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Local Seasonal Recipe: Butternut Squash Lasagna

Let me get straight to business. This is the meal you need to make this fall. No excuses.

When our closest neighbors had a baby a year and a half ago, I made them this dish. They’ve repeatedly made coy requests about whether I might make it again. As in, do they need to make another baby just to get me to cook it for them again?

My butternut squash lasagna is the ultimate fall comfort food. The butternut squash is just slightly sweet; the ricotta is rich and melts in your mouth; the tomato sauce is savory and garlicky; and the combination of the three is just. perfect.

The recipe is based on one in Kelly Brogan’s book A Mind of Her Own, but since I’m not ready to give up dairy (sorry, Dr. Brogan), I replaced the egg filling with ricotta cheese.

While we’re on the subject of special diets:

  • This lasagna is naturally gluten-free because the lasagna “noodles” are actually thin slices of butternut squash.
  • I have two vegetarians/pescatarians in my household, so I usually make a second batch using crumbled tempeh as a substitute for the ground beef. You could probably experiment with other meat replacements too.

Lastly, not only is this a perfect seasonal meal in the squash season, but it’s also possible to source all the ingredients locally (depending on where you live, of course). I use locally grown butternut squashes and local ground beef from a grassfed meat farm. For the tomato sauce, I use the tomato sauce from our own tomatoes that I canned back in the sweltering heat of August (this part will require on some advance planning, I admit). And I make the ricotta cheese by hand with the milk from our local dairy.

Without further ado —

 

Butternut Squash Lasagna

Serves 6-8, depending on how hungry y’all are

  • 1 large butternut squash
  • 1 tbsp butter or ghee, plus more for greasing the pan
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely minced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 lb grassfed ground beef (substitute 1 package of crumbled tempeh for non-meat eaters)
  • 36 oz tomato puree or tomato sauce
  • 16 oz ricotta cheese (recipe here)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the ricotta cheese in advance, if making your own.

Melt the butter or ghee in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add onion and sautée until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and the garlic and cook, turning the heat to medium-high, until the meat is browned. Add the tomato sauce and season with salt and pepper. Let simmer on low while you prepare the rest.

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Peel the butternut squash, cut it in half and scoop out seeds. Slice it into slices and rounds, as thinly as you can. (This is the trickiest part; the rest is easy!)

Butter a 15″ x 10″ high-rimmed oven baking dish. Add enough sauce to cover the bottom of the dish, then spread a layer of butternut squash slices as you would with lasagna noodles. Ladle more sauce generously on top of the squash and then top with dollops of ricotta cheese. Sprinkle with your preferred herbs, salt and pepper. Proceed with another layer of squash slices, sauce, and ricotta. Finish with a final layer of squash and a light layer of sauce (and any remaining ricotta).

Bake for about 30 minutes or until the squash can be easily pierced with a fork.

Enjoy!

 

Garden-to-table Buckwheat

This weekend, we had garden-to-table buckwheat pancakes for breakfast. We ate them about 20 feet from the garden bed where said buckwheat grew. This buckwheat is my first real homegrown grain harvest, and it checks all the boxes for me: gluten-free, locally sourced and hands down delicious, with a distinctive nutty flavor.

To most urban gardeners, growing grains might seem like it’s outside their wheelhouse. After all, when we think of growing grains, we think of hundreds of acres of farmland extending to the horizon. If this is you, I encourage you to read Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers by Gene Logsdon. It inspired me to try growing small patches of grains myself. This year, I dedicated one long bed (about 4 x 20 feet) for growing a grain crop. I decided to start with buckwheat, a plant I’m already familiar with, as I’ve grown it as a cover crop many times. But I haven’t actually been methodical about harvesting the groats until now.

Buckwheat really is a fantastic beginner’s grain. It is nutritious and so friggin’ easy to grow:

  • You don’t need rich soil. In fact, buckwheat seems to do better in poor soil!
  • You barely need to irrigate.
  • Buckwheat has few disease or pest problems
  • Buckwheat (like other pseudo-cereals, such as quinoa and amaranth) has a favorable nutrient profile, forming a complete protein
  • It’s gluten-free!

