We’re starting the last month of the Dark Days Challenge tomorrow. Winter has come and gone so quickly. For this week of the challenge, all participants were encouraged to make a completely vegetarian meal–tricky for some of us who have relied heavily on local meats to make it through. I’ve had the vegetarian challenge date on my calendar since mid-January with the idea of trying a broccoli cheddar version of the Cream of Carrot Soup I made in week 7 of the challenge. We have bags and bags of frozen broccoli left from last fall and it’s time to start eating down the storage before the fresh veggies arrive. Fast forward to the end of February and although I happily made the broccoli cheddar soup outlined on my calendar, I totally spaced the vegetarian part.
I came home from work in anticipation of our brewing snowstorm, got the broccoli grooving in a stock pot and was suddenly hit with a grand idea: Bacon. How much better would broccoli cheese soup be topped with crunchy, salty bacon? Right? Of course I was right. Except when it came to meeting the Dark Days Challenge guidelines! I’ve long said that bacon is the reason I’m not a vegetarian. I’ve given up beef and poultry before at times and have some anecdotal evidence that my body likes it meat-free. But then I run into bacon. Imagine how Julia Child feels about butter and you can begin to understand how I feel about bacon. Actually I feel the same way about butter too, but I digress. Moral of the story. Even when I’m not supposed to eat bacon I still find a way to eat bacon.
Truth be told, I think the broccoli cheddar soup was better with crumbled bacon. (P.S. The bacon was local and sustainable, so it still fit the criteria of a SOLE Dark Days meal.) Just not a vegetarian one. But in thinking about this post today, I’m wondering more about what my failed vegetarian meal says about eating habits in general. Most of my meals focus on taste and flavor (i.e. gratification/satisfaction) than on principle (i.e. vegan/vegetarian/non-GMO). Although I like the economic and environmental impacts of a locavore diet, bottom line I eat local because to me the food just plain tastes better. The broccoli I grew in the garden will always win out with my taste buds over its California-grown cousin. When I’m cooking or choosing recipes, I almost always pick what is going to feed my cravings the best. Just like throwing bacon in a vegetarian meal, my brain said “instant gratification” and I went with it.
So what does this say about non-locavores? I think it’s fair to say that we Americans spend a lot of our lives in instant gratification land. We like to have what we like, when we like to have it. Some decisions are based on principal and altruism, but I would say it’s not in the majority. Bacon double-cheeseburgers and triple-chocolate brownies do not sell themselves on the possibility of improved character; we just eat it because it tastes good! Why then when we aim to convince someone else to eat locally, do we spout off 100 reasons why it is the principal/altruistic/”right thing” to do? Sure. It’s great to think that Americans make decisions that are good for the economy, the environment and the food system. That’s not reality. When it comes to physically putting fork to mouth, I’d be willing to bet 9 out of 10 times, instant gratification beats out the altruistic choice.
Instead of the moral high road, we should always be emphasizing how the taste and flavor of local and sustainable food sets it apart. Don’t believe me? Check out the list of Twin Cities James Beard Award semi-finalists doing fantastic things with local food. They’re winning big by first living up to the promise of great tastes and experiences. All of the other things that come in the package like connections to farmers, environmental benefits, roof top gardens, and sustainable sourcing are just an added perk. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a crazy cool added perk. But I would bet for most people that’s not what brought them in the door. If we want to start hammering away at a broken food system and ratcheting up a local food network, we need to start guaranteeing taste just as much as the principals behind it.
Think it’s a coincidence that fast-food commercials are packed with images of fresh vegetables and the promise of all-natural ingredients? Not likely. Americans have come to associate fresh and all-natural with better taste. We go for the gratification not the health or environmental perks actually behind a diet of fresh and natural foods. In the end, corporations see better profits. The local food movement needs to change its messaging if we’re going to move beyond CSA’s and backyard operations. When we start better connecting personal gratification with local food, major players will finally begin listening. We’ll see it on forefront of the agriculture policy and in the boardrooms of corporate America. The crazy cool perks locavores love like a sustainable food system, a stronger economy and healthier planet will start to really gain momentum.
Try it out on a friend. Have a discussion about going local and see what’s more compelling: the promise of the freshest, tastiest food they’ve ever had or some calculations about carbon footprint.
