Simply in Season

News and reflections on all that's good about local food
from the co-author of Simply in Season,
a World Community Cookbook in the spirit of More-with-Less

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What's so special about sweet potatoes

The Simply in Season recipe of the week, Black Bean Sweet Potato Burritos, is on my personal top 12 (or 13) list of favorite SIS recipes (narrowing it down to a “Top 10” is just too hard). It’s definitely my favorite meatless burrito. The combination of sweet potatoes and black beans is fabulous -- not to mention an excellent nutritional choice.

To make this recipe super easy and fast, don’t bother with the baking step; just warm a tortilla in the microwave for a few seconds, scoop in the filling, and eat.

(Having chopped onions in the freezer ready to go speeds things up, too. I like to chop 8-10 cups of onions at a time with the slicer attachment on my Bosch machine -- no weeping required -- and spread them in 9 x 13 pans, freeze, then transfer to gallon-sized zippered plastic bags. Break off chunks as needed and throw right into your skillet. The same process works well for garlic (use the large holes of a grating attachment), and fresh ginger root can be peeled, minced and frozen this way, too. In summer and early fall, seed and chop bell peppers to freeze like this as well; mincing hot peppers with a machine will prevent burning your hands. Recipes go so much easier when these initial chopping steps are out of the way.)

My only problem with this burrito is that, alas, there aren’t many local growers here that offer sweet potatoes. Thus it doesn’t seem like I get to make them often enough.

It reminds me of the sweet potato fries my husband and I treat ourselves to at Burgerville. This is a Northwest fast food chain with an impressive commitment to using local ingredients. It means that their menu changes with the seasons. Fresh berry milkshakes are available only in the spring and summer. Walla Walla onion rings appear in summer. And sweet potato fries are only around for a few months in the late fall/early winter. We like them so much that we have been known to skip the burger part of a meal and just go for the fries.

I’m always sad to see the sweet potato fries disappear from Burgerville’s menu. But there’s no denying that they wouldn’t be as exciting if they were available all the time.

In Simply in Season, one of the story contributors reflects on how the abundance and year-round availability of foods in North America comes with a downside (page 196). What is everyday by definition is less than special. Rather than delighting in each season’s edible wonders, we take them for granted -- even to the point where we feel entitled to them and disgruntled when we can’t get what we want when we want it. Appreciation sours into indifference or worse.

Returning to eating with the seasons offers a chance to get back some of the joy in food our culture has lost.

What do you say? Are there foods you eat only at certain times of year, and that are more special because of it?

Friday, February 17, 2006

The other food pyramid

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the Simply in Season recipe of the week, Company Muffins, is the book’s only recipe that meets an impressive standard: it contains every single nutritional element in the USDA’s Food Pyramid: whole grains, milk and oil, yes; protein (walnuts or flax seeds and eggs), yes; fruit (apples and raisins), yes; vegetables (grated carrots), yes. So much goodness in a little muffin!

And based on seeing these muffins sampled at a booksigning, I can vouch for their taste. They're moist and just sweet enough. Kids go for them. I think baking them in mini-muffin tins makes these treats especially appealing.

While we’re talking about the nutritional food pyramid, it’s a good time to pass on the word about a new and different sort of food pyramid: one that encourages choices for a healthy environment as well as healthy bodies.

The Wild Farm Alliance Food Pyramid can be downloaded and folded into a paper pyramid to stand on your dining table as a reminder of how our food choices are connected with nature -- and how we can help to support sustainable farming.

The pyramid promotes eating foods that are:
-- Local and in-season
-- Organic and free of genetically modified organisms
-- Pasture-raised
-- Sustainably harvested
-- Predator-friendly
-- Shade-grown and salmon safe

Take a look sometime!

You’ll want a warm drink to go with your muffins (and maybe a good book). Fair trade would be a good topic for another day, but in the meanwhile I wanted to share this great Grist column on “green” coffee.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The local apple of our eye

"Cheap imports may benefit United States consumers, but they're about as welcome as maggots to [U.S. apple growers].” -- Washington Times (Dec. 25, 1998)

The Simply in Season recipe of the week, Curried Vegetable Bisque, is a wonderful soup with an unusual ingredient. How many soups do you know that use five cups of chopped apples?

With the Johnny Appleseed and “Mom and apple pie” folklore in this country, few fruits seem as “American” as the apple. So many of us might be surprised to learn that the United States imports most of its apple juice concentrate, and we may be keeping the doctor away with imported fresh apples soon.

