Thursday, August 20, 2009

GaGa for Goosefat!

One of my favorite aspects of our local-centric summers is discovering (or rediscovering) gems of the edible world. Things that we don't think about all that carefully, if at all, when our senses aren't keyed up to an almost hunter-gatherer level in the search for local ingredients. "Can I eat that," becomes our mantra, or perhaps, "How many ways can I eat that?"

Last year, I was crushing hard on beets. Something I'd largely avoided or ignored became an exiting, versatile new treasure & go-to culinary component. I reacquainted myself with beets- not just their roots but their greens & even their stalks. I made a new friend & learned a few things about myself in the process. I kid thee not.

This year, I'd have to say my biggest surprise obsession (besides duck eggs, of course) would have to be goose fat. Frankly, I'd probably heard about the stuff but certainly had never thought of trying to get my hands on any. I mean, why bother? There were so many other shortening-type things out there that worked just fine... It was one of those things that tend to just pop up during the Challenge, & suddenly you're scheming to get more. & more.

It all started innocently enough. I was going to team up with a young lady (whom I've taken a shine to) in making a nice little three-course meal:

Micro greens & smoked trout salad with raspberry-dijon vinaigrette.

While I was fussing around, getting everything prepped (yes, I'm a fuss-er) my date said, "Hey, we've got some leftover goose fat in the fridge... Ever tried it?"

Beware! This is something akin to someone saying, "Hey, I've got some Crack lying around... Interested?" The first time is free, & then you find yourself cooking down a goose carcass for the third time, in a vain attempt to get the last drop of golden fat. Okay, I exaggerate. A little.
In the sense that I haven't yet been forced to locate my own supply...

Pastured pork loin chops with Door County cherry sauce,
wilted mixed greens & pan-fried multi-color potatoes.

Please note the incredibly crispy exteriors of the pan-fried potatoes. This is the beauty of goose fat. Another plus is that the stuff doesn't seem to have a smoke point, to speak of. This allowed me to cook the 'taters for quite awhile, further aiding that amazing crusty effect, without any trace of a burned taste. In fact, goose fat has a mild, clean flavor with just a hint of poultry. You get something similar to the sheer goodness of bacon fat, without the somewhat overpowering, heavy flavor. Magic!

Potatoes aside, the rest of the meal was pretty killer in its own right. We finished things off with a very tasty rustic tart of apples, rhubarb & raisins, which while not being specifically local in origin certainly captured the feeling of a waning summer quite nicely.

Lodi apple "rustic tart" with local vanilla ice cream & cashew brittle.

As we cleaned up after dinner, I found myself wondering if this first encounter with the wonders of goose fat would be my last, or if I'd soon find myself drawn again into its seductive, golden embrace. Perhaps I should take a cautious approach. You know, be a casual "social" user of goose fat.

Sure enough, I was using it to cook breakfast the next morning...

- nano out.

Thanks & a hat-tipping are due to Nick, the Selby Market's produce manager, for first confirming my suspicions that cherries & pork do indeed play very nicely together.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Adventures In Local Eating.

So, Eat Local continues on apace.

I noticed a stack of Challenge sign-up cards at work today. It was a pretty tall stack, & I must admit to feeling a moment of disappointment. Akin to that feeling of working all day on a dinner for friends & then having half of them cancel at the last minute.
Was anyone doing the Challenge this year? Was last year's seemingly enthusiastic response just the peak of a dying trend? Perhaps the glacial pace of economic recovery had convinced many people that they didn't have the money or time to participate (I bet they do, though)...

With some trepidation, I asked our cheerful customer-service guy Luis if anyone had been signing up at all. "Oh, yeah," he said, "We had to make a whole new stack because so many people were interested!"

That is so totally rad, people. Rock on with your Local selves.

& now, a word or two on "adventure" as it relates to our exploration of the local food world. Despite my obvious (perhaps borderline
corny) enthusiasm for all things Challenge, I think it's only honest to admit that at certain points along the journey, "adventure" hardly applies. In fact, we can often find ourselves in something of a rut. Whether this stems from developing a routine (not a bad thing in itself & actually quite necessary in terms of saving time & money), or from being timid about trying out new things, many of us will find ourselves saying, "Jeepers, not _____, again!" as we throw together the umpteenth meal using the same trusty ingredients. Personally, the vast bulk of my Eat Local meals are less about reductions, pairings or presentations as they are about simple functionality. Does the meal provide me with a good mix of nutrients, inoffensive taste combinations, & a minimum of expense/effort? Yes? Good:

Local andouille & red green onion on toasted petite pains,
with russet french fries & tomato.

