Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Spring Tease

Today, the Grower's Market at Lake Ella looked different. Shelves of little tomato plants welcomed the warm weather and quickened the impulses of spring-hungry shoppers. Tables of brilliant yellow and purple pansies defied the warm weather, insistent on claiming their glory through the the last weeks of winter and into spring. Potted herbs promised to thrive if I took them home today. All of this personification of plants betrays a lunacy of Spring Fever in me. I think I am not alone.

Eager for a hint at the coming riches of Spring, I asked Louise Divine of Turkey Hill farm, "What is in-season in March? What is best in March? Her answer half surprised me. She said, "It just depends..." and "I can't really say..." It certainly wasn't lack of experience that prompted her answer. She and farmer Herman Holley know as well as anyone the folly of late winter in North Florida. The weather is fickle -- warm one day, freezing the next, then warm again. The demands of the farm and the amount of help available dictate as much as the weather. Even after seven years, the farm and the elements teach and surprise.

I remembered my own garden: several days ago we had a cold snap, with two nights cold enough to shrivel the tender tips of my azaleas and fell our tropical perennials . The warm weather immediately followed, and my arugula and mustards that had huddled with tiny, bittering, shade-dwarfed leaves all winter suddenly bolted forth and bloomed, as if determined to sow seed before the final freeze of winter (if we do indeed have one more).

At Louise's suggestion, I asked farmer Jack Simmons (Crescent Moon Organics) for his input. His emphatic and pointed answer caught me completely off-guard: "Brussels Sprouts!" I've never heard a person say these words with such passion and enthusiasm! I asked him when they would be ready for market, and he said that they are ready now. I personally love to eat them -- they have a sweet nuttiness about them, and are mild rather than bitter, when you buy them in-season and at the right stage of development. The beauty of local, seasonal, sustainable.

This week at the market: Collards, lettuces, spoon mustard, beets, parsnips, dainty little radishes, turmeric, honey, wheatgrass, potted plants (herbs, nasturtiums, pansies, others), I came too late for the shitakes again, several things I can't remember, some green garlic... I was warned that the green-garlic window would soon be closed; it is starting to bulb and will not be harvested past its juvenile state (until it is fully mature). I eagerly snapped up four last stalks from farmer Jack to savor throughout this week. AND....

Beets. Oh, beautiful little golden and white beets. These were my inspiration of the week. Slicing through the beets to see their alternating light and dark concentric rings made me wish I had one in every color of the rainbow. After cooking, slicing and marinating these jewels in some homemade vinaigrette, I was reminded of a dish from 5 Seasons Brewing in Atlanta -- the source of my practical culinary education (thanks to David Larkworthy). The dish, beets chenel, is a classic cold composition of cooked beets and fresh chenel goat cheese, and what could be more perfect for right here in Tallahassee? Here we have these lovely little beets, beautiful tender lettuces, wonderful chevre from Sweetgrass Dairy in Thomasville, and local pecans (if you're lucky enough to have some in your freezer to pair with these late winter beets). Here's my adaptation for Tallahassee:

Make a simple vinaigrette. Lightly toast the pecans. Boil the beets (covered) in a little bit of water until just tender. Cool, then halve or quarter the beets, and marinate them in the vinaigrette, in the refrigerator, for a couple of hours. Arrange the lettuce, beets, pecans and goat cheese on a dish and drizzle with some of the vinaigrette. Garnish with chives.

Bon Appetite Tallahassee.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

What is Slow Food, or, "Do I have to be a vegetarian or stop eating French Food?"

Slow Foodies will know the answer to this question, but I wonder what the popular perception is. After all, lots of people roll their eyes or start to look nervous when I mention things like "sustainable agriculture" and "eating whole foods." Some of my friends wonder if I'm going to corner them with a rant about their shopping habits or criticize their parenting choices. Others seem to get the impression that this is a grubby arena -- culturally unrefined, naive, unshaven, simplistic. Some well-traveled individuals have complained about the scarcity of fine food and good ingredients in Tallahassee. To quote a friend complaining about a local dining establishment, "same old Southern-fried ....." I hope that that perception will diminish as a result of the efforts of Tallahassee's champions of good food. I believe it will.

Slow Food IS a great match for vegans, vegetarians, baby-wearers, and friends of the earth. It is also for fierce carnivores, global citizens, French-Laundry passionates, wine enthusiasts, and fat-loving hedonists.

It ain't just collards here.
(by the way, collards are so delicious and versatile when you buy them in the right season, at the right stage of development) In our own Tallahassee, in-season, you'll find pristine golden chanterelles, frilly, colorful little lettuces, arugula, heirloom tomatoes, fabulous cheeses -- any number of things to satisfy your lust for exceptional ingredients. Buy them from the farmer's markets, and your prizes won't have been squashed with plastic, dried out by refrigeration or bruised from excessive handling. Also, don't forget your proximity to local fishing communities. You have the luxury of dining out on or taking home some seriously fresh seafood. Classic panhandle seafood joints often stick with simple treatments: blackened, fried, steamed, or broiled (and unadorned), but Tallahassee and Apalachiacola also boast several restaurants that handle local seafood with exceptional flair. Take your pick.

