Monday, June 29, 2009

CSA: Community Supported Agriculture

When we first came to Central Illinois, I relied on the grocery store, i.e. Walmart, for most of my groceries because it seemed as though we were miles away from any decent resource for produce. What I ended up with mostly was underripe, underflavored, shiny, beautiful fruits and vegetables that had been transported thousands of miles, sprayed with pesticides and herbicides and rendered practically inedible. As I have spent more time here and have become more interested in locavorism and organic produce, I have found a great wealth of resources for fruits and vegetables at my disposal, literally in my back yard, or close to it. It's called a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The principle is basic. A farm asks for subscriptions for a share of their crop. In return for those subscriptions, the subscriber receives a box of fresh produce, or a share of produce, every week, featuring the freshest and best produce available from that farm that given week. While specific details may vary, one thing is the same across the board. No matter what CSA you use, you are guaranteed to learn about different types of vegetables you won't ever see in grocery stores, you'll get the best tasting produce you will ever find, and you will likely never buy vegetables from a grocery store again, save for those times in the dead of winter when your options are limited, depending upon where you live. Many CSA's pride themselves on their organic growing practices, however, due to the high cost of the certification process, most of these farms are not "Certified Organic." Many of these farms will also offer farm fresh eggs and milk. Cost?? Well, cost can vary, but the one we belong to is roughly $350 a year and generally half is due up front and half at the end of the growing season, which goes from May thru October. In the beginning, you'll get a lot of the same things, asparagus, lettuce, onions. Then, beginning in June, and contingent upon the weather, the diversity becomes astonishing. They fill your box based upon your preferences. You will send in a sheet with your likes and dislikes based upon everything they grow. If there is something you hate, like brussel sprouts, they won't include them. Some of the more unusual things that we have gotten that I have truly enjoyed learning about and have never seen in a grocery store are garlic scapes, herbs like Anise Hyssop, varieties of potatoes like Kennebec and summer squash like Cousa and Pattypan. As summer progresses, you may start getting more vegetables then you ever thought you could eat, but what you will find is that you'll start eating them more and enjoying them in many different preparations. Vegetables don't have to be boring. Don't just steam or boil them, saute them in olive oil and a little butter, roast them or grill them. Add spices and combine them with fresh herbs. Eat them raw, eat them cooked, but just eat them. You'll feel better and you'll feel like you have really been a part of your local community. For more information and a database of CSA's across the country, go to

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Spanish Tapas

Tapas literally translated means "little dishes." In Spain, a common practice in the evening rather than partaking in a full multi-course dinner is to travel from Tapas bar to Tapas bar, eating little dishes that are the specialty of the house and having a refreshment or two. Tapas can be made up of just about anything. Only the creativity of the chef and the availability of fresh ingredients limits or determines what can and cannot be served. Pork of course appears in many forms, whether it be in cooked form, such as Paprika Pork Ribs, or in the form of cold cuts such as mortadella or sausage such as chorizo. Marinated olives and cheeses such as Manchego are often served alongside a variety of hot and cold salads, frequently involving peppers and eggplant. And of course, seafood is a very popular offering at a Tapas bar, particulary fresh, locally caught fish and shellfish of all kinds. What makes this style of cuisine desirable is the diversity of flavors one can sample all during the same meal without feeling full or feeling obligated to order an entire entree. Because many of these dishes are highly seasoned, they often pair well with beer and wine. A good quality Spanish Rioja or Tempranillo would be a perfect table wine to serve and many are available at very reasonable prices. Here are a couple of recipes you can serve at your next Tapas party.