4 cups vegetable stock
6 cups frozen broccoli
1 cup half-and-half
6 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled
cheddar cheese, shredded
Instructions 1. Place stock and broccoli in a large stock pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 7-10 minutes or until broccoli is tender. Remove from heat and allow to cool 10 minutes.
2. Using a stick blender, pulse until broccoli is broken apart and soup becomes a thick puree. If you like larger chunks of broccoli, blend less. Stir in half-and-half and return to low heat until hot. Do not boil.
3. Remove from heat and spoon into a bowl. Top each bowl with crumbled bacon and cheese. Serve immediately.
Note (8.01.12): After hearing from several readers, I’ve adjusted the flour content of this biscuit recipe. If you’ve saved a copy before then, please replace it with this new one!
Earlier this month we began a how-to series starting with yogurt from scratch. Jessie, one of our Wisconsin readers commented that she’d love to see another post about biscuits–perfecting the process, the ingredients, and the texture without it coming from the refrigerator case at the supermarket.
Biscuits make me feel like a member of a secret domestic society–a member of Revolutionary War era homemakers who sent their men n’ boys out with a basket of perfectly baked biscuits, carefully wrapped for the day. Weird. I know. I just think biscuits are part of a by-gone time and are in need of a revival. Thanks Jessie for starting the trend.
Here’s what I love about biscuits:
Nearly all local ingredients–I know some recipes call for lard or shortening, but I stick with butter to keep them local. The recipe does have a tablespoon of sugar which you could substitute with honey or maple syrup, but the texture may not be the same. A tablespoon now and then is worth it.
I love the warm, flaky addition to a meal that doesn’t require all my time like yeast breads. These biscuits are ready in under an hour start to finish and can easily be made at the same time you’re prepping the rest of dinner.
They’re best straight out of the oven, but are tough to beat when topped with peanut butter and jam, sandwiched around bacon, a poached egg and cheddar cheese (way better than the fast-food version!) or covered in creamed veggies. Delicious.
It may take a few tries to get the texture just the way you like, too much/not enough kneading will impact the gluten formation. It’s not so bad if the first batch is off because you have less time invested than a double-rise dinner roll or yeast bread.
Making biscuits makes you a member of the super hip and trendy “I make biscuits from scratch” club.
Adapted from Betty Crocker’s original Baking Powder Biscuits and graciously made by my mom
1. Pre-heat the oven to 425°F and prepare a baking sheet. Start with 1/2 cup of salted butter in a large bowl. It’s best to have the butter cold, straight from the refrigerator.
2. Add 2 cups of all-purpose flour, 3 teaspoons of baking powder, and 2 tablespoons of sugar to the bowl. Using a pastry blender, cut the flour and butter together until mixture is crumbly with pea-sized pieces. You can use two forks for this, but spending the cash for a pastry blender is really the way to go.
3. Sour 3/4 cup of milk or use 3/4 cup of buttermilk. To make sour milk, add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to 3/4 cup of milk. Pour the milk into the flour mixture.
4. Stir the dough until it just leaves the sides of the bowl. If it seems dry, add milk 1 teaspoon at a time. If it seems to sticky, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of flour. Dough should look like this:
5. Lightly flour a hard surface and turn the dough out. Knead 10 times (no more…no less. This isn’t bread or pie crust people!) and with a rolling-pin or your hands, spread out until 1/2″ thick.
6. Using a biscuit cutter or the rim of a small drinking glass, cut the biscuits out of the dough. You can re-work the dough 1 or 2 times to cut as many as possible. This recipe should make 10-11 biscuits.
7. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes or until tops are golden brown and biscuits have a hollow sound when tapped.
8. Remove them from the oven and allow to cool on a wire baking rack. That is if you can resist eating them right away!
Two years ago this week I decided the kitchen partner and I were going to have a garden. We’d moved into our house in October, braved a long winter, and were ready to get our hands dirty. I hopped online and started looking for community garden space near our town home complex and sent a few emails. Rather than wait for a response like a non-crazy, overly ambitious person I busted out the seed catalogs and started sketching plans for rows upon rows of fresh green veggies. Two days later, a devastating email relayed all the plots for the season were full and we’d been placed on a waiting list for an upcoming season.
Isn’t there a saying about counting your chickens?
