May 7th, 2013 § § permalink
Few things are as well-known in Minnesota history as Laura Ingalls Wilder and her dugout home in Walnut Grove. Last weekend our road trip through Southwest Minnesota brought us along Highway 14 to The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in downtown Walnut Grove. We were the only people wandering the grounds on a quiet Saturday morning. The perfect time for extra photos and lingering over the exhibits.
The kitchen partner and I have spent this spring re-reading the Little House series, reliving our childhood through titles like Little House in the Big Woods and On the Banks of Plum Creek. As a child I completely missed how food winds through the series, just like Plum Creek. Now it’s what I enjoy most about the stories. Laura describes bland, wintertime meals along with cheery memories of maple sugaring and a roasted Thanksgiving goose.
The First Minnesota Locavores
I think Laura and the pioneer families of her era were the original Minnesota Locavores. The family hunted and foraged the prairie, grew plants that would survive the harsh native landscape, and celebrated simple meals with simple ingredients. Truly the original locavore diet.
A replica sod dugout at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum – Walnut Grove, MN
As a 21st Century locavore, reading the stories and visiting the museum made me grateful for how easy local eating is now. If I’m looking for local meat or dairy I send the kitchen partner to the co-op. Not out on the prairie with a gun or to the barn with a pail. Instead of growing and preserving every ounce of food we eat, I can sign up for a CSA or visit the farmers’ market for fruits and vegetables. I choose to can and freeze because I enjoy it, not because it’s the only way we would have enough to eat. Local eating has become a buzz word trend, but for the Ingalls family it was a means of survival.
I’m not sure where that leaves things for me now. Can we still claim the local food title if we’re not really living from the land? How can we honor to those who ate this way–not by choice but for necessity–especially if without the land to hunt, forage, and grow everything I eat? Is taking advantage of more convenient local food “cheating?” Is working towards a pioneer-style self-sufficiency the end goal of the locavore life? These are the questions that keep me up at night.
Cooking the Little House Way
While we were in the gift shop, I picked up a copy of The Little House Cookbook by Barbara Walker. It’s filled with food-related passages from the books and recipes to recreate the same meals Laura and her family ate. Some of the pioneer recipes like strawberry jam and hashed brown potatoes are the same family recipes I use now. Others like codfish balls, pot of roast ox, and home-churned butter take some more creativity to recreate.
I’m slowly cooking a few things from the book this week. I fell in love with Ma Ingalls’ dumpling recipe, but passed up making the famous
vanity cakes after reading some not-so-good online reviews. Then I made the simple heart-shaped cakes Mary and Laura open on Christmas morning in Little House in the Big Woods.
The palm-sized cakes have no eggs and only a touch of sugar, but they are perfect with maple syrup, honey or a drizzle of strawberry sauce. I replaced the lard with butter (a girl’s gotta have limits and lard is one!!) and made the cakes smaller than the original recipe called for. When they came out of the oven–warm and crumbly–I think the kitchen partner’s smile was as big as Laura and Mary’s on Christmas morning.
Maybe that’s the biggest lesson about local eating: if the local food you eat puts a smile on your face what difference does it make? The Little House series shows us that whether it’s 2013 or 1913, eating local is about celebrating simple ingredients, made into simple and delicious meals. And sharing those meals with the people you care about most.
Heart Shaped Cakes
Adapted from The Little House Cookbook
1 1/2 cups white flour, plus more for dusting
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of nutmeg or pumpkin pie spice
1/4 cup butter, cut into tablespoons and well-chilled
1/3 cup buttermilk
1. Preheat oven to 425°F and grease a baking sheet with non-stick spray.
2. Combine flour, sugar, baking soda and nutmeg in a large bowl. Using your fingers, mash in the tablespoons of butter in the flour mixture until it forms pea-sized pieces.
3. Form a hole in the middle of the bowl. Pour the buttermilk into the hole and gently fold into the flour. Combine until a dough forms that is flexible (but not too sticky) to roll out.
