Irene, farmers, loyalty and gratitude

Having grown up in Vermont, I have been following the post-Irene news out of the state with horror. Pictures of washed out roads (difficult for someone to understand the gravity of that when there is no concept that it may be the ONLY road in and out of a town), flooded fields, crops laid waste. What can you do to help, if you’re inclined to do so? There’s the always-welcome local Red Cross donation, a number of tshirt companies are donating proceeds from sales (check out Vermont Clothing Company and the Vermont Strong Store), and not surprisingly, a number of benefit concerts and similar events sprang up – it’s hard to keep Vermonters down for long! And I saw some truly original ideas floated by my Facebook friends: how about a produce “round-up” day at the farmers’ markets, where buyers voluntarily round every purchase up to the next $5 or $10? But isn’t there a bigger picture, one that will last beyond the news headlines and the desire to help in a time of need?

Vermont, of course, wasn’t the only state affected. Grist.org had a brief roundup of news from farmers throughout the swath cut by Irene. And if the producer end of our food system has suffered, the consumer must also pay the price – literally! And how I dread hearing (most) people complain about the price of food….

I recently watched a series of short films by Nourish, and I was once again struck by a statistic mentioned: in the last 50 years, Americans have gone from spending 18% of our national income on food to spending 9.9% on food. (In same time period, we’ve gone from spending 5% of national income on health care to spending 16% on health care.) Yes, there are those who truly cannot spend more on food, but what about the vast majority of us, who can?

As someone who tries to buy local and sustainable food whenever possible and one who is fortunate enough to be able to pay the premium often demanded by organic, this recent crop devastation, coupled with what seems to be a weird growing season nationally, has given me a lot to ponder. My first thought about the affected farmers was, “I hope the majority of them run CSAs!” Those farmers who run CSAs (community supported agriculture programs) charge a flat fee per share at the beginning of the growing season, then provide an equal amount of produce to each shareholder throughout the harvest season. If the farm does well and the harvest is good, the consumer gets a bountiful share each week. If there is bad weather or a natural disaster, then the harvest is poor or nonexistent, and the consumer supplements the share with food sourced elsewhere. So in a sense, it’s a gamble for the consumer, but how much less of a gamble for the farmer who produces our food? And in this age of disappearing small and mid-size farms, isn’t it important for those of us who can afford it to stack the deck in the farmers’ favor?

Now is the time to start thinking about next year’s crops and signing on for a CSA with a local farmer – out of loyalty, and because we can. And now is also the time to start supporting measures in upcoming Farm Bill legislation that will help small and mid-size farmers with crop insurance for situations like the one caused by Irene.

The LocalHarvest blog has a wonderful post about eating locally in a poor season that was supposed to be the height of harvest bounty. Erin Barnett concludes,

Ultimately, the thing that supports this loyalty and flexibility and acceptance is a sense of gratitude. Things change when we find the space within ourselves to feel thankful for what the land is providing, even, and perhaps especially, in challenging seasons.

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Pig trotters simmered in black vinegar

One of the major advantages of buying meat from a local farmer is that you usually get to choose the cuts and packaging you want: so many chops, cut so thick, so many to a package. Another advantage (?!?) is that you get cuts you would perhaps never buy in the grocery store. Take pig trotters (feet), for example. I know they’re a staple of southern cooking in America, but I’ve only ever eaten them in China. In many conventional stores in America, you won’t even see such “unmentionables” – but if you ask, they might have some in the back!

After looking at a number of recipes, I decided to take a crack at the trotters in my freezer and discovered that they can be very easy to prepare and extremely tasty. In traditional Chinese food lore, pig trotters are served to women who have just given birth, and the dish also contains hard boiled eggs – the food is meant to help the woman recover from childbirth and increase her strength. I’ve left the eggs out, but you can simply shell some hard-boiled eggs and add them to the liquid when you reheat the dish. I’ve also eliminated browning the trotters before simmering – a messy step that ultimately doesn’t seem to make a huge difference in the end result.

The meat is fatty, but no more so that pork ribs would be, so the long, slow simmer is great for eliminating a lot of the fat – if you make this dish ahead and refrigerate it, you can simply lift the fat off the top on the second day. Not the world’s healthiest dish, but if your approach is to eat everything in moderation, it’s fine – serve with brown rice and a lot of healthy vegetable dishes!

ingredients:

  • 2 lbs pig trotters, cut in 1/2 lengthwise (having them further cut into crosswise chunks is also an option)
  • 1 T cooking oil
  • 2 oz fresh ginger root, cut into thick slices
  • 1 c Chinese black vinegar
  • 1/4 c rice wine vinegar
  • 1 c brown sugar
  • 1 T dark soy sauce

method:

  1. Place the meat in a pot large enough to hold them in one layer, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cook 1 m, then drain off the water. At this point you may need to use a paring knife and/or tweezers to remove any remaining bristles. (This is the point at which my daughter said, “Ugh!” and left the room.
  2. Heat the oil in the same pot over medium high heat, just until it shimmers, then quickly explode the ginger until fragrant.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil, allowing the sugar to dissolve completely.
  4. Add the trotters back to the pot and add enough water to cover them.
  5. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the meat is falling off the bone, approximately 1.5 – 2 h, less if the trotters have been cross-cut as well as sliced lengthwise.
  6. Bring to room temperature in an ice bath in the sink, then refrigerate overnight – this step is optional, but it enhances the flavor and allows you to easily skim the fat off the top.

do ahead:

This dish is best made ahead – a minimum of 12 h, or up to 3 days ahead is fine. Reheat the meat gently in the liquid, then serve.

variations:

  • If you prefer a more syrupy sauce, remove the meat from the liquid after reheating, then boil the liquid over medium high heat until it becomes syrupy. Pour over the meat and serve.
  • This same preparation could be used for pork ribs, cut into sections containing 3-4 ribs.

