Monday, January 23, 2012

Winter Wonders

Intense color on your plate is one way to banish winter blahs and learn to love seasonal eating. Picture a spoonful of red cabbage braised with apples and caraway seed next to golden cubes of roasted butternut squash exotically scented with cinnamon and cardamom. That's not just eye-catching; it's a nutrition bonanza. Ditto a dish of spinach pasta with stir-fried kale, garlic, sunflower seeds and bright lemon zest, garnished with grated Parmesan cheese. Consider a bowl of black bean chili topped with the pure white dazzle of fresh local yogurt or sour cream and a sprinkle of chopped fresh greens beside a bowl of yellow rice.

Cabbage...kale...winter squashes...rice and colorful beans...this is how we are supposed to eat right now. Here is the moment to really appreciate the blessings of cold weather crops, those long-lived vegetables at the heart of winter farmers' markets, and the beauty of dried beans with that other preserved crop, rice. They make for eating at its most economical, ecological and exceptional nutritionally. Plus they can make you feel good not just physically but better yet, by knowing you're not destroying the planet trying to have fresh blueberries and bell peppers at this time of year--because you miss them or can't think of anything else to eat.

The red cabbage recipe is in How to Fix a Leek and Other Food from Your Farmer's Market. Here is the butternut squash that will be in this year's edition: roast a whole squash at 350 for about 50 minutes or until it is soft to the touch but not mushy. Cool, peel, seed and dice it. In a large skillet, heat 3 tbsp corn oil and add 1/2 tsp cumin seeds with 2 dried red chili peppers, chopped. Saute 30 seconds and add 1 large red onion diced. Continue to saute 5-7 minutes until the onion is soft and caramelized. Add 1 tsp ground coriander, 1/2 tsp ground cardamom and 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon, stir and then add the diced squash. Add the juice of a lime, 1 tbsp brown sugar and 1/2 tsp salt. Blend everything. Keep stirring so nothing sticks to the pan, cooking until the squash is soft to a fork and heated through. Serve garnished with chopped fresh parsley or cilantro.

If you are a carnivore, now is the time to garnish these great dishes with roasted bits of locally produced meat. Maybe a brisket with the red cabbage and some mashed potatoes. Maybe a roast chicken with the butternut squash. Maybe a pork loin roasted with dried apricots, dried cranberries, prunes and onions served with wild rice and steamed kale. Tiz also the season of the small shrimp that go well with penne, parsley and peas (frozen from last spring).

For vivid color and robust flavor, easy to achieve and economical to serve for lunch or a light supper, try this red lentil soup, which serves 4-6:

3 tbsp olive oil

1 lg onion, diced

2 lg garlic cloves, minced

1 fresh red chili, seeded and minced

1/8 tsp ground chili powder

2 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp ground coriander

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 tsp fenugreek seeds, ground if you can, no big deal if you can't

1 tsp celery seeds

1 tbsp tomato paste

1 ¼ cup split red lentils

4 cups vegetable stock and 2 cups of water

½ tsp freshly ground or cracked black pepper

½ tsp salt or more to your taste

for garnish

1 bunch scallions, finely chopped

1 bunch flat leaf parsley leaves only, chopped

juice of ½ fresh lemon (or lemon wedges for each bowl)

In a heavy gauge medium size lidded casserole or other such pan, heat oil over medium. Add onion, garlic, chili, chili powder, cumin seed and ground coriander, stirring to blend. Sauté over medium heat until onion is soft, 3-5 minutes. Add carrot and cook another 2 minutes. Add fenugreek, celery seeds and tomato paste.

Stir in the lentils, blending everything

Pour in the stock and water. Bring to a boil. Immediately cut heat to low, partially cover the pot and

simmer 35-40 minutes.The lentils should now be mushy and the soup thick.

Serve garnished with chopped scallions and parsley and lemon juice or wedges.

If you prefer a smooth soup, puree before garnishing.

You can turn this into a first class feast, by adding the best locally baked bread you can find, creamy local farm fresh sweet (unsalted) butter and high quality sea salt to sprinkle on top. If you don't do butter, go for the best local cheeses--a trio of them with varying textures. You won't believe how stunning a table set like this can be. Simple things done with perfection can serve enough joy to send you sailing into the new year.

Gong hay fa choi, everyone. The water dragon has arrived.

Or as the Chinese used to say: May your rice never burn.

Friday, January 13, 2012

"Organic" tomatoes and the end of maple syrup

The new year started with even more reasons for those of us who care about the food we eat to buy only from our local farmers. Under the headline, "Planting the Desert", the New York Times told the story of how the precious, limited subterranean water supply that sustains life on the sandy, barren Baja peninsula of California is being sucked dry by industrial agriculture mega monoplanting tomatoes. This is to provide a steady winter supply flowing into American supermarkets. Think about that: growing gazillions of acres of tomatoes in desert sand where nothing else grows and in hot sun to boot. A lot of water going out, a lot of fertilizer coming in.

This is how our consumer culture works: as long as some of us think it's perfectly okay to slice fresh tomatoes into January's salads, others of us feel its perfectly okay to destroy the planet to provide them.

