Food often figures prominently at the heart of my closest relationships, as well as at the center of my favorite recollections, my most memorable travels, and of course in regular, everyday living.
My partner of 16 years has been the one with whom I have shared some of the most incredible meals, close to home and far away. In fact, it was food that wove our lives together as friends, before we were even a couple. And it was at our wedding, 16 years ago today, that we shared a meal with family and friends in my parent’s backyard which we had prepared by hand and served out of my mother's kitchen. It was only fitting, since it was in my parent’s home that I learned to eat well, to grow my own vegetables and fruits, and to cook wonderful foods from scratch.
It quickly became a cornerstone of our marriage to open our home and prepare a table of food to eat with friends new and old. We’ve probably thrown well over one hundred dinner parties, and a couple of handfuls of big holiday parties – all with food made by hand, and with love. But whether we were having a meal with many or just a few, or even just the two of us, one thing has been constant – honoring the importance of sitting down together, while eating good food – simple or otherwise.
There have been plenty of reports over the years which connect eating family meals with more open communication, better grades, good behavior and better social adjustment for teens, lower incidences of substance abuse, and healthier lifelong nutritional habits for children in families who sit down to a shared meal.
Is that surprising? It is a powerful message to send that we have made ourselves too busy to sit and eat together, or that the television carries greater weight in our homes than each other during mealtimes. No doubt schedules are pulling families in many directions, but when something is important enough, time can be made, at least on a regular basis.
The bottom line, really, is alignment between what we profess to be important (family, good communication, healthy relationships with ourselves and with others, nutrition and physical activity, spiritual and mental health) and what we really end up doing. Of course finding that alignment is often not the easiest course – racing home from busy days fighting traffic, travel schedules, and workloads – but it’s probably one of the most critical to a happy life.
One of the things I appreciate most about my partner is that he keeps sacred the time that we spend together over meals. Even though time is stretched, travel schedules are busy, and workdays are long, carving out enough time to come home and share dinner together is a priority for the day. It is a time for us to check in, swap stories, plan for upcoming projects or travels or visits – and just to simply be together.
So in 16 years of marriage, I’ve learned a few things, among them that fact that he loves red sauce, potatoes and broccoli, but still won’t eat eggplant or shiitake mushrooms. Topping the list has to be declaring what is truly important, and then following through to make it happen. It hasn’t been a perfectly executed model, but with enough time and practice, I’d say we’re getting there.
So cheers to us, and to you and yours – and to many more meals eaten together.
Rösti (Swiss Shredded Potato Pancake)
4 medium russet or Yukon Gold potatoes (allow 1-2 per person)
pinch of salt for each potato
freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter, or a combination of both
Shred scrubbed potatoes onto a large cutting board or bowl and toss with salt and pepper.
Heat a cast-iron skillet or other heavy skillet over medium-low heat until very warm to the touch. Add oil or butter and swirl to coat the entire surface of the pan. Sprinkle the shredded potatoes evenly over the entire pan surface, leaving a 1/4” space around the entire perimeter. Long method: cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes on the first side, or until deeply golden brown and crispy. Flip the entire pan with potato cake onto a large cover or cookie sheet. Add a little more oil to the pan if necessary. Slide the potato cake back into the skillet and cook, uncovered, for an additional 20 minutes.
Shorter method: cook, covered, for about 10 minutes or until the first side is a deep, golden brown. Re-oil pan and flip as directed above, but cook uncovered on the second side to develop a nice crust, about 10 minutes. When second side is finished, flip the cake back to recrisp the first side.
Carefully slide the entire potato cake onto a cutting board and cut into wedges, or cut in pan, and serve immediately.
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.
With Earth Day just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about how important making healthy decisions are for our kids - not just for their little bodies, but also for the earth and what that inheritance will look like in their future.
Of course there are so many related issues that contribute to the health of our children, from school lunches to exercise, but my focus is on the importance of eating clean, organic foods, and minimizing exposure to chemicals in our most controllable environment – home.