"Good", yes. "Exciting"... Not so much.

There are several approaches to this problem. One might be to consciously "practice" Local eating, in the Eastern sense. By which I mean paying attention to (& respect for) the seemingly mundane details. In
The Miracle of Mindfullness, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh relates the following;

"There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes & the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes."

Obviously, easier said than done, sometimes. Especially when speaking literally about dishes. But when we focus on something that has become chore-like with a renewed sense of attention, we are often surprised by beauty.

Another angle of attack on the doldrums could come from making a point of setting aside a given weekly meal, or even part of a day, dedicated to stretching horizons. Last year, I had the immense pleasure of taking a trip out to the boonies to eat farm-sourced pizza in the open air. On other occasions, I tried out ingredients & techniques that I'd never been "comfortable" with even after years spent in professional kitchens. More recently, someone guided me through the process of making pie crust. Certainly not an "adventure" to many, but to this practically baking-phobic cook, quite the thrill. I've also been big on picnics this summer. Earlier this week I attended the final "Movies & Music" in Loring park, which was a new thing for me in itself:

Local picnic of 1.) wilted collard greens, green beans & chorizo,
tomato-fennel salad & 3.) sandwiches of sauteed zucchini,
carmelized onions & cottage bacon with basil aoli & 4.) nut brittle for dessert
(all not shown, due to being in the process of digestion).

Local beer was my date's, not mine. Pig-themed cutting board is absolutely mine.
& you can't have it.

As nice as it was to have a change of pace, however, perhaps the biggest "excitement" to be found in this situation was whether or not the home-made mayo in the sandwiches was going to keep during the hour-long bus ride...

Let the record show that in fact it did. Hooray for adventure!

- nano out.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Days 2-5

I meant to blog about this challenge more often, really. Here's a couple of things I've made in the past 4 days, in no particular order:

Marinated zucchini salad. Hell yeah. This is ridiculously good. I like zucchini, but I don't usually LOVE it. This salad has thinly sliced zucchini, halved cherry tomatoes, sliced red spring onion, and fresh basil. The dressing is really simple: white wine vinegar, olive oil, a smidge of agave nectar to cut some of the sourness, salt and pepper. The co-op's demo coordinator made this when the farmers from Featherstone came to hand our samples from a recipe from their cookbook and I fell in love with it. I've made it twice in the past 3 days!

Pickles! I had a ton of cucumbers from the garden and up them up in some brine in the crock to ferment for a couple of weeks. I followed a recipe from the Joy of Pickling (big surprise, huh?) for "Lower East Side Full-Sour Dills". It's only been 3 days and they smell amazing already!

These are some beans I picked up at Seedsaver's Exchange a few weeks ago. They're an heirloom bean called Hutterite Soup bean. I pressure cooked them with a ton of last year's sundried tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic, balsamic vinegar, and a bit of maple syrup. Wow. These were rich!

This is what I've eaten for lunch every day this week: Beans with biscuits (Herbed Whole Wheat Drop Biscuits from Vegan Brunch) and some kind of salad.

This is just another picture of cucumbers that I like. I didn't take any pictures (darn!) of the tasty samosas I had this week filled with potatoes and locally grown peas. I made a soy yogurt raita for the side and filled it with hot chiles, cilantro and mint from the garden. Yum!

The challenge is going pretty smoothly so far. We'll see how I'm doing after trying to pack as much local food as possible for a 4-day camping trip!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Duck, Duck... Grey Duck?!?

Over the past month or so, I've come to realize two important things. Firstly, that the children's game called "Duck, Duck, Goose" in all other sectors of the Known Universe is known in Minnesota as "Duck, Duck, Grey Duck". Whatever, freaks. Secondly, it has come to my attention that duck eggs are flippin' awesome.


My only previous encounter with the mighty duck egg was a couple of years ago, during a very good dinner at a former employer's very good restaurant (Restaurant Tallent, Bloomington IN, for those keeping score at home). It was served atop an elk carpaccio dish, & I remember marveling at its beauty but being too absorbed by other flavors to pay it the individual attention it deserved. Flash forward to the present, & I find I've stumbled into a somewhat steady source of this prince among eggs. Also, due to something of a bumper crop situation, this source has provided them at the excellent price of free.

Shown in comparison to Schultz Organic eggs, to illustrate scale.

