A lot more careful

There's something I've been wanting to talk with you all about for a while. When I first started this blog, local was my bottom line. I often asked questions—questions about how meat animals were raised, about whether or not apples were sprayed, about pasteurization and pastured cheese. But not always. Local was the most important thing to me, and in the interest of keeping things close to home, I was willing to let a few concerns slide.

When I got pregnant with Sally, that started to change. I read a book—an amazing, fantastic book called Real Food for Mothers and Babies by Nina Planck—a book that I simply cannot say enough good things about. Most of the recommendations I was aware of and followed loosely already: eat meat raised without hormones and anti-biotics and on pasture, the same for dairy. Choose real, old-fashioned, traditional foods over anything processed, and make sure to get plenty of fruits and vegetables. Steer clear of pesticides, go for whole grains. We've all read this a hundred times, and for the most part, I was doing pretty well.

But the way Nina wrote it and the fact that there was now a passenger growing along with me made me ask a lot more questions. The book is filled with research about what, specifically, these good foods do for you and your baby—your health and fertility and their mental and physical development in the womb, while nursing, and beyond. 

The way I shopped and the depth of my questions started to change. In some ways, it felt kind of silly. I spent a whole week researching milk (you can read more about what I learned over here in an article I wrote for Edible Vineyard) and another afternoon trying to find a better butter (we eventually settled on this). I started looking at the little things, the things that seemed too hard to find or too trivial to worry about before—organic beer and wine, organic chocolate, organic nuts, organic olives or hot sauce or whatever other little numbers we had stored in the door of the fridge. 

At the farmers' market, I got pickier and ever more curious. I started avoiding things like conventional corn and potatoes and berries. When I couldn't find enough organic fruit to satisfy our growing appetite, I went to Hatch's or the Orleans Whole Food Store or Phoenix Fruit to supplement. I had what Alex labeled The Great Plastic Freak Out and got rid of just about every plastic cooking utensil, water bottle, and food container in our house. I bought glass water bottles and baby bottles and boxes for leftovers

I started eating salmon—a fish I had avoided for years because it is not local, not even close—but the nutrients in a wild fillet were too good to pass up for a baby's brain. I ate more local seafood than ever, anything wild and fresh and prepared simply. I switched from kosher salt to unrefined sea salt, and I started replacing our spices as they ran out with organic versions. I got more careful about soaps and shampoos, switched over from lotion to coconut oil for moisturizing, invested in a few key pieces of natural make-up after a talk by my friend Jessa

In short, I got a lot more careful. Sometimes I feel silly about it, but then I read articles like this. It's a good reminder that there are a lot of questions to ask, and that if you're the person doing the growing and shopping for yourself or your family, you need to be the one asking them. 

Local is still my ideal—to buy something that comes from my community, from a person I know and trust. But I want eggs from chickens let loose on pasture and organic apples. And when I can't find them locally, I am willing to look further afield. 

Do any of you struggle with this? I really want to hear your thoughts. It's getting easier, certainly, to find more and more options as the local food movement grows, but I'm curious. What's your balance? What foods are most important to you to buy locally, and which ones (if any) do you avoid? Where do you draw the line? 


Starting to sprout

The potatoes are starting to sprout. They are Alex's potatoes—he planted them, hilled them, and watered them all summer. He picked off the bugs, hilled them again, and then while I was busy nursing Sally those first few weeks he dug them up, tucked them into a basket with dishcloths and dirt, and brought them into the basement to weather the winter downstairs. Our friend Pete was visiting, and he took this picture: 

I love it. If you squint, you can see the little pile of red potatoes in the foreground there. It got much bigger as the harvest went on—I am not much good with weight estimates, but I think we got at least twenty or thirty pounds. 

We've eaten quite a few, but there are still about ten pounds in the basement. Alex checked on them yesterday, and when he came upstairs he announced that it was time to do something with them NOW. He put too much work into those little red bodies to let them go to waste.

And so work we did. My sister is visiting, and she and I and Sally had a potato bake off. First we made gratin—a light version with thinly sliced potatoes, torn up spinach, layers of grated cheddar and boiling chicken stock poured over top. We made one to eat and one to freeze, and together they put away a good four pounds. (The recipe came from my favorite Darina Allen cookbook.)

