Sunday, March 30, 2008

Because scratch-cooked food is just better, that's why.

I've been thinking a lot about cooking from scratch since I posted here. Eating locally pretty much assumes you're willing (and able) to cook from scratch. But it doesn't seem as if many people are actually cooking from scratch, and when they are it's not so much because they want the best food possible on their tables. I have a regular google search set up for the term, and every day I get a few new hits. And every day, by far the majority are for mentions of cooking from scratch for reasons of frugality, not for food quality or taste.

Why are so few people talking about cooking from scratch because scratch-cooked food is just better food?

It's better because you know all the ingredients. No butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is needed for freshness or calcium proprionate to reduce mold growth or any other food additives to make up for the fact the basic ingredients had no flavor or to improve texture or mouth feel or color or palatability.

You know the ingredients were top quality and in prime condition. As compared to prepared foods, which contain ingredients so highly processed you have no idea what condition they were in when they started down the assembly line. That whole chicken you bought at the farmers' market just looked fresh. What does chicken look like before it's made into Tyson chicken fritters?

You know how the ingredients were prepared because you prepared them. You know the tomato peels weren't removed by spraying them with carboxylic acid because you peeled the tomatoes -- or decided not to remove the peels. You know the person who diced your carrots wasn't coughing all over them because you diced them.

You know what proportions the ingredients were in. You tweaked the recipe to your own family's tastes -- you used more garlic, less cayenne, butter instead of olive oil, left out the tree nuts, added extra veggies, whatever. You didn't need to add MSG to make the recipe universally appealing because you only needed to appeal to a small group, not the entire country.

You end up with something on your plate that you know, intimately. You know it's good food because you made it that way.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Foraging: Wild Garlic

Wild garlic (Allium Vineale), along with wild onion (Allium Canadense), is one of the earliest harbingers of spring. I've been getting interested in learning more about foods we can forage here in Southwestern Ohio, and spring is prime foraging time. So I walked out to the boggy semi-wooded area of my back yard today. Sure enough, there were numerous clumps of wild garlic. You probably have some in your yard, too. They're easiest to see this time of year before you've started mowing, as they start growing before the grass does. They prefer wet areas at the edge of woods, so look under trees and wherever the ground tends to get marshy in the spring.

Growing, wild onion and wild garlic look very much alike in the early spring. According to the Michigan State Extension Service, wild garlic leaves are round and hollow and attach to the lower half of the stem. Wild onion leaves are flat, not hollow, and attach at the bulb.

It was helpful we've had so much rain recently, as in Cincinnati's heavy clay I'd've had a hard time harvesting these if the soil hadn't been waterlogged. I managed to pull up three clumps whole with bulbs covered in wet-clay mud, but one clump came up just leaves and no bulbs. But that's fine, there's plenty of flavor in the leaves, too. These are best in early spring, from mid-March to mid-April, while the tops are tender.

Cleaning these things is a royal pain. Mud, leaves, sticks, worms. Don't clean them in the In-Sink-Erator side of your sink. Trust me on this. But the hassle is worth it: you've just foraged a food from your backyard. How cool is that? And even cooler, this is a food that undoubtedly your great-times-five-hundred-grandmother was foraging in early spring 10,000 years ago as a member of some hunter-gatherer tribe. Now that's a traditional food! So turn on some music and get ready to stand at the sink for a while. Gx500Grandma rinsed them squatting by a snowmelt-fed stream. Kwitcherbitchin.

Here's what wild garlic looks like with most of the mud washed off but not yet trimmed. In my heavy clay this early in the year, the bulb ends haven't gotten very big. If you have a looser loam, you might get nice big bulbs, especially if you're harvesting in late April.

You can see the light brown hulls remaining on many of the bulbs. These slip off fairly easily -- soaking in warm water helps with the stubborn ones -- and then you just pinch off the roots between your fingers.

Here's what they look like trimmed and ready to use in a recipe. At this point, you can wrap them loosely in a damp paper towel and stick them into a plastic bag in the fridge for a couple of days, just like chives or other fresh herbs.

Wild garlic can be substituted for fresh chives (in which case you can just snip off the tops instead of pulling them and skip all the cleaning!) or for shallots, making its early appearance a boon to cooks trying to eat locally. However, it's not easy to find recipes specifying wild garlic. Most of what you find instead are recipes for ramps, one of the most prized of spring's foraged foods, which are called wild garlic in the UK. However, I did find one wild garlic recipe in The African-American Heritage Cookbook. I've adapted it here:

Serves 1

1 slice bacon, diced
1/4 c wild garlic, chopped
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 t salt
1/8 t pepper

In a hot pan, saute bacon until nearly crisp. Stir in garlic and let cook until bacon is crisp. Stir in eggs and seasonings and fry, stirring, until eggs are done to your taste. Serve immediately.