4. Roll out dough on a floured surface until 1/2″ thick. Cut dough into triangles. Gently push each triangle into a heart shape with your fingers (exaggerate the middle indentation a bit as the finished cakes will puff out after baking).
5. Place the triangles on the baking sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown. Place on a cooling rack and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve warm with sweet toppings.
April 14th, 2013 § § permalink
No one has complained more than me about this miserable spring we’ve had, but there’s one group of people around Wisconsin and Minnesota that can’t get enough of this weather. Maple sugarers around the area are having a bumper year compared to the warm temperatures and dismal maple syrup season of 2012.
Last weekend we headed back home to Wisconsin to take part in a long tradition in my husband’s family. The thick maple forests around the area where we grew up are some of the best maple syrup producing areas in the state. His uncles, cousins and friends can all be found strapping on snowshoes to haul buckets and steel taps through the deep snow. Then it’s onto the sap shack at Sippl’s Sugarbush in Aniwa, Wisconsin operated by his cousins Andy and Mark Sippl.
The Modern Sap Shack
In the few hours we were at the sap shack there was plenty of hustle and bustle. The bright sunshine and warm 40+°F temperatures signal to the sugar maple trees that spring is on the way. The weather also signals to maple sugarers it’s time to start tapping trees. Although the Sippl’s Sugarbush used to tap trees and hang collecting buckets by hand, in the past few years the operation has expanded to commercial tubing.
In this system the trees are tapped and then connected to a complex webbing of thin blue tubes strung around the woods. These tubes feed into a larger vacuum pumping system that sucks all the sap out of the woods into large holding tanks. Not only does this system prevent having to filter rain water and debris from the sap buckets, it also allowed Sippl’s to tap a whopping 15,000 trees this year. Collecting by hand is the more traditional method, and it certainly changes the landscape of the woods to see blue tubing spider-webbed around. However tubing now makes more sense given the costs of fuel and man-power (not to mention hiking up and down the rolling hills and ridges maple trees love to grow on!) needed to trudge between 15,000 trees each day for the few weeks of sap season.
It takes a Village
Not only are Sippl’s collecting from their own maple trees, they also buy sap from others in the area. It’s not economical for everyone in the area to have large commercial-grade cooking and bottling equipment, especially if they only have taps in a hundred or so trees. On the day we visited the sap shack, these smaller collectors lined up out the driveway to pump their sap into Sippl’s larger holding tanks.
When it’s dropped off, Mark and Andy use a hydrometer to measure the sugar content of the sap; higher sugar content means less cooking needed to evaporate the water from the syrup. The higher the sugar content the lower the cooking time. The lower the cooking time the lighter the golden color and more premium the syrup. Sap from nearly 30 different collectors in the area will combine this year in Sippl’s Sugarbush bottles.
Turning Sap into Syrup
Once the giant holding tanks are full, the cooking begins. As a kid I learned how to make maple syrup with my dad in a shallow homemade pan on an outdoor camp stove. The five or six trees we tapped in my grandparents’ woods would produce enough syrup for our family for most of the year. Each day after school, he’d haul my sister and I bundled in our winter clothes through the woods to dump each bucket into a larger tub pulled behind a sled. We would hold out our fingers to catch a drip of sap off the end of a tap, stick it on our tongues and wonder how the watery liquid could ever turn into our favorite pancake topping.
From the woods he’d bring the buckets home and sit patiently in the backyard with a homemade cooking set-up, carefully evaporating the water from the sap until it became thick and golden brown. The cooking temperature must be monitored at all times; boiled too hot and the sap will burn. Too cold and the evaporation time increases. Good syrup making weather requires daytime temperatures to dip back below freezing at night to force the sap back out of the maple tree branches. Often my dad would be huddled outside in his winter clothes bearing the cold temps after my sister and I had long gone inside to warm up. He’d come inside a few hours later with a smaller pot of syrup to be “finished” on the kitchen stove. “Finishing” is the process of bringing the syrup to the perfect sugar content. Our gas kitchen range allowed more control than the outdoor camp stove to give the syrup the perfect color and thickness.
