Sunday, May 31, 2009

Six Little Basils...

Last summer, my fiance found himself inspired by the abundance of herbs in the aisles of Home Depot.  He bought a planter, attached it to our tiny back porch rail, and filled it to the brim with green.  There was basil, sage, parsley, and more, and we dreamed of eating fresh, herbaceous dinners all summer long.  

Not two weeks later, every plant in the bunch was moldy and yellowed.  What on earth was the problem?  Was it the wrong kind of soil?  Not enough light?  Were the plants moldy to begin with?  Our own ineptitude at growing?  No matter the cause, there was nothing to do but get rid of them.  We contemplated going in for another round, but our disappointment was too great.

It's a new year though, so when I saw these little basils at the Atlas Farm stand at the Copley Square Farmers Market, I just couldn't resist.  They were so lovely and green, and I knew they'd been much better cared for in their youth than the wilted masses at Home Depot, where I have since noticed that the herbs are, quite often, covered in mold.  (Lesson: buy living things at the market, not the big box store).  Still, given my not-so-great history of trying to grow things, I was nervous about the whole proposition.  But, I told myself, if I'm ever going to have a garden, I have to start somewhere.

The little plants lived on my kitchen window sill for a few cold, rainy days, but when yesterday dawned warm and sunny, I knew the moment of truth had come.

I cleaned out the planter, shown here with last years soil and some industrious little weeds.  If only herbs could grow so easily!

The basils had some time to get used to their new home while it dried.

And then, voila!  Carefully planted and watered, they busily soaked up the sun from their perch above the Astroturf. They look happy as can be, for now.

Now we watch, and wait, and water.  

Friday, May 29, 2009

Slow Food, Southern Style

Not long ago I had the opportunity to visit Callaway Gardens, a very special resort just an hour outside of Atlanta.  These are not your typical gardens; much of the 13,000 acres is made up of forests that have been naturally restored over the years from land that had been devastated by the monoculture of cotton farming.  Now, the lush landscape is interwoven with hiking and biking trails, with a wide variety of ecofriendly activity and lodging options available to visitors.  

Perhaps most delightful for this visitor was the discovery that Callaway's mission--"connecting man and nature in a way that benefits both"--has grown to include the Slow Food philosophy.  At Gardens Restaurant, pictured here, much of the menu is locally grown and produced, including veggies from Mr. Cason's Vegetable Garden, a 7.5 acre growing plot located right in the heart of the resort.  Diners can enjoy a southern-themed menu full of locally sourced items, including fresh goat cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy and pan seared Alabama shrimp, as well as gorgeous stacks of fried green tomatoes.  The muscadine salad dressing, made with a local grape variety that's a Callaway specialty, was also a delightful treat over some organic greens.  All told, the menu at Gardens is a reminder of how important it is to keep our local food cultures alive and thriving.  Regional cuisine is not only a key part of our cultural history, but also part of what makes travel so enjoyable.  How exciting to discover the sweet flavor of a new grape variety, rather than the same chain restaurant items everywhere you go.

So, next time you find yourself in the Atlanta area, or if you're looking for the perfect spot for a relaxing getaway, pay a visit to this southern gem.  Just be prepared to extend your stay by a day or two; once you're there, you'll never want to leave!

Tough Time for Local Dairies

Click here to read today's New York Times article on how the current recession is impacting small, organic dairy farms.  Just another reminder that it's more important than ever to support our local farms.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Farmers Market Fun

The ultimate in fast food. In case you can't read the sign, this is the "Boston Goat Cheese Picnic" from Crystal Brook Farm in Sterling, MA.  Each bag contains a delectable lunchtime menu:  goat cheese with olive oil and herbes de provence, french bread, and trail mix, plus utensils and a $1 off coupon for your next purchase. A fabulous reason to forget your lunch!

The Atlas Farm stand was overflowing with the season's first produce, local and organic...

as was my kitchen table when I got home.  

The basil will be planted, with hopes of better success than last year.
The kale will be sauteed with onions and garlic.
The strawberries will be gone by supper.
The rest, including the cilantro and jalapeno goat cheese--yum!--will provide delicious lunchtime salads for days to come.
Don't you just love spring?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Asparagus in Abundance

Last Sunday evening, a friend and I attended an Italian style Asparagus Festival hosted by Slow Food Boston and chef Chris Douglass at Tavolo, his newest restaurant in Dorchester.  Douglass, who has always been committed to buying fresh, local produce for his restaurants whenever possible, took some of his cooks out to Sunderland, Massachusetts the Friday before, where they hand-harvested the first asparagus shoots of the spring for Sunday's supper.

While the kitchen worked furiously to whip up a plethora of asparagus dishes, servers passed around trays of springtime cocktails--my favorite was the Campari punch--while diners got a short lesson in asparagus history.  Apparently, the Connecticut River Valley was known as "the asparagus capital of the world" for much of the 20th century.  In 1950, in fact, farmers in the area produced 50 tons of asparagus each season, aided by the sandy loam soil left behind by a glacial lake that once filled the valley.  Then, in the 1970s, a virus essentially wiped out the crops of some 200 area farms that were growing asparagus, and many farmers could not afford the investment of money and time required to plant a new, disease-resistant variety a few years later.  A small group of determined growers continued to plant asparagus, but the heyday was over.