Growing buckwheat

Buckwheat is a remarkably resilient plant that not only tolerates, but in fact thrives in poor soils. Once established, it grows even if you ignore it, as long as it gets some rain from time to time.

Buckwheat prefers cool temperatures, but is frost-tender. That makes it somewhat tricky to figure out an optimal time window for planting buckwheat, which has a sow-to-harvest time of 10-15 weeks. Here in the South, the best time to plant buckwheat is actually mid-August. That way, the buckwheat gets to grow during the cooler fall weeks, but can still be harvested before the first frost, which here in Asheville, NC, comes in late October.

 

Harvesting buckwheat

Harvesting the buckwheat groats is reasonably easy. I say this after unsuccessfully trying to harvest enough lambsquarter seed to make a quinoa-like meal… After those nearly invisible, tiny seeds, the buckwheat groats seem bulky and easy to extract.

 

When grown on an urban garden scale, buckwheat is best harvested by hand. One option is to walk through the buckwheat patch whenever you need some, simply stripping the dark brown grains off the stalk with your fingers until you have a cupful.

To harvest an entire bed of buckwheat at once, cut the buckwheat down with a scythe or sickle mower, tie the plants into bundles, and let them dry protected from rain. I brought mine into our sunroom. Chicken and (other) birds also seem to love buckwheat, so if a few plants are left behind it will all get eaten eventually.

When the stalks are completely dry, thresh them inside sacks or old pillowcases. What you’ll have at this point is lovely buckwheat groats, but with a fair amount of plant matter and leaves in the mix.

 

Processing Buckwheat

This is the part that can be a bit challenging and time-consuming. Take your time. You may have to try a few different methods to figure out what works for you, as I did.

The next step is to separate out the chaff from your buckwheat groats. If you’re in the small minority of modern folks who have winnowing skills and a decent winnowing basket, it’ll be a breeze. Otherwise, you may have to try a few different setups. I had the most success with a fan set up next to a shallow tray. I placed a couple of cups of buckwheat on the tray and grabbed a handful and let go, grab a handful and let go, on repeat. All the dry leaves and other chaff flies off because it’s very light. Ideally what ends up on the tray eventually is just the buckwheat groats.

Here’s another setup I tried: using one of my Excalibur dehydrator trays as a tray. The perforated silicone is ideal for letting tiny pieces of chaff to fall through, but catching the buckwheat.

After winnowing, you have yourself a nice batch of wholesome buckwheat groats.

You could grind them into flour as they are, but the taste is better if you remove the dark brown hulls.

  1. First lightly toast the groats, or put them in a hot oven for a short while. It’s well worth the effort, as it helps the hulls to separate easily.
  2. Grind the toasted groats to remove the hull. You can use a blender or a food processor, but I had the most success with a good old-fashioned food mill. The hulls just shattered off (all over the table, as you can see…). The resulting coarsely ground buckwheat will still have some bits of hulls in it, but they can easily be sifted out with a flour sifter at the end.

Now you can grind the groats into flour. If you don’t have a grain mill, a food processor or blender will also work.

 

Here’s the pancake recipe I used to make ours. Some people like to use 50% buckwheat flour and 50% all-purpose wheat flour, and that works great. But in my opinion it’s not necessary to cut the buckwheat with wheat — the buckwheat’s flavor is not overwhelming at all. Even my daughter, who usually demands “ordinary pancakes” (as opposed to her mom’s experiments), gobbled them up enthusiastically.

 

Gluten-free Buckwheat Pancakes

  • 1.5 cups buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 3 Tbsp salted butter, melted
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • butter (for the pan)

Set a well-seasoned cast iron pan on medium heat. Mix the dry ingredients together well. Mix the melted butter together with the syrup, eggs, and buttermilk separately, and add to the dry ingredients. Mix until the batter is well blended and there are no more dry lumps.