Since the early 1990s China has been the world’s biggest apple grower. “Spurred by agrarian and land use reforms, and financed in part by the Chinese central government and Japan, Chinese growers initiated a massive apple tree-planting program in the late 1970s that continues today. By 1997, China produced more than four times as many apples as the United States. . . . When millions of Chinese apple trees began to bear fruit in the early 1980s, the Chinese government invested in equipment and an infrastructure to produce huge volumes of apple juice concentrate.”

Compared to foods like corn or wheat, in which farm machines can do most of the work, apples are a labor-intensive crop. High population countries like China can supply that labor cheaply, allowing them to sell more apples for less. “It is estimated that China’s average apple prices are about 40 percent lower than the world average price.” Lower costs of processing the apples into juice compound the savings.

As a result, U.S. growers are offered so little for their apples that it may not be worth picking them. A 2000 New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets press release describes the situation: “In 1998, juice processors only offered 3 cents per pound for juice apples from New York orchards. It’s estimated that growers’ costs were 4 to 4.5 cents per pound to harvest and market those apples. Historically, juice apple prices in New York have been 6 to 8 cents per pound.” At 3 cents per pound, the apples might as well rot on the tree.

China’s rock-bottom juice prices have led to accusations -- denied by the Chinese -- of export dumping: selling products abroad for less than the cost of their production. Most Chinese non-frozen apple juice concentrate is taxed with extra anti-dumping duties as high as 52 percent.

The U.S. Apple Association is calling on the U.S. Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission to extend for five years those import duties currently in place, arguing that “elimination of the antidumping order, and the associated duties, will encourage more Chinese apple juice concentrate to enter the U.S. market, causing prices to decline and harming the few remaining apple juice concentrate producers still operating in the United States. The loss of domestic concentrate producers would also force juice apple prices lower and put an even greater economic strain on America's apple growers.”

Lest this news tempt any of us Americans to start throwing rotten apples, we must acknowledge that when it comes to export dumping the U.S. is one of the worst global offenders. The case of subsidized U.S. corn undercutting farmers in Mexico is notorious: here are links to just a couple of articles about it from Oxfam and the New York Times; see also Mennonite Central Committee’s 17-minute video, “Corn, Coffee and the Cost of Globalization,” which may be borrowed through the MCC Resource Catalog.

Even when it comes to apples, Mexico is investigating reports of U.S. dumping of fresh Red and Golden Delicious fruit.

These days China is seeking to sell not just juice but fresh apples to the United States. American apple growers argue such a move would “cause depressed apple prices which would force a significant number of [U.S.] apple growers and marketers into bankruptcy.”

Many of us enjoy the fruits of our own backyard trees -- like the one patiently waiting for spring outside my office window. But I hate to imagine the day when our supermarkets carry nothing but imported apples.

It’s certainly possible. In the January/February 2006 issue of World Ark magazine, Brian Halweil of Worldwatch Institute cites the example of Britain:

“As recently as 1965, Britain was largely self-sufficient in dessert apples (apples for direct consumption, not canning or baking). This self-reliance depended in part on the production of a wide diversity of apples—there are over 2,000 varieties in the National Collection of the United Kingdom—that ripened and were harvested throughout the year. . . . British orchards are now dominated by two or three ‘commercially desirable’ varieties with a relatively narrow harvest season, crippling the potential to regain self-sufficiency. Today, only 25 percent of the apples eaten in Britain are home-grown.”

Here in Corvallis, just one woman at our indoor farmer’s market has been offering fresh local apples this winter. Hers is one of the tiny no-name market farms, or at least I don’t know its name. Besides two apple varieties she sells a few vegetables -- I bought parsley and a couple softball-sized heads of cabbage from her last Saturday -- plus apple cider and utterly delectable homemade apple handpies.

The first week I saw the handpies I figured I better try one, and as I stood munching it before biking back home in the rain, the woman came to ask me how I liked it. They’re trying to determine whether these treats are worth making to sell, she said. The implicit understanding: in addition to sales of fresh apples and vegetables, this family is looking for ways to make their little farm profitable.

The following market week I noticed that she’d taken the handpie price down a quarter.

Can of apple juice concentrate at a typical supermarket: $0.69-1.29
Half gallon jug of local apple cider from a farmer’s market: $3-4
Keeping local farmers in business: What’s it worth to you?

Simply in Season in Kansas this month

Simply in Season co-author Mary Beth Lind will be speaking at several events in Kansas later this month:

Thursday, Feb. 16, 1:30-3:30 p.m., Ten Thousand Villages store in Newton.

Friday-Saturday, Feb. 17-18, “Healthy Foods, Healthy Farms” sustainable agriculture conference at Kansas State University in Manhattan (Mary Beth’s presentation will be on Friday). The annual conference is sponsored by the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, K-State Research and Extension, and the Kansas Rural Center. For more information on the conference program, contact KCSAAC at (785) 532-1440.

