I’m a big fan of knowing where my food comes from, as much as possible. There’s no better time to start planning on where to source food closest to home - either from a garden that is grown in your own backyard or a community garden, a pot of herbs on a patio or windowsill, or from a local CSA that delivers fresh vegetables weekly throughout the growing season.
There are so many ways to create a little patch of urban garden that will reward your family with green growing treats throughout the season. A section of turf can be turned into a bountiful kitchen garden; a wood box made from untreated lumber can be transformed into a raised bed garden; a big pot can grow a bumper crop of the most delicious cherry tomatoes right on your deck; and even a little trough of soil can sprout a nice variety of herbs to snip and use in salads or cooking throughout the season.
If a garden in your yard isn’t possible, then there may still be time to join a community garden. Your best bet is to find a community garden near you that is a little on the young side to find available space to grow. Gardening Matters is a website that runs a listserv with lots of information and all kinds of community gardening talk.
No time to garden? A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share is a wonderful way to become directly involved in a small farm by directly investing in the farm operations in return for a weekly share of vegetables throughout the season. A CSA might be one step removed from a backyard garden, but it still provides the share members with a close connection to the growing season. With weekly updates along with a box of vegetables, members are naturally partners and risk takers as the changing whims of weather and nature positively or negatively impact the produce grown on the farm. The reward is incredible – fresh off the farm vegetables, with a deeper understanding of what truly seasonal food means and how hard it is to be a farmer.
Even if there is only time to make a weekly trip to the farmers’ market, the benefits of eating vegetables grown as close to your back door as possible are huge. Less time spent out of the ground means fresher, more nutrient-packed and better tasting vegetables, which need nothing more than a little washing and light preparation to make their flavors sing.
I saw a reproduction of an old sign when I was shopping at the Traditional Foods Warehouse yesterday. It read:
1. Buy it with thought.
2. Cook it with care.
3. Serve just enough.
4. Save what will keep.
5. Eat what would spoil
6. Home grown is best.
Just about says it all, doesn’t it?
Spring-Summer Garden Salad with Herbs in a Bowl
1 clove garlic or 2 teaspoons minced garlic scapes
juice of 1/4 lemon, squeezed
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
big pinch sea salt
2 - 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
freshly ground pepper
2 big handfuls fresh salad greens, rinsed and spun dry - use any combination of arugula, baby greens, leaf lettuce
1 big handful fresh herbs - use any combination of basil, oregano, mint, tarragon and nasturtiums
In a big salad bowl, combine garlic, onion, lemon juice, mustard and salt. Whisk with a fork to combine. Let sit while you wash and spin-dry the lettuce and remove the herbs from their stems. Whisk the olive oil into the salad bowl ingredients until well-combined. Add pepper and salt to taste. Tear lettuce into the bowl and add the handful of fresh herbs. Using two forks or two big serving spoons, toss the salad greens with the dressing in the bowl until all the leaves are coated and glossy with oil. Taste a leaf and add more fresh pepper as desired. Garnish with a big handful of pansies or nasturtiums and serve.
If you’re the type of consumer who stands in front of an array of choices at the grocery store and wonders about making the best choice for your family, it’s possible that you may have thought about which egg to buy. There are so many choices besides medium, large and jumbo: you have to decide between white or brown, organic or free-range, Omega-3 eggs or pastured eggs.
So, does it matter? Yes and no. There is no difference between a white egg and brown, except which hen was laying it: different breeds of hens produce different colors of eggs. But the rest of it? Yes, of course it matters - but it also requires knowing something about the farm and how they produced the egg.
For eggs to be certified organic, the grains fed to hens must be certified organic, free of conventional pesticides, fertilizers, growth hormones and antibiotics, plus the birds must have organically-raised bedding and have access to the outdoors, including fresh air and exercise. Free-range eggs means that hens can move about freely, and either live outdoors or have access to the outdoors, although there are no regulated standards for this access or their diet or supplements. Omega-3 eggs are eggs produced by hens whose food is supplemented with flax seed or fish oils.