The Large-Scale Maple Syrup Process
Sippl’s Sugarbush definitely isn’t finishing their syrup on a kitchen stove. In fact, their commercial-grade maple syrup evaporator is larger than most SUV’s. When the system is fired up and cooking down sap, steam billows out the tall chimneys and tells the neighborhood sap season is in full swing. Before it begins cooking, raw sap is run through an RO (reverse-osmosis) machine. Typically RO machines use a membrane to purify water and drain away unwanted minerals and debris. In maple sugaring, RO machines separate 75-90% of the water from the sugar in the sap to speed up how much water must be evaporated later. The water is piped back into the ground supply to support the maple trees for the next season. The sap continues on into the evaporator.
I bet Andy’s explained the parts of the evaporator to me each of the 10 seasons I’ve visited the sap shack and I still don’t know what each of the parts do. It’s a complex system of knobs and buttons and trays that each play a part in the cooking. But the basic idea is the same as my dad’s makeshift pan in the backyard. Sap comes into the rear of the evaporator, is brought to a specific boiling temperature using a high-tech thermostat and circulated until it cooks down into rich, golden syrup. The syrup is cooled slightly and then transferred into barrels for shipping or bottling.
There’s nothing more local than maple syrup
Die-hard locavores love living in the Upper Midwest because of maple syrup. It’s the best organic sweetener produced in the region because of its versatility and affordability compared to honey. 3/4 cup of maple syrup for every 1 cup of sugar is the most common substitution ratio and the one we use in our kitchen. It’s perfect for baking, often giving breads and desserts an extra nutty richness. Just be careful to turn down the oven temperature by 10-15 degrees as baked goods tend to brown faster when made with maple syrup.
We don’t stop there for cooking with syrup either. Maple-glazed pork ribs and ham steaks, salad dressings and maple-walnut ice cream are all favorite ways we like to show off the family business when friends come for dinner. Check out all of my maple syrup recipes here: Maple Syrup Recipes
We locavores also love maple syrup for its terrior characteristics. Just like wine, subtle flavors vary region to region. Locavores that buy syrup from their neighborhood producer are truly tasting what the maple trees in their area have to offer.
A Changing Family Tradition
Maple syrup season may have started in our families as a few tapped trees and a small backyard cooking pan. Although the technology has evolved at Sippl’s Sugarbush, the hard-work and care needed to transform sap to syrup remains the same as it has for hundreds of years. It’s a local food tradition celebrated by our grandparents and great-grandparents just as much as we locavores enjoy it today. To see all of the images from our visit – click over to the Facebook gallery.
March 16th, 2013 § § permalink
When I talk to people about food blogging, they always assume the cooking is the hardest part. How do you come up with new stuff to make all the time? How do you take a bag full of stuff from the farmers’ market a make it look like that?
For me, time in the kitchen has always been the easy part. And the writing comes better some days than others, but that’s more related to how many episodes of New Girl are available on Hulu than difficulty. No – it’s not the recipes and it’s not the words. It’s the photos that drag me down in the blogosphere.
I can’t tell you how many amazingly tasty meals I’ve made and photographed, only to wake up the next morning and realize every single image is slightly out of focus. Or how many times I’ve gone out for a farm-to-table dinner, snuck in my camera for a few discrete shots only to find they are blurry and underexposed when I get home. I bet I’ve had a few hundred blog fails since this site began.
I’m pretty hard on myself when I’m trying to come up with photos for posts. I like to think of Photoshop as a mini-wedding dress experience every time I plug my SD card into the computer. Images have to “sing” to me in that “this-is-totally-the-one” way every girl feels when the dress is absolutely perfect. It bugs me if the composition’s not great, if the lighting’s less than perfect. Sometimes everything will look put together, but the photo just doesn’t “feel” right.
