Each year starts thrilling, almost intoxicating, for me. I find it even more exhilarating than the holidays preceding. Instead of mass consumption, mass excess and mass amounts of cookies, I seek fresh, clean, strict and healthy…or at least that is how it starts. If you are anything like me, you find yourself making all sorts of lofty promises. This year my promises ranged from the ambitious (“Do an hour of yoga every day!”) to the stringent (“Eat no sugar, flour or dairy ever again!”) to the downright stupid (“Lose the same 10 pounds you’ve been resolving to lose the last five years!”). Typically the “new me” lasts about 3-4 days until I get so annoyed with my own rules that I promptly order a pizza and decide to try again next year. On the other hand, here we are, into spring and I am still on tract with some very important goals made before the New Year began.
Early in 2008, I opened Green Grocer Chicago, a small market dedicated to selling the best local and organic foods possible. In coordination with my new business, I had the goal to simply try to eat as many local and organic foods as possible. I have always enjoyed eating healthily, with an occasional cookie/brownie binge for balance. But with the store, I realized my food choices could actually benefit the greater good (yes, one person can make a difference!).
Through my research for the store, I realized how much one person’s eating choices can add up to a lot of good for their own health, the health of their local economy and the health of our shared planet. I had always belonged to the club of “eat your vegetables and fruits” but until the past couple of years, I had never thought about where my food came from, how it was grown, by whom it was grown and how it got to me. Once I started thinking about those things, it became increasingly clear to me that I needed to give my eating habits a makeover (not the EXTREME kind where I hardly recognize the old version but just a gentle shift in the daily choices I make). One thing I try my best to stick with is to eat within the seasons. I have found that eating locally and seasonally has allowed me to eat the sweetest fruits and most flavorful vegetables. I do not crave asparagus in January, strawberries in October, or tomatoes in April. Why? Because I have tasted all of those foods in their growing season and for lack of a better term, they rock. When they are out of season here (and shipped anywhere from Chile to Australia to Florida), they look like their sweet seasonal counterparts but taste like nothing. And they are expensive! Why would I deprive myself of great taste?
It’s April in Chicago, and it snowed not too long ago. Other parts of the country are enjoying their first harvests of peas, asparagus, and other spring vegetables, not us. We live in Chicago. Certainly, nothing can grow around here this time of year you say. Well, I thought those exact same things. I have learned that there are things being harvested (as well still ticking away in cold storage) now. A century ago, before one could hop in a car and head to the grocery store that stocks everything under the sun, people actually grew their own food regionally and (gasp) lived! People found a way to make it through April snow. They even found things that would grow well and be delicious harvested under a spring frost. Am I suggesting that you pour a bunch of soil on the 2 x 3 wooden slab your realtor calls a deck and start farming to tide you over? Well, if you want to, absolutely! Luckily, we have options that require less work and less mess. How about buying food grown in the Midwest? Right here in Chicago!
I continue my resolution for the environmental impact of eating local and organic foods. Where ever you stand politically or even where you stand on global warming, there are a few things we can probably agree on: less chemicals in our food/bodies=good, less chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in our soil and drinking water sources=good, less air pollution from unnecessary cross country food shipping=good. These are not political statements; they are just “good common sense” as my Depression-era grandmother would say. (“Duh” as my 12-year-old cousin would say).
So now you see why I have managed to stick with this resolution. You might be asking, “How can I eat more locally and organically?” especially on a budget and in April. You can do it! Here are my top ways to make local eating possible during the leanest times.
Get to know your root vegetables. Hate to say this but spring kicks off where winter just ended. Some of the earliest products farmers coax out of the cold ground are beets and turnips. Farmers also have carrots and parsnips that can safely be stored away all winter, ready when there are no other fresh foods. Sometimes these items are “overwintered”, left in the ground, where they gain incredible sweetness. There are also supplies of potatoes and onions from storage that will do you well.
Experiment. Ever taste a ramp before? Chicago was named for this wild onion, one of the first thing emerging from our soils. Local chefs have taken to this vegetable, creating many dishes. It is possible now to find ramps and other rare spring treats at farmer’s markets and my store.
Eggs-they are not just for breakfast. Traditionally, spring was the time when hens took to laying again. There is no more potent symbol of spring than the egg. Whip up a simple frittata with onions and potatoes for a great dinner. Eggs are an excellent (or egg-cellent as it were) and economical source of protein. Local, pasture raised eggs are the only way to go. They taste vastly better and offer more nutrition. Be wary when an egg carton says, “Cage free or free range”. It certainly does not tell the full story. The only places to buy truly good and fresh eggs are from the farmer directly or a store like ours.
Say “mooooooo”. Small, local dairies whose cows are eating grass (not corn) offer the sweetest and freshest milk. Spring also means the time of year that our cows are getting away from a diet of hay and silage and back to pasture. Milk is a spring thing too. Whenever possible, buy non-homogenized milk. Homogenization means that the fat molecules have been irreversibly forced with the sugar molecules, making it difficult to digest. In fact, studies show that people with lactose intolerance can often digest non-homogenized milk. Also, you’ll open up your milk bottle to find a delicious line of cream at the top. This is normal and how milk should be. Milk from grass fed cows has also been shown to be vastly more nutritious than milk from corn fed cows.
