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 109–What’s On Your Plate? Review

Worlds can be rocked by a single, ripe tomato.

The transformative nature of fresh tomatoes is the start of a wonderful documentary by two New York 11year olds titled “What’s On Your Plate?”. The documentary starts with two middle school girls on vacation wondering why their farm fresh tomato tastes so much better than the tomatoes they buy in their local neighborhood market in New York City. Their journey takes them to farms, farmer’s markets, their school cafeteria, and their local grocery wondering where their food comes from, how it impacts their bodies, why access to fresh food is not equal across all neighborhoods and lastly, what the heck is a funion.

I went to the screening with my family and some of our scout troop expecting a nice and probably quirky documentary. I did not expect the level of depth, analysis and research present in the film. To say I was impressed is an understatement. These two girls (and the people who helped them) did a wonderful job of taking a complex topic like our food production system and breaking it down into understandable, but still thoughtful segments. The screening was sponsored by Advocates for Health in Action and the Town of Cary. Thanks to them for making this resource available!

Even better, the What’s On Your Plate Project website has games, activities and now there is even a book to help families keep learning! You can also watch a 10 minute piece of the film.

This is highly recommended watching!

Day 108–A Locavore’s Brunch–Lucky 32

So, I am still thinking about the issue of whether or not local food can be truly accessible. After my last dining out experience, I wasn’t too sure, but we ventured out for a post-5K brunch at Lucky 32 in Cary, and I’m feeling better about it. Lucky 32 has undergone somewhat of a revolution in the past few years. The food has always been good, with a southern emphasis and cool, but family friendly vibe. Over the past 3-4 years, the restaurant rebranded itself as “Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen” and began a Farm to Fork journey that included developing relationships with local meat producers, vegetable farmers, cheese makers and even brewmasters. They are one of the few restaurants in Cary that features a menu of mostly local food.

So, we entered our brunch experience wondering how much our “experience” was going to cost us. Looking over the menu, most of the entrees are in the $6-$10 range, which is pretty good for our area. I quickly honed in on a dish of Carolina Pulled Pork Hash, featuring pulled smoked pork, homefried hash browns, sharp white cheddar plus two eggs scrambled, toast and a spicy sauce called Whistle Pig sauce. The whole thing was $8. When our server approached the table, I asked “Where does your pork source from?” Without batting an eyelash, she said “Mae Farm in Louisburg.” SOLD! Mae Farm is one of our favorite pork producers AND she knew the answer without having to go check with someone. I love her. Tom had the local farm egg omelet with ham, cheese and local grits. Plus we had awesome corn cakes. And when we ate all those, they brought more. Apparently, I carbo-load AFTER a race 🙂

We noticed that the menu has a list of some of the restaurant’s farm partners and a brief description of them, which is nice, and they also sell fresh vegetables at little farm carts around the restaurant. Not sure how successful that is, but it is cute and reminds you that you are not just eating food on a plate, you are supporting a local farmer.

So all total, our brunch came to $18 for the two of us. That is right–$18. That is only $4 more than the one hamburger I had the other night and my brunch was absolutely delicious and almost more than I could eat. Almost.

We decided that this was the best locavore bargain we have had recently. Very good food, not pretentious and served in a friendly atmosphere. If you’re in Cary (or Greensboro), check out Lucky 32 for brunch. Eat local, eat yummy, and don’t break the piggy bank 🙂

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 103–What’s On Your Plate?

I heart Advocates for Health in Action (AHA). I think I’ve learned more from this local non-profit than I have from any other single source. Their acronym, when pronounced (Aha!) is a sound I make frequently when learning from them–how convenient! We enjoyed the Dig In! conference on community gardening last month and I picked many healthy fundraising ideas from a recent workshop. Now, we have another opportunity for family learning through a public screening of a documentary called “What’s On Your Plate?”.

“What’s On Your Plate?” is a 75 minute documentary produced by two 11-year-old girls. That’s right–11 year olds. Inspired by a really great local tomato they had while on vacation, the girls decided to explore why their fresh farm tomato tasted better than what they found in their local market. This led to a fuller exploration of where food comes from, how it is processed and how it gets to your table. Really, any documentary that investigates funyuns is ok in my book–I still can’t figure those things out.

The screening is free (reservations required, click HERE) on Tuesday, April 17th at the Cary Arts Center. Doors open at 6:00 and community booths, including Great Harvest Bread Co., the Cary Pocket Garden and others will be on hand with goodies. The film starts at 6:30 and is followed by a panel discussion and Q&A with a pediatrician, nutritionist and others. If you complete a challenge following the film, you can enter to win all kinds of healthy prizes. I saw a preview of the film and it looks wonderful–funny, smart and engaging–just like the young ladies who produced it. We will post a review of the film after seeing the full production, but if this is showing in your area, you might want to take advantage of it!

