Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What About the Taco Truck? or Carbon vs. Culture?

I was musing happily, perhaps a bit self-righteously, on my recent refocus on local food, when I drove by my favorite taco truck out on Guide Meridian. That got me wondering. Then, further down Meridian near my house I went by the Asia Market. That got me wondering some more.

Let's say foodshed eating goes beyond local produce week and becomes a way of life for thousands. If John Rawlins is right about our future in the upcoming post-oil economy, we'll have no choice. (For a report on his recent speech at WCC by John Stark, go to http://news.tradingcharts.com/futures/5/7/104000775.html.) As we savor our cream of nettle soup in spring and our baked pears with blackberry wine sauce (Pasek Cellars, Skagit County), are we really going to lose the chance to eat pan dulce (hard wheat flour and sugar!), or taco de lengua (masa! lime slice!) or Thai gaeng dom yam gai (coconut milk!), or falafel (sesame seeds! garbanzos!).

Can we eat a healthy and delicious diet of local foods? Of course. Would we lose more than just the chance to pamper our palates with new tastes? I think so. Food is such a powerful carrier of culture and memory, a link for thousands of our neighbors between memories of home and the new life in the U.S. For native Northwesterners like me it's a daily reminder of the blessings of diversity. I'll celebrate the day when we don't waste our resources on tasteless mega-strawberries from California and Chilean peaches that should have stayed home. I have high hopes for the baby peach tree that, along with four blueberry bushes, is replacing grass in my front yard (all from Cloud Mountain Farm). But I don't want walls along our borders to keep out people, or flavors.

Cheap, cheerful, local and easy

My daughter and son-in-law stopped by today and Ronny installed my new cat door, which took a lot of doing. I don't know why each manufacturer feels the need to make a slightly different dimension, so the new door doesn't match the old hole.

I thought I'd whip up a bit of lunch in thanks, and the produce selection was slim. Onions, great local carrots (but not in their first youth), a couple of shallot sprouts poking out of the snow on its pot on the deck.

I sauteed half a red onion, the chopped shallot sprouts, and three grated carrots in olive oil for a couple of minutes, and then added a can of chopped clams, a splash of white wine and three dried tomatoes. (If they weren't the oil cured soft kind I would have soaked them first). I kept it all on low in a cast iron skillet until the onion was mostly soft but the carrots still had a bit of crunch. My daughter doesn't like soft cooked carrots, and anyway the extra texture is nice in such a minimalist dish.

We ate it over rigatoni. It was great. I skipped the cheese and didn't miss it a bit. If I had had a handful of Italian parsley I would have used it, but I didn't miss that either.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

I used to hate beets

I hated beets because they were sweetly insipid or else harshly pickled. And under that sometimes I could taste that metallic tang that can also happen with chard stems if they aren't properly cooked.

But now I know better, and beets are a local-eating favorite. In the winter especially they brighten the table with their ruby (or golden) glow. The basic secret is to bake them, not boil them. The only problem with that is that it takes so long, especially with the big guys that keep so well. You can microwave them at about 10 minutes per biggish beet, but then you lose the touch of carmelization that makes them so wonderful when baked. If I'm short on time I split the difference. I'll put maybe four beets in the microwave for 10 minutes and then transfer them to a 375 degree oven--whole, unpeeled--on a cookie tray covered with olive-oiled baker's parchment (you can get it unbleached at the Food Co-op, and put it in the food waste toter along with the compost if you have pickup). Sometime a roast a head of garlic at the same time.

I start checking after 45 minutes and bring them out when they are tender but before they get squishy. Let them rest a few minutes, and then peel and cube. They can be served warm, but I prefer a room temperature salad with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, chopped toasted hazelnuts, and some crumbled salty cheese. I like feta best. For a local option, a crumbly goat cheese is a good choice. It needs to be an assertive flavor, or the beets will just overpower it, even if you don't add some chopped garlic. A bit of overwintered parsley or some corn salad leaves make a nice visual.

January Chard

This time of year I crave fresh greens. I've had all the roasted beets I want for awhile, delicious and versatile though they are. The Co-op has lots of pretty green things, but they mostly come from far away and I'm trying to reactivate my local winter palate.

Local produce can be scarce, and the surviving garden crops tend to be tough and raggedy. In my small city garden the regular lettuce is gone and the corn salad is so hunkered down and so mud-spattered that's it's hard to get excited about it. So, it's pretty much down to kale, leeks, and chard.

Today I'm going for chard. Unlike kale, chard's flavor doesn't improve with a freeze. The surviving leaves tend to be a bit leathery and strong tasting, so a quick stirfry doesn't always do the trick. I like make variations on a traditional Sicilian pizza topping. I use olive oil; butter could work for strict locavores, or the greens can be braised over lower heat with a touch of hazelnut oil from Holmquists Hazelnuts in northern Whatcom County.

Chop up onions and/or leeks and garlic, maybe a cup of the oniony flavors to a large bunch of chard, including stems, and cook until onions are soft and chard is limp. I use a cast-iron skillet. Add two or three dried tomatoes. (Soak them in hot water for 15 minutes first, unless they are already cured in olive oil and therefore soft.) If your Sicilian loyalty outweighs your local foodshed convictions, you may want to add sliced Sicilian olives, a handful of raisins (traditional and weirdly good), and an anchovy that will dissolve into an untraceable and delicious additional flavor. Simmer the combination, covered, for another 10-15 minutes.

The results take the boredom right out of winter meals. Italians bake it on a pizza crust. Cheese isn't really needed, but locally made Cotija tastes great. It also goes well with pasta, and locavores can use it on wonderful Whatcom grown potatoes.