Next up was whole wheat potato bread. The recipe didn't use as many potatoes as we'd hoped—a mere quarter pound per loaf—but we doubled it and managed to put away another pound.  We looked through a lot of recipes before we found the one we settled on—most were either part white flour, which we didn't want because I have pounds and pounds of whole wheat to grind into flour from our grain CSA and we must use it up!—or didn't look like they would rise the way we wanted.

I'm glad we were picky. Because the one we chose was dense and nutty and moist and soft and potato-y and also rose just right. We made it exactly according to the recipe, and it came out exactly according to plan. I don't know what your potato situation is, but if you have one that requires action, this loaf is excellent.


adapted from We [Heart] Food

All whole-wheat breads are tricky. Often, they don't rise right and can be overly dense. This one's hearty, but the potatoes give it a soft touch. Be sure to use organic potatoes—conventional ones are one of the worst for pesticides

1/2 pound organic potatoes, whole if small, halved or quartered if larger
5 and 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons yeast
1 tablespoon salt, plus more for sprinkling
2 tablespoons pastured butter
1 cup all-purpose flour

Put the potatoes in a medium pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until just soft enough to mash. Measure out two cups of the cooking water and mash the potatoes in this water. (We used an immersion blender, which worked well.) Set this mixture aside to cool to 100 degrees F. This will take about 30 minutes, so be patient.

Meanwhile, whisk together the whole-wheat flour, yeast, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Put the butter on top of the flour, and when the potato mixture comes down to temp, pour this over it. Use the bread hook attachment to begin kneading the dough, adding the all-purpose flour as needed to keep it from sticking to the sides of the bowl. Knead for roughly 10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Grease a large bowl and put the dough in. Cover the bowl with a damp dishcloth and set it in a warm, draft-free place to rise for about an hour, or until the dough doubles in size. Punch the dough down and shape it into two loaves. Grease two loaf pans and put the dough in them. Cover them with damp dishcloths again and leave them to rise another hour, or until doubled in size. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Cut two or three slits in the top of each loaf and sprinkle with salt. (I used a coarse sea salt for this, which looked and tasted wonderful.) Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the loaves are golden brown on top. 


The Local Food Report: Homebrewing, part 2

I've got a little more on homebrewing for you today. This week's show was part two of my interview with Gui and Dennis, and this time we're talking ingredients—what you need, and which ones you can find locally. Let's dive in!

There are only four basic ingredients you need for making beer: water, yeast, malt, and hops. Most of them you can find locally—obviously, local water is easy. Yeast you actually don't want to find locally—according to Gui and Dennis, local, wild yeast is everywhere in the air, and a big part of making good beer is keeping it out. You don't know what it will taste like, and if it gets into your brew, it can lend it some off flavors pretty fast. Most homebrewers buy yeast at homebrew stores (Cape Cod Beer has a good one) or online. Dennis and Gui recommend two websites: Wyeast and Whitelabs.

Next up is malt, which has the most exciting local news I think. First off, I should explain what malt is. It's grain—often barley, but anything works—that has been steeped in hot water and left to germinate. Once the wet grain sprouts and gets just to the right point—the point when it has the most nutrient potential—it's dried and you have malt in the form that homebrewers buy. The person or company who does this work is called a maltster, and more and more are popping up in New England. The one I'm most interested in is Valley Malt in Hadley Massachusetts. They make malt from locally grown grains and even have a Malt of the Month Club that works like a CSA! If I start brewing, I'm joining.

Finally, you need hops. Hops used to be big business in New England, and thanks to the Northeast Hops Alliance, which was founded in 2001, they're making a comeback. Companies like Peak Organic are using all local hops grown just for them in many of their beers, and places like Foothill Hops in New York are selling locally grown hops to homebrewers. Better yet, hops are easy to grow and a lot of homebrewers are starting to grow them in their own backyards. Dennis has friends who found hops growing in their backyard in Wellfleet (to see a picture so you can check your backyard, click on over here), and he says he made an excellent IPA with them last summer. 

So an all-local brew? Yes, it's possible. It just takes a little more work.

Next Thursday we'll talk homebrewing with Gui and Dennis again—this time, they'll walk us through the process. I'll see you then.


Good morning

I just wanted to stop by and say we have not forgotten you. We have so many things to say, and so little time to say them in. 
Coming up: a potato bonanza, chocolate whole-wheat amaretto cake, and another home-baked bread. More soon, dear friends, more soon.


