holly Springs with gated communities and McMansions, it hasn’t exactly been a location for high-end dining, so I figured we were probably in for a nice and affordable dinner. I wasn’t quite on the mark for that one. It was nice, but the pricing made me wonder if it is possible to be local and affordable. Maybe it isn’t. Or, maybe local sourcing has become so trendy that families are now priced out of sustainable dining.

The Little Hen is located in a suburban shopping center and while the exterior is very “shopping center,”  the interior is very trendy and cool. We arrived at 5:30, were greeted and asked if we had reservations (we did not) and told that the restaurant was “very busy” (it was not) so our only option was to share one of two available tables with others. Weird, but ok. We settled in and were given menus and our utensils wrapped in little dish towels, which also served as our napkins (cute). The menu features three entrees, about a half-dozen appetizers (mostly salads or cheese plates) and two special group dinners (either $45 for two or $50 per person) that feature a large carving board with different kinds of food to sample. We weren’t hungry enough for the sampler, so we headed for the entrees. In hindsight, we probably would have done better with the “Big Board” sampler.

The three entrees available were a cheeseburger and fingerling potatoes ($14), a pork chop and vegetables ($22) and a farm egg with ramps and garlic spaetzle ($14). Salads and cheese plates ran between $7 and $14. Not wanting to have ramp and garlic breath, I ordered a salad and the hamburger. I asked the server where their beef sourced from and she didn’t know (not good). She offered to find out, but never did. That, in my book, is a big red flag. I do notice that they claim “we use only sustainable pasture raised proteins from local farmers almost exclusively”. Almost? Well, where did my $14 hamburger come from? With only three entrees on the menu, someone should have been able to tell me.

The burger was good, but overcooked. The potatoes were truly amazing–slightly smashed and fried, then topped with sea salt. The salad was good–baby spinach and arugula with shaved apple, raw beet and cucumber. I’ve decided that while I love beets roasted and pickled, I’m not a huge fan of them raw, but they were ok. We shared a dessert that was some kind of bread pudding, but was really like a big, huge muffin. My total bill was about $40–almost half our weekly grocery bill for a burger, salad, part of a muffin and wine.

In eating out at sustainable, local restaurants, this was my first “meh” experience. It was fine, but not great and well more than many of the downtown Raleigh restaurants serving locally produced food. At one point, a family with small children came in and I wondered if somehow the kitchen has a children’s dinner, because I can’t imagine spending $14 each for 3 hamburgers. As a mom myself, I think I would have run screaming for the door.

I really think that if these locally based restaurants are going to survive, they need to lose the pretension and just get down to offering people good, local food. I get it that locally produced food costs more–I know because I’ve been buying it for my family for the past four months. But the model that sustainable, ethically produced food is only for the upscale trendy will be the locavore movement’s biggest downfall.

We’ve proven that we can eat sustainably at home for a reasonable amount–and we have been eating very well on our budget. So part of me has no patience for businesses that can’t do the same for their customers. If local eating is really to become a bigger reality, then we need to engage a larger audience. That isn’t The Little Hen’s job, of course. They are one business and they have a vision for what they want to do and that’s fine. I’ll be surprised if they are still open in a year, but then, I never thought Build-A-Bear would take off either, so that shows you what an economic genius I am. As for my family, this restaurant is not affordable enough to become a regular place and not special enough to become a new “special occasion” restaurant.

Meh.

Day 92–Starting Week 14–Budget and Menu

After last week’s budget buster, we are back on track with plenty of fresh vegetables and good things to eat. We were glad to find fresh spinach fettucine by Melina’s Pasta at the Western Wake Farmer’s Market. We can’t wait to try it! This weekend was spent at the market and getting our own garden ready for action. We’ve planted a salad garden of tomatoes, cucumber, bell peppers and some Japanese eggplant. I love eggplant, but a large, full-sized eggplant is a lot for us to eat. The Japanese variety are the perfect size for us (and they ripen quickly!).

Here is how our budget played out this week, with a total of $95.62:

  • Local’s Seafood (summer flounder): $18.00
  • Hillsborough Cheese Company (fresh mozzarella): $6.00
  • Coon Rock Farm (chicken and fresh eggs): $21.00
  • Farmers Market–misc (asparagus, swiss chard, broccoli): $10.00
  • Melina’s Pasta (spinach fettucine): $6.00
  • Trader Joes (organic garlic, ground turkey, tortillas, frozen fruit, soy milk, cous cous, onions): $34.62

And here’s the scoop on this week’s menu!

  • Sunday–cornmeal dusted flounder, sautéed kale (the end of our garden kale), homemade cornbread w/NC cornmeal
  • Monday–Chicken curry cous cous w/chopped veggies, salad
  • Tuesday–Turkey taco night w/quinoa
  • Wednesday–Eggs nested in swiss chard and mushrooms
  • Thursday–Pasta w/ham and spring asparagus, salad
  • Friday–Leftover pasta, salad
  • Saturday–BLT sandwiches with carryover Mae Farm bacon

Not bad for $95! Looks like we are back on track again! Thanks to everyone who read Ellie’s guest blog post and commented. It was a real boost to her (and a boost to her chicken advocacy efforts!).

Day 88–Worm Composting from The Soulsby Farm

At the Dig In! conference we attended, we learned a lot about vermiculture, or composing with earth worms. Apparently, these suckers can eat a great deal of vegetable scraps, paper and coffee grounds and turn it fairly quickly into rich compost. We’re interested in trying it, but I have to admit to being a bit squeemish about worms in my house. I was going to post instructions, but another blogger, The Soulsby Farm, did such a great job, you should just go to their site for more information. Check it out–it is pretty fascinating!

Let’s Build a Worm Farm!  http://soulsbyfarm.wordpress.com/2012/03/22/lets-build-a-worm-farm/