Monday, November 4, 2013

Eating Omily: Local Eats and Delicious Cheats

Eating local offers some amazing benefits, and some life-changing flavors (no exaggeration: remember trying a local heirloom tomato for the first time? A strawberry in May? A grape in October? Mmmm...)

But, moments of supreme flavor ecstasy aside, eating local has it's bummers, too, especially if you're a cooking enthusiast, because so many amazing recipes, and whole cookbooks are written without a single thought to seasonality, let alone whether the reader happens to live in a tropical region.  Even the cookbooks that offer a token endorsement of seasonality will turn right around and suggest you make an arugula salad topped with grilled nectarines, or some other such seasonal impossibility.  Excuse me while I head desk.

And most of our preferences, and nostalgic connections to certain foods were formed in kitchens where the localness and seasonality of what we were eating wasn't even imagined, a scenario that can leave us close to tears when in the throws of a potent craving for banana bread, or pineapple upside down cake...

First of all, I feel your pain.  Second of all, I'm here to help.  Here's my list of substitutions for common non-local ingredients...and ways you can follow the spirit of the locavore for those times when your heart requires you to break the letter of the law.

Bananas: This is a big one!  These guys are delicious, sweet, high in potassium, and are a key ingredient in many succulent baked goods.  Here's how you get around it.

If you're after the nutrients in bananas, the answer is easy: potatoes have MORE potassium than bananas!  And, by cooking up those potatoes with plenty of salt, you'll have the perfect hangover helper on your hands: load of potassium AND sodium to rebalance your electrolytes and kick that headache in the pants!

If it's the flavor you crave, turn to other fruits.  Peaches and nectarines offer a similar soft texture in full Summer, and ripe pears can be downright buttery...just be patient and let them get soft before you sink your teeth in.

If you've got your heart set on the perfect pancakes, muffins, or quick bread, from mid-Summer, all the way through the darkest days of Winter, you can turn to Winter squash!  I keep roasted-till-tender butternut or acorn flesh around at all times this time of year.  You haven't lived till you've tried pumpkin spice pancakes, pumpkin bread, or, that magical recipe I hope to perfect today...pumpkin spike pudding!  Earlier in summer, you can turn to zuchinni bread, using whatever Summer squash you can get your hands on, and I've seen some awesome apple-spice bread recipes as well.

All that aside, if you just can't live without your banana fix, and trust me, I get it: for me it's avocados, do your research and find a source of Rain Forest Alliance Certified bananas.  These guys will be grown sustainably in a way that doesn't entail clearing rainforest, harvested by workers getting paid fair wages, and delightfully free of creepy pesticides and other not-so-fun stuff.  You can actually feel good about eating these bananas, in spite of the long flight they took!

Coffee: So...there are suggestions like, herbal teas from locally grown herbs, and um...grain coffees?  Which, if you're into that sort of thing...I mean, they say coffee is bad for you anyway...but yeah, just buy yourself some GOOD coffee, roasted within days of purchase, and bearing the trifecta of seals: organic, fair trade, AND, bird-friendly OR shade-grown.  Those last two are vital, assuring you that your coffee was grown the way it evolved to grow, as a shaded under-story crop in a thriving rainforest, instead of on a plantation where rainforest used to be.

Chocolate: There's no getting around the fact that cacao trees don't grow in these parts.  If you happen to live in the south west, you can get your hands on some local carob, perhaps...

If, on the other hand, you're fortunate enough to live in a major urban center, it shouldn't be too hard to find small, local chocolate companies.  Mast Brothers, whose factory I visit whenever possible just for the smell (ok, and the samples...), has their own schooner that they use to purchase and transport their cacao from small cacao farms not owned and operated by multinationals, but by the people who live there.  Now that's a journey I can feel good about my food taking!

Another thing to think about with chocolate is the number of ingredients.  The more ingredients are in a product, the more miles the product has logged in total.  Chocolate should be simple!