Melt a dollop of butter on the heated pan and ladle the batter onto the pan in desired sizes.

Homemade Summer Drinks

Sometime in April, we ran out of the refillable carbon cartridges for making bubbly water at home. “That’s it,” I declared to my slightly dismayed partner and daughter. “From now on, we’ll drink plain filtered water — or we’ll make our own bubbles.”

(Make our own bubbles. Doesn’t that just sum up this pandemic year perfectly?)

Since the summer heat landed on us, our cravings for refreshing, cool, preferably sweet beverages have grown accordingly. So here’s what we’ve been making to quench our thirst on hot afternoons (besides just lots and lots of iced water with lemon and fresh mint):

 

Ginger beer

Find the instructions in this earlier post

 

Probiotic drinks: Kombucha and water kefir

These two drinks are probiotic beverages, both prepared with a live culture, or SCOBY (a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts). In the case of kombucha, the scoby looks like an opaque sponge, in water kefir it’s small water kefir “grains.” As probiotics, they are excellent for supporting gut health, something that seems like a good idea now as ever.

Kombucha is probably the more familiar of the two. I’ve made kombucha off and on for years, using the recipe in Sandor Katz’ Wild Fermentation. It is so easy. Since I periodically fall off the kombucha-making habit, I don’t always have a scoby lying around to start a new culture, but thankfully I have cool friends who share theirs with me.

Water kefir, or tibicos, is another traditional fermented drink. I added it to my repertoire just this summer after Milkwood Permaculture got me intrigued. A healthy sweet soda to hook kids onto probiotics? Yes, please! I found the water kefir grains here and have enjoyed integrating the kefir-making into the daily rhythm of our kitchen.  The microbes in water kefir include Lactobacillus, which you’ve probably heard of. I love knowing that I can grow these good guys in a glass jar right on my kitchen counter.

I can tell you that water kefir now ranks #1 in our family’s list of drinks right now. The subtle base flavor is unlike anything I’ve ever had before, but you can also flavor water kefir in all kinds of creative ways with fruit, herbs, etc. The family favorites right now seem to be blackberry kefir and lemon mint kefir. If you do the second ferment and “feed” the kefir with some more honey and then bottle it for another day, as Milkwood instructs, you’ll end up with a bubbly beverage.

 

Watermelon slushy

Here’s a tip: this drink is extra delicious if you grow the watermelon yourself. Why? Because you’ll be checking on the melon daily for ripeness, knocking on it, waiting, looking for signs that it’s ready to harvest… while the anticipation keeps growing. By the time you cut off the melon and sink a kitchen knife to it, you’ll be so excited to taste it that you’ll dig in with both hands, watermelon juice dripping off your chin, devouring the sweetness.

And if there’s any left from that initial binge… I make a watermelon slushy, a hot summer afternoon hit if there ever was one.

Watermelon slushy

  • freshly cut watermelon, cut into chunks, seeds mostly removed, and frozen for 1-2 hours
  • a few sprigs of fresh mint
  • fresh lemon juice, to taste
  • maple syrup, to taste

Put chilled watermelon cubes in a food processor and mix until the large chunks have disappeared. Add mint, lemon juice, and syrup and pulse again until well blended. Serve immediately.

How to Get Started with Making Cheese

This week, I made my first-ever Parmesan cheese.

Even as I try to eat an increasingly local diet, Parmesan will probably stay on the list of the almost-sacred imported foods we’ll keep eating at my house, along with chocolate and olive oil.

But now that we’re all playing this game of “let’s see how long we can avoid going to the store,” I figured it was time to learn to make my own Parmesan. Watching the Salt Fat Acid Heat episode on Italian cuisine was an added inspiration.

I made a small wheel and it looks beautiful.