I know it seems a bit pretentious to talk about vegetables and gardening with snow on the ground, but now really is the time to start thinking about where you’ll be accessing fresh local vegetables this summer. Thankfully a gardener backed out in late April and we were able to get a community garden plot that year, but we were lucky. Many CSA’s and community gardens shares are already starting to fill for the season, getting on the waiting list early can help if space opens up or help to push for a new garden. If you plan to have ripe tomatoes and crisp green cucumbers all summer long, now is the time to start making a plan. Let’s talk about the options…
A Backyard Garden
Although most garden experts will tell you a garden should begin in the dead of winter under grow lights and heat lamps, don’t panic if you’re not fully prepared for growing season. I agree that some early planning can help a garden be more productive, but I never discourage people from jumping into growing something–regardless of the season. If you’ve decided this is the year to start a kitchen garden, now is a good time to start researching what to grow and the potential yard space you might need. Finalizing decisions about whether to start from seeds or purchase plants at a garden shop, what and where to grow, and a rough planting timeline can make your first backyard garden a more enjoyable venture.
Our 2011 Container Gardens
A Container Garden
If you’re like the kitchen partner and I without yard space, now is a good time to start planning out creative growing spaces. Tons of books and resources on small-scale and container gardening are available at libraries and online now. Look no further than a “container vegetable garden” search on Pinterest and you’ll find that urban gardeners are growing veggies in almost any space these days.
Although you won’t need to plant for a few more months, now is the time to start brainstorming ways to maximize your space. If you’re in the market for unique pots and containers, head out to antique and thrift stores early before the late-spring inspiration hits everyone’s green thumb. Reviewing your landlord or association’s policies on outdoor planters and growing is also a good thing this time of year. Most high-density housing units are supportive of tenet’s container spaces, however if you need permission it’s best to have a proposal well before the time your veggies need to grow. Be sure you ask about space and access to water. Both will be important for your containers.
A Community Garden Plot
Maybe you’d like to try something a bit more ambitious than a few containers on the back porch, but still don’t have a yard for digging. The next best choice is a neighborhood community garden. Each year, more of Minnesota’s communities are starting to embrace community garden space–you can find a variety of set-ups (volunteer based, paid plots, partial or full food bank donation, corporate, etc.) to best suit your interest and skill. Many gardens offer classes, seed sharing, shared weeding/watering programs and other supports to beginning and seasoned gardeners. In our experience, you will get exactly out of your community garden what you put into it and there’s a space for everyone if you’re able to find it.
In Minnesota, the best resource for community gardening info is Gardening Matters, a Twin-Cities organization that offers maps and contact info to find your local garden, resources to start a new garden if there isn’t one, and tools to make your community garden experience the best possible. I cannot say enough about how helpful their website and staff are; if you have a community garden question, this is the place to start!
If you’re looking around the region for community garden space or resources, Communitygarden.org is another helpful place to look. They have a national database of gardens and organizations, resources on national initiatives, and a great video of First Lady Michelle Obama and the White House garden.
Bottom line: if you’re interested in a community garden plot this year, don’t wait to secure your space. By mid-March many gardens will be full for the season!
A CSA Share
So maybe dirt’s not your thing or you have a nasty track record with all-things green. No worries, there are other options to get your local veggie fix this summer. A CSA share may just be the ticket–for a fee you receive weekly fresh produce delivered to your neighborhood or workplace. It’s in-season, local, and fresh from the farm. No contact with dirt required. Just like community gardens, CSA’s come in all shapes and make-ups. The key is to find one that matches your food needs (How much can you eat in a week?), your tastes (How often will you eat mixed greens?), your availability (How far/often do I have to pick up my share?) and your budget (Shares vary widely in price. How much can I afford?).
It’s also important to recognize that CSA’s suffer the same challenges as other gardeners. Some years are too wet, hot, dry, cold for every veggie to prosper. A share in the farm means you get what get–a risk you and your local food budget have to bear. That being said, there are few other options that place you in as close connection with the source of your food. Many CSA’s have farm visit days where you can see where your food is grown, meet the farmers, and expand the local food community in deeper ways.