The color of the yolk gives an indication of what the hen ate before she laid the egg. A hen fed a mostly wheat diet will have a pale yellow yolk, and a grain-fed diet high in corn or alfalfa will produce a darker yellow yolk, but a pastured hen who truly has access to forage outdoors will have a deep orange-yellow yolk in her egg.
So what do these differences really tell us? In many ways, getting to the bottom of it only makes things more confusing, because producers can comply with standards by adhering to the very loosest interpretation of the definitions. Take “access to the outdoors” for example. For some producers, compliance with that standard means having a small open window or door where the confined birds could conceivably get outside, although chances are small that it actually happen, or that the access to which the birds are allowed is anything more than a concrete pad.
There is one more category of eggs which is the gold standard for egg quality – pastured eggs. Hens on pasture have access to the outdoors to scratch and peck for food either as their complete diet or as a supplement to some grains depending on the time of year. There are plenty of studies that show that pastured eggs have a higher nutrition level and lower fat and cholesterol levels than eggs from grain-fed hens. Compared to conventional supermarket eggs, pastured eggs contain more Omega-3 fatty acids, higher Vitamin E and A, folic acid, B-12 and even more Vitamin D. (If you’re interested in reading the studies, visit www.eatwild.com for links and references.)
So how do you find a good egg? First, find a local source, preferably a farm with small production who can ensure the quality of egg that you’re looking for. Local food co-ops carry a variety of choices of for organic and truly free-range eggs from local egg producers who vary in the size of their facilities, including Larry Schultz and Harmony Valley. To find organic, pastured eggs, you have to search a little harder. I visit the Traditional Foods Warehouse to find one of my favorite local sources for eggs - Alvin Schlangen Family Farms. A visit to their site will tell you all about the way the Schlangen family raises their hens plus sources to find their eggs, including local co-ops and home delivery.
Local farmers markets are another great place to get fresh, local, pastured eggs – including duck and goose eggs – direct from the farmer. No mysteries there - you can ask the farmer all about how their hens are raised. Chances are the farmer will be more than happy to give you the answer.
As with most things food-related, there is one clear way to tell the difference: taste. An organic, pastured egg will taste far better than a watery, pale supermarket egg. An egg yolk is supposed to be orange, not pale yellow, and Mother Nature’s guide to how things are supposed to look is a pretty good bet for how things are supposed to be in the world. In this case, it's humanely-raised birds who have a daily routine to do what they love best - scratch and peck outside, looking for their food.
In the New York Times this week, it was reported that Nestlé was one of 17 companies that received letters of warning from the FDA about misleading food labeling. (See article here.)
It’s tiring isn’t it? Trying to keep up with who’s doing what and which claims are true and what to eat and what not to eat. Here’s the bottom line: nobody in the processed food industry is going to help you make the best decision for your eating habits.
Ultimately, a return to eating whole foods is the best direction you can take your eating plan. And when you simplify it down to whole foods, food isn’t really such a mystery. The printing on a bag of potatoes reads potatoes.
So what is a whole foods eating plan look like? Eating foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, that are minimally processed or altered from their original source. That means eating an apple instead of apple juice, roasted chicken instead of breaded chicken cutlets, or a bowl of rice instead of a handful of rice crackers.
When foods are “whole”, they have more of their nutrients intact, they have more fiber and they provide a broad array of phytonutrients full of beneficial compounds that are important for preventing disease, maintaining health and all-around wellness. Whole foods also contain healthy fats instead of dangerous trans-fats, and are naturally low in sodium and sugar.
To train yourself to eat more whole foods, start by shopping for the majority of your food from the perimeter of the grocery store. It is a good rule of thumb when it comes to a healthy diet to fill most of your shopping basket there with fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, fish, grass-fed, organic or free-range meats.