Of course — and it was hard to break the news to my family — Parmesan needs a minimum of 8 months to ripen before you eat it. So it’s not exactly a pandemic self-reliance food that will feed us tomorrow… (Although we’ll probably enjoy it very much when we pull it out next winter.)

But there are several quick and easy, instantly rewarding cheeses we can all make at home. Lemon ricotta is my go-to beginner’s cheese that’s very forgiving and almost invariably tastes amazing. Yogurt cheese is also super easy. Feta and mozzarella are good intermediate cheeses to try.

But there’s another reason, besides time, that I think any beginning cheesemaker should start with these, and not go straight to hard cheeses like Gouda or Cheddar, or “stinky cheeses” like Gorgonzola.

 

In my cheese-making classes, I like to repeat the good advice of my own first cheese-making teacher, Ruby Blume:

First learn how to make the easy beginner’s cheeses, and succeed in each of them about five times before moving on to hard cheeses. The reason is this: having a basic familiarity and ease with the fundamental processes of making cheese makes the entire process so much less stressful. The basic steps of cheese-making — heating up milk, adding cultures and rennet, cutting, cooking and draining the curds — are more or less the same in making any cheese. The more you do them, the easier they get.

Making hard cheese involves the same steps, but many, many more of them, and so it usually takes the better part of a day, if not more. If cutting up curds, or catching whey and curds in a colander without something spilling over is something you’ve never done before, it’s pretty stressful to try it when you’re already several hours into the process and still have several hours to go. Learn these basic steps with the easy cheeses until they become routine, you do them with confidence, you know exactly what tools you’re going to need… and then you can actually enjoy the process.

Because it IS really fun. You get to feel like a magician, or alchemist, watching milk go through all these transformations and achieve different textures, from shiny Jell-O like cubes to spongy, bouncy cottage-cheese like crumbs to the rubbery, yellow salted shreds after cheddaring (yes, “cheddaring” is a verb).

Most of the basic equipment required for making cheese you probably already have in your kitchen: pots, bowls, colanders, spatulas. The only other tool I consider essential is a dairy thermometer (I’ve used this floating one for years). If your recipe calls for a cheese press, you don’t need to buy one — I have a DIY wooden cheese press and it works great (instructions here).

If you’re a complete beginner, start with this basic lemon ricotta recipe. Here are some other ideas.  Check out the resources below and get inspired!

 

Cheesemaking resources:

These 3 are my go-to resources for supplies and recipes:

The Cheesemaker

Cultures for Health

New England Cheesemaking Supply Co.

 

And this is my go-to cheesemaking book:

Home Dairy with Ashley English, by Asheville local Ashley English

Homemade Ginger Beer

DIY bubbly drinks!

Who doesn’t like the refreshing, popping sensation of fizzy drinks? We don’t drink a lot of soda in our house, but we do have a fondness… and a sometimes-addiction… to ginger ale.

Homemade ginger beer is a really easy DIY version — and you can adjust that ginger-y bite to your liking if you experiment a bit. It’s a non-alcoholic, effervescent delight that kids love too.

All you need is ginger, sugar, lemon, water — and time (2-3 weeks). My go-to resource with all fermentation processes is Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, and you can find this recipe there.

Start by making the “ginger bug”: 2 teaspoons grated ginger and 2 teaspoons sugar mixed in 1 cup of water. Leave it in a warm spot and “feed” the mix with the same amount of ginger and sugar once a day until the mixture starts bubbling (within a week). Then you’re ready to make the ginger beer: you add another 2-6 inches of grated ginger (less for milder ginger flavor, more for a real punch) and 1.5 cups of sugar to 2 quarts of water, bring to a boil for 15 minutes, and cool. Then add the ginger bug and the juice of 2 lemons and mix.

Strain and bottle in sealable bottles. I admit that this is one of my favorite parts: getting to line up nice shiny bottles and put caps on them with a bottle capper.