It’s sad to say, but in our “like it – tweet it – share it” world, words mean a lot less than the images around it. What could be one of my favorite meals of the year is likely to get buried somewhere in the halls of the internet if I don’t have the right photos. Plus, when it comes to local food, there’s not always much to make into a flashy – wowza – photo. Seriously. There’s only so many ways you can pose a head of cabbage and an onion before you get that “been there – seen that” feeling.
Today’s post is a PERFECT example of my good post, bad photos problem. At the same time I planned a spot on how to make an easy, no-hassle corned beef for St. Paddy’s Day–I’ve been dreading it too. What was a tender, perfectly seasoned and slow-roasted brisket came out as a nasty, sloppy looking hunk of pink roast beast in the pictures. I’ll be honest, a piece of local grass-fed corned beef from Mississippi Market set us back a few bucks. Then to have it not appear appetizing enough to share with all of you was like rubbing all that salty corned beef, briny goodness in deep wounds.
I did my best to arrange it, slice it, plate it, prod it. I promise. As I snapped away I was certain all my shots looked like this:
Image by Lara Ferroni at KitchenDaily.com
when in fact, everything I took looks more like this:
It’s hard enough to convince people to turn away from a the supermarket and choose a local food lifestyle. A pile of once-green now turned slimy gray-yellow cabbage certainly is not helping. Where’s that extra $600 and 3 months of time to for pro-photography classes when I need it?
For now, you’ll just have to trust me. Corned beef made in the crock pot with cabbage and served with a side of boiled potatoes and carrots is truly the best way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The prep and cooking is hassle-free. The smell is heavenly. The flavor is immense. None of which I effectively communicated in these pictures. Just take my word for it (not my images) and add this to your celebration!
Slow-Cooker Corned Beef and Cabbage
Recipe adapted from Betty Crocker’s Bridal Edition Cookbook
3-4 pounds of corned beef brisket – trimmed
1 small head of cabbage
1. Place brisket and seasoning packet into a 4-6 quart crock pot. (You can also use a Dutch oven for this, but cook times will vary). Pour enough cold water in the pot to cover the brisket by 1-2″.
2. Cut the onion and cabbage into halves and then each half into large wedges. Stack the onion and cabbage around the brisket until the beef is completely covered.
3. Cook on low 7-8 hours, or until beef reaches an internal temperature of at least 165°F. Remove from crock pot and allow to rest for 5 minutes before slicing. Serve cabbage and onions with beef.
March 12th, 2013 § § permalink
Why is it that a German/Polish/Czech gal like me cannot get enough of St. Patrick’s Day?
Guinness reigns as my favorite beer of all time, and will always be the first thing I asked the bartender for the day I turned 21. Green is my favorite color. I’ve eaten up all the Irish themed blog posts this week (check out these here - here – and here!) I wait all year long for the traditional St. Paddy’s Day fare.
This week I’ve got a few of my favorite Irish dishes to share to celebrate the holiday. First up is a revised recipe I posted a while ago for Borenkool Stamppot. It’s a traditional Dutch dish made with mashed potatoes and kale. Turns out the Irish also make Stamppot, only it goes by the name Colcannon. Stamppot. Colcannon. One in the same. How cool is that?
The kale and potato combination make up a perfect locavore dish this time of year. Local kale and potatoes are still available at the co-ops and winter farmers’ markets if you look hard enough. It can be made with other root vegetables like celeriac or parsnips instead of potatoes. Other greens (endive, spinach, turnip greens) and other meats (smoked or fried sausages, brats, stewed meats) are also good options.
Colcannon (Irish Mashed Potatoes with Kale)
3 pounds potatoes, scrubbed and peeled
1 lb. kale
2 Tbsp. sunflower oil
2 cloves garlic
2-3 Tbsp. milk
1 Tbsp. butter
1 tsp. garlic powder
salt and pepper
1. Quarter potatoes and place them in a large pot with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook 8-10 minutes or until tender. While potatoes are cooking, wash kale and remove leaves from thick stems. Roughly chop.
2. Heat oil in a sauté pan with garlic. Add kale and cook 1-2 minutes until tender. Immediately remove from heat and set aside.
