Cooking Tip: Buy Direct from Farmers

Last week, I wrote about growing your own food for maximum freshness, nutrition, and flavor. But not everyone can grow food, whether you don’t have the space or the time or just don’t like digging in the dirt. Also, almost no one has the space to keep their own dairy cows.

The next best thing to growing your own food is buying direct from farmers. Do your research and select the farm with care. If possible, go visit the farm and see for yourself which method they use to produce their food. This is the best way to obtain good quality meat, and it has many advantages:

  • It cuts out the middlemen between you and the farmer (distributor, supermarket) and reduces the price.
  • For meats, it reduces the likelihood of cross-contamination between tainted meats, thus making your meat safer to eat.
  • It supports small, local businesses which stimulates the local economy.
  • Small farmers are far more environmentally friendly that big agribusiness and do a better job of maintaining soil, promoting biodiversity, and avoiding adding chemical contaminants to the soil, water, and your food.

There are five ways to buy direct from farmers:

Buy from a farmstand, if you live close enough to a farm. Be aware, however, that farmstands are generally seasonal. Check out the stand, too. Make certain all the produce/meat/dairy/other goods they sell is grown on their farm or at other local farms. Sadly, most of us don’t have this luxury, so…

Buy from a farmers’ market. This is tremendous fun. I love wandering through all the stalls, checking to see what each farm has this week. Some specialize in fruits, others in Asian vegetables. There are honey vendors, herb vendors, meat vendors, fish vendors, and even lamb, mutton, and wool vendors. The meats are likely frozen, but the fish and produce are generally very fresh and ready for cooking. If you like cooking in bulk for canning or freezing, here’s a little tip: wait until just before the market closes, then offer to take whole crates of your target vegetable for a bulk price. Farmers would much rather sell the produce than truck it home, so you may be able to get a great deal on those heirloom tomatoes.

Do your homework before you buy. Ask the farmer selling you that corn how she produces it. Does she use artificial fertilizers? Pesticides? Genetically-modified varieties? Does she practice crop rotation? If the vendor isn’t the farmer, ask if they have a web site you can check out. There have been isolated incidents of people posing as farmers reselling produce from big agribusiness, so be sure before you shell out more money for what you think is higher quality. Another drawback is that most farmers’ markets are seasonal, though there’s a growing demand for indoor winter markets such as the Somerville Winter Market.

Join a CSA. That’s Community-Supported Agriculture, a system in which you buy a share of the farm’s proceeds for the season or the year (for example, Sun Moon Farm, which has a distribution site right in front of my apartment building). This is a great way to encourage local farming, guaranteeing the farmer an income regardless of whether it’s a drought year or a bumper crop. Of course, you’re assuming those risks for the farmer, but since the risk is spread across hundreds of CSA members, it’s a small risk to each member. What’s great about a CSA is that you get a wide variety of produce in each weekly share distribution, vegetables you might not buy if you went to the market, but that you discover and find ways to incorporate into your weekly meals. Some CSAs include more than vegetables – eggs, dairy, maple syrup, honey, and bread are some of the optional foods I’ve seen. Some CSA farms allow their members to come and pick their own produce in addition to the weekly distribution. Best of all, it is insanely inexpensive. A 6-month (June to November) share typically sells for around $600. That’s $100 a month for a vast amount of delicious, high-quality, often organic produce. Some farms also offer a winter CSA consisting primarily of root veggies and hothouse greens.

Meat CSAs also exist, and these are similarly wonderful ways to get great quality meat at a reasonable price. I have a meat share from Chestnut Farms in Hardwick, MA. Chestnut Farms raises organic beef, pork, lamb, goat, chicken, and a limited stock of turkeys for Thanksgiving. They use highly sustainable practices and have open farm days twice yearly, encouraging members to come out and visit their future meat. The wonderful thing about this CSA is that the more you order, the less you pay. I’ve coordinated with two of my neighbors to purchase 20 lbs. of meat each month for $175 (I get 10 lbs, they get 5lb. each). That’s $8.75/lb, which is a little more than you’d pay for organic ground beef at a grocery store, but a lot less than you’d pay for the steaks, chops, and roasts we get. At distribution, they often have extras to sell, including eggs, duck eggs, bones for broth, whole chickens, sausage, and pig ears for dogs.