Keep in mind some basic precautions about bottling carbonated drinks. With carbonation, pressure does build up in the bottles, so if you are using glass bottles you’ll want to be safe and minimize the possibility of a bottle exploding. I follow the advice of Sandor Katz’ The Art of Fermentation: brewing the ginger beer inside a box in the closet, keeping track of the timing, and opening a “test” bottle every few days after 2 weeks, and I’ve never had issues.

AAANNDDD with homemade fizzy drinks, you’re not supporting the big soft drink corporations that are sucking dry communities’ groundwater around the world and are responsible for a bulk of the world’s plastic pollution. Just sayin’.

Local Meal Ideas

“Eat Local” is a slogan many of us are ready to stand behind. Local food is cool on a hot planet: we know that freshly harvested food is more nutritious, eating local supports local farmers and growers, and there’s no fossil fuels wasted on insanely long shipping distances.

Yet, in practice, many of us still feel quite dependent on imported grocery store foods. Several decades of supermarket shopping culture have narrowed down most people’s cooking repertoire to meals that involve opening cans and cardboard boxes.

So what kinds of meals can you whip up with all-local ingredients? Without those pre-packaged and processed items?

Now that I’ve been eating a local-foods-only diet for almost a month, I have some delicious answers for you. In fact, I put together a list of some of our best meals during this locavore month — with links to recipes!

Here’s the simplest way to put it: A local diet = a whole foods diet. Be prepared to spend a little bit more time in the kitchen, but also to be rewarded by real food, real nutrition, and flavors you just can’t pull out of a box.

In an earlier post, I talked about how I prepared for my “locavore month” and researched local food producers. That gave me a sense of the “pantry” I could draw on for the next month. Figuring out how to combine those ingredients into satisfying, nourishing meals is a creative process and one of my favorite parts, honestly.

 

 

10 ALL-LOCAL Meal Ideas

These meal ideas work if you live in a temperate zone in late summer/early fall, at the peak of the harvest season.

1. Butternut squash lasagna with homemade ricotta (recipe in this book)

2. Neighborhood tart with local mushrooms (I used shiitake) and goat cheese

3. Vegetarian Southern brunch with cheesy grits, scrambled eggs, greens, and biscuits with local goat cheese spread

4. Our favorite carrot tomato soup with homemade bread…

5. Homemade pasta (my daughter and I have a pretty good pasta-rolling routine down at this point). Recipe in this book.

6. Pumpkin ravioli with sage walnut pumpkin butter

7. Blueberry acorn pancakes with Acornucopia acorn flour

8. Eggs in a Nest (from Animal Vegetable Miracle)

This is the easiest local food meal to source ingredients for: just eggs and veggies that are available much of the year: onion, carrot, Swiss chard, and tomato (dried tomatoes is actually what the recipe calls for). Minimal spices, minimal hassle, satisfying flavors. Enjoy with a local grain, or even mashed potatoes.

9. Local Grain/Sweet potato/potato/squash + local protein + greens/salad/sauerkraut

…and what’s for dessert?

10. Basil blackberry apple crumble, again from Animal Vegetable Miracle

 

As you can see, there’s no deprivation going on here. Eating local means eating well — all it takes is some advance planning and a willingness to experiment.

If you try out any of these recipes, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear what you’re cooking!

Quick & Easy Ricotta Cheese

Blessed are the Cheesemakers! I don’t know which motivates me more to make cheese: the promise of the satisfying flavors at the end, or the process itself. The sweet smell of milk being heated and the way the cheese curds get transformed before my eyes makes me squeal inwardly with glee. Shiny white blobs of curd draining in my colander make me feel like an alchemist that has just figured out the formula for making gold.

A basic repertoire of easy cheeses also means that, with a source of local milk, I can always keep cheeses on my plate during this local food month.

Ricotta, I think, should be everyone’s first cheese you try to make. It’s an easy and a relatively quick affair: the preparation takes no more than 30 minutes and an additional 1-3 hours of draining, depending on how firm you like your ricotta. All you need is milk (I always use whole milk), lemon juice or vinegar, a dairy thermometer, strainer or colander, and cheesecloth.