Will the real free-range egg (yolk) please stand up?

I’m a firm believer in buying farm fresh local eggs (and other ingredients): true pastured eggs – from chickens who eat what what they can find while out scratching around in a pasture – come from happy hens, are likely to be better for us, for the environment, and for the local food economy, and they just plain taste better. For more details, see my post on eggs at Simply: Home Cooking.

For a quick, fun visual summary of some of the arguments for pastured eggs, visit Big Wheel Provision’s video, Egg Cage Match!

Food in the News and on the ‘Net

Here’s an inspiring article for kids (and parents!) who are bemoaning the lack of summer jobs – but you’ll have to plan ahead for next summer: A Michigan Teen Farms Her Backyard. Good to see 4-H and FFA getting a boost! Those organizations get more accolades in the comments on the SlowFood USA Blog post “Celebrity Chef and Army General Urge Congress to Fix School Lunch.”

Public Radio Kitchen follows up on a Slow Food on a budget experiment with a straightforward list of “10 Rules for Eating Slow ‘n’ Cheap.”

In local Southeast Michigan food news:

Governor Granholm signed the “Cottage Food Bill” into law – this will allow sales to the public of food produced in non-commercial kitchens (of course restrictions apply).

And here’s coverage of a program on which I’ve been working in my “real life”: “Double Up Food Bucks and food policy with the Fair Food Network.”

Fossil-fuel-free farming and CSA bounty

The oil spill in the Gulf has not left the headline news. I heard Senator Stabenow speak about “the perfect storm” inherited by the Obama Administration. And perhaps watching The Road  was a mistake given the way the week went – it has depressed me about the direction we’re headed as a country, but I found some hope on CedarMountain’s greenopolis blog: read a straightforward summary of why we need a local food web in The High Cost of Cheap Food.

And for those of you struggling with too much produce in your CSA boxes (if you’re not, you soon will be!), some great tips to be found on the Crisper Whisperer. I particularly love the conclusion:

Finally, a couple of bonus tips. If all else fails, start a compost pile. At least you’ll be putting your waste to good use. Instead of dying a slow death under the weight of silent veggie guilt, you’ll become the instant envy of all your friends. And remember, breathe. Though it may be the last thing on your mind in the middle of CSA overload, the world really does need your carbon dioxide to grow more plants.

Silent veggie guilt must be a lot easier to deal with than guilt about the sins we’ve committed against Mother Earth recently….

Stirfried Bok Choy

We’ve been mourning the fact that we can’t seem to find decent Asian produce in Ann Arbor (this may finally commit me to a garden next summer!), but this past Thursday’s CSA share included some gorgeous, delicious purple bok choy. For more information on the vegetable, visit Kitazawa Seed Company. It was almost too fresh to cook (I ate a few leaves straight out of the rinse water), but I ended up making a simply stirfry, separating the stems and leaves so that the kids (who don’t like the leaves) would also enjoy it. Make sure to keep the cooking time to a minimum so that the gorgeous color, delicious crunchiness and clean flavor remain, particularly in the stems.

ingredients:

  • 2 heads purple bok choy
  • 2 T oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • salt to taste

method:

  1. Soak the cabbage in cool water, then remove and separate into leaves.
  2. Soak in fresh water, then remove to a dry bowl. If a lot of grit remains in the rinse water, soak a 3rd time.
  3. Cut the stems into 1/4″ sections, the leaves into 1/2″ ribbons and keep them separate.
  4. Heat the wok over medium high heat, then add the oil, heating just until it shimmers.
  5. Add the garlic and explode just until fragrant – do not let it brown and become bitter.
  6. Add the stems and stirfry briefly, just until the color is vibrant and some crunchiness still remains.
  7. Season with salt and remove to a plate, spreading into a circle around the edge.
  8. Add the remaining oil to the wok, heat just until it shimmers, then stirfry the leaves until they are wilted and just turning tender.
  9. Season with salt and arrange in the middle of the serving plate.

You’re Invited!

I’m happy to promote a SOLE food event in my neck of the woods, this one put on by Two Creeks Organics, a CSA in which I’ve purchased a share:

 TWO CREEKS ORGANICS invites you to FEAST IN OUR FIELD
Saturday September 26th beginning at 4:30 pm

TwoCreeks

Clothed tables will be set in the field at our 20-acre farm in Manchester, Michigan for guests to feast on food where it is grown. We are bringing together local farmers, food producers, winemakers, and brewers to celebrate the local connection to the food on your plate.

Enjoy appetizers made from locally sourced food with beer pairings from Arbor Brewing Company and a tour of the farm, before sitting down to a five course locally sourced dinner in our fields with wine pairings from Cherry Creek Winery.

During the meal the local producers who supplied the ingredients for the meal will talk about their operations and answer questions. Filmmaker Chris Bedford will also be on hand to speak about his new film, What Will We Eat?

Space is limited. Tickets are $135.00. Two Creeks CSA members and nondrinkers $125.00. To make a reservation or for more information, see our website www.twocreeksorganics.com

Two Creeks Organics
13290 Tracey Road Manchester, MI 48158