Sign up for a direct delivery service. Many local dairies have revived the idea of regular deliveries. I’m old enough to remember a milkman driving around our neighborhood, delivering milk, cream, and even ice cream, but this ceased in the mid-seventies as large commercial dairies took over the market. Today, small dairies such as Crescent Ridge in the Boston area will deliver milk right to your door. You get fresh dairy products, generally hormone-free or even organic. Some dairies offer milk from less common breeds of cow, such as Jerseys, whose milk has a higher cream content and richer flavor. Some CSAs also offer delivery service at a higher cost.

Join a farm cooperative. This is cheating, just a little, because it does include a middleman, but the convenience is tremendous. Farm cooperatives allow multiple farmers in a given area to band together and provide a wide range of foods to customers. I use Farmers to You, a collective of Vermont farmers and food producers that truck their food down to distribution points throughout the Boston area.

I love this service because they provide just about everything I could possibly want from a farm, year round. I get milk, cream, eggs, and fresh mushrooms with every order. As I need them, all year long, I also order garlic, potatoes, beets, carrots, kale, salad greens, apples, cider, honey, maple syrup, goat’s milk caramel, bolted wheat flour, pesto, ground beef, lamb, fresh and smoked fish, and far more. I buy other fruits and vegetables as they come into season. I place my order by midnight each Sunday, and on Thursday, my order arrives at a nearby distribution point just six blocks from my home, already bagged and ready to go.

With all these great options, it’s easy to find excellent ingredients for your meals. The great variety available encourages me to try new variations or create whole recipes around what I’ve found at that week’s farmers’ market or on special at Farmers to You. Summer’s fast approaching. I can hardly wait!

It’s Spring! Time to Plan My Garden

zbiggerthanyourheadWhen people compliment me on my cooking, I frequently tell them that I cheat: I use the best ingredients I can manage. People look offended when I say that, as though the ingredients can’t possibly be that important. But I gotta tell you, reader, they are.

I was raised on my abuelo’s farm. I didn’t live there, but I spent practically every free minute possible there, every weekend and many of my summers (I spent the other summers on my other grandfather’s ranch, where he raised cattle and gardened). Abuelo raised beef cattle, tended orchards first planted by his father, and grew tons of fresh vegetables. From time to time, we also had other farm animals: goats, sheep, pigs. The vast majority of what I ate as a child came from that farm. When I went off to college, I was shocked to discover that the same foods in the supermarkets tasted radically different. Tomatoes were watery and flavorless. Chile peppers weren’t hot. And the beef… the beef was awful. Grain-fed beef all tastes like liver to me.

On my honeymoon in Ireland, I had another revelation. I’d never liked eggs. My abuelo wouldn’t raise chickens; he considered them the dirtiest, stupidest animals ever. (His opinion, not mine; I’ve since known some lovely chickens and rather miss the rooster that used to live across the street from us.) But you can’t have an Irish breakfast without eggs, so I gave them a try. They were amazing! Rich and flavorful and utterly delicious. In fact, nearly everything tasted better in Ireland. Why? Because nearly all food there is local and fresh. Those eggs had been laid within a day or two of being eaten. I am now a serious egg-lover, but I’m very picky about the eggs I eat.

In my experience, the quality of the food you cook with deeply affects the end result. Making tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes will always taste better than using canned tomatoes, and using vine-ripened tomatoes will always taste better than store-bought. But that doesn’t have to mean expensive. There are three ways to get good quality ingredients at reasonable prices: grow your own, buy direct from a farmer, or buy from a farm cooperative. Today, I’m going to talk about growing your own food.

If you have enough yard space or even a good-sized balcony or porch, you can grow your own ingredients. There are several advantages to this.

