Home » local food

Category: local food

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.

Gather Nuts, Gather Community: Interview with the Asheville Nuttery

What if there was a food crop hanging from trees that line your neighborhood streets — delicious and versatile, rich in unsaturated fats, fiber and minerals? What if it was available for free, yours for the picking? And what if it also required minimal human input, fertilizers, or pesticides, created wildlife habitat, reduced erosion, and sequestered carbon while growing?

If you live in most parts of temperate North America, that food is already out there. You guessed it: it’s nuts. There’s a bounty of native nuts and acorns growing all around us, largely untapped by human beings.

But if you’ve ever processed nuts and acorns on your own — cracking, de-hulling, leaching, grinding — you know it’s an arduous process. And that’s why the words “collective nut processing” will quickly grab your attention.

In Asheville, North Carolina, where I live, an innovative nut foragers’ collective is removing the obstacles that keep us from incorporating local nuts into our diets. It’s the Asheville Nuttery, a cooperatively owned nut processing facility. Anyone can join to be a forager for the project. Foragers pick black walnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts and bring them to the Nuttery; the Nuttery team processes them, and foragers get their share of processed nuts, or oils, or flour at the end of the season.

* * *

Historically, acorns and nuts were a staple food for Native Americans, as well as in many parts of Europe and Asia. Some of the oak and pecan groves that still stand in our landscapes date back to a time when people harvested from those trees for their sustenance. But in the past two centuries, the overwhelming dominance of annual grains in our diets has made acorn-based and native nut-based foods a rare curiosity.

There’s enormous potential for an economic and culinary revival around nuts and acorns. With their nutty and complex flavors, they are a real delicacy. They are among our most nutritious foods, versatile to cook with, and store well. Nut and acorn flours can be substituted for wheat flour in many recipes, making them a great gluten-free option.

In 2014, a group of agroforestry enthusiasts in Asheville, North Carolina came together to bridge this gap — to create a model for growing and processing native nuts and acorns that would be both ecologically and economically viable. They met through the Buncombe County Fruit and Nut Club, a volunteer group that plants and cares for fruit and nut trees in parks and other public places in Asheville, and began to develop a vision for growing and processing nuts on a large scale. They identified two limiting factors: the cost of land, and the time it takes for nut trees to bear a crop (about 10-15 years).

Planting food in public places pointed the way around the first obstacle. “We were planting fruit and nut trees in public parks,” says Justin Holt, one of the group of five, “and I started to get my head around the idea of trees as a kind of commonwealth — how we can serve so much more than just ourselves if we think outside the box of only our own yards.” It was a simple insight: you don’t need to own land to plant on it.

The five friends organized themselves as the Nutty Buddy Collective, and started reaching out to local conservation-minded landowners who had underutilized land. They negotiate 99-year lease agreements with these landowners that allow them to plant and maintain nut orchards and harvest crops from them. For compensation, the landowner receives a percentage of the harvests. The Nutty Buddies planted the first orchard of mostly black walnuts in 2014. Their plantings have now expanded to include hickory, chestnut, hazelnut, pawpaw, aronia, elderberry, apples and pears.

Gathering acorns. Image credit: The Asheville Nuttery.

While waiting for their nut orchards to mature, the Nutty Buddies decided to start foraging nuts from the existing nut trees in the region, and developing the equipment necessary for processing them. This led to the creation of The Asheville Nuttery. As of early 2019, the Nutty Buddy Collective and the Nuttery are two independent but inter-related enterprises. A third entity, the Acornucopia Project, is developing and marketing new food products based on the nuts harvested and processed in this way, such as oils, nut flours, and crackers.

* * *

If there’s a pun with “nuts” or “nutty” in it, it’s been heard at the Nuttery. But it’s not just jokes that are cracked here: the Nuttery is a pioneering cooperative facility for processing local, collectively foraged wild nuts. Located at a former greenhouse complex with gritty charm outside of West Asheville, the nut depot reflects the entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude of the team members, all of whom have other day jobs. On any given day in the fall season, you can find them here sorting and weighing nuts, packing them in mesh bags, and greeting people who come to drop off their foraged nuts.

 

The idea of the Nuttery was sparked, in part, by how olives are often processed in Southern Europe: a village has a community oil press, and people can bring the olives from their trees to be pressed and leave with their own olive oil share. Similarly, the Nuttery is a place where anyone can bring in acorns and other wild nuts to be processed into flour and oil. Foragers can trade what they pick either for cash or for a forager’s share of the processed nuts.

The Nuttery is also where the team members are developing innovative processing equipment. Accessible, small-scale equipment for cracking, de-hulling, pressing and grinding nuts and acorns is hard, if not impossible, to find. So the Nuttery is building its own. One example of the low-tech solutions I have witnessed in action is a de-huller for black walnuts: a former lime spreader attached to a tractor. Works like a charm.