Often these picture perfect winter tomatoes are labeled "organic", which makes them all the more glamorous and desirable, and, of course, more expensive than those hardballs gassed in trucks on their way up from the Everglades of Florida. These recent tomatoes are technically organic: no line in the sand they have been grown in bears any hint of pesticide residue, although fertilizer build up and run-off has become significant. It is in fact a major source of the degradation that will destroy the lives of Baja natives.

The systematic destruction in pursuit of summer tomatoes and related vegetables like bell peppers for winter markets has called into question the whole meaning of the word "organic." When it first came into our collective consciousness as part of the '60s counterculture, it defined products grown and harvested by hand instead of machinery, grown in soils in shouting distance from the point of sale, food grown without pesticides or artificial chemically formulated fertilizers so that the soil was never degraded and remained healthy. It was used for food that was the deliberate antithesis, the nemesis, of the corporate industrial supermarket product. Later, as science and technology ramped up, organic also came to mean food grown from a pure old fashioned unadulterated seed, and not some genetically modified, man made or pesticide imbued one.

A decade into the 21st century, a significant crop of industrial agriculture horror stories inevitably ginned up organic food as the only way to eat and be well. Even if it costs more, everybody who was anybody wants it. The elite chic has made it even more of a must-do, and thus ever more profitable. So inevitably industrial food corporations and supermarkets, in a race to the profitable bottom line, used their political muscle to exert enough pressure to bend this word to their business model. That's why Wal-mart sells "organic" fruits and vegetables, why the local supermarket touts its organic blueberries flown in from Chile and cucumbers double-trucked from Mexico. That's why even if you live where you have to drive through new fallen snow to get them, you can eat fresh, organic tomatoes and bell peppers in February.

Nowadays big business "organic" merely means not grown with pesticides, and that's about it for the old definition's parameters. It does not mean the soil is not being degraded or local or the growing system is harmless enough to be sustainable. It does not mean by hand. And it definitely does not mean the farmer growing the food is getting a living wage for the extra effort. The farmer is the same slave to the price fixing of big agriculture as the non-organic grower.

The essence of our capitalist system is to find a need and fill it. That is what all this means. Which also means if there is no need for fresh tomatoes in January-- no demand as it were, there would be no need to destroy Baja California and other formerly pristine places where people have lived for centuries to supply them. That's really the crux. And that hinges on blindly believing in the constant consumer come-on that you can have it all, and have it your way, 24/7. Just today in the New York Times, via the AP: Americans in general have come to expect that they should be able to buy blueberries, spinach and other things even when they're not in season in the U.S. "This is about the expectation that we're going to have raspberries when it's snowing in Ithaca," said Marion Nestle, a food studies professor at New York University.

Admittedly it is tough to go against a cultural grain doing its damnedest to nourish us on the profitable
have it all pitch. It is a tough sell to tell somebody to give something up, to sacrifice what they can so easily enjoy. Especially when everybody else seems to be doing it. Self-control can be a real bitch. But in the end, it is the only thingamabob that will do the job of changing things and saving us.

One of the ways to stop thinking it's perfectly normal to eat fresh tomatoes in January is to remember it is actually much healthier and more nourishing--for you, for planet Earth, for everybody on it-- to eat the way Mother Nature and Father Time taught us: seasonally. I had a friend who used to gorge on Maine shrimp while they were pouring off the boats in January, until she couldn't peel another one. This was perfect because the season ended and she was done with shrimp. She did the same thing with summer vegetables like tomatoes, almost orgiastically eating and cooking them every which way through August and September while they were most prolific on the vine, until she couldn't bear to see another one for a year. This is binge eating at its best. And it's actually the traditional hunter-gatherer m.o.: feast for days on the hunted animal, then m
ove on to gather other things. It's more creative and less stressful on the body.

Another way to now eat seasonally is, of course, to buy all the fresh tomatoes you can get your hands on during the harvest season and can, roast, freeze or cook them into soups and pasta sauce to preserve for winter eating. Owning your own tomatoes this way, you drop out of demand, and automatically impact the supply side, nudging it down to help save Baja California and other tomato hot spots like the Everglades of Florida. Here is something you can actually do if you care about climate change, environmental degradation and the sustainability of other people's lives. It's speaking up.

You do it also if you care about the economy of your own community. Supporting a local farmer by buying his crops encourages greening the land, freshening the air, keeping money in the neighborhood, widening your property tax base and securing a food supply for times of trouble. You can't do that grabbing a plastic box of del Cabo cherry tomatoes on sale now at the supermarket, Cabo being the famous name for southern tip of Baja.

You may even be saving your maple syrup in years to come. Evidence from New Hampshire now indicates that global warming has changed the leaf cycle of the sugar maple trees, weakening them and thus decreasing the sap rise. All New England producers are already feeling negative affects. The line on today's graph leads to the total extinction of maple syrup by mid-century--unless global warming is reversed. That means a world even less sweet than it is now, and possibly a killer tsunami of high fructose corn syrup.