 

Ricotta Cheese

 

Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon whole milk
  • ¼-½ cup lemon juice (can be freshly squeezed)
  • Instead of lemon juice, you can also use ¼ cup vinegar, 1 tsp citric acid dissolved in ¼ cup water, or buttermilk (1 quart per 1 gallon of milk)

Heat milk to 175 F degrees. Add lemon juice and stir. The cheese will curdle within 5 minutes. Pour into a strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth, tie the corners of the cloth together securely, and hang the cheese to drain until it is the consistency you like. I use hooks attach to the door handles of kitchen cupboard doors, but feel free to improvise. When the cheese is ready, take it out of the cheesecloth. At this point, you can flavor it as you wish. I make an herb spread by mixing in some minced fresh herbs, minced garlic, and salt to taste.

Wondering what to do with the whey that collects as the cheese drains? You can use it, for example, instead of milk in pancakes or baking. I also give it to the chickens for extra calcium.

How to Prepare for a Locavore Month

Does the idea of “local food” and “slow food” resonate with you? Are you curious to see what it would be like to eat only from your own region’s farmers and producers for a period of time?

This month, I’m committing to one month of eating only from my bioregion (the Asheville area in Western North Carolina). In this post, I share what I learned while preparing for this local food challenge in case it’s useful for others doing something similar.

Here, in a nutshell, are the steps that helped me to prepare for my Locavore Month:

 

Why: Get clear on your motivations for committing to local foods.

How: decide some parameters for your experiment.

Research: What do I eat, what’s available locally, who’s growing/making it?

Develop some good old-fashioned kitchen skills before starting.

Make preparations.

Why

If you’re not clear on your motivations for undertaking a local foods experiment, it’s going to be hard to stick to it. The first mango smoothie or bag of processed chips that comes your way is going to be hard to turn down if you treat this as just another fad diet.

There are profound reasons for taking a stand in defense of local foods. The current industrial food system and our imported, processed-food diets are causing visible, real damage — in terms of public health, the environment, and adding to the fossil-fuel dependency of our lifestyles. Local foods, in contrast, come from family farms whose growing practices we can check. Investing in them strengthens the local economy. Because these foods are freshly harvested, they are so much more superior in flavor and nutrition than the plastic-wrapped items that have been sitting on supermarket shelves for who knows how long.

Does one person’s commitment to shift to local foods change the system? No, it doesn’t. But it’s more than a symbolic gesture.

Eating locally concretely reduces our dependence on the industrial processed-food system and tethers us, instead, more deeply to our own region’s food system and the people who are involved in it. It teaches us that we can eat — and eat well — even without the supermarkets, the 18-wheeler trucks, and the pesticide-laden fields somewhere far away. That experience is a rare one in the modern world, and really powerful. And the more people get a taste of that, the stronger the local food and slow food movements are going to grow.

 

How

Next, decide some parameters for your local food experiment:

  • What’s “local” to you? Where do you draw the line? Some people commit to a 100-Mile Diet. Even eating foods produced in one’s own state makes an enormous difference compared to the average American diet.
  • How hard-core do you want to be? For example, where I live we have a local cracker company, a hummus company, and a chocolate factory. But the raw ingredients they use — the flour, the chickpeas, and the cacao beans, respectively — come from elsewhere. Do they still count as local food? Decide what’s reasonable for you.
  • Who lives with you, and are they going to participate?
  • The timing of your local food experiment is important. I recommend choosing a time when the availability of local foods in your area is at its height. For example, in the northern hemisphere, July, August, or September are going to be much more flavorful and abundant than January, February, or March.
  • I recommend following Barbara Kingsolver’s advice to choose one loophole item — “one luxury item each in limited quantities, on the condition we’d learn how to purchase it through a channel most beneficial to the grower and the land where it grows.” Think coffee, spices, coconut or olive oil — whatever it is that you’d be miserable without. Being miserable is not the point. (My “loophole item,” by the way, is black tea.)