February and March are good times to identify summer CSA shares since many shares begin early, starting with eggs, meats and micro-greens. Finding a well-suited match is important and shares fill up quickly; look early for the best experience. Check out available CSA shares in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest online in the Land Stewardship Project’s CSA Farm Directory. It includes descriptions and contact information for the farms and is sorted by delivery site. The Minnesota Grown website also has a CSA directory, searchable by zip-code. If you live in the Metro Area, Seward Co-op in Minneapolis will be hosting their annual CSA Fair in April. Farmers descend on their parking lot to answer questions, register shareholders, and connect buyers and growers for the season.
So. Now there’s only one question left. What will be in your summer veggie plan?
The kitchen partner and I are returning from an extended Valentine’s Day weekend to the North Shore today. Between the surgeries and c-sections in our friends and families lives and the overtime and blog posts in our own, we decided it was time to get away. It’s hard to be supportive if you’re so stressed out on your own. The kitchen partner could see how bogged down I was and did the right thing. His strict instructions: Turn off your phone, log out of the blog and rest. Just rest.
After a weekend of my snoring, I think he wished he’d been more specific.
I slept 12 hours each night plus a nap on Friday and Saturday. Watched two gorgeous sunrises over Lake Superior, read most of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, watched some Polar Bear Plungers (yikes!) and fell in love with a new hat. A new stocking cap has been on my list all season and I finally found one that doesn’t make my melon look like a cone head or a small toddler. I’m thoroughly excited with the result:
And now I’m trying to carry all those rested and fuzzy new hat feelings into Monday. Back to work and back home to an empty refrigerator. It can mean only one thing: Dumplings! I’ve already shared my Chicken Dumpling Soup and my Green Bean Dumpling Soup, but tonight there was just room for chicken and dumplings. No soup involved. My mother-in-law makes chicken and dumplings covered in cream of chicken soup that has been known to incite kitchen table riots. It’s simple but incredibly fulfilling on a cold winter day. Tonight I tried to recreate the dish without the condensed canned soup. Nailed it on the creamy covered dumplings with chunks of shredded local chicken, but I may have to adjust the tastes to fit the canned version. It’s probably the lack of preservatives and sodium and because I added parmesan cheese for good measure. (Did you see the hat? I can do anything with this hat. Especially when it comes to parmesan!)
Just finished the putting away the supper dishes and writing this post–all with my new hat on.
This week is off to a great start!
Chicken and Dumplings
For the Chicken
1 3-4 pound whole boiler-fryer chicken
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 carrot, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, diced
6 cups water
1-2 Tbsp. dried assorted spices (try parsley, oregano, rosemary and sage)
For the dumplings
3 C. all-purpose flour
1 C. skim milk
2 tsp. salt (optional)
For the sauce
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. flour
1/2 C. chicken broth, reserved from cooking chicken (plus 1-2 Tbsp. more)
1/2 C. half and half
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 C. finely grated parmesan cheese
1. Make the chicken: Place chicken in a large stock pot with water and spices. Bring to a boil and cook until chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165° and juices run clear. Cooking time for a fresh chicken is about 35-45 minutes, for a frozen chicken 75-90 minutes. Remove from heat and allow chicken and stock to cool slightly. Remove chicken from pot and transfer to a cutting board. Remove 1/2 cup of stock for the sauce and leave the rest in the pot for the dumplings.
2. About 20 minutes before chicken is finished cooking, make the dumplings. Combine flours, eggs and milk in a small mixing bowl. Mix with a fork until dough is evenly moist (it will be sticky!). Set aside and allow to rest for 4-5 minutes. When stock is simmering, drop small spoonfuls of dough into the pot. When all dumplings are in the pot, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and cook 12-15 minutes or until dumplings are cooked through. (Dough will be firm but not sticky on the inside).
3. While the dumplings are cooking, gently remove chicken from the bone, shredding into large 1-2″ pieces. Set aside. Remove the dumplings from the stock with a slotted spoon. You can allow the stock to cool and freeze it for later use.
4. Make the sauce: Melt the butter in a 1 quart sauce pan over low heat. Add in the flour and stir until golden brown and bubbling. Carefully add in stock and half and half over low heat; avoid scorching the half and half. While stirring constantly, bring liquids to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in cayenne pepper and parmesan until melted. If the sauce seems too thick, add extra stock, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it reaches the desired consistency.
5. Combine chicken, dumplings, and sauce in a large bowl. Toss to evenly coat. Serve warm.