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Carol, I learned that there's a lookalike, False Garlic/Crow Poison (Nothoscordum Bivalve) that blooms much longer (the true allium blooms only for a short time) and doesn't have the onion/garlic smell. It looks like this.

Jamie Oliver: Scratch Cooking

Jamie Oliver, the British television cooking-show chef, is starting a new series in which he plans to teach people how to cook from scratch.

"We spend over £2bn a year on ready meals, and that's not even counting junk food and takeaways," said Oliver. "Millions of people up and down the country are really busy, they're on tight budgets, and no one has bothered to teach them how to cook. It's no wonder that the last thing they want to do at the end of the day is cook a meal from scratch."

He's taking his inspiration from the British government's hugely successful propaganda campaigns during World War II, which included the Ministry of Agriculture's Dig for Victory, a series of posters advocating planting home gardens, and the Ministry of Food's The Kitchen Front, a series of BBC radio shorts which through vignettes of life with the Buggins family instructed housewives in how to feed their families well despite food rationing.

"I hope that once people see how quick, cheap and easy - as well as rewarding - it can be to prepare good food for you and your family, the ready meals and takeaways will be straight in the bin."

Here at Cincinnati Locavore we're big fans of cooking from scratch, and not only because it's literally the only way to manage eating locally. Scratch cooking means knowing your ingredients and being able to pronounce them! So we'd love to see this series. Unfortunately the intense focus on the UK will probably keep it from crossing the pond, same as his Jamie's School Dinners series. Guess we'll have to wait for the DVD!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Chain restaurants sourcing locally

The Washington Post yesterday ran an article featuring chain restaurants which are experimenting with sourcing locally, including Chipotle Mexican Grill. But for Chipotle, supplying a single franchise with a single ingredient has required nearly a year and a half of planning and a complete revisioning of distribution channels.

This month, Chipotle hopes to serve 100 percent Polyface pork in Charlottesville [VA]. But that success comes after 17 months of complex negotiations and logistics, including buying extra cooking equipment, developing new recipes, adjusting work schedules and investing in temperature-monitoring technology for Polyface's delivery van. In recent months, [Chipotle's operations director for the northeast region Phil] Petrilli has visited the Charlottesville outlet about every two weeks, four times as often as he visits other restaurants in the region.

Even if Chipotle's experiment is just a marketing ploy to provide that trendy aura of corporate green awareness and responsibility -- greenwashing -- the message is a powerful one: Going Local is Possible. So big applause for their efforts. I do have to wonder if it's really possible to translate this to the rest of their ingredients and their other 699 outlets. It seems as if doing so would inevitably destroy the economies of scale that make fast food so cheap. Can fast food survive with slow food prices?

We're Famous!

Thanks to alert reader Vudutu we learned this morning that Cincinnati Locavore has been selected by CityBeat as one of the best blogs in town. From their Best of Cincinnati 2008:

Best Source of Micro-Local Media:

Cincinnati has a wealth of blog sites devoted to incredibly local topics, and many are quite good: Cincinnati Locavore, whose theme of “eat local, live local” inspired this Best of Cincinnati issue (; Building Cincinnati, which covers local community development (; CityKin, which promotes urban living (; Queen City Survey, which also promotes urban living and is having a cool NCAA-type bracket tournament to determine the area’s best architecture (; and the readers’ choice for Best Blog, Buy Cincy, which promotes one of our favorite causes: supporting locally owned independent businesses (

Thanks, CityBeat! We're all a-twitter! And congrats to the great blogs Building Cincinnati, CityKin, Queen City Survey and Buy Cincy, all of which are on our Google Reader here at CinciLocavore.

Early March: Butternut Squash and Spinach Pasta

As I work on improving my seasonal recipe collection, I'm going to start listing recipes that support seasonal cooking -- that is, those whose primary ingredients are available locally together.

March is not the easiest month for locavores. Autumn veggies are about used up (or quickly becoming unusable unless you have a root cellar) and spring veggies are only available from farmers growing in hoophouses. Here in Cincinnati we're lucky that the butternut squash season lasts late enough that we generally have a few of them still left in late winter and many local farmers do grow spinach in hoophouses over the winter. (Try Lucy from Boulder Belt Farm at the Oxford Winter Market or Greenacres Farm in Indian Hill -- both grow in hoophouses.)

This recipe comes from Dance By The Light, and it's a keeper. Husband and son were fighting over the leftovers at 10:00 at night.