Day 102–Strawberry Jam

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In my daughter’s world, the phrase “epic fail” sums up a good intention gone terribly wrong. My first attempt at making strawberry jam wasn’t quite to that level, but it was far from a raving success. Maybe mini fail??

I purchased my first strawberries at the farmer’s market Saturday and at the last minute (never good), decided to dive into jam making. Got all my supplies out, washed and cut the fruit and found a Ball recipe for quick jam using pectin. Which I did not have. So, one trip to the grocery later, I was set to start.

The process was easy enough when I read the instructions, but once I started, I had a million questions. Like, when you measure the fruit, do you measure it whole or cut up? How mashed should you mash the berries? Why does the recipe call for so much dang sugar? What should the finished jam look like? Is some foam on the jam ok or do you need to skim off every bit? Clearly, I needed a visual tutorial.

I soldiered on without one, though, and took my best guess. The resulting jam mixture looked thin, with lots of fruit chunks, but it tasted good. I carefully ladled the mix into my hot jars, processed them according to the directions and waited…

What emerged from the bath was still not very thick and the fruit chunks were floating at the top of the jars (answer–mash the berries up well). After a slight freak out, I consulted my books and found that this is appropriately called “fruit float,” that it is only an aesthetic problem, and it is caused by excess air in the fruit cells releasing and pushing the fruit up. Whew!

My concerns about the thickness of the jam were addressed the next morning, when I found that all the jars had sealed and that the jam, once cooled, was thicker and more jam-like. We tried some on our toast and it was very nice. A good mix with a spoon brought the berries back in with the jam and fixed the float problem.

I’ve given a couple of jars to neighbors, although I felt compelled to explain why the berries were at the top (I’m not sure they would have noticed if I hadn’t obsessively pointed it out).

Overall, I felt very insecure doing something so foreign. But, I am determined to move forward, and plan to make a second batch this weekend. Here is what I will do differently:

Choose my recipe BEFORE I go shopping (insightful, no?).

Use a different pectin. I used Sure Jel, which is all our nearby grocer had, but I understand that with Pomona Pectin, you can use a lot less sugar.

I will not plan to cook anything else (like Easter supper) while I am trying to can. I am not that good at multitasking.

I will share my bounty only if I can do so without a 10 minute explanation of what I did wrong and how my preserves will probably not kill you.

Clearly, I still have a lot of learning to do, but this is a nice challenge that is stretching me in new ways!

Maybe I’ll report next week of an “epic success”!

Day 101–Dutch Oven Breakfast Scramble

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Camping out and canoeing with pre-teen girls means packing lots of satisfying foods. Girls 11-14 are growing at a rapid pace and most of them can pack away an astonishing amount of food. Add in being outdoors and active and that means hunger!

We came up with a local version of a camping breakfast casserole that Ellie and her BFF said was “amazing”! We made this over coals in a Dutch oven, but you could do this on the stove or on a propane stove. You could also add peppers, mushrooms or any vegetables you have. Whatever works!

Dutch Oven Breakfast Scramble

1/2 onion, diced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1lb. Coon Rock Farm sage sausage
4 Yukon Gold potatoes, grated
6 fresh farm eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups Hillsborough Cheese Co. mozzarella, grated
Salt and pepper

Prepare coals in a chimmney until hot
Put coals into fire ring and position Dutch oven over coals.
When oven is hot, add olive oil and onion. Cook onion until translucent.
Add sausage and cook until sausage is browned or no longer pink.
Add grated potatoes and cook about 10 minutes.
Add salt and pepper to taste
Add eggs and cheese and stir frequently so egg us cooked through and cheese is melted.
Serve to hungry campers!

Day 100–Reflections on 100 Days

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When Ellie was in kindergarten, there was great pomp and ceremony around the first 100 days of school. She made a 100 days hat, brought in 100 cheerios and the class celebrated learning to count to 100. So here we are at our 100th post and I am making this post from our campsite at Jordan Lake. Our own 100 days celebration.

In the past 100 days, I have learned that eating locally and mostly organic is not as hard as I originally thought, although staying within our budget is still a challenge. I’ve cooked many more meals than I think I ever have, but I have enjoyed the process more than I thought I would.

My biggest surprise (and delight) is in the relationships I’ve cultivated with people in my community. Farmers, bakers, cheesemakers, dairies, livestock farmers, beekeepers and pasta makers all in my backyard! I enjoy seeing them at the market, asking how the crops or animals are doing and hearing about what is new this week. Shopping at the grocery store seems pretty lonely and institutional in comparison.

