Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I am a bad blogger!

I have been very negligent in keeping up with this blog lately, which is terrible as I have so much news for you!

First of all, I hope your holiday turkey went over well at Thanksgiving. Here is a picture of ours:

Don't I look proud? I was so proud. And terrified! But it all came together. I cooked way too much food. I used this recipe from the New York Times, and it made for a delicious bird with very little work. I also used their "make ahead" gravy recipe. I had never ever ever made gravy before, mostly because my mother hates making gravy so I thought it must be hard. But I think if you make it ahead it's pretty easy. Plus you use your giblets, and waste not want not. I simmered the turkey neck and giblets with a bay leaf in some boxed vegetable broth as my gravy base. From there I just followed the NY Times recipe. Very simple! Those giblets gave the gravy a ton ( just wrote a "tom" mistakenly and considered keeping it. Punny) of flavor. I also made cornbread sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, butternut squash soup...way too much. I bought just about everything except the green beans from the farmers market too. It cost an arm and a leg, I'm not going to lie. However it made me feel better about the gluttony to know that at least the food had been raised/harvested humanely. Plus, the taste! Oh I almost forgot, I also made mini apple and pumpkin pies in a muffin tin. You don't have to change the recipe at all, just use the muffin tin instead of a pie pan. I cut the pie shapes out using a martini glass, tucked them in the muffin tin, filled them, and used a cookie cutter to cut a shape for the pie tops. TOO CUTE! NEVER EATING NORMAL SIZED PIE EVER AGAIN! that is a lie.

I can also tell you that Head Start farmers market project got refunded for next year! This means that I will be doing cooking demonstrations for the Head Start parents at the West End market all this winter, and then when the farm table opens again at the Head Start next summer I will move my cooking demos over to that location. New this year I will also be teaching container gardening to the families this spring. I am excited to learn more about using intergenerational gardening to teach nutrition and increase food security. I have seen that kids will at least try to eat vegetables that they grow, so perhaps these small container gardens can lead to bigger changes down the road for our participants. If you have any ideas for intergenerational gardening activities, please share them!

Finally, I wanted to tell you about a community garden project I am working on in Christiansburg, Virginia with the local New River Valley Health District's WIC program.

The WIC program is building a community garden on land right next to their building, which is also next to the Department of Social Services, a Federally Qualified Health Center, and a Corilion family clinic. We will be using the garden as a site for nutrition education, but even more exciting, we will be piloting a "garden prescription" program with the surrounding clinics to recruit WIC eligible families to the WIC program. This garden prescription will be a riff on Wholesome Wave's Fruit and Veggie Rx program. Patients will be directed to the garden, given a tasting tour of the site, and offered the chance to enroll in a half or whole share in the garden, which will give them fresh produce in return for hours worked at the site. I am so thankful to be able to live in an area that allows pilots like this to happen with relatively little muss and fuss. This isn't New York City! Check out the photo above for a glimpse of another reason I am thankful for this area- a bounty of gracious volunteers from a variety of sources! I can't wait to see what this project develops into. Think spring!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Getting ready for my first ever Thanksgiving

Photo from Weathertop Farm

Can you BELIEVE it's November? I can't. Though I appreciate it, because it means I get to take a breather at work.

It's only November 6th, but if you haven't ordered your local turkey yet you are cutting it close. I had to order mine in October from Weathertop farm. They sell at the Blacksburg Farmers Market and I placed my order there. And it's a good thing I did, because I had a close encounter with the industrial food system that made me really uncomfortable just a few days later. I was driving from Blacksburg to Richmond for a meeting and I kept noticing all these feathers blowing around. I had a sinking feeling, I knew what that meant. I thought it would be a chicken truck, but it was a turkey truck. They were in very small cages and stacked about 12 high, open to the elements and going 75 was just really awful. Then a few miles later I saw a pig truck, which I have never seen before. One pig was sticking his nose out the side of the truck, sniffing the wind. It looked so pathetic, that pink nose.