The focus of a locavore month should not be: “What do I have to give up?” but rather, “What do I get to eat?” This is your opportunity to eat fresh, to try your region’s specialties, to try the recipe you’ve always wanted to make. Take the time to cook and eat slowly. Share your local meals with friends.

 

Research

Planning a month of local eating teaches you so much, both about what you eat, and what is available locally.

First write down all the food groups, food items, beverages etc. you normally consume.

Then do some detective work. What farms and  food producers are in my area? What do they have on offer? Which food group needs can I meet locally?

Farmers’ markets are the tastiest way to familiarize yourself with the local farms and food producers and their offerings. Try samples. Talk to people. Only then talk to Google.

Develop Some good old-fashioned Kitchen Skills

A locavore diet is a whole foods diet.

What that means is, if you’re mostly dependent on the supermarket and processed foods for your sustenance, there’s a bit of a learning curve involved. I’d recommend first spending some time learning to cook foods you love from scratch.

Gradually develop more local food sourcing routines. Learn to plan your menus around what is seasonally available. Get to know your local farmers’ markets, u-pick farms and farm stands. (Contrary to common misconceptions, produce sourced this way is often cheaper than supermarket produce.)

Pro tip: Plant a vegetable garden! Even just a container of salad greens. That way you’ll always have something über-local at your doorstep.

Make friends with people who are gardeners. Once they find out you are restricting yourself to local foods, unexpected loads of green beans, zucchini and freshly picked pears might just land in your lap.

Lastly, here are some good old kitchen skills that will make local eating easier (this is a great resource for recipes and tutorials):

  • Learn to bake bread.
  • Learn to make yogurt and cheese (that way, if you have a source of local milk, you’re guaranteed a supply of yogurt and cheese as well.
  • Learn to make your treats and condiments (e.g. ketchup, crackers, and stock) yourself.
  • Get in the habit of preserving local produce during bumper crop months: freeze berries in July, can tomatoes in August, make applesauce in September.
  • Learn to identify and forage some local wild edibles, mushrooms, and nuts.

 

Make preparations

Alright. The start date of your locavore month (or week, or year) is near and you feel ready. Here’s what to do in the days leading up to the start of your experiment:

  • stock up the pantry and the fridge with local staples (here in the Asheville area, I’ve been able to source flour, rice, nut oils, corn meal and grits, sauerkraut, salsa, local dairy, local grassfed meat and pastured eggs, sustainably farmed trout, and lots of cheese)
  • make broth with local ingredients and freeze to use later
  • make herbal teas from local herbs and wildflowers like mint, red clover, lemon balm, tulsi etc.
  • preserve local produce that’s at its peak to use later on
  • Lastly, savor some local food inspiration:

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon

The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making by Alana Chernila

Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Food by Gary Nabhan

Wild greens in the spring kitchen

Long before those first, tentative leaves of lettuce in the garden are ready for harvesting, nature’s spring greens have already gotten a head start. No need to wait to start eating from the land!

Here are some of my favorite wild-foraged spring greens and what I like to do with them in the kitchen.

Wild greens pesto

Don’t get me wrong: I do think basil is the food of the gods. But honestly, what really makes pesto pesto is the blend of garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan; any green with a little bit of a kick to it goes beautifully with these ingredients. If it’s too early even for arugula, I’ll go for the wild greens growing abundantly everywhere: chickweed, wild onion, and deadnettle. This version I made had locally foraged black walnuts in place of pine nuts, making it a truly place-based food.

To make: Collect at least a colander-full of edible wild greens: chickweed, wild onion, deadnettle is a good combo. Process 2 plump garlic cloves with 1/2 tsp salt and 3 tbsp of pine nuts or walnuts with a food processor or by hand into a fine paste, then start adding the greens by the handful and process until smooth. Add 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Finish with 1/2 cup of finely grated Parmesan cheese and serve.