* * *

Image credit: The Asheville Nuttery

Two years ago, I became one of the nut foragers for the Nuttery. I took a nut tree identification class. I got my buckets and sacks ready.

The next thing that happened is that I started to look at my neighborhood a little differently.

Nut trees — massive old nut trees — are everywhere where I live. They grow on people’s backyards. They line the streets. They provide shade in parks, school playgrounds, and cemeteries. Most of the time, people don’t even think of them as producing an edible crop; that is how far removed we are culturally from incorporating local nuts in our diets. Even when they drop their thousands of pounds of acorns, black walnuts, hickories and chestnuts onto streets and sidewalks, it’s mostly the squirrels that are thrilled; homeowners and car drivers tend to be annoyed. Gathering tennis ball-sized black walnuts or prickly chestnuts in public parks, I have more than once gotten the reaction, “You mean those are edible?”

The most transformative part about becoming a forager is that you start to notice. You start putting together a mental map of nut trees in your neighborhood. You pay attention to the shape of the leaves and the telltale stains on the sidewalk and start planning your trips around town around the location of particularly promising trees. You work up the courage to go talk to a neighbor you’ve never met before to ask if you could collect acorns from her oak tree. Before you know it, you see the place where you live differently. Not only has it turned into a landscape from which you can harvest edible crops, but it also feels more like a village now that you’ve connected with former strangers.

The bounty comes in. On Saturdays in the late fall, foragers haul five-gallon bucket after five-gallon bucket to the Nuttery depot for de-hulling and cracking. Each drop-off trip feels a little festive: we are contributing to a collective project of shifting more of our calories to the local area, and shifting towards a more cooperative, perennial-based food system.

In December, I received my share of nuts: 18 pounds of de-hulled and cracked black walnuts. We foragers gathered for an end-of-the-season celebration where we got to sample some innovative nut and acorn-based delicacies: acorn flour crackers, hickory and black walnut oils, nut “cheeses,” nut-based pesto, acorn “olives” and acorn-based chocolate desserts.

And here, of course, is the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing. Because we’re rediscovering forgotten flavors, and inventing new ones, and both make for a good adventure.

 

Interview with Justin Holt of the asheville nuttery

One of the challenges to the wider adoption of locally grown nut-based foods is the lack of cultural knowledge around harvesting, processing and cooking with nuts and acorns. How do you address that?

Justin: Working to align our cultural values and practices with trees and perennial agriculture is more important to me than planting trees.

Sure, it’s important to be out there planting the trees and developing the infrastructure – but what’s matters to me most is engaging our community about this. That’s what has made it feasible for us to do what we do now: we are able to access land because we’ve negotiated leases with landowners, and we get such a large supply of nuts because we’ve involved the community in foraging nuts. Community engagement is in the DNA of both the Acornucopia Project and the Nutty Buddy Collective.

 

In many ways, you have to change people’s perceptions of what counts as food.

JH: Yes. When we go to events, there’s often a handful of people who seem mildly interested in, say, acorn flour, and they say, “Oh, I didn’t know you could eat that….” And then they move on. But maybe they go home and tell a friend about it, or maybe they come back next year and actually taste the product. Slowly, people become more curious. The flavors are strong, and some people get excited about the novelty factor. They just have to wrap their head around how they might want to use the product in cooking.

One of the new edges we’re trying to work is partnering with chefs at local restaurants. Chefs are very influential in what people will consider as cool and exciting. If a food item shows up on the menu of a fancy restaurant, and they’re featuring it, and they’re excited about it – that raises awareness. Recently, we had a fundraiser dinner, and chefs at OWL Bakery, Plant, and West Village Bakery all contributed. Seeing nut-based and acorn-based foods being adopted by restaurants also raises awareness about our foraging efforts, and brings in more people who want to participate.

Local chefs get together to experiment with nut oils and flours and develop recipe ideas. Pictured here from left to right: Cathy Cleary, Susannah Gebhart, Maia Surdam, Mark Rosenstein, Barbara Snell, and Bill Whipple. Image credit: The Asheville Nuttery.

What are some of the main challenges you’re encountering?

JH: One challenge is that we’re working with about a dozen different nut species. Each one has their own characteristics and quirks in terms of how you process them — post-harvest handling, curing, storage — so there are a lot of moving parts.

Marketing is also a challenge. We believe there’s actually a massive demand for nut-based products out there: so many people are looking for alternatives to meat and gluten in their diets, and nut and acorn-based foods can provide both. The challenge is figuring out how to get the products in front of the right people and understand their value.

 

A part of your larger vision is to inspire nut depots like yours to spring up everywhere. Tell me more about what you’d like to see happening.

JH: We’re giving presentations at various events and farming conferences and essentially laying out our business model, hoping some people will adopt it and decide to cooperate rather than compete with us. Some amount of competition is good; it creates a buzz. I’d love to see someone else start selling acorn oil and raise awareness about it! But the possibility of cooperation is really strong, too. One of the issues with nut trees is they don’t produce consistently each year. If we had a network of nut depots in different regions, we could be co-organizing to harvest in whichever local the mast year is.