Listen, I am not a vegetarian. I go to Subway's and eat hamburgers like many people. My husband on the other hand eats only local, humanely raised meat. As you know we are both from an urban area and have been spared these sights for most of our lives. Now when I see these trucks zooming up I-81 it gives me a lot to think about. I know the effects this system we have has on the animals, not to mention the environment and the people who work there. Do I want to be a part of that? I'm starting to think no. What other people do is up to them but I have seen things that just made my heart sink. Think of that pink nose people. THINK OF THE NOSE. Did that nose spend any time in some grass? I doubt it.

So guess how excited I was when it finally got to be turkey pick up day? We drove all the way out to Check, Virginia, which let me tell you is a bit of a hilly, lonesome hike. We made it though. And the farm was so beautiful! We were greeted with the sight of a bunch of hens happily foraging in a pen. The views from the farm were amazing too, just all hills and clouds. Appalachia at it's finest. We picked out our bird, a 10.5 pounder, and it was fresh and not frozen! I am researching all the ways to cook a turkey like this one, as the recipe is a bit different than your "traditional" bird. (Isn't it weird what gets called traditional ag?) I'll keep you posted on what recipe I choose. Either way I will rest easy knowing my bird lived it's life on one farm, enjoying a wonderful view.

What do you think? Have you ever seen parts of our food system that make you think twice? If not, are you happy to be insulated from it? Are you purchasing a local turkey this year? If you're not, was it the price that turned you away? I'd like to know your thoughts!

Friday, September 13, 2013

I'm sorry for the delay...

Hey y'all! I am sorry for the delay. I could not, for the life of me, figure out what was going on with my account, something funky was happening and I kept getting kicked off the blog while I was trying to write my next post. I hope that never happens again, it's beyond annoying. are you? Have you been happily going to market like I have? I have been hoarding peaches and swearing to myself I will freeze them to eat later when things are dreary but then I just eat them. That's how things go at this beautiful point in the season- you can still get corn but you can also buy the first winter squash. I take the easy route by not choosing a side and buying everything.

Um, I like orange. Also did you notice I roasted the bird upside down? We're learning together, people
Speaking of buying everything today's post is about s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g a chicken through 3 meals. My husband is vegetarian in the streets and carnivore in the...times that he knows the meat is humanely and locally raised. Get your mind out of the gutter. I bought a chicken at Glade Road Growing at the Blacksburg Farmers Market last week and followed the directions they had posted on their Facebook page from blogger Shannon Hayes. In her post she talks about how they sell their pasture raised chickens for $4.95 a pound, or $25-$30 per bird. She gives a lot of great reasons about why this is a steal when compared to the price of beef or when taking into account the cost of getting a chicken to market. I recommend you read it and mull it over. I certainly did! I had passed on chicken from the market because of the price several times until I read this post about how to make 3 meals from one bird. I decided to take it as a challenge and report back to you. I for one learned a lot and I think you may too.

The first meal Shannon makes is a roast chicken. I have only ever made one other whole roast chicken in my life so I was a bit nervous. Who wants to mess up a $20 bird? Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you that. I started my experiment with a nearly 5 pound bird from Glade Road Growers. I had bought it and kept it frozen. I then moved it to the fridge at 7:00AM on the day I planned to use it, but it hadn't defrosted yet by 5:00PM. So there's one mistake you can learn from! Give your bird 24 hours to defrost in the fridge. You do know to defrost meat in a fridge right? I only know that because I now work with food scientists. If you ever need a good scare talk to a food scientist. Just saying. Also, my bird still had it's neck. It freaked me out. I had to twist it off! I just gritted my teeth and did it. I put it aside for step 2, don't get rid of it!