Cherry Tomatoes Stuffed with Goat Cheese, Caper and Olive Filling

24 Cherry Tomatoes
12 Pitted Spanish Olives
3 Tbl Capers
6Tbl Aioli
2-3 Tbl Italian Parsley, Chopped
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
4 oz goat cheese
1 large egg yolk
1 Tbl Lemon Juice
3 Garlic Cloves, Minced
Kosher salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
5 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
5 Tbl Canola Oil

Cut a thin slice off bottom of tomatoes to make them flat. Then cut the top of the tomatoes off and scoop out the seeds using a paring knife. For aioli, whisk egg yolk, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and canola oil together until smooth and creamy. Mince olives and capers. Combine with aioli, parsley and season to taste. Place small amount of goat cheese into each tomato. Then add olive/caper mix on top of goat cheese. Serve chilled.

Mortadella Wrapped Roasted Asparagus

Serves 6-8

1/2 lb asparagus
Pinch Salt and Pepper
2 Tbl olive oil
2 oz. Mortadella
1/2 tsp hungarian paprika
1 Tbl water
3 Tbl olive oil
2 Tbl Red Wine Vinegar
Pinch Salt and Pepper
Pinch dried thyme
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 tsp italian parsley, minced
1 bay leaf
1 Tbl red onion, finely sliced

Trim the asparagus, removing and tough ends. Place on a baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 Tbl olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place in a preheated 350 degree oven for approx. 15-20 minutes or until the asparagus are tender and slightly caramelized. Allow to cool. Wrap 1-2 stalks of asparagus in a strip of the mortadella until all the asparagus has been used up. Combine remaining ingredients in a tupperware with a tight fitting lid and shake well. Drizzle dressing over asparagus and allow to marinate at room temperature for about an hour before serving.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

What you need to know about eating organic

“Organic.” The term elicits ideals of “All Natural,” “Antibiotic and Pesticide Free,” “Healthier.” It can also mean more expensive. Is organic really that much better? The answer is more perplexing than it may seem. First of all, one needs to be educated about what is “organic” versus what is “certified organic.” Organic foods by definition are not genetically modified, must be grown without pesticides or additives such as growth hormones and often involve the use of energy efficient farming practices such as recyclable and biodegradable materials. Many small farms, including several in the area, utilize organic farming practices. However, many of these farms are not “certified organic.”

Certification is handled through government subsidized organizations and is overseen by the USDA. The process involves extensive inspection and often involves exorbitant sums of money which prohibit many small farms from obtaining the certification. There is also a very real issue with the abuse of organic certification by large, corporate farms who obtain lobbyists to create loopholes in the certification process, enabling non-organic products to be utilized in the manufacturing of the final product distributed to grocery store shelves, such as dead animal products that may have been fed antibiotics.

Therefore, it is imperative that the educated consumer beware when they are purchasing “certified organic” products in corporate supermarkets. One simple way to determine the authenticity of the organic certification is common sense. Certain products, like organic frozen foods, just don’t make sense. While organic practices may have been involved in the general production of the ingredients involved, the processing and packaging of the materials in the final product necessarily involved non-organic substances. Another common sense one is fruits and vegetables that don’t withstand transportation particularly well. Fruits like strawberries are so fragile that if they aren’t genetically modified or protected against pest or mold development, they would never make it to the supermarket shelf. While you may find organic strawberries at a farmer’s market, because they didn’t have far to travel and are being sold within hours of being picked, not days, purchasing organic produce such as strawberries in a supermarket isn’t logical.

Then there is the issue of cost. Most organic products available in the grocery store involve not only the added cost of organic growth practices, but also the cost of transportation to get these items to the grocery store shelf. Purchasing organic produce at the local farmer’s market, however, doesn’t involve anywhere near the cost associated with the grocery store transport. You will pay a slight premium, but in the end, putting a little more into what you are putting in your mouth makes sense in the long run. The long term benefits in terms of what you will save on medical bills in the future are well worth it.

Bottom line is that “organic” is great. Take advantage of locally available organic resources when you can by shopping at the farmer’s market when available. When not, be aware to do your research, read your labels and use your common sense. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. For more information on organic foods and locally available foods, two great books to read are “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan and “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. Both delve far deeper into the pros and cons of organic foods and also in how to make educated decisions on how to purchase organically and both are fascinating reads.