The Local Food Report: SNAP

Every year, the government doles out $1.2 billion to Massachusetts residents to help buy food. The program is called SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Until recently, the money was given out as food stamps—physical, tangible pieces of paper. But in the late 90s, SNAP went electronic. Residents who get food assistance now get it in the form of an EBT card—essentially a debit card—that is recharged by the state. You can use it pretty much anywhere you could use a credit card.

Unfortunately, this does not include most farmers' markets.

That up there is Gretel Norgeot, manager of the Orleans Farmers' Market, showing off a brand new POS (or point of sale) machine. It's new this year, thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. The state set aside $50,000 in 2009 to help expand and support the use of SNAP at farmers' markets, and it's starting to see some progress. As of 2007, only 9 farmers' markets could accept SNAP. By 2010, that number was up to 58. 

Orleans is one of the first markets on the Cape to be able to accept SNAP. (Falmouth, Plymouth, and the Sandwich summer market are also now hooked up with a POS machine.) It basically works like an ATM—you swipe your SNAP or credit or debit card just like you would at the grocery store. Only instead of cash, you receive tokens that are good only at the Orleans Farmers' Market. This is Gretel's system. Other markets have their own systems; she thought the tokens would work well because it meant the market only needed one machine, not one for every farmer. It also means that anyone who forgets cash but has their regular debit or credit card can get tokens to spend at the market. At the end of the day, the vendors hand their tokens in to Gretel in exchange for payment.

It's pretty neat. It's great for the farmers' markets, since it means growers have access to that $1.2 billion pool of SNAP money. And it's great for SNAP clients, who now have better access to fresh, healthy food from local farms.

The federal government also has grants available—a total of $4 million—to help address the problem. If you're a market manager or farmer interested in accepting SNAP, here's a link to get you started

And if you're looking to spend SNAP money at a farmers' market, here's how to find one near you.


The berries

Sally's bib has a pocket at the bottom. When I first saw this, the idea struck me as ridiculous. Sally was still just nursing, the package of bibs was from my grandmother, and I figured the neat and tidy food catching envelope represented a sort of quaint naivety.

Ha. It's nice to be wrong! Thank you Biee! I am dumbfounded by that food-catching bib's food-catching abilities. Sally is pleased because she gets to eat the same meal three times, and Fisher, who spends most of his time curled up under the high chair with high hopes, is stymied. 

What we're eating right now is strawberries. I picked our first half-pint yesterday, but we've been eating Tim Friary's from the market since Saturday. We have been eating them mostly plain, but also sliced on top of a batch of whole-wheat puffy pancake, and most recently, in a delightful salad of homegrown lettuce and berries, Parmesan ribbons, and fresh pecans a friend brought home from a small farmers' market down south. 

Are the berries ready at your house?


Our lettuce is still going gangbusters. And our strawberries are loaded! There's nothing quite like a salad from your own garden, and strawberries, pecans, and balsamic are a classic combination. Ribbons of Parmesan cut the sweetness, and a good unfiltered EVO will give your dressing some depth.

1 big head buttery lettuce, washed and torn 
1 cup strawberries, rinsed, hulled, and sliced
1/2 cup very fresh pecans, broken into bite-size bits
extra virgin olive oil (I like the unfiltered kind for this) and good balsamic vinegar to taste
sea salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste
Parmesan, for grating

Toss the lettuce, strawberries, and pecans together in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar and season with salt and pepper to taste. Use a carrot peeler to grate ribbons of Parmesan over top. Serve at once! I ate mine with a piece of toasted sourdough and a runny fried egg.


The Local Food Report: leeks

Sally and I were at the Orleans farmers' market the other day shopping for a leek. We needed one perfect leek for our butternut/shrimp bisque, and we noticed that every vendor had leeks with different amounts of white stem. Peter Fossel had a particularly nice-looking basket of leeks with long, white stems, so we decided to ask him: Peter, how do you get them?

It turns out we asked the right guy. Peter is something of an organic gardening guru: he's the author of Organic Farming: Everything You Need to Know and the former editor of Country Journal. Right now he's farming in Dennisport.

He says the secret to nice white leeks is a practice called hilling. Basically you plant seedlings indoors in the spring—Peter likes the King Richard variety—and when they're about 6 inches tall, good and sturdy, you transplant them out into the garden. You surround each one with a pile of straw and leaves, slowly adding more debris as the season wears on. You want enough mulch to really block the light, because the lack of sunshine is what makes the leek stalks turn white. You have to be careful, though, because too heavy or wet of a mulch will make the leeks rot to mush. This is why Peter uses straw or leaves instead of dirt.