To roast my bird I looked over a few recipes and chose bits of each to use. I looked at this one from The Pioneer Woman, one of my favorite blogs, and this one from Art of Manliness because I wanted to roast my bird in my iron skillet. I salt-and-peppered the bird and brought it to room temperature, along with one stick of butter. I then chopped up some fresh rosemary (3 big sprigs) and sage and zested one lemon (about 2 tablespoons of zest). I mixed that together with about 3 tablespoons of room temp butter. I then made the mistake of first squeezing lemon juice over the bird. Don't do that. It makes the next step harder! Take the butter and basically ice the bird with it. I also put a bit under the skin too. In the skillet I had a layer of one onion (cut into large pieces), carrots, potato, and delicata squash (may favorite because you can eat the skin so easily). I had put salt and pepper on these and dotted around some of the butter mixture too. I put the lemon I had zested, cut in half, in the cavity along with about 6 cloves of garlic I had crushed a bit.  I popped the bird on top and put it in the oven as directed in the Art of Manliness post. It came out really nicely! The one thing I would change is...I would roast the veggies separately, or use less butter. They were kinda in a butter soup when I pulled them out, not that that wasn't delicious. You can make that into a lovely gravy if you roast the veggies separately though.

After that dinner I followed Shannon's directions to pull all of the meat off the leftovers that very night. I put the meat aside for later and put the bones, neck, and veggie scraps (potato peelings, carrot peelings, egg shells from breakfast, delicata seeds, onion skins, etc) in a big pot with a few tablespoons of vinegar. I was told this helps to get some of the minerals out of the bones and into the broth. I let that simmer for hours and put it in the fridge overnight. If you are smarter than me you do it in a crock pot for at least 12 hours.

The next day I strained the broth through a fine mesh sieve (thank you, wedding gifts! Never thought I would use it but there it is) and got about 7-8 cups of broth. I put 3 aside for the next meal and made soup. Soup is so easy, yet I used to be intimidated by it. Now we make it once a week. First I put 1 cup of barley on to cook in the background. Then I cut up one onion, carrots, one potato, the rest of the delicata squash, some green beans and some celery. I cooked all of this in some olive oil in my big pot for about 10 minutes, along with sage, rosemary and a bay leaf. When the barley was done I threw that in and put the broth in (I added some leftover veggie broth to make it cover everything) along with salt and pepper. I cut 2 cups of chicken up pretty small and put that in too. I let this simmer till it all came together and served it with homemade baking soda biscuits. Delish! And we got dinner for 2 nights out of it.

The final meal...well I got lazy with part of it but it still came out amazing. I made chicken pot pie for the first time ever! I basically used this Martha recipe but with a lot more veggies and I really meant to make the pie crust but I just got lazy so I bought one. OK, I bought one. Who cares? Get over it. Long story short the pie was delicious AND because i used so many veggies I even have enough filling left over in my freezer (along with another pie crust!) to make another one one night in the yummy yummy future. So there you go, not 3 meals, but really 5 if you count that we ate the soup 2 nights in a row and I have left over filling. See people I have figured out the 1950's secret- stretch your meat by combining with with lots of vegetables. Have 2 veggies as sides! It's what you're supposed to do anyway. It's much healthier for you, and it's easier on your wallet. We didn't used to eat all these meat-centric meals, and you can choose the smarter way!

Take the expensive-as-heck-but-oh-so-worth-it bird challenge for yourself! Let me know what you think about it in the comments.

Friday, August 23, 2013

I ask too many questions are farm tours, I'm sure it's annoying

Recently I was invited by Virginia Tech's VT Engage office on a visit of a few sites around the area where they place VISTAs, which was great because many of the sites are related to food security and local food. One site that I found pretty interesting was VT's Kentland Farm. The site has mostly been used for research by agriculture, horticulture and entomology researchers, but recently part of the farm has been turned over to production for the cafeterias at Virginia Tech.

About 6 acres (out of a total of 2,000!) are being planted using organic practices expressly for use by Dining Services. The program has grown from it's humble beginnings as an herb plot in 2009 to growing vegetables such as cucumbers and broccoli and fruit such as blackberries. Dining Services also makes use of the produce grown on other areas of the farm that researchers don't need. The crops are harvested by cafeteria staff as well as volunteers from the student body and surrounding community. I have the say the site is beautiful, as the 5th row of every crop is farmscaping, which means it's planted with cosmos and zinnias! That was a nice surprise and of course is helpful when trying to attract a variety of pollinators.