When the dishes began to emerge from the kitchen at Tavolo, I felt deeply grateful for this small group of holdouts, including Enterprise and Smiarowski Farms, where our spears had been gathered.  There was a light and fluffy asparagus quiche with a firm buttery crust, tender asparagus-stuffed chicken, and a sort of cheesy asparagus mousse, a little piece of heaven on a spoon.  There was asparagus risotto, creamy asparagus pasta with a savory ham, and perfectly cooked simple spears, which let the crisp, bright flavors of the freshly picked vegetable speak for themselves.  Finally, when we thought we couldn't possibly find room for another mouthful, the servers brought out small plates of asparagus ice cream, served with strawberries and a sweet balsamic reduction.  This was a first for me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the sweet, grassy taste.  I'm not sure I would have identified the flavor as asparagus if I hadn't already known, but I would definitely identify it as a yummy, refreshing dessert.  

If you're sorry you missed this bonanza of fresh, local flavor, don't fret.  It's not too late to get your fill of this springtime treat!  On Saturday, May 30th, you can head to the Annual Strawberry and Asparagus Supper at the First Congregational Church in Hadley, MA.  Call (413) 584-4117 to reserve your spot at one of two sittings (5:00 & 6:30). 

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Beefy Mustardy Comfort

These are the words that my lunch companion used to describe the Wild West sandwich at O'Naturals, where we stopped in for a bite last week. The sandwich, which features wild prairie raised bison meatloaf, is just one delicious pick from a menu designed to be as healthy and planet-friendly as possible, while still providing quick service to people on the go. This means lots of organic ingredients, and no additives, preservatives, or growth hormones.

The restaurant, created in part by the husband and wife team who bring us Stonyfield Farm yogurt, also aims to make each of its locations an active part of local community development. With this in mind, they donate a portion of their sales each evening to local non-profits, giving local-minded consumers yet another reason to stop by when they need a good, quick meal.

The missing piece? Local farmers. No one is perfect, but it seems that the next simple step toward a goal of planet-friendly fast food (and in supporting community development) would be partnering with nearby farms at each location. If this tasty, healthy menu was also local, it would provide a pretty tempting excuse to leave the lunch bag at home once in a while and treat yourself to something different!

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Perils of the Icebox

I eat local whenever I can.  In the summer, when farm stands everywhere are overflowing with gorgeous produce and other locally produced fare, this is easy.  In the depths of the Boston winter, however, when the words "fresh" and "local" can't coexist in the same sentence, when you barely get to see the sun because you work 10 hour days in an office building, when the wind chill is makes you feel like you might break into 1,000 pieces...well, on those days, sometimes you just want dinner to be easy and hot.  These are the days when that frozen lasagna at the back of the freezer comes in oh so handy.  Does it taste as good as a homemade lasagna would?  Clearly not.  But all you have to do is pop it in the oven, and an hour later you're snug under a blanket with a piping hot plate of comfort food and a glass of red wine.  

This, of course, is a guilty pleasure.  Whenever I do indulge in a quick, easy (and processed) meal, a chorus of voices speaks softly as I eat, reminding me of the petroleum trail that such foods leave in their wake, the local producers who struggle to compete against big business, and the sometimes mysterious ingredients listed on the back of the box.  And now, there is yet another reason that such foods aren't really a pleasure after all.  An article from the Business section of the New York Times explains that it's growing more and more difficult for processors to ensure the safety of their food.  Under growing pressure to keep prices down, manufacturers get their ingredients from an increasingly murky global supply chain--some can't even tell you who their suppliers are, and they certainly can't tell you what sorts of safety precautions those suppliers take...or don't.  For this reason, even the most unlikely ingredients--from peanuts to spices--can now play host to dangerous microbes.  The frozen foods aisle, because products there so often contain long ingredient lists, is now a prime concern.  And producers are placing the onus on consumers to ensure that frozen food is safe by using a food thermometer to monitor temperature, something that most Americans rarely do.  Not so quick and easy after all.

This year, between my farm share and some late season trips to the farmers markets, I hope to stock my freezer with options that are healthier for my body and for the planet.  That way, when the cold and fatigue of February roll around again, I can reach for some local butternut squash instead of a mystery box.  That will be a true pleasure.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

And in the Other Corner...

Frito-Lay, your newest "local" producer.

Read this New York Times article about how big business is appropriating ideas from the local food movement in hopes of making big bucks. "Mission creep" just about says it all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Get Fresh

On Thursday, May 28th at 7:00 pm, there will be a Cambridge screening of the new film, Fresh. The movie, which chronicles the growing movement away from industrial agriculture, "celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system."

To sweeten the pot, there will be a panel discussion following the screening, featuring local chefs and policy makers, as well as Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. (Sound familiar? Salatin and his forward-thinking agricultural practices are featured in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. If you haven't read it yet, this blogger highly recommends putting it at the top of your list!)

The film will be shown in room B 103 of the Harvard Northwest Building at 52 Oxford St. Tickets are $15. Click here to get yours!