 

What would you say to readers who live in another part of the country, or the world, and get excited about your vision and business model?

JH: Get in touch with us, ask us a lot of questions, check out our websites (nuttybuddycollective.com and www.acornucopiaproject.com). Start picking up nuts and figuring out how to work with them. I might suggest picking 2-3 species to start with, and first learning how to be really efficient with those before taking on more.

Ways to Support Racial Justice in Food and Farming

As the outrage over police brutality towards Black Americans, and the discrimination and inequities facing the U.S. Black populations, has washed over this country over the last weeks, we’ve been forced to examine the system that has led to this and our own part in it.

Each of us needs to find that piece of the collective work of undoing and re-doing, breaking the old and mending what’s broken, that is ours to do.

From listening, to learning, to standing at the front lines of protest, to donating to bail funds, to working on Black voter suppression, to writing and media, and (for those of us who are white) the often very uncomfortable homework of confronting our complicity in systemic racism, our obliviousness about our own unearned advantages, and the harm caused by our well-intended micro-aggressions.

Each of us has a piece of the collective work that’s ours to do.

Since I work in farm organizing, write about local food, and most days — including on these days of grief and anger since George Floyd’s death — have my hands deep in garden soil, it seems that one of the pieces that’s mine to work on is advocating for social justice and racial equity in food, farming and gardening.

 

* * *

 

Here’s one uncomfortable truth that reveals my own privilege right off the bat: those words — food, farming, and gardening — are words that I tend to associate with good and happy things. But the story of agriculture and food in this country is, from its beginnings, a story of trauma, violence, and injustice. The very foundation of U.S. wealth was grown on stolen land by stolen people. Native peoples’ land was taken away from them; enslaved African men, women and children were forced to work in farm fields. Long after emancipation, Black Americans were systematically excluded from access to land or robbed of their lands.

The end result, as Gosia Wozniacka writes, is that “Ninety-six percent of farmland owners are white and 95 percent of U.S. producers — about 3.2 million — are white, while there are only 45,500 Black farmers. It’s a far cry from the 950,000 who worked the land in 1920.”

Look at those numbers: land ownership among Black Americans is 1/20 of what it was 100 years ago. Yet even though Black Americans don’t tend to own farm land, they do farm work. The majority of farm workers are Black and Latino; they tend to be poorly paid, treated as invisible and, ironically, are often themselves food insecure, even as they grow food for the rest of America.

And then there’s the inequitable access to healthy, nourishing foods: grocery stores offering higher-quality, healthier food options tend to be located in predominantly White communities. To mention just one aspect.

So, given that history, how do we rise up for racial justice as food lovers, farm lovers, gardeners, farmers, urban homesteaders?

What Black food and agricultural leaders are telling us to do is to first listen. Then do our homework and understand some of that history, why things are the way they are. And thirdly, support Black farmers and other Black leaders in food and agriculture.

 

food sovereignty action steps

Sooner or later, as you dig into this, you’re going to come across Leah Penniman, the farmer at Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York and the author of Farming While Black. In March, I got the opportunity to participate in a brilliant and eye-opening workshop led by Penniman about ending racism in the food system. The Soul Fire Farm website has a document with about 200 food sovereignty action steps for supporting racial justice in the food and farming system. It’s a powerful document and a great place to start. Some powerful action steps from that document include:

  • Uplift Black and Brown expertise, both ancestral and current.
  • Enact reparations to POC-led projects
  • For white people: “Rather than trying to “outreach” to people of color and convince them to join your initiative, find out about existing community work that is led by people directly impacted by racism and see how you can engage.”

Also, if you’re a white farmer, check out National Young Farmers Coalition’s A Racial Equity Toolkit for farmers.

 

 

Support Black Farmers in your area

If the history of farming in this country is a wound, many Black farmers have found that farming itself can be a salve for that wound. That food sovereignty itself — being able to work with the land and grow food, against all odds — is healing.

Look at Karen Washington of Rise & Root Farm, Ayanna Jones of Sankofa Village Community Garden, Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, Ron Finley “The Gangsta Gardener,” and the many urban farmers that have made Detroit famous for its urban farming: they’ve reclaimed land and, when in urban areas, made their neighborhoods healthier and safer places to live, reviving a sense of community and cooperation.

But there’s more. As Tanya Fields, the founder of Libertad Urban Farm in Bronx, New York, says:

“For us to come in and reclaim these spaces and say that we have right to have access to this land so that we can have some sort of sovereignty and autonomy, even if it’s just a handful of peppers we grew that day, couple of strawberries… The ability to say, “I grew some of my food” and say, “I have some control over what went into my body, and I made the decision as to what that was going to be” — that is radical, that is necessary.”

How to find and support Black-owned farms