Serves 4

1 butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 onion, chopped
4 slices bacon, diced
1 T chopped fresh rosemary
3 T olive oil (divided use)
Salt and Pepper
1 pound penne pasta
6 oz spinach, rinsed, stemmed and coarsely chopped
2 oz Parmigiano Reggiano, grated

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss squash, onion, bacon, and rosemary with 1 tablespoon olive oil and spread in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until tender and browned, 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. Place spinach in a large bowl. Put a colander over the bowl and drain pasta over the leaves. Let sit 1 minute; drain well and squeeze out excess water from spinach.

Toss spinach with pasta, squash mixture, and remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Toss with Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Chicken stock into the freezer

I used the last of the chicken stock in my freezer this week, so Thursday I made another batch using a chicken carcass, a couple of chicken necks, and several bags of veggie trimmings I'd been collecting in the freezer. I used six cups of it that evening for bean soup and today I put 18 cups into the freezer. I used 1-cup packages this time, as I've been finding I often need just a single cup of stock for a recipe.

I've got another carcass in the freezer, and I'm roasting a chicken tonight so that'll be a second. I think as soon as I get another couple bags of veggie trimmings together I'll make another big batch.


Garage Freezer:

18 cups chicken stock 3/08

How to avoid genetically-modified food

Thanks to Food Democracy for this handy tip:

The product look-up code (PLU) is a 4 or 5 digit code on items sold loose or by bunch, by weight or by each. Most non-prebagged produce in the supermarket is sold this way. The program is voluntary, but if a shipper is using the system, you can determine whether an item is genetically modified or organic from the PLU.

  • Conventionally grown food (not genetically modified, not organic) will have a 4 digit PLU.
  • Organic food will have 5 digits starting with a 9, e.g. an organically grown banana would be 94011.
  • Genetically modified food will have 5 digits starting with an 8, e.g. a genetically engineered vine ripe tomato would be 84805.

Again, this system is voluntary. No shipper is required to use it, and the fact that there's no "8" prefix on a PLU doesn't guarantee it's not a genetically modified product. Ask your supermarket manager to find out for you whether their shipper is using the 8 prefix for genetically modified foods.

Or better yet, buy your produce directly from the farmer.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pollan on making exceptions to eating local

Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food) spoke to a UC Berkely audience about eating local but not making a religion of it. From an article at InsideBayArea by San Francisco-area chef Aaron French:

While [Pollan] recommends shopping at farmers markets and growing your own food, he sees plenty of justifiable exceptions to the locavore's mantra of only eating foods produced as close to home as possible.The energy it takes to transport food can be offset by a number of other complicated factors.

"I don't think we should buy all-local anyway," says Pollan, who says he is reluctant to give up his Italian-produced pasta.

Asked how he expected economically challenged people to afford the high cost of natural foods, he admits, "It's hard to grow good food and we don't pay enough." Another attendee raised the argument of saving time; a tempting byproduct of convenience foods."We now spend an average of two hours a day on the Internet," he says, "compared with less than 1½ hours per day shopping, preparing, eating and cleaning up our three meals a day. It's simply a matter of reversing our priorities."

How many people will value good food over cheap, convenient food? This is an issue I expect to come to a head this year, as the cost of our food continues to rise. From the Boston Globe:

Many analysts expect consumers to keep paying more for food. Wholesale food prices, an indicator of where supermarket prices are headed, rose last month at the fastest rate since 2003, with egg prices jumping 60 percent from a year ago, pasta products 30 percent, and fruits and vegetables 20 percent, according to the Labor Department.

Nanotechnology and food

Two recent reports, one in a UK scientific journal and the other from an environmental lobbying group, warn that untested nanotechnologies are being used in common supermarket items such as beer, chocolate, and cling wrap.

Nanotechnology is the use of atomic- and molecular-sized particles (nanoparticles) to manipulate materials. (Here is an excellent video primer.)

In industrial foods, this technology can be used to manipulate flavor, texture, color and nutritional qualities or to lengthen shelf life. It's also used to provide 'traceability' to food products -- that is, to allow governments and corporations to be able to track a particular food back to its source in case of a food safety incident. It's also being used in food packaging and storage materials and in agricultural chemicals.

The issue is that when materials are manipulated at this level, the properties of the material can change profoundly. Which means that nanotechnology foods may have major differences at the molecular level from the real foods they resemble, which in turn means we can't be sure what they'll do once they're inside our bodies. Unfortunately, little testing is being done -- because none is required -- on the safety of these new nanofoods. And no labelling is required, so consumers can't easily avoid the altered foods.