  1. You can grow varieties that you would never find in stores, mainly because they’re too20120711-cukesandzukes
    fragile or spoil too quickly, but these varieties have far superior flavors. Heirloom tomatoes are a classic example, but also lettuce, strawberries, eggplants, and mushrooms. If you live in the northeastern U.S. or Canada and you have the space, consider growing a pawpaw tree. These native plants produce delicious fruits that taste like bananas – really, they do! – but they spoil within a day or two of being picked. Pawpaw jam is a New England delicacy, and it can be had every year for the price of a single tree and an afternoon of planting it.
  2. Freshly picked vegetables are far more flavorful and much more nutritious. Most store-bought vegetables are picked well before they’re ripe because they will continue to ripen during shipping. Tomatoes are the most egregious example of this, but this is also true of virtually all fruits with the exception of apples bred for longevity. Root vegetables are also generally shelf-stable, but the quality of green beans, peas, and all greens degrade rapidly after being picked. Cooking with vegetables at the peak of ripeness gives your dishes much richer flavor and freshness.
  3. You know exactly what goes into the plants you grow. You control the soil, the water, the fertilizer, even the seed quality. If you’re planting in your backyard, be sure to test your soil first. Every state has at least one organization that provides this service. In Massachusetts, it’s the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This will tell you whether your soil has acceptable levels of heavy metals such as lead as well as whether the soil needs more organic matter or an adjustment to pH. For high quality seeds, conventional and organic, I recommend Johnny’s Selected Seeds if you garden in the Northeast, Seeds of Change if you garden in the Southwest.

    Don’t want to start your own seeds? Find a garden center near you that offers organic seedlings, check with your local 4H Club (they often run seedling sales as fundraisers), or wait for the first farmers’ market of the year. If you don’t have enough space in your yard for a garden, consider building an EarthTainer for your driveway, patio, or balcony. I’ve built three so far with relative ease and have grown lettuce, kale, peas, green beans, cucumbers, and hot chile peppers in them.

Last year, I had a 2200 sq. ft. garden and a greenhouse. This year, I may get a 6 sq. ft. garden bed, and I have my three EarthTainers. That’s a lot less growing space, but it was a necessary change for me. I spend most of my time writing now, and I just don’t have the energy or stamina for a large-scale garden anymore. This means I have to prioritize what I grow and focus on things I can’t get easily anywhere else. Here’s my plan for this year:

  • overwinteredkale3Winterbor kale – my husband’s favorite variety, this kale continues growing even in the middle of harsh New England winters, so we can eat it all year around. I’ll likely put this in the garden bed. Winterbor is a hybrid, so you can’t save its seed, which means I ordered it from Johnny’s last week and just need a spare moment to start it in some egg cartons saved for this purpose.
  • Highlander chile – the best producing hot pepper for this climate that I’ve ever found. Most New Mexico peppers don’t develop any real hotness in this humid climate, but Highlander consistently produces great chiles anyway. Also a hybrid, which I ordered from Seeds of Change. I will likely put this in an EarthTainer where I can better control the moisture of the soil and easily cover it in case of a cold snap.
  • Snap peas – I prefer Sugar Anne, but Johnny’s was out of them, so I got the standard Sugar Snap peas. I’ll plant these in the EarthTainer on my balcony today, to be replaced by kitchen herbs in May.
  • Cucumbers – I’ll buy seedlings from 4H or a local market. Small pickling cukes are better for us, my daughters will eat them right off the vine, so snack size is good. These will likely go in the bed alongside the kale. If I’m really on the ball, I’ll replace them midsummer with broccoli or spaghetti squash.
  • Sweet peppers – another I’ll buy as seedlings, probably only one or two plants specifically for Nora, who loves them and eats them right off the plant all summer long.
  • Sungold cherry tomato – another kid favorite, wildly prolific, and easily found as seedlings at any market. Be warned, they grow all over the place, so either have a good space available or be prepared to stake or prune a lot. I’ll put them in an EarthTainer with a good sturdy tomato cage.
  • if i have space, I’d like a good sauce tomato. Juliet is a mini plum that I love, plump and versatile and disease resistant, good for salads but also hearty enough to make sauce. I may have to construct another EarthTainer for this. We shall see.