What I liked most about this tour was getting to hear about some of the challenges faced by Alison Reeves, the farm manager, and Rial Tombes, the Sustainability Coordinator for Dining Services. Rial's job is to work with Dining Services to figure out what produce they would want for future menus, and then bringing that information back to Alison so she can plan to plant what the cafeteria can use. This sounds a lot easier than it is, it turns out. What do you do about the fact that a lot of the campus empties out just as most crops come to fruition? What about trying to balance growing your own food with the fact that VT buys some food from local growers? You don't want to put them out of business. Also, managing the size and visual quality of the produce is important to the cafeteria. For example tomatoes can't be too big or they don't fit in the slicers used to prep them. You have to remember that cafeteria tools are set up for "traditional" produce, not odd shaped heirloom tomatoes! Another recent challenge for the team was a bumper crop of cucumbers. They couldn't use all of them raw, and there was too much red tape to get through to get permission to pickle them. (Extras ended up being donated to local food banks.) Luckily for Alison and Rial Kentland just got freezing and blanching capabilities, so future overages can be frozen.

I find all of these challenges really fascinating. It's eye opening to understand the nuances of food chains and the challenges faced by small and medium farms in trying to engage them. The history of VT's cafeteria farm is apparently a bit different than other schools doing similar work- in most schools, the agriculture department approaches the cafeteria, saying "hey, let us grow some of your produce." At VT, it was the cafeteria approaching the agriculture department. This seems to make the transition a bit easier as the cafeteria at VT is actively looking for ways to use the produce being grown for them.

If any of this interests you follow the Farms and Fields blog here to keep up with the goings on at Kentland Farm, or stop by the Farms and Fields cafeteria in Owens to sample the food!

And for your entertainment, here is a list of actual questions I have asked on farm tours:
-"How does a silo work?"
-"Why does corn on the edge of the field always look stunted?"
-"What do you mean this is a meat chicken?"

Questions I SHOULD have asked:
-"Can I step here?"
-"Is this fence electrified?"

Sigh. The Long Island is strong with this one.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Ask and ye shall receive!

Look at this amaze-balls gadget made by my friend and yours, Mark Bittman of the New York Times! It's a farmer's market recipe generator. All you do is plug in what you have on hand and how you want to cook it, and it comes up with a recipe for you. Right now there are about 50 options. I wish we could add to it!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Roanoke gets a green star!

I think it will slowly come to light over the course of this blog that I have an unhealthy obsession with parks. Before I moved to Virginia I worked with New Yorkers for Parks, a parks advocacy group focused on maintaining equality of access across the New York City parks system. Did you know New York City has about 1,700 parks? Or that Staten Island is 20% parkland? These are the nuggets of KNOWLEDGE GOLD left over in my brain from working there.

One group I worked with a lot in that position was the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition. (Little known fact: I'm in the photo at the top of their home page. Can you find me???) The history of community gardens and urban agriculture in New York City is a long and twisty (and sometimes contentious!) tale that is better told by others with a  firmer grasp on the details. Be that as it may, urban gardening is exploding across the country, and people in cities are hungry for the land to do it on. Community gardens have long been used as a first step towards reclaiming or beautifying a neighborhood as it struggles to get back on it's feet. They are a way to put to use land that has been filled with trash, or is being used for drug deals or prostitution, or is simply an eye sore. Many people feel there is no need for government held land to be stockpiled until the neighborhood rebounds around it and makes it valuable in the eyes of a developer. Why not use it NOW to grow food or make a peaceful oasis for people to come together and plan their next steps?

The other side of this conversation is growing food on park land. In New York City the parks department had the Green Thumb program to help support and cultivate community gardens in the city. Green Thumb has done amazing work over the years, and presides over the largest community garden network in the country. However, as it is part of the city parks department, and the city parks department's stances on things reflect the views of the current mayor, there has been serious disagreements in the past between the program and the gardeners. While most food production by the public has been restricted to these community gardens sites (some of which are not mapped as park land) there are a few gardens popping up here and there around the city in more traditional parks, such as the farm site that is at Battery Park in lower Manhattan. (Of course this all gets super murky, as Battery Park is part of a public/private partnership and that is probably why this was given a green light. Sigh. I do not miss all the politics surrounding NYC parks!)