Wish you could be here to celebrate our 100 days with our locavore sandwiches of Great Harvest bread, Coon Rock Farm sliced ham and Hillsborough Cheese Co cheese + fresh strawberries on the side. Come on down to the lake–we have a spot at the table for you!

Day 99–Starting Week 14–Budget and Menu

What a week this has been! And the week to come looks just as slam packed as last week. My local ham is almost ready and we can’t wait to try it along with our fresh, local asparagus! In the coming week, we are veering slightly from our 70-80% local foods. Mainly because I am camping with my girl Ellie and her BFF for an all girls campout. We’ll be gone two days and two nights and should have great weather. So, our menu reflects more prepared foods than usual–I have yet to find a local source for s’more ingredients 🙂 We came in just under budget at $97.92!

Here is how our budget worked out for this week:

  • Mae Farm (ham): $15.00
  • Coon Rock Farm (sausage): $6.00
  • Ball Produce (strawberries and asparagus): $10.00
  • Trader Joes (ground turkey, turkey dogs, rolls, pineapple, blackberries, mango, bananas,oatmeal): 45.60
  • Lowes Foods (chocolate bars, graham crackers, marshmallows, pectin, lemon juice, etc): $21.32

What are we having this week? Here is our menu:

  • Sunday–Easter supper–honey mustard glazed ham, roasted asparagus, broccoli salad, biscuits, pie
  • Sunday–Campout dinner–turkey dogs w/vegetarian chili, fruit salad
  • Monday–breakfast at camp–Dutch oven breakfast–eggs, hashbrowns, sausage, cheese
  • Monday–lunch–sandwiches and fruit salad
  • Monday–dinner–turkey tacos, vegetables, fruit salad
  • Tuesday–breakfast–pancakes and bacon
  •  Tuesday–lunch–sandwiches and whatever is left!
  •  Tuesday–dinner–ham omelets (back home again)
  • Wednesday–oatmeal
  • Thursday–out with my BFF
  • Friday–tuna salad sandwiches

Now, off to pack the car, the girls and the dog for a couple of days at the lake! Have a wonderful week!

Day 96–A Locavore’s Lunch–Sitti

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Hard to tell how warm and soft this pita is from the photo!

 When Ellie was very little, I enrolled her in a creative movement program for preschool children at the Raleigh School of Ballet. We spent every Saturday morning at the school and then we would join one of her classmates and her mom at next-door Neomonde Bakery. Owned by a Lebanese American family, Neomonde features food from the Middle East and the Mediterranean area. Their food is really absolutely delicious. Their homemade pita and flatbread are so good that many local grocers carry it. Part casual restaurant, part grocery, part take out, Neomonde has a stellar reputation in the area for fresh, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food. I don’t know how many quarts of humus I ate during those post-dance meetings, but it was all good–lots of garlic and a topping of cold pressed olive oil. YUM. A few years ago, the owners of Neomonde opened their own restaurant, Sitti, in downtown Raleigh, and while the food and ambiance are more upscale (I wouldn’t bring two rowdy ballerinas here!), it is all fresh, homemade and amazing. Sitti is a member of North Carolina’s 10% Challenge, meaning they have agreed to purchase at least 10% of their produce and food products from North Carolina farms.

Ellie isn’t a tiny dancer anymore, but we took a spring break opportunity to venture out to Sitti for a girl’s lunch. We started with an appetizer of falafel, which arrived carefully placed on a cucumber yogurt sauce. It was very good–crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. We ate them before we could take a photo! We also had a basket of fresh, very hot pita with an olive dipping sauce. Also delish. Could have stopped there, but no, we continued…

Our lunches were huge, super fresh and wonderful. Ellie had the chicken shawarma pizzette–a flatbread “pizza” with chicken shawarma, cheeses, roasted garlic and onions. It also came with a salad as big as her head. I had the curried chicken special–a huge mound of fresh, chicken salad loaded with my new favorite spice, turmeric! The chicken salad was served on a bed of field greens, cucumber, tomatoes, oranges and roasted red peppers. The whole thing was sprinkled with feta cheese. Needless to say, we have lunch for tomorrow as well!

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My curried chicken salad was delicious and lovely!

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Ellie's chicken shawarma pizzette was made on fresh flatbread and cooked to perfection in the wood oven. Yum.

Kudos to Sitti for bringing Mediterranean and Med-inspired food to downtown Raleigh. And for giving us a continuation of mother-daughter time centered on healthy, fresh food.