From lobbying group Friends of the Earth's Out of the Laboratory and Onto Our Plates:

Nanoparticles can be more chemically reactive and more bioactive than larger particles. Because of their very small size, nanoparticles have much greater access to our bodies, so they are more likely than larger particles to enter cells, tissues, and organs.

Their recommendation? Buy local and organic. Avoid processed foods as much as possible. I'm detecting a pattern here.

Scientists from the Central Science Laboratory in York, UK, writing in the scientific journal Food Additives and Contaminants, agree that there has not been adequate testing to asses the risks of using nanotechnology in food processing and packaging. They too warned that nanoparticles can cross into the body's cells.

More good reasons to get to know your food.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Caffeine found in Cincinnati drinking water

A recent AP investigation which tested the drinking water of shows that some Cincinnati area water supplies, including those of Norwood, Reading, Florence and Butler, Warren and Boone Counties, contains caffeine and several over-the-counter and prescription pharmaceutical drugs.

From the original AP article:

The presence of so many prescription drugs — and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen — in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health.

In the course of a five-month inquiry, the AP discovered that drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas — from Southern California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit to Louisville, Ky.

Water providers rarely disclose results of pharmaceutical screenings, unless pressed, the AP found. For example, the head of a group representing major California suppliers said the public "doesn't know how to interpret the information" and might be unduly alarmed.

Another look at food miles

I'll never argue 'food miles' as one of my main reasons for eating locally. My main concerns are taste, freshness, sustainability, healthy eating, and supporting local farmers. However, here from the Washington Post is a calculation of fuel per conventional vs. farmers market food miles for all those naysayers who seem to think decreasing one's food miles is the only reason anyone would go to the trouble of eating locally. This won't shut them up, but at least it provides an alternative point of view. The writer is a farmer and a fellow and director of Appalachian Sustainable Development.

Of late, a number of commentators have disparaged local food economies, based on two claims: First, that shipping food long distances in fully loaded tractor-trailers is more efficient than local transactions; and, second, that consumers travel much further to buy local foods, creating more, not less carbon emissions. They're wrong.

I don't know whose calculations are correct. I hope local eating also helps lower my environmental impact, at least a little. But even if it had zero net positive effect on my carbon footprint, I'd still eat local.

Eating Local in Oak Park IL. (Or: yes, it's possible. Yes, even outside CA. Yes, even in winter.)

There's a great article in yesterday's Chicago Tribune by a blogger who has been eating locally in Oak Park, IL for three years now. He's not making a religion of it -- as he points out, he cooks with olive oil and spices, drinks coffee, salts his food.

Our basic premise is, if it is available in our area, we will get it only from our area. That's seasonal eating. That's preserving the harvest. So what does that mean for right now, as the ides of March approach? It means we are eating a lot of root vegetables. And apples -- thank god my kids never tire of apples.
He's honest about the drawbacks of eating locally:
What you give up is ease. Eating local means dealing with foods in their rawest states. I believe that the rutabaga was pushed from the kitchen because of the burden of peeling. But this is a small burden. A lot of the burdens of eating local are small, and they diminish as the longer you do it, the better you get.
And he's equally honest about his reasons for doing so:
I am an eater, a foodie. I appreciate the impact that eating local has on our climate and our economy, but eating local satisfies me most in the gullet.

Next time some reporter can't get past the carbon footprint issue, I'm sending her this article.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sweet Sorghum: our uniquely local sweetener

Sorghum, a sweet syrup that can be used in place of molasses in recipes and in place of maple syrup as a table sweetener, is made from the sorghum cane, and it's arguably our most uniquely regional sweetener. Its flavor is unique, spicy and tangy and flavorful and not so overpoweringly sweet as honey or maple syrup and without the slight bitterness of molasses.

Sorghum cane is well-suited to growing in the lower Midwest (Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri are historically the major producers) and in Appalachia, and today it is produced in only a few states. It looks a bit like very tall corn with a seed heads instead of ears.

Sorghum cane is harvested by cutting it off at ground level and stripping it of leaves and seed heads, leaving a cane 5 to 11 feet long. At this point it looks a little like bamboo.

The cane is then milled, crushing it to release the juices.

The juices are collected...

...and simmered to thicken them, similar to the process of making maple syrup from sugar maple sap.

I don't know of any Cincinnati producers of sorghum, but Hidden Valley Sorghum Mill in Butler OH (north of Columbus) and Bourbon Barrel Foods in Louisville are fairly local. Barry Farm produces it up in Cridersville, near Wapakoneta. Hidden Valley's Sorghum can be found at Pipkins.