Children are sponges, as we know, absorbing information through all of their senses at a rapid rate. The same is true for their bodies: because children are small beings, growing and developing so quickly, they are more susceptible to suffering an impact to their health and development through chemical exposure. Potential damage comes their way on a daily basis through contact with pesticides, plastics, common personal care products, cleaning product residues and building materials.
It’s not one chemical or another that can be isolated as doing the most damage, rather it’s the accumulated exposure to a plethora of chemicals that has the most impact on growing bodies. Environmental exposure is linked to endocrine-disrupting toxins, which affect young girls in their pubertal development by wreaking havoc with their endocrine, or hormone, systems. It’s also linked to neurodevelopmental disabilities, which include learning disabilities, ADHD and Autism, as well as more common ailments such as asthma, allergies and eczema.
The overall picture can be gloomy and overwhelming, which is why I think that it’s critical to look closely to see how we can minimize risk to our children by making changes at the place where they spend the most time – at home.
First, make an commitment to buy as much organic dairy, meat and produce as possible. When we look at pesticides, it is sobering to read that even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows that 33% of all pesticides are potentially cancer-causing, in spite of the fact that they are EPA-approved. Topping the list of foods that are most important to buy as organics are milk, meat, baby food, oatmeal, apples, potatoes, grapes, strawberries, peppers, peaches and pears. Click here for a link to a downloadable shoppers guide to fruits and veggies.
Second, clean up your home. Do you have a cabinet of household cleaners that is locked so that your children can’t get into them? Why use household cleaners that are dangerous to your family in the first place? There a many safe, effective cleaners available – either premade in the natural cleaning section of the store, or at any co-op grocer. Natural alternatives can be made at home with as few ingredients as baking soda, lemons and vinegar. Click here for a helpful link of 10 things to do to make your home safer. (I’m teaching a class at Lakewinds Minnetonka on Green Cleaning on May 5 which gives recipes and ideas for greening your home).
Third, lead by example, and avoid using the most harmful beauty care products that you wouldn’t want your children using. Toxins are found as synthetic ingredients in nail polish, perfumes, cosmetics, shampoos, and lotions. For everyday products, choose natural alternatives, but look closely at the ingredients to make sure that the label matches the claim (ie: no hidden synthetics), and avoid products with petrolatum, phenols, sodium laurel sulfate, phthalates, parabens, and propylene glycol - to name just a few. Follow this link to a shopper’s guide to keep in your wallet as easy way to remember. Read about homemade skin care products in today's article in the StarTrib Variety section about the classes that I teach.
How will all of this help the earth? By cleaning up the cycle of harm and repair. The fewer toxins that are created to grow our food, unclog our drains or wash our skin, the cleaner our rivers, lakes, oceans and soil will be – from the manufacturing process to the waste process – allowing a healthier world to exist for generations to come. I think our children deserve a greener legacy than the one we're on target to deliver. Every single small change matters.
Scrub Your Sink
2 tablespoons baking soda
Wet the surface of sink. Sprinkle baking soda liberally over entire surface. Squirt lemon juice over baking soda and watch it sizzle. Scrub away soap scum easily with a cleaning cloth or sponge.
Safe Hand Soap Pump Refill
8 oz liquid castille soap (available as Dr. Bronners in a bottle, or bulk at local food co-op groceries)
40 drops peppermint essential oil (optional)
Reuse an empty soap pump container with this mixture for an affordable, non-toxic and naturally antibacterial alternative for clean hands. Suitable for children and adults.
Simple Body Oil
2 oz. sweet almond oil, coconut oil (I like Wilderness Family or Nutiva brands), or olive oil (cold-pressed extra-virgin)
5-10 drops lavender essential oil (or your favorite essential oil) - optional
Shake to combine in a small glass bottle or jar. Use over the whole body after showering and before toweling dry for silky smooth skin. Store remainder tightly covered in a cool, dark place. Suitable for children and adults.
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.
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.