The Local Food Report: homebrewing, part 1

Let's talk beer. Not the kind you buy, but the kind you make at home. My friends Gui Yingling and Dennis Witnauer are part of a brew club in Wellfleet, and the other day, we sat down with a homebrewed pint and talked our way through the process—from history to ingredients to brewing itself. Let's start with a timeline.

According to Dennis, the current consensus is that beer brewing started with the Sumerians about 5,000 years ago. They think it happened by accident—someone left some barley out in the rain, it started to spore and grow, and in an effort to save it before it went bad, they heated it up. This led to the discovery that you could extract sugars from it, and malt was born. The Sumerians wrote out the earliest known beer recipe on a tablet—in the form of a prayer called Hymn to Ninkasi, who was the goddess of brewing. Goddess? Yes, because originally, women were the brewers.

Fast forward a few thousand years. It's the Middle Ages, and women are still the brewers. They're making beer at home the way people used to make bread: constantly, routinely, as part of running the kitchen and the home. Farmhouses all have their own brews just like they have their own loaves, and the beer is used mostly to serve to workers in place of water. Water might be contaminated with bacteria, but beer is mildly alcoholic and therefore clean.

By the time the Pilgrims set sail for the new world, Europeans were still making and using beer this way. It's rumored that the Pilgrims came ashore when they did because the Mayflower crew was worried that otherwise, there wouldn't be enough for them to drink on the sail home. The colonists learned to brew with new local grains like corn, so in a way, beer was one of the first locally produced artisanal foods in New England.

The number of beers and breweries in the United States grew fast—from 1 in 1612 to a record of 4,131 in 1873. Then came Prohibition, which changed everything.

I never really thought about it before, but as Gui pointed out, homebrewers are what made the American beer landscape so big. When homebrewing was outlawed, the number of beers and breweries in the United States plummeted. For a while there were basically just two kinds of beer—simple ales and simple lagers—and things were pretty boring. And because of a clerical error (making wine at home was legalized when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but making beer at home wasn't because the words "and beer" were apparently accidentally left out), homebrewing wasn't allowed again until 1978. Obviously, there were probably some people making beer at home during this period, but they weren't talking much about it.

Since Jimmy Carter legalized homebrewing again in the late 1970s, the number of homebrewers and micro-breweries has exploded. As Gui explained, the two go hand-in-hand, because a lot of micro-breweries are started by homebrewers who get passionate enough about their hobby to turn it into a business. If you want to see it as a graph, check out this cool timeline. As you can see, the number of breweries in the U.S. has climbed from under a hundred in the early 80s to over 1750 today! And as you can see from the breakdown, most of the growth in recent years has been in regional, craft, and micro-breweries, which is exciting.

Dennis says he sees the homebrewing movement as tied up with the local food movement, and he thinks the next step is for homebrewers to start growing their own grains and hops and learning to malt. Next week, we'll talk about who's doing what in local beer production. 

In the meantime, if you're interested in learning more about beer history, I highly recommend checking out www.beerhistory.com. It has all sorts of interesting (and hard to find) excerpts from books about the history of brewing in America, and a few specific to the northeast. My favorites excerpts are this one about George Washington, this one about Narragansett beer, and this one from the diary of a 19th century brewmaster.

Happy reading—and let me know if you find some other good ones!


For him & for me

Most days, Alex comes home for lunch. There's nothing particularly special about what we eat or do—it's often leftovers, and he can usually only stop for twenty minutes. I try to have the plates on the table by the time he gets here, and I often do the clearing and the dishes. But I don't mind. There's something about that quick hello! between breakfast and dinner—something about sending him off full of something hot and nourishing—that makes it all worth it.

My friend Sarah wrote a whole cookbook about these moments.  It's called The Newlywed Cookbook—just out from Chronicle—and it's all about taking care of the person you love in the kitchen. Her husband AndrĂ¡s is Hungarian, and when they first met, food was a big part of how she and his family communicated. There were sour cherries, ripe figs, and above all, plenty of meals shared cooking to dishes. Last November, someone new arrived to share this love of food with—a sweet baby girl named Greta.

This month, Sarah is hosting a virtual Valentine's Day party to celebrate the release of her book. The party started February first when Sarah posted about cooking us all a bittersweet chocolate tart with smoked sea salt and it will go right up until Valentine's Day. The idea is to cook something from the book for someone you love, and there are 12 bloggers helping to host. Today it's my turn. 