Then you have to be patient. Leeks are long season plants—they take at least 75 days—and they can even over-winter if you mulch them generously. This winter, The Winter That Was Not, Peter let his leeks go til spring, and they did beautifully. That's them up there, the ones he was selling in Orleans the other day.

The green part is edible, but the white part is the sweetest. I used all of the white and a fair amount of the green for our soup, then threw the coarsest bits in the compost. Next week, I think I'll get enough for a pan of braised leeks. How do you eat yours? What variety are you growing? 


A warm hello

Hello from here, where the big news is lettuce. Big, beautiful lettuces in all shapes and sizes: we've got Blushed Butter Oaks and Italienischer and Red Sails and who knows what else from last year's seeds that volunteered.

I can't say we have been doing anything groundbreaking or revolutionary with them—we have been eating them tossed with olive oil and sea salt and cider vinegar—the normal way. But we have been eating them alongside some pretty great things, including a squash and seafood bisque I'd like to share. I wish I could spoon you out a bowl from the big orange pot sitting in the fridge. In lieu of that, here's the recipe, and a warm hello from Sally, from here.


This is another recipe inspired by items from the freezer. I found Maine shrimp in there, pureed squash from our garden, and a whole lot of seafood stock, and I searched around online until I found a reasonable approximation of a squash and seafood bisque. I changed it up quite a bit and ended up with this: a thick, satisfying pot of slightly sweet, slightly savory shrimp bisque.

1 leek, thinly sliced (use just the white and light green tender parts)
1/4 cup butter
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 medium-size butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
4 cups seafood stock, preferably homemade
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1 tablespoon chopped fresh fennel fronds
1 cup Maine shrimp
heavy cream to taste (I used about 1/4 cup)
salt and pepper to taste

Get out a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot and warm it up over medium-high heat. Add the leek and the butter and sauté, stirring often, for about 5-8 minutes, or until the leek softens up. Add the tomato paste and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the squash, stock, saffron, garam masala, and fennel, and bring to a boil. Simmer until the squash is tender, about 15-20 minutes. Use an immersion blender to puree (or transfer to a food processor/blender). Add the shrimp* and the heavy cream and salt and pepper to taste and simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the flavors come together and the shrimp is cooked through. Serve hot—we had ours with salad and cornbread.

*Note: Alternatively, you could pan sear the shrimp and serve them on top. I was feeling lazy, but I think going this route would be delicious.


The Local Food Report: agricultural land

I am a big fan of facts. Recently, the Association to Preserve Cape Cod released a whole slew of them in their report on agricultural land use. Here are the highlights:

Acres in cultivation—
  • in 1925, there were almost 36,000 acres of farmland in Barnstable County
  • by 1969, that number had dropped to 5,324, a loss of nearly 85%
  • today, the APCC estimates there are only 4,269 acres, including aquaculture
Farm size—
  • Our farms are small! the smallest is .19 acres
  • 29% of our farms are smaller than 5 acres
  • 66% are smaller than 10 acres
  • there are only 10 farms bigger than 75 acres
  • surprisingly, there is one parcel of farmland that is 228 acres
  • the state has identified 12 types of "prime" loam on the Cape
  • interestingly, we aren't farming much of it
  • only 13% of our farms are on prime agricultural land!
Farmer demographics—
  • 60% of our farmers are over 55
  • most have no one to take over the farm when they move on
Prominent historical agricultural products, by town—
  • Barnstable—cranberries
  • Brewster—fiber, wood
  • Chatham—shellfish
  • Dennis—cranberries
  • Eastham—asparagus, turnips, carrots, and cranberries
  • Falmouth—strawberries, oysters, cranberries, and cattle
  • Harwich—cranberries
  • Mashpee—cranberries
  • Orleans—ducks and cranberries
  • Provincetown—fishing
  • Sandwich—grain, dairy, and woodlands
  • Truro—grain, fiber, and cattle
  • Wellfleet—fisheries
  • Yarmouth—cranberries and shellfish
It's worth reading through the whole report—you can find it right here. There's a lot of interesting history in there—for instance, did you know that Falmouth used to be the biggest producer of strawberries east of the Mississippi and north of Maryland?!

It's also worth taking the time to check out the maps. You can see where the prime agricultural land is in your area, and how much of it is being farmed. (Not much, in most cases). 

The APCC is doing a lot of work to preserve these prime areas as farmland in perpetuity. You can learn more about protection programs over here. Maybe your land qualifies!


Cranberry drop biscuits

We're sitting at breakfast, Sally and I. We're having crispy sage and runny eggs and refried pinto beans smashed up with the first cherry tomatoes of the season from Ed & Betty at the Orleans farmers' market. We're listening to a story about smuggled art in the middle east and Sally's figuring out that her hands open and close at will and smearing yolk all over her face. 