Duck eggs are varicolored, ranging from an slightly pink-ish off-white to an intensely mottled charcoal grey. The ones I've come across are considerably larger than what we think of as "large" chicken eggs. They are richly flavorful, & incredibly viscous. Think you've had a problem with "egg cement" on your breakfast plate, before? You could do minor masonry repairs with this stuff...

There is a dark side to these glorious orange yolks, however. Like so many things in life that could also be described as "flippin' awesome", over-consumption can come at a cost. In the case of duck eggs, this comes in the form of an almost dangerous sedative effect. My proof is anecdotal, but it appears to be borne out in conversations with other duck egg enthusiasts. I've had several instances in which I've had a couple of these eggs for breakfast & then felt absolutely compelled- against all reason- to crawl back into bed... For up to four hours at a stretch.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

I have no idea why this is. Perhaps it's just their sheer richness, their decadent, exaggerated egg-ness. Maybe the woman who raises them has hyperactive ducks & slips them heavy-duty anti-psychotics. Beats me. I do know that if I have plans for the day after a breakfast of duck eggs, I can pretty much forget about them.

Duck egg omelet with red potato, peppered bacon,
button mushrooms, 7-year cheddar & gruyere cheeses.

That said, I doubt I'll turn down another gifting of these marvelous eggs, should it happen to waddle my way. To my mind, this is yet another of innumerable (& fantastic tasting) examples of the sorts of wonderful surprises we find when we scratch the surface of localized, sustainable food sourcing.

- nano out.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Steak It To The Man!

I blame it, to some degree, on degrees. Rather, the lack of high ones. Yes, the summer season has so far been outright chilly. Foods that would normally leave me feeling overheated, that would make much more sense in the fall or winter, seem perfectly logical. Foods like steak & root vegetables. I don't mean a grilled steak with a side of potato chips, I mean things like:

Grass-fed round-tip steak sauced with mushrooms & bacon
in a red wine reduction,
with wilted mustard greens & parsnip-potato mash.

Or perhaps something a little more on the unassuming, but still unseasonable side:

Grass-fed round-tip steak frites with caramelized "candy" onion & sauteed dino kale.

But an unusually (delightfully) mild summer isn't the only factor pushing me towards the comfortable embrace of steak. Compared to last summer's Challenge period, my social calendar is much more full & my wallet considerably less so. The round-tip from Thousand Hills really fits the bill; inexpensive, flavorful, & sanely portioned. Finally, there's the fact that it's cryovac-sealed, meaning that one can purchase it & essentially forget about it until one needs it. It's a very lean, unmarbled cut, so care (above & beyond that normally shown towards grass-fed beef) should be taken when cooking it. Essentially, "rare" is equivalent to what we think of as "medium-rare" in the corn-fed steak world.

More than either temperature or tight finances, though, I think I've just been playing it safe. As Liz admits, I too have found myself off to a comparatively sluggish start. Last year saw me eating somewhere around 80-90% Local, starting in June. This year, I'm well above 60-70% since June, but perhaps because of the new structures at the Market (both literal & figurative) & changes in my personal life, I'm simply not approaching the Challenge with the same sheer intensity. Is my sense of adventure diminished? Where did the time & energy I had to braise things for hours & invent all-vegetable meals go? What's with all the comfort foods? This shouldn't be about comfort- it's The Challenge, for crying out loud!

It's a self-challenge, on the honor system, however. We are each encouraged to do the best we can. Some may observe me bemoaning my "meager" 60-something percentage & think, "Sheesh, this sounds impossible!" Please don't. Whether approached full-bore, or nibbled at the edges, eating locally has real benefits. & real positive ramifications for our health, our local economy, & our agricultural future.

No matter how one slices that, it's delicious.

- nano out.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Eat Local Challenge: Day 1

I'm taking a slightly less obsessive approach to the Eat Local Challenge this year. Or at least I'm trying. Last year a few of us gave it 110% and ate predominately local from June 1-Sept. 15. Crazy!

Staring at the avocado, mango, and almond milk in my pantry right now, I'm astonished that I was able to do the challenge for so long. I think there are some normal stages a person goes through in the process of doing the Eat Local Challenge- And I'm starting right back at the beginning. There's the the excited, motivated stage. Then there's the grieving stage (Otherwise known as the "WTF! I though my favorite ___was local" stage). Then complacency. Then self-righteousness. Then a little boredom and the realization that it's not so hard to eat local. Or maybe it's just me that gets emotions all tangled up with my food choices...