Bridging the gap: Jennifer Taylor(FAMU small farms program) is helping to bridge the gap between community and local farmers by inviting prominent local chefs to the Lake Ella Grower's Market to demonstrate what can be done with the cornucopia of local, in-season ingredients. Spectators enjoy well-executed, palate-pleasing results for free at the end of the demonstration.

Dr. Jennifer Taylor: Coordinator, Small Farms Programs
Florida A&M University (850) 412 5260

Grower's Market: Lake Ella, behind the Black Dog Cafe. Wednesdays 3:00-dusk.

Back to the original question, "What is Slow Food?": Read the Slow Food Manifesto (it's SHORT and DELICIOUS!). OR, Slow-Foodies, tell us what it means to you.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Think Global when Buying Local: Cure for the Locavore Blues

After three months of eating Kale, collards, mustards, and other in-season leafy brassicas almost daily, even the passionate locavore can get the blues.
My remedy: think Global when Buying Local. It's amazing how a simple variation in the treatment of a vegetable can transport you to more exotic locales. I'm going to break this post into four sections : The Locavore (a brief summary of origin), The Locavore's Dilemma (the problem that can present itself when one is committed to eating locally and in-season), and The Cure for the Locavore Blues (getting to the point).

The Locavore
I have to admit, the term "Locavore" is new to me -- I came across it yesterday. However, it describes an obvious trend: there are increasing numbers of people who, sympathetic with the Slow-Food movement's push to preserve the "local, the quirky, the rare" by rejecting cultural homogenization and embracing local character as well as supporting sustainable agriculture, have decided to become Locavores. The term "locavore" was coined in 2005 (long after Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Paul Nahban (Coming Home to Eat) had already passionately addressed the phenomenon), by a group of San Fransisco women who challenged themselves and others to eat only foods grown/produced within a 100 mile radius for a month. Others caught on, and in 2006 the locavore pledge appeared:

If not LOCALLY PRODUCED, then Organic.
If not ORGANIC, then Family farm.
If not FAMILY FARM, then Local business.
If not a LOCAL BUSINESS, then Fair Trade.

Skipping past the fact that it took me until 2007 to discover the term, let me say that I don't intend to become a fully-fledged locavore. I love the availability of global ingredients that used to be hard to find. However, if kale is available locally, the I'll be buying it locally. My general habit is to buy all of my produce and eggs from local sources, get local meat and poultry whenever I can afford it, and supplement these local treasures with any foods (local or non-local) that fill in the nutritional gaps for my family and highlight the featured ingredients.

Although I find the experiment of the committed locavore intriguing, I don't feel obliged or compelled to kill my own chickens or search the depths of our local cypress swamps to appreciate local food traditions or support local agriculture. For me, the passion for local foods and the awakening to the global impact of "eating local" is a slow, warm pulse that gets louder with every food-related choice and revelation.

The Locavore's Dilemma
(Kale as my example) A familiar slogan to the Slowfood/Locavore movement is Think Global, Eat Local. We are urged to consider the Global economic and environmental impact of consuming foods that are grown/produced/packaged elsewhere and shipped to us. Eating locally usually involves eating with the seasons, and for Tallahassee, this is a season of greens, greens, and more greens (mostly members of the cabbage family and lettuces). I've been eating kale about once a week for three months (interspersed with collards, kohlrabi, lettuces, arugula, asian greens, mustards, etc). I could be getting the locavore blues, but...

The Cure for the Locavore Blues (getting to the point). This is thinking Globally on a much smaller scale: search your cookbooks or internet for international recipes using your local ingredients. It seems an obvious thing to do, but the results of a simple variation in technique or flavoring can be surprising. Kale is an interesting example, because it features in a simple recipe that spans the globe: Greens, garlic, red pepper. A cultural twist on these three ingredients completely transforms the character of the dish from one week to the next. This week's twist came from Madhur Jaffrey's Taste of India:

Kohlrabi Greens

1 1/4# Kohlrabi leaves
5 T mustard oil or olive oil
(she recommends mustard oil for an authentic flavor)
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
2 hot dried red chiles (deseeded --
I used red pepper flakes)
4-6 cloves garlic

Wash the... (greens)... and cut away the very coarse stems. If the leaves are large...cut them crosswise at 2" intervals. Heat the oil in a very large pan over a medium-high flame. Let it get smokingly hot (only if using mustard oil -- not if using olive oil). Let it smoke for a few seconds. This burns away its pungency and makes it sweet.)... Put in 10 cups of water, the kohlrabi leaves, the baking soda, salt, red chillies, and garlic. Bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered over medium-high heat, for about 1 hour, stirring now and then, until there is just a little liquid left in the pan and the leaves are tender.

Although her recipe calls for kohlrabi leaves or collard greens, substitute any leafy green you like. The long cooking time results in silky, melt-in-your-mouth greens with a distinctly Indian character, and the addition of baking soda helps the greens retain their attractive, vital color. My usual treatment is to stir-fry or sauté these ingredients together, but the results of this method remind me of Palak Chole, a spinach and chickpea dish from Samrat (Tallahassee Indian Restaurant on Apalachee Parkway). I plan to ask for a hint at the recipe/ technique.

At the long end of every season, I guiltily look askance to the next season's riches, but thinking Globally could allow me to enjoy Kale for a final month.

Have you recently found a remedy for your locavore blues? What recipes take you through the end of a season?