I mop the bean juice and egg off my plate with a warm whole wheat/spelt/cranberry biscuit, and Sally polishes off her last pinto. I get up to clear the dishes and get a rag to clean her face,  and I'm pretty sure her little silver water cup is out of reach. Except it's not, and when I come back, there she is, holding onto the handle with five chubby little fingers, drinking politely. Good job! I say. I am amazed. She has never done this before. She stops, beams, then slams the cup down and water sprays all over the place.

We both grin; it's going to be a good day.


Since Sally was born, I have redoubled my efforts to avoid baking with all-purpose flour.  She isn't eating baked goods yet, but I figure I'd better improve my repertoire by the time she's ready. These biscuits are soft, crumbly, and delightfully full-bodied, with a touch of nutty sweetness from the whole grains.

1 and 1/2 cups whole-grain spelt flour
1 and 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 sticks cold butter
1 and 1/3 cups whole milk or buttermilk
1/4 cup honey
2/3 cup fresh cranberries

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. 

Whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut in the butter and rub it into pea-sized bits with your fingers. Pour in the milk and honey and cranberries and stir until you have a wet dough. Add another splash of milk if needed. Use a spoon to drop 12-15 biscuits onto a baking sheet or two, and bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown on top.


The Local Food Report: weir fishing

It's weir fishing season again. I described the fishery here, last year, and two years ago, I wrote a piece about the Eldredge family and their weir for Edible Cape Cod. This spring I met Nick Muto, who fishes with the only other weir company on the Cape. 

He told me a lot of interesting things. Weir fishing is old, older than I realized. The tradition of setting up nets and poles in the spring to catch migratory species dates back thousands of years. Even fifty years ago, in April and May, there were weirs every hundred yards or so along the shore here—all along Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay. Nick says he's heard all the roads leading from 6a to the beach are old trap roads where the horses dragged the poles down to the sea. He's seen nets filled with 30,000, 40,000 pounds, but he's heard stories of weirs backed up with hundreds of thousands of pounds of squid, panicking, shooting ink. Each time the net emptied it would refill again—stories from the glory days.

These days, there are only two weir companies operating on the Cape. There aren't nearly as many fish around—Nick thinks this is in part because of midwater trawlers and also because there are so many seals today—and so there isn't much money to be made. There's also a demand issue—we've forgotten how to eat all these migratory fish, the more unusual species like butterfish and tautog and mackerel and squid. The company Nick works with sells most of their product down south, to places that freeze and hold the fish. The other weir company recently started operating a CSF, or Community Supported Fishery, where they sell "shares" to families on the Cape. 

It would be nice to see a comeback for this fishery. Can you imagine—weirs up and down the shores of the Cape? Posts and nets lining the bay? It's a much more sustainable fishery than most—Nick estimates 80-90% of bycatch gets thrown back still alive, returned to the sea. And eating something besides cod and haddock would spread around the demand, help all the fisheries.

The next time you go to your local fishmarket, ask about the migratory species. In the spring do they sell local squid? Pogies? Scup? Herring? What about weir-caught bluefish and black sea bass? Butterfish? Mackerel? Tautog?

It's a tradition worth reviving.

P.S. If you are part of the Eldredge's CSF or able to get your hands on some of these migratory species through other local sources, check out these recipes for mackerel and squid. Happy eating!


I mean really?

The downstairs freezer is killing me. Sally and I visit it every morning while we do our errands around the house, and every morning I am amazed to find that there is still something in there. I mean really? We have been eating heart and liver and stewed rhubarb and crushed tomatoes and so on—something from down there—every day since January. How is it possible that there are still green beans in there from 2010? Sally is not impressed.

Thankfully, every once in a while, the icy depths dole out something we really need. I spent a long time the other day making hominy out of dried Oaxacan Green dent corn from our grain CSA. I soaked it, boiled it with lime, then kneaded the skins off and rinsed and rinsed and rinsed until finally the water came clean. Then I started looking for a dinner recipe, and I came across one for posole with pork and chipotle. (As far as I can tell, the word posole can be used to mean a stew made from pork and hominy or can just mean the cooked corn, hominy, itself.) I was sure we'd gone through all our pork and had finished the last of the frozen crushed tomatoes, but lo and behold, the freezer coughed up not only a pork shoulder but also a final quart of last summer's tomatoes from the garden. 

I was simultaneously disgusted and delighted. More delighted, I suppose, once I tasted the stew.