Of course, as with all things, you can weigh pros and cons.  Another local chocolate company I love is Buddha Chocolate.  Their chocolate is raw, which means more of its superfood nutrients make it into my body, and is sweetened with a (not even slightly local) low-glycemic sweetener.  That's a lot of extra travel for my chocolate bar to have logged, but on the other hand, it is organic, fair trade, and made by young entrepreneurs...and did I mention how absurdly delicious it is?  I'm content to go back and forth between Mast Brother's and Buddha...they each have their own delicate flavors, so I could never be content with just one or the other.

You may not have local chocolate artisans plying their trade in their hood, but you know what you do have?  The internet!  You can order chocolate from both of these companies, and the many others that are out there, and by paying the shipping, you're not outsourcing the cost of travel onto others in the form of low wages!

Spices: A lot of my favourite spices do not grow around here.  I can trade in my shaker of ground cayenne for drying and grinding up the local hot peppers farmers are growing, but other than that, it's non-local cloves, or no cloves.  On the bright side, spices have been transported across hundreds of miles for thousands of years.  Spices pack a flavor puch: you don't need fifty pounds in a year.  You don't need half a pound in a year even, unless you own a restaurant.  Choosing organic is important because many non-organic spices are irradiated, and you don't want to go there, but in general, when I need a new bottle of cinnamon sticks every two years or so, I don't fret about it too much.

Of course, anything that grows in a temperate climate can be yours: sage, rosemary, parsely, mint, basel, oregano, bay, the list goes on and on...don't get lazy!  Check your Farmer's Market first, and what you don't use before it starts to wilt can be hung up to dry and used all Winter long.

Nuts: This one drives me nuts (sorry) because so many nuts DO grow in this climate, they just AREN'T grown around here!  Tree nuts take quite a commitment to grow, so I can't be too hard on my farmer friends who are worried the market won't be there after they buy the land, plant the trees, water and compost, and prune for years before they start producing...but that doesn't make me miss pecans any less!

If you just want that hit of protein and fat, look for peanuts in the Summer (they're legumes, not tree nuts, so they can be planted every year, making them a much lower risk crop), and sun flower seeds.  These are so easy you really can grow your own if you have space for a pot of soil in a sunny window. Don't forget to save those seeds from your Winter squash escapades!  Roast them up (sprout them first for optimal nutrition), and you've got the perfect (free!) nut substitute!

In the Fall, keep an eye out for chestnuts.  They'll be a smaller, hybrid form most likely, but delicious just the same as the chestnuts of 'roasting on an open fire' fame.  Depending on your specific region, you may hit the jackpot: black walnuts!  Walnut trees thrive in much of the counry, and if someone living nearby has the wherewithal to harvest them, shell them, and get them to your market, you'd better not balk at the premium price.  They are not easy to shell.

Yet another good option is to buy fresh beans when (and if) you see them, give them a soak, then toast them up in a dry pan.  Nutty, high in protein and fiber...who needs almonds?

Raisins and Other Dried Fruits: Buy seedless grapes in October and November.  Blanch in boiling water.  Dry in your oven.  Can't find seedless grapes?  You may be able to find cranberries.  Can't find those either?  Slice, soak in an acidulated solution, and dry apples and/or pears. Easy!

Tomato Products (sauce, salsa, etc.): This is one I'm seeing at Farmer's Markets more and more because it's a value-added product: by doing the work for you, the farmers are able to charge a premium and make more money off of the same tomatoes!  It's what the giant food factories have been doing for fifty years, except delicious, and sustainable!  What's not to love?  This stuff is also not hard to make yourself.  Find a willing friend, buy a case or two of tomatoes (you'll probably get a great discount for buying in bulk), and make and can tomato sauce, salsa, or just whole tomatoes for greatest versatility. Canning is a bit of an enterprise, but if you're serious about eating local, it's a skill you'll need to acquire, and once you're comfortable with the process, you'll never look back!

Am I missing any of your favourite non-local foods?  Let me know in the comments and I'll include them in a Part II of this post!  Happy eating!

Nom nom nom...

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