If you have a large garden space and want further recommendations, I suggest you browse through my old gardening blog.

Next week: Buying direct from farmers


Recipe: Smoked Trout Salad Sandwiches

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Today, a dear old friend dropped in for tea. She brought scones, and I made a fruit plate, cucumber-and-cream-cheese sandwiches, and smoked trout salad sandwiches. As usual, I was having so much fun eating and chatting that I forgot to take a picture until we were halfway through our tea. The smoked trout salad recipe is usually a big hit, so I though I’d share it with you. I used Trader Joe’s canned smoked trout, but you can use an equivalent amount of smoked trout from other sources.

Smoked Trout Salad Sandwiches

2 cans (5.4 oz total) Trader Joe’s smoked trout (skinless in canola oil)IMG_20170322_113309650 (Medium)
1/2 small onion, finely chopped (or about 1T finely chopped shallot, scallion, or leek)
1T chopped apple
1T chopped cucumber or pickle
1T capers
1T dried cranberries (or raisins, currants, chopped dried apricots)
1 T chopped pecans (or walnuts, almonds, pumpkin or sunflower seeds)
1/4 t dried thyme
1/4 t dried parsley
salt and pepper to taste
3T mayonnaise

Drain trout thoroughly. Place in a medium bowl and flake apart with a fork into very small pieces. Add remaining ingredients and blend thoroughly, You may wish to adjust the mayonnaise, depending on whether you want a firmer or softer texture. Note: you have a lot of flexibility on ingredients. Try different combinations (the salad shown actually has raisins and almonds). Play with your food! Strive for a balance between sweet and savory. The key to this salad is the consistency; finely chopped ingredients will make the salad easier to spread and improve the mouth feel.

IMG_20170322_114431380 (Medium)Serving for tea: Spread mayonnaise thinly on two slices of bread.IMG_20170322_174256424_HDR (Medium) Spread salad on one slice and cover with the other slice. Cut off crusts. Quarter the sandwich into four squares, triangles, or fingers. Serve with tea and scones.

Open-face: Spread mayonnaise thinly on one slice of bread. Spread salad on slice. Add a slice of tomato (optional). Top with a slice of cheese (cheddar, Swiss, and Jarlsberg are good choices, but goat cheese also works well). Place in a toaster oven or broiler and toast until the cheese just begins to melt. Serve immediately.


Cafés for Writers: A Review of Bloc


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Bloc Cafe street sign

I promised I’d review the area cafés I’ve tried for writing purposes, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. Today, I’ll start making good on that promise. I’m at Bloc in Union Sq., Somerville. I used to come here once/week for a writers’ meetup, back when it was known as Bloc 11, but driving in from Beverly proved too daunting a task. It’s been several years now since I was last here, but I’m pleasantly surprised that all the good things I remember are still good, and the bad things are not as bad as I thought.

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Bloc Cafe vault seating

First, the seating: I remember Bloc 11 being very crowded at the meetups, but in fact this was an artifact of the meetup taking over the cramped front of the café, close to the windows. In fact, there’s a vast amount of space in the rear, including a former bank vault converted into cozy, semi-private seating. The metal chairs are hard, and the café tables are wobbly, but the built-in wooden benches in the vault and rearmost room are more stable and comfortable. They also have picnic tables outside, and it was even nice enough today that a few people were making use of them.