I've tweaked this recipe a fair amount from one I found in Whole Grains Every Day Every Way by Lorna Sass. It sounds odd, but it tastes like a tortilla in soup form. It's very hearty and delicious.

1 pound pork shoulder, on the bone
sea salt and freshly cracked pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
5 cups cooked hominy
2 tablespoons fresh minced oregano
2 large bay leaves
2 cups crushed tomatoes
1 cup red wine
4 cups water
1-2 tablespoons chipotle powder or rub
fresh cilantro, for garnish
yogurt or sour cream, for garnish

Get out a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Rinse the pork, pat it dry, and rub it with salt and pepper. Heat up the olive oil in the pot over high heat and brown the pork for 2-3 minutes on each side. Transfer it to a plate and set it aside.

Turn the heat down to medium-high. Add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes, or until soft and golden brown. Add the garlic and tomato paste cook another minute, then stir in the hominy, oregano, bay leaves, crushed tomatoes, red wine, water, and chipotle powder. Stir well and season with salt and pepper.

Put the pork back in the pot and scoot it around so that it's covered with liquid. Bring everything to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and simmer for 2-3 hours, until the sauce starts to get thick and the pork is so tender it's falling off the bone. Serve hot with cilantro and yogurt.


We're singing

We're singing old camp songs and thinning arugula and I've got Sally all set up on a big yellow sheet my grandmother passed down to me with a whole truckload of toys. I'm bent over the rows; there's happy squealing; I'm thinking we're doing pretty well. Then things get quiet for a moment. I look over again, and Sally's giddily licking her fingers, which she's ceremoniously dipped in the dirt. She is not happy when I come over, rearrange the blanket, wipe the black off the chubby stubs.

We pick ourselves up and get back to thinning and studying the tag on our stuffed lion's bottom. I'm feeling like a bad mother—pay attention! constant attention—when I remember this sentence I read somewhere about how pigs suckled without access to dirt are anemic. Maybe Sally needs the iron in the soil? That's the theory we are operating under for now.

At any rate, fresh baby arugula for dinner with strong olive oil and lemon juice and feta. The first of spring's homegrown.


Comfort food

A lot of good things happened this week. Sally said ma-ma! I turned 27. My sister and my mom and Alex's parents and his grandmother all came down for the day, and our friend Tracy brought over the season's first lilac blooms. Two of my best friends moved home for the summer, and our garden grew one of the fattest spears of asparagus I've ever seen. 

Some not so good things happened too. Sally bit me; we both cried. All three of us got a terrible cold, and we found a bunny living under our shed. I've only seen him eating clover so far, but his hideout is right next to the garden, and I know it's only a matter of time. We're going tomorrow to borrow a Have-a-Heart from a friend.

In the kitchen, my mom and I made two rhubarb pies, and my sister and I made Arroz con Pollo twice. The recipe comes from a blog she reads, A Cozy Kitchen. The dish is supposed to be chicken with rice, but I made it once with oat groats and once with a grab bag of oat groats, farro, and brown rice–we've already used up two grains from our CSA!—and both times it came out tasting absolutely fabulous. I used a good amount of homemade crushed tomatoes in my version (the last ones! good thing those new plants are in the greenhouse), and the second time we added shrimp and seafood stock for a more paella-esque rendition. 

However you make it, it's comfort food at its best. How has your week been?


I have never really liked rice. This drives Alex nuts. It's helpful when it comes to eating locally, though, because there is no local rice and there are lots of other great New England-grown grains. I like this best with oat groats, but it's also great with farro, and now that we're out of both of those, I'm thinking rye berries might be nice. If you want to go in a paella direction, try adding some Maine shrimp for the last 15 minutes of cooking and using seafood stock instead of chicken stock. 

2 tablespoons olive oil
6 assorted chicken pieces
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon saffron threads
a pinch of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1 pint crushed tomatoes
1 and 3/4 cups oat groats or farro
2 cups chicken stock

Warm up the oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the chicken, skin side down and brown for about 5 minutes. Flip it and brown the other side for about 3 minutes longer. Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside.

Turn the heat down to medium and add the onion to the pot. Sauté for about 5 minutes, until soft and translucent, then add the garlic. Cook for another minute, until you just start to smell it, then add the carrots and the spices and and pour in the crushed tomatoes. Bring everything to a boil, add the grains, and stir until they're thoroughly coated. Arrange the chicken on top, pour in the stock, and cover the pot. Turn the heat down to low and simmer for about half an hour. 

Take the top off and check on the dish—if there's still a lot of liquid, uncover the pot, if not, leave it covered—and simmer for another 15-25 minutes. Taste for salt, season as needed, and serve hot. 


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