Sochan and dandelion in smoothies

My 4-year-old is a picky eater. To up her intake of greens, I regularly trick her by adding them to smoothies and juices. Thankfully, some of the most potent greens, nutritionally speaking, grow in our backyard; and in the spring, the tender, young leaves of dandelions and sochan make it into our smoothies.

Not so sure about dandelion? Then try sochan! This mild green, also known as cutleaf coneflower, is a traditional food plant of the Cherokee and one of the easiest and most satisfying to add to any dish that calls for greens. Sochan grows wild along riverbanks and wet woodlands, but is also easy to grow in the garden. Sochan has many health benefits, but it’s in the mineral department that it excels over better-known superstar vegetables such as kale: it has more manganese, zinc, phosphorous and copper than kale (in case of manganese, it has five times the amount!)

To make: blend bananas, frozen blueberries, almond milk, and sochan in a blender or with an immersion blender. I sometimes add almond butter, collagen powder, or ground maca root for an extra energy boost.

Spruce Tip Fizz

You know those light green, tender new shoots at the end of spruce tree branches in the spring?

Yes, those.

I collect them in the spring to make a most decadent spruce tip syrup. We mix it with sparkling water for a favorite springtime drink, but it could also be used to glaze a roast chicken etc. The flavor and aroma is just like stepping into a fresh, lush evergreen forest.

To make:

Collect just the light green new tips (only pick from a large, established tree). To make the syrup, use equal amounts spruce tips, water, and sugar (I used 2 cups of each). First bring the water and sugar to boil, mixing so that the sugar dissolves. Then add the chopped spruce tips, turn off heat, cover the pot, and let cool, ideally until the next day. Strain through a fine strainer or cheese cloth. The finished syrup will keep in the fridge for 3 months.

 

Spring Foraging: Nettles

Nettles are a free superfood, yours for the pickin’ at the forest. It’s one of the most nutritious plants around: rich in vitamins A and C, protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and magnesium. Once blanched to remove the sting, they can be used in virtually any recipe that calls for spinach.

Spring is the prime season for nettles. They should be picked when they are still tender and young, because that’s when they are growing fast and are most potent in nutrients. In May, the nettles will have started flowering, which means that they are past their prime. For harvesting, all you need are scissors, bags, and gloves — and preferably long sleeves and pants or boots. Nettles grow in the shade and are easy to recognize if not by the sting, then by the stem, which is square like that of mint. Cut off just the top 4-5 inches of the young plants with scissors; the tops will grow back.

When you get home, separate the leaves from the stalks, and soak the leaves in warm water. Then transfer to a large pot with a slotted spoon, cover with water, and blanch for about 10 minutes. That’s when they are ready for any recipe, and the real fun begins… I brewed nettle tea, whirred up this tasty nettle pesto recipe in the food processor (although I like to sautée the garlic in olive oil first), and for dinner made a savory nettle feta quiche (recipe follows).

Nettle Feta Quiche

Crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt1 stick of butter, cold3 tbsp ice water

Filling:
200-300 g of blanched spinach or nettle, coarsely chopped
1 small onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp butter
3 eggs
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup milk
a handful of crumbled feta
1 tbsp oregano
salt and pepper to taste

To make the crust, sift together the flour and the salt, and then cut the butter into the flour mixture with your fingertips or in a food processor until it is uniformly crumbly. Sprinkle the ice water on top, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough holds together. Wrap in plastic and put in the fridge for a minimum of half an hour before shaping it into a disk and fitting into a 9-inch pie plate. Brush with an egg yolk.

Sautée the garlic and onion on a pan in butter, then add the nettles or spinach and continue to sautée until the onions have softened. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, the milk, the cream, and the spices. Lastly add the feta. Add the custard filling to the greens and onions and pour into the pie crust. Bake in 400 F for about 20-30 min, or until golden brown.