Eating a wide variety of whole grains in their whole form is another important step. By eating whole grains, you’re getting loads of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, plenty of fiber, plus the extra benefits, such as a feeling of satiety to help prevent overeating, and a long, slow burn of energy which is better for blood glucose and insulin levels after eating.
A perfect example of choosing whole foods vs. processed foods can happen at breakfast. Now that cereal box might say “Made With Whole Grains”, but a puffed, squeezed, extruded or sweetened nugget packed into a box is not exactly a whole food anymore, nor is it a good value, money-wise or food-wise. A better breakfast choice would be oatmeal made from regular oats – the kind you cook for 3-5 minutes, not the instant oatmeal sugary packs. Topping the oatmeal with some fruit like thawed frozen berries or sliced banana, plus raisins, nuts or seeds, a little whole milk plain yogurt, then sweetened with real maple syrup or honey would round out a very nutritious, whole foods breakfast that will keep you full until lunchtime instead of looking for a mid-morning snack.
We can avoid plenty of food-detective work by simply eating whole foods and moving away from processed and packaged foods. Eat whole fruits and vegetables. Eat more whole grains - try brown rice, quinoa, or wild rice – or try whole grain versions of current foods you eat, like breads or pastas. Throw some beans into that pot of chili for extra nutrition that you can’t get from a meat chili alone.
Instead of a frozen, baked pasta dinner, boil a pot of water and cook some whole grain spaghettini (skinny spaghetti). Top the pasta with tomato sauce and some steamed broccoli. Serve it with a salad, with a grated carrot that you prep while the pasta cooks, real cherry tomatoes (they only need rinsing), and drizzle with a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon with salt and pepper. It can be that simple.
Crockpot Spicy Black Beans and Rice Soup
1 1/2 cups dried black beans, soaked overnight and drained
1 small onion, diced into 1/4” cubes
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 small chipotle chile from canned chipotles in adobo sauce, minced - OR 1/2 teaspoon dried chipotle chile
2/3 cup short grain brown rice
1 bunch cilantro with stems, chopped
1 14.5 oz can organic fire-roasted tomatoes, chopped if whole, juice reserved
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
whole organic yogurt (for garnish)
grated organic cheddar cheese (for garnish)
salt and pepper to taste
In the bowl of a crockpot, combine the drained black beans, onion, garlic, chipotle chile, and rice with half of the cilantro and enough water to cover by 2 inches. Let cook on low for 6-8 hours or until you’re ready to eat. Stir in the canned, chopped tomatoes, remaining cilantro, smoked paprika, ground cumin, salt to taste, and let warm through. Garnish with yogurt and cheese as desired.
I have heard the term “eating organic” used in many different ways - both negative and positive. Used negatively, it is most often inserted in sentences that begin with “My family doesn’t like it when I cook organic food,” associating healthy preparations with organic ingredients. Used positively, it is connected with making choices about eating healthfully, keeping up with current information on organic standards, and preparing or perhaps growing one’s own food.
Taken literally, “eating organic” means to eat a diet that is natural, pesticide- and additive-free, which admittedly can be hard to do 100% of the time. Foods can be prepared at home or in a restaurant with organic ingredients, but it is misleading to think that “organic food” is a type of food that can somehow be judged by mistaking the source for its flavor.
So how does one “eat organic”? For many, moving towards eating organic foods may mean changing habits about not only what foods are eaten but also how they’re eaten. The shift may be eating more meals at home with foods prepared by scratch in order to connect the dots between making thoughtful choices about eating a wide variety of foods and incorporating healthful ingredients into balanced meals.
If your family already cooks at home, then eating organically may be as simple as exchanging conventional ingredients for organics in favorite recipes. Perhaps your favorite recipes aren’t all that healthy, though: there the challenge is to transition to preparing favorite tastes in a more healthful manner. Swapping out refined ingredients for whole grains, gathering new healthy recipes, or taking a cooking class (here I insert a shameless plug for the healthy cooking classes that I teach) are all ways to make the transition easier.