Urban farms find ways to grow. Chicago farms like Windy City Harvest, Growing Home and Growing Power have cold weather facilities. Hoop houses and green houses allow the harvest to keep on rolling. Experiment with nutritional powerhouse Spring greens like collards, kale, Swiss chard and mustard greens.
Freeze the summer’s harvest. I realize this doesn’t help you today but plan ahead for the upcoming big growing season by buying lots of local fresh berries, peaches, beans, asparagus, corn and every other fresh fruit or veggie you love and freeze it for exactly this time of year. You can find information about how to freeze and otherwise preserve your harvest from this Local Beet article.
Befriend beans. Dried and canned beans from the northern Midwest are a healthy way to bulk up your meal without slimming down your wallet. Eden Organic brand works exclusively with US farmers, most of which are in this region or north of us. They are a great source of fiber and protein.
Use meat as a treat. Much of the meat we find in stores and restaurants is chock full of hormones, antibiotics, chemicals, fecal matter, mercury, toxins and other unsavory things. Meat-producing animals have eaten foods they were never meant to eat while being kept in quarters so close that any living thing would lose its mind. This is why most meat is so cheap. Is it cheap for your health, the environment, or the welfare of fellow living things. On the other hand, when farmers raise meat on small family operations, with open pasture and care, it tastes much better. This meat has been given a true life. It enhances the environment around it. While this causes the price tag to rise, the benefits match. To offset the higher cost, make meat a treat (once or twice a week instead of once or twice a day). Buy meat from small, local farms. You support better taste, health, animal treatment, and environmental practices.
Get the special meat treat. There is such a thing as spring lamb, although few people have ever tasted this delicate, special meat. Eating locally means having relationships with farmers who can supply this seasonal special.
Know your resources. In a society that generally considers local eating to mean stopping at the McDonalds at the end of your block instead of the one two miles away, it can be hard to find people who actually can help guide you on your new and yummy way of eating. Green Grocer Chicago is full of ideas on how to eat locally and healthily.
Be flexible. You will not always be able to eat local or organic foods. I still enjoy citrus fruits, bananas, and avocados. They will never be local. They can be nutritious and organically grown, at least at our store. I do not beat myself up for choosing those foods on occasion and you should not either.
Empower yourself. You live in a country where change is just a step away. Start demanding your grocer stock local food. Choose to buy foods when they are locally grown, eat them until you are sick of them and then do not buy them again until the following year. Know that when you start spending your money on local and organic foods, more companies will start to do business that way (they follow money the way a lion stalks its prey). One person can change the world.
Here are some recipes to get you through the final few days of cold.
Sweet Potato and Black Bean Hash (serves 2)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced (1/2 inch cubes)
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 teaspoons cumin
1 shake or two of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sauté onion for a couple of minutes. Add sweet potatoes, lower heat and sauté until fork tender (could be 15-20 minutes-add a little water to the pan if it’s getting too dry). When sweet potatoes are done, add beans and seasonings. Stir just to heat up. Enjoy!
We make this for breakfast many times and add a fried egg on top. Or for dinner, prepare a side of greens or a salad (spinach and lettuces are growing in those urban farms I mentioned) and bread.
Portobello Mushroom Sandwiches (serves 2)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 Portobello mushrooms-stems removed and cap wiped with a damp cloth
4 tablespoons ricotta cheese (or any other soft, spread able, mild cheese)
4-5 sun dried tomatoes, chopped finely
4-5 black or Kalamata olives
2 fresh buns or English muffins (whole grain preferred)
Heat a stovetop grill pan (you can do in a sauté pan but the grill is nice). Brush mushroom on both sides with oil and place on pan for about 5-7 minutes each side. Meanwhile, mix cheese, olives and sun dried tomatoes to make a spread. Toast buns and when center of mushroom is tender to the fork, remove and place on bun. Spread cheese mixture on one side of bun, assemble and enjoy! Also serve with a side of greens or salad.
Roasted Root Vegetables (serves 2-3)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion
1 sweet potato
1 parsnip (if large, remove woody center)
Rosemary and thyme (fresh use 2 tablespoons each, dried use 1 tablespoon each)
Salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat oven to 425.
Chop all vegetables into somewhat uniform pieces (1 inch or so). Use a combination of whatever vegetables you like or have on hand. Toss in a bowl with oil, herbs, salt and pepper. Spread in one layer on a baking sheet and bake in oven for one hour to one and a half hours or until all veggies are fork tender.
Serve as a main course with a side of sautéed Spring greens or a salad and some bread. Serve as a side for a piece of meat or tofu. Use as a filling for an omelet along with some soft goat cheese.