Anyways, even though I knew that today was the first day of the challenge, I didn't really prepare. I ate leftover mashed potatoes for breakfast- the potatoes weren't local. And I finished off the last of my PB Chocolate Zigzag ice cream so I would have to make my own local ice cream later.

Luckily, my eating habits improved later in the day!

A Green Bean Meal
The toasted sunflower seeds give this dish extra protein and a nutty flavor that complements the bright vinegar. The seeds, beans, garlic, and herbs are all local. I used a lemongrass infused olive oil that I made last year, but regular olive oil would work well.

4 Tbsp. raw sunflower seeds
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 pound fresh green beans (I used a wax, purple, and green mixture)
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 handful fresh dill, chopped
1 handful fresh basil, thinly sliced
Splash of white wine vinegar
salt and fresh black pepper to taste

In a dry cast iron skillet, toast the raw sunflower seeds until golden and fragrant. Set seeds aside. Heat oil in the same skillet over med/high heat. Add the green beans and stir frequently while cooking. It's nice if some of the beans get seared, but you just want to keep most of them crunchy. Add the garlic and cook just 1 minute longer. Remove pan from heat and add fresh herbs, sunflower seeds, and a splash of vinegar (maybe 1-2 Tbsp.). Finish with a generous dose of fresh cracked black pepper and a fine sea salt.

Monday, June 15, 2009

& So It Begins Again...

I've got the blues. Allow me to elaborate...

Several months ago now, we experienced a tortilla chip crisis.

It's a rare breed of chip that is organic, locally-sourced & also delicious, yet the Whole Grain Milling Co. chips possess all of these qualities. In fact, these may be some of the best corn chips you will ever eat besides those you make fresh at home or find in a good Mexican restaurant. Better than the national brands, hands down. To suggest otherwise in certain circles risks choosing pistols or cutlasses at dawn, & by "certain circles" I mean me. They're that good.

Those who followed this blog last summer may be aware that the sacred coupling of chip & homemade salsa could be considered the backbone of our Eat Local diets. Fact is, eating local (even at the minimum level) requires quite a bit of cooking from scratch. I love to cook, but I often found myself at a lack for time or energy to whip up a meal. Local salsa fresca can be made in large batches & makes for a great, refreshing "filler" meal for those times when you're starving but can't be bothered to touch the stove. Or do any more damn dishes afterwards. I'm sure I'm not the only Challenger to have eaten salsa on a daily basis. Chips & Salsa are the bedrock, the staff of life, the trump card... & the inside joke.

So imagine the dismay when word came down the pike that Whole Grain Milling was discontinuing their fabulous chips! Besides the simple fact that they are awesome, their local status (although complicated by shipping to & from the chip factory) made them indispensable. I mean, we could learn how to make our own masa harina corn flour & produce our own local chips but that would pretty much negate the purpose. A vital convenience would become a massive inconvenience, & feast would become famine. Was all lost?

Our final shipment sold out in a matter of days. Shoppers & Staff were witnessed buying 3 or 4 bags at a time. I myself bought my last 2 bags of blues with the resolute intention of holding them back until the start of the Eat Local season... & ate them all within about a week- Suffice it to say that you do not want to be the other person in the lifeboat. Weeks of hand-wringing & hangdog expressions followed (Really. Seriously. Marketeers are indeed food dorks!) Letter writing & petition campaigns were considered. Dark times indeed.

Then, one day, the yellow chips returned to our shelves, like gifts from mysterious & capricious corn chip gods. I happen to much prefer the blue corn variety, but I was still happy that I'd at least have something to dip in my salsa. Soon afterwards, I was walking through the chip section & saw... the blue chips!

I let out a (manly) squeal. Literal tears of joy fogged my vision. I'm pretty sure I hugged somebody. The woman shopping next to me looked briefly alarmed & startled, but regained her Minnesotan composure. A ship on the horizon, a plane in the sky... Salvation!

You may think I'm being hyperbolic, inflating a mundane experience to pad a blog entry. But this is how deeply meaningful eating locally has come to be for me. It's almost scary. I hope that newcomers to the Challenge can experience the same excitement as they become more interwoven with the local food fabric. Minus the grocery aisle freakouts. No, I honestly hope you have those, too.

Basic Local Salsa
(hydroponic tomato, green garlic, fresh cayenne pepper & cilantro)
served with Blue Corn Chips

So, yeah. Long story short, I made my first batch of local salsa, tonight. Having the blues never felt so good.