Sunday, Feb. 19, First Manhattan United Church of Christ Church

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Oil in our food (that ain't canola, or olive)

The Simply in Season recipe of the week, Dilly Mashed Potatoes, is the second in a row from the SIS “Hidden Treasures” list. It’s a favorite at our church’s Sunday noon potlucks. In the morning just scoop the mashers into your (lightly greased) crockpot, sprinkle with cheese, and cook on low instead of baking; it'll hold a few hours just fine. The pleasant tang from the plain yogurt and thin layer of melted cheddar on top give the illusion that the golden mash must be simply loaded with cheese -- when in fact the sunny color comes from mashing carrots with the potatoes. I could eat it every week.

Several folks wrote about other ways they sneak good foods into their cooking. "I put pureed pumpkin in my chili. The kids never know and it boosts the nutritional level," one person wrote. (A similar idea from Simply in Season is to add pureed winter squash to marinara sauces like Basic Tomato Sauce, page 168.)

Another person said, “In my vegetable soups I start with carrot juice -- I simmer all my herbs and spices in the carrot juice while preparing the vegetables for the soup. Also, a friend taught me to stretch my food dollars by making meat loaf using only half the amount of ground meat called for -- and replacing the other half with shredded carrots. Now my family prefers this version.”

It was great fun to be at Eugene’s first “green” home and garden show last weekend. By all accounts, the event was a stunning success, with a huge turnout surpassing that of typical home and garden shows in this area. Eugene has a reputation for environmental consciousness (or should that be “conscientiousness”?), so the only real surprise is that it’s taken this long for a “green” event like this to come here. But the high level of enthusiasm surprised even the organizers. Here’s hoping we’ll see more of this kind of event across the country in years to come.

Prior to the beginning of my workshop, a gasoline can on a table up front drew a number of puzzled inquiries. And it’s true: when we sit down to eat, we don’t place a pitcher of gasoline next to the orange juice and raisin bran.

The fact, though, is that fossil fuels play a major -- if hidden -- role in the story of our food.

In the United States conventional farming uses more petroleum than any other single industry, consuming 17% of the country's energy supply. On average it takes more than a calorie worth of fossil fuels to produce a calorie of food in the U.S. -- maybe as much as 3 calories of fossil energy for every food calorie. This includes fuel for farm machinery and petroleum-laden chemical fertilizers.

(This is one reason why some folks promote vegetarianism. As noted in Simply in Season, most of our meat comes from animals raised in feedlots where they consume grains grown on conventional farms fueled by petroleum. By one estimate, it takes about a cup of gasoline to produce a quarter-pound hamburger patty. This, in turn, is one reason why some folks promote switching over to pasture-raised meats. When cows eat grass, they’re turning the energy of the sun into a food human bodies can use in a process that uses few or no fossil fuels.)

If our food is processed, even more energy is required. To produce a two-pound box of breakfast cereal, for example, it takes about the equivalent of two quarts of gasoline.

Then we have to get that cereal to us, meaning more energy used in transportation. One oft-cited statistic is that to transport one calorie of iceberg lettuce from Los Angeles to London, it takes 127 calories in aviation fuel. Consider that next time you browse your supermarket produce department with its array of internationally produced fruits and vegetables.

To be especially clear: All of us use fossil fuels, and I’m really not interested in trying to be a purist and forego its use altogether. But for unseasonal lettuce? And breakfast cereal?

My point is that I tend to be more aware of my use of fossil fuels when I debate whether to get into a car or take my bike, and when I adjust my house’s thermostat up or down a degree or two. I have been less likely to think about the presence of this limited natural resource in my food. Becoming more aware of the link now affects what kinds of food I eat and when.

During the workshop’s question/answer period, one person asked: What alternatives are there to processed breakfast cereals?

Aside from four pancake/waffle recipes and various egg and muffin recipes, Simply in Season includes two great recipes for homemade granola (if you’re shy about coconut, be sure to try Chunky Crunchy Granola, page 293, which reminds me of gingersnaps). More-with-Less Cookbook is even better in this area, with eight pancake/waffle recipes and 15 homemade cereals.

But my breakfast favorite is definitely Baked Oatmeal (294): a very kid-friendly recipe completely unlike the gloppy stuff you might associate with cooked oatmeal. Even busy households can have it fresh in the morning if you mix your wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls the night before. In the morning, throw on your bathrobe, stumble to the kitchen, stir everything together, dump it in the pan you greased the night before, pop it in the oven (remember to turn it on), and you’ve got a hot breakfast by the time you’re out of the shower. Leftovers reheat beautifully in the microwave. Enjoy!