If cooking has not been a priority in your home, then the changes might be a little more intense: it definitely takes more time to shop, prepare and cook fresh foods than it does to pick up fast food or microwave a dinner. But the advantages of cooking for one’s diet are many, including eating higher quality and fresher foods that have a lower sodium content, healthier fats, and less sugar. If there are children at home to help with some of the preparations, there may be additional benefits. Kids are more likely to try a wider variety of foods if they have had a hand in making it.
No matter what the transition to eating more organics looks like in your home, there is one little change that everyone can make: eating a larger proportion of organic vegetables and fruits at every meal. These are the powerhouses of a good diet, keeping our hearts healthy, our bodies protected from environmental damage, holding cholesterol in check, and maintaining our weight at optimum levels. It can be as simple as adding a salad or steamed vegetables to the dinner plate, extra fruit in a bowl of oatmeal or a smoothie, or eating a piece of fruit as a snack.
I decided to write a short response to some of the reader comments about eating local foods by way of root vegetables in warming soups last week. The blog focused on fresh, cold-storage vegetables that can be sourced right now, in the dead of winter.
Here’s the deal: I’m not against eating locally hunted meats, fowl and fish. I think that it is a healthy practice to be aware of where all of our food comes from, no matter if it is sourced from the animal or plant world.
We are fortunate to live in a state with an abundance of farm lands, natural spaces, lakes, rivers and streams from which to hunt, fish or gather foods to feed our families. Besides hunting and fishing, the most local you can get is having a vegetable garden or fruit trees right in your own backyard. Many, however, choose not to hunt, fish or garden, or lack the access to such activities and opt instead to source food from restaurants, grocery stores, farm markets, or from the farms themselves. In that case, it can be either challenging or an adventure trying to find good sources of local foods. I thought it would be interesting to see just how many local producers or local-focused restaurants I could list right from our own region off the top of my head. Although there are many more wonderful farms and food producers out there than I could list, I am focusing on just a handful of whole foods suppliers.
I’ll start with a group of small organic farmers, growers or CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture farms) who are selling their fresh produce in stores year-round:
Dehn’s Garden (herbs) Andover, MN
Driftless Organics (potatoes) Soldier’s Grove, WI
Gardens of Egan (vegetables) Farmington, MN
Harmony Valley (vegetables) Viroqua, WI
LaBore Farms (hydroponic lettuces) Faribault, MN
Rock Spring (herbs, vegetables) Decorah, IA
Next, dairy - a small sample of producers of milk and milk products including cheeses, ice creams: and yogurts:
Castle Rock Dairy Osseo, WI
Cedar Summit Farm New Prague, MN
Crystal Ball Farms Osceola, WI
Cultural Revolution Kalona, IA
Pastureland Cooperative Goodhue, MN (the most wonderful butter)
Shepherd’s Way Carver County, MN (sheep's milk products)
A short list of local meat producers:
Beelers (pork) Le Mars, IA
Kadejan (poultry) Glenwood, MN
Larry Schultz (eggs, poultry) Owatonna, MN
Schlangen Family Farms (eggs, poultry) Freeport, MN
Thousand Hills Cattle Company (beef) Cannon Falls, MN
A couple of frozen local foods and a local honey:
Ames Farm Honey Watertown, MN
Sno-Pac (frozen vegetables) Caledonia, MN
Sonny’s Ice Cream Minneapolis, MN
Local restaurants I love that have a dedicated commitment to locally-sourced, organic ingredients:
The Creamery (Downsville, Wisconsin)
Local grocers who have a serious focus to local and organic foods:
Really, the list could go on and on - but for a snapshot, that’s a pretty big list of small-scale local suppliers right around here providing wonderful ingredients to help put delicious meals on our tables.
Local means something different to everyone - some might stop at their backyard, and some consider 100 miles or even a region - but definitely transported without jet fuel to count as local. No matter the boundary that is drawn, it means that someone is taking the time to provide foods that are more than an industry. To these growers, farmers, chefs and stores, this is a way of life. It’s happening on the ground, in our neighborhoods, out in a field or pasture, in a barn: it’s certainly not new, and it’s definitely not lucrative, but it is a commitment that I am proud to recognize as happening in my own (regional) backyard.