Anyway, as you can see it can be tangled and time consuming process to convince city parks departments that community gardening/urban farming on city park land is a worthwhile endeavor for them to allow. However, with the perfect storm of the local food movement, increase in urban populations, and a president that is focused on the obesity epidemic the time is ripe for city parks to get on board. And Roanoke, the nearest city to my new home, is doing so! This is very exciting to me. First of all I have to say that ever since I have moved here I have been very impressed in general with the parks departments in Roanoke and surrounding towns. They seem to be very well funded and have an incredible amount of programming going on. Kudos! (Again, park nerd. I'm not sorry for it.) And now it has just been announced that the Roanoke parks department is revamping it's five year plan to support urban agriculture. A good video on the topic is here. This is great news all around! I am on the edge of my seat to see where Roanoke's gardening is in a few years. I really think that once people grow fruits and vegetables, even just tomatoes in a pot on the window, they are more likely to eat them. Kids too!

What do you think? Am I overly excited about gardening for food in parks?

Monday, July 1, 2013

A bit more about swapping ingredients

New potato salad for the win! Also, I hope my food photography improves over time.

This weekend I did some grocery shopping at the Blacksburg Farmers Market. I hadn't been there on a Saturday in a while...dang, it was hopping! I was very impressed. And happy, since I am a proud board member of the market! Good job all around.

I didn't really go with a set plan of what to purchase, I just wanted to see what was available and go from there. This is a skill that takes time to learn, and it's one I don't think is ever really perfected. We all buy food we end up wasting sometimes. Our little family's goal is to eliminate as much food waste as possible. That usually requires shopping with a menu in mind, but that can sometimes be difficult at a farmers market as I have discussed. This is when the art of swapping comes in to play. Don't run to the store and buy every ingredient in every recipe, you'll spend way too much. Swap and save!

The first rule of ingredient swapping is have a go-to list of recipes that you feel very, very comfortable with. Most cooks have this. These are the recipes you make all the time and don't need directions for, recipes where you eyeball ingredients, recipes your family loves and you are known for. And of course, have a general idea of what the heck you already have at home! This is key.

Another good rule is to keep an eye out for variations of your favorite foods while you are out in the world. Does a local restaurant do mac and cheese with a special twist? Did you see a recipe in the paper that made chicken soup with a random ingredient? You don't have to steal these changes if you don't love them, but they are helpful to notice. These remembered unique takes on favorite foods will sometimes bubble up when I am faced with a pile of produce at a market and am desperately trying to fit the pieces together into a meal.

That is basically what happened to me on Saturday. We bought burger meat, and the hubs mentioned homemade French fries as a side. But the only potatoes I saw were teeny new potatoes. They were so delicate, it would be a bit of shame to lose that flavor. I thought. I considered. I looked over at the peas, and ogled the beautiful radishes, both grown by my neighbors at Glade Road Growing. I remembered seeing peas in a potato salad somewhere out in the world, who knows where? I bought the potatoes, peas and radishes and looked up a basic potato salad recipe. I didn't have all the ingredients, but I had the key ones and enough similar ones to pull it all together. This is my recipe, adapted from this one. People, when I tell you it is delicious you must believe me. It is the essence of early summer. Dig in.

New potato salad with peas and radishes
1 pound new potatoes ( I got tinyyyy red ones)
1/2 pound peas in their pods
3 French radishes
1/3 cup mayo, you may want less
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh dill, minced
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon chives, minced
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the potatoes in half and boil them in salted water until you can pierce them with a fork (about 15 minutes) Drain them and set aside.
Meanwhile, cut the tips off of the peas and cut each pod in thirds. Cut the radishes into coins. Place in a bowl.
Add the drained potatoes to the peas/radishes. Drizzle with vinegar.
In a small bowl, mix the mayo, dill, chives, mustard seeds and salt and pepper. Add to the veggies in the big bowl and stir until fully coated with the mayo dressing.
Chill for an hour before serving.

And as always, if you don't have all the ingredients, forge on anyway! I believe in you!