3. Place potatoes, butter and garlic powder in a large bowl and whip using an electric mixer until smooth. While mixing, add milk 1 tablespoon at a time until potatoes reach desired consistency. If you like chunky potatoes, use less milk. For smoother texture and consistency, add more milk.
4. Gently mix in kale. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.
March 5th, 2013 § § permalink
I don’t care what you believe, snow days are a gift of divine intervention. It’s been 2 years since the cosmic weather + traffic + school calendar stars aligned to give me a day off of work for weather. This morning the alarm went off to “the heaviest snow bands are moving over downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul right now.” I sat straight up and fumbled around in the dark to find my phone. Could it be? Could today be the day? I dialed up WCCO and started scrolling down the list. Anoka Hennepin cancelled. Eden Prairie cancelled. Both are big metro districts. That’s a good sign. Slowly, slowly paging down and then just like that–there it was. Rosemount Eagan Apple Valley: my ticket to pajamas and a hot cup of tea for the rest of the day.
The best part about snow days are how they always happen when I need them the most. I’ve struggled to balance homework, work-work, the household stuff, and my writing projects with an ever declining success rate. Too much on my plate, not enough time in the kitchen. Just like the snow gives the ground a fresh, white start, today’s snow day was an unexpected chance for a fresh start. The extra time at home to catch up on laundry, paired with the hours saved not battling traffic on I-94 are a luxury item I’m not often afforded.
As a kid, my snow days meant extra hours to build forts and hang out at Grandma’s. Today it means filling the house fresh cranberry muffins and my favorite Jack Johnson songs on shuffle. Given I still can’t leave the driveway, I had to bake with whatever I had on hand. Cranberries were the first thing to catch my eye on my trip to the freezer. Paired with walnuts and a tiny hint of citrus, the bright red berries are the perfect flavor to cozy up with on a snow day.
What was that about citrus on a local food blog during a Minnesota snow storm? Darn. Thought I could slide that one through. Normally, I skip out on oranges, grapefruit and lemons because there’s not one local thing about them. But this winter I’ve picked up a bag or two at the co-op. I’ll be the first to admit when the going gets tough (and busy. and frozen under 10″ of snow), my locavore diet starts to relax a little. Call it necessity, call it priorities, call it whatever. If I’m stuck between buying a fast food lunch between appointments or packing an organically grown orange in my lunchbox alongside my local entrée, I think we’d all agree on the orange. Maybe not though. Where do locavores shake out on this?
Today when I stirred up the muffins, they needed just the tiniest bit of orange zest. If you’d like a more local muffin, leave out the zest. No harm done. Besides, I’m sitting down to enjoy a warm muffin while watching the flakes come down. On a snow day. In the busy month of March. What could be the harm in than that?
Cranberry Walnut Muffins
Adapted from the Betty Crocker Bridal Edition
For the topping
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbsp. cold butter
For the batter
3/4 C. milk
1/4 C. sunflower oil
1 Tbsp. grated orange peel (zest)
2 cups flour (use whatever proportion of whole wheat to all-purpose flour you prefer in baking)
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 cup cranberries, halved
1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
1. Mix together topping ingredients: flour, sugar, and cinnamon. Using a pastry blender or two forks, combine butter in mixture until it forms a crumble. Butter should be in pea-sized pieces or smaller. Set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 400°F. Prep a muffin tin with 12 baking liner cups.
3. Mix together milk, oil, egg and orange zest until well blended. Add flour, brown sugar and baking powder until just moistened. Batter will have lumps, but don’t over beat it or muffins will be tough. Gently fold in cranberries and walnuts.
4. Pour batter into liners (filling until at least level with the tops of the muffin cups). Sprinkle the topping mixture evenly among the tops of the muffin cups, about 1 1/2 Tbsp. on each muffin. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of each muffin.
5. Remove from oven and allow to cool in the muffin pan for 5 minutes. Gently remove from the pan to a baking rack. These are best served warm with a little dollop of whipped butter.