Eating locally and seasonally is an easy prospect to get excited about in warm months. But what about when it feels like the tundra out there? In the beginning of February in Minnesota, we still have a long way to go before local vegetables are coming straight out of our ground again. A trip to the grocery store is a lesson in blissful denial - with so many beautiful vegetables and fruits coming from across the country or halfway around the world, why would anyone have to worry about finding only foods that are grown nearby?
Or at the very least, couldn’t we wait until spring before we think about eating locally and seasonally again? Not really. Eating local foods matters all year long. Food issues surrounding the long-haul transport of foods, the economy of growing, selling and buying food and the importance of eating nutritionally-dense foods grown near the place you live don’t go away in the winter.
But what to eat right now? Homemade soup!
We’re lucky to have plenty of foods that came out of the ground a few months back and are still around to nourish and sustain us. We have root vegetables in all shapes, sizes and colors; turnips, beets, parsnips, celery root (celeriac), carrots and potatoes. We have onions, garlic, and shallots. We have cabbage. We have local butter for sautéeing all of those vegetables, and cheese for garnishing the bowl. Plus, we have local chickens and meats for rounding out a pot of soup.
Of course, soups or stews – or their cousin, the casserole – are among the very best ways to eat the less glamorous members of the vegetable world in the middle of winter. Onions, garlic, root vegetables and cabbages are packed with nutrients that heal us, boost our immunity and ward off inflammation in the body which protects us from heart disease, cancer and other age- or environment-related ailments. Plus, soup filled with all of those delicious ingredients is the kind of food that makes sense when we hear the words “eating seasonally”, because a steaming bowl of soup sounds so wonderful when it’s desperately cold outside.
No matter where you go in the world, there is a soup pot on a stove somewhere, filled with the local ingredients of that area that makes it taste completely of the place. Soup is good for us in so many ways. It is a perfect thing for removing a winter chill. It is excellent for opening up a stuffy nose. Soup fills up the belly, may aid in weight loss (except the beer cheese varietals), makes us feel comforted and almost always a little bit better than we did before.
So your soup might be different than my soup – maybe you’re lucky enough to have a wonderful recipe from your mother or grandmother – and it will taste like your memories. It will certainly also taste of the place where you live or have lived, and of all the wonderful ingredients that will find their way into your pot.
But here’s to hoping we have this in common - that our soup has a few locally-source ingredients, and that it warms us to the core.
Winter Vegetable Potage
1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium leeks (white parts only), sliced into rings or 1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 medium carrots, cut into 1/4” dice
1 medium Yukon Gold potato, cut into 1/4” dice
1 medium turnip, peeled and cut into 1/4” dice
1/2 head orange or white cauliflower, roughly chopped
1 small or 1/2 large sweet potato, cut into 1/4” dice
1 small celeriac (celery root), peeled and cut into 1/4” dice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
6 cups filtered water or vegetable stock
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons of fresh herbs - parsley, rosemary, or thyme, minced
Place oil and butter in a medium enameled cast iron soup pot or other soup pot over medium heat and add the onion, stirring to coat. Cook until translucent and add the garlic. Stir and cook for a few minutes longer, until garlic has lost its raw smell. Add the diced root vegetables, stir to coat with oil, and sauté until the potato is sticking to the pan and the pieces are beginning to turn golden, about 5-8 minutes. Season with salt and stir. Add water or stock and let the soup come to a gentle boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Carefully purée half or all of the soup in a blender or with a stick blender until smooth or leave slightly chunky. Season with salt and pepper to taste, garnish with fresh herbs and serve.
***This soup is totally forgiving and adaptable to any root vegetables you especially like or happen to get at the farmer's market or in a CSA share. Mix and match! Turnips, parsnips, orange cauliflower, white beets, rutabaga will all work.