Second, the food: I remember the sandwiches being excellent, and I am not disappointed. I’m contentedly munching on a Safehaven, consisting of goat cheese, avocado, roasted fennel, lettuce, tomato, and cheddar, which I chose to have on a honey wheat bagel. That was a bit of a mistake. The sandwich is so hugely thick, I can barely stuff it into my mouth. The fennel is delicious, sweet and crunchy, the perfect counterpoint to the smooth, soft avocado and goat cheese. Note: I’m not a vegetarian, I just love good vegetables, and this sandwich really delivers. A nice pasta side salad with chunks of cucumber and pepper in a slightly spicy vinaigrette complements the sandwich nicely.

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Bloc Cafe counter and menu

My mint matcha latte is pretty good, frothy and not too sweet, but slightly overbrewed so that it tastes a bit mossy. Still, it’s better than most matchas I’ve had around here. I should try the chai latte to see if it’s still as good as I remember.

There’s internet available, but you have to pay to use it, so I’m leaving it turned off for now. I kind of like this; if I really, absolutely have to look something up, I can use my phone. Meanwhile, I can write distraction-free.

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Exterior seating at Bloc Cafe

The background music is eclectic and funky but not intrusive. I am loving all the elbow room I have, lots of space to sprawl out with my plate and my laptop. I’m expecting friends to join me any minute, and I had no trouble snagging a larger table to accommodate us all. My one complaint is that the temperature is a bit chilly. It’ll be nice in the summertime, I suspect. I may come back here and hide in the vault when I really need to focus on something.

The location is good, though not perfect. It’s a slight hike from Central Sq., but the 83 bus comes right through here. Hub Comics is next door, and if you want something more substantial than a sandwich or salad, there are plentiful excellent restaurants all around. I’m sad to see that locavore favorites Sherman Market and Sherman Café are both gone, the former replaced by an ice cream joint that I may go try when I’m done here.

Overall, a good choice for a place to get some serious work done.

Baking Irish Soda Bread for 250 People

Yesterday, I made FIFTEEN loaves of Irish soda bread for my church’s coffee hour. We have a lovely tradition of having baking teams take turns baking something fresh during service, so that when everyone comes out for coffee hour, the whole church smells delicious, and there are fresh goodies, baked with love, for everyone.
I chose Irish soda bread in honor of St. Patrick’s day, but also because it’s one of the easiest things in the world to make. I had two wonderful helpers – thanks, Barbara and Heather! – and my daughter Nora helped when she got out of Sunday school by wandering around with a tray full of freshly sliced bread.
For those who asked for it, here’s the recipe I used. We made the bread in rounds, not in loaf pans. Be warned! The recipe says it makes 3 loaves, but those were ENORMOUS loaves, and we really should have made the loaves smaller, more like four loaves per batch.
I made a quadruple batch of this recipe in one enormous stainless steel bowl. mixing and kneeding by hand. I thought for sure my shoulders would be incredibly sore today, but they’re really not bad. I also left out the caraway seeds, mainly because I couldn’t find any in bulk, but also because I was concerned that the seeds would cause issues. I know too many people with diverticulitis. The quadruple batch needed a few extra cups of flour to come to the right consistency and thus actually made thirteen loaves.
In addition, I made two gluten-free loaves using flour from Something Sweet Without Wheat in Arlington and the Betty Crocker recipe. I think I actually liked the GF version better!
I had so much fun doing this that I completely forgot to take photos. I really enjoy cooking with a team. We shared our experiences and influences in cooking. We’d all grown up in different parts of the country. Barbara talked about growing up in Houston and how everything is better with bacon grease. I talked about how cooking can be a spiritual practice, as well as a practical one. How we can support our friends and family, express kindness and love through food.
At the end of coffee hour, we had four regular loaves and 1.5 gluten-free loaves left. We gave one loaf to a lunch meeting going on elsewhere in the church, then quartered the loaves, put them in freezer bags, labelled them carefully, and stuck them in the Lay Ministry freezer. They’ll be distributed to people in need, those who are sick or have had surgery or other serious difficulties, who need nourishment and the support of the community.
I love this. I love giving back to my church. I love using my skills to bring joy and contentment to others. More of that in my live would be lovely. Good thing I picked up some marshmallow fluff at the grocery store last night.