Of course, today was the one day Alex couldn't come home for lunch, caught up in a meeting. But I put together my recipe—Sarah's roasted beets with pistachios, that plate up there—anyway. I made one for him and one for me. And whenever he walks through the door—whether it's in an hour or at dinnertime—he knows there'll be a homemade meal ready.

P.S. Sarah and Chronicle Books have been generous enough to send me a copy of The Newlywed Cookbook to give to one of you! What do you cook for the people you love? Share in the comments, and I'll pick someone at random to send the book to. Happy Valentine's Day, everyone.


From the Newlywed Cookbook
Reprinted with permission from Sarah Copeland and Chronicle Books

{jewels on a plate} Good looks and powerful nutrients? What more could you wish for from a vegetable? You won't be thinking of how good this dish is for you when you're eating it, just how smart you are for putting it all together.

Serves 4 to 6

2 large beets/beetroots or 1 bunch baby beets/beetroots {about 1 1/4lb/570 g}, tops trimmed
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cara cara, navel, or blood oranges, peeled and cut into thick rounds
1/4 cup/35 g shelled Sicilian pistachios or regular pistachios {about 1 1/4 oz}
4 oz/115 g ricotta salata cheese
Small handful of fresh mint leaves, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F/230 degrees C/gas8. Trim the beet/beetroot tops to 1 in./2.5 cm and scrub the skins. Drizzle the beets generously with the olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put them in a small roasting pan with 1/4 in/6 mm of water. Cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil.

Roast until the beets are just fork tender, 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size. Set aside until cool enough to handle; cut off the root and stem ends and scrape off the skins {they should slip off easily} with a knife.

Quarter large beets or halve smaller ones and toss with additional olive oil just to coat, and salt and pepper.

Arrange them on a plate with the oranges, pistachios, and thin shavings of ricotta salata cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with fresh mint.

E.H. notes: When I made this, I used clementines in place of the oranges and Tekenink Tomme cheese from Robinson Farm in Hardwick, Mass. in place of the ricotta salata. I also used some tiny beet greens for garnish in place of mint leaves, since we don't have mint in our garden this time of year. The salad was delicious!


Balsamic & cinnamon

Remember that lamb stew I mentioned the other day? Well, I made it this week. It was hearty and delicious, and a pleasant break from chocolate. 

The lamb came from an animal we bought last spring from Greg at Borderbay. It's a Scottish Blackface, and it is utterly delicious. We pulled out two packages of shoulder chops for the stew, and while it was a bit of a trick to trim the meat off the bones, it was worth it. Wine and crushed tomatoes made up the backbone of the dish, and the addition of balsamic and cinnamon gave it a rich, wintery finish.

I highly recommend it.


This dish comes from Maria Speck's Ancient Grains for Modern Meals. Her original calls for raisins, but I swapped in cranberries for a local, seasonal change. They were perfect—tart, bright, with plenty of tang to cut the richness of the meat. 

2 cups water
1 cup wheat berries, soaked overnight
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder, trimmed from the bone and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 and 1/2 cups onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 quart crushed tomatoes 
1 cup red wine
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, plus extra for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 pound carrots, peeled, trimmed, and finely chopped
1 cup cranberries, fresh or frozen
1 teaspoon brown sugar
freshly ground pepper to taste

Bring the water and wheat berries to a boil in a medium saucepan. Cover the pot, turn the heat down as low as it goes, and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the grains are chewy. Set aside; keep the cooking liquid.

Season the lamb meat with salt and pepper. Heat up the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. When it starts to shimmer add the lamb and brown it on all sides. This should take roughly 5 minutes. Transfer the lamb to a plate.

Turn the heat down to medium and add the onion, garlic, cinnamon stick, and bay leaf. Season with a pinch of salt (about 1/4 teaspoon) and cook, stirring constantly, until the onion starts to get soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook for 30 seconds or so, then add the crushed tomatoes, red wine, balsamic, paprika, carrots, and remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt. Add the reserved meat.

Bring everything to a boil, then cover the pot, turn the heat down, and leave the stew to simmer for 30 minutes. Add the cranberries and the wheat berries with their cooking liquid. Bring everything back to a boil, then cover the pot again and turn the heat down. Simmer for another 40 minutes, or until the lamb is fork-tender. Add the sugar, taste, and adjust the seasonings as you like (I added a bit more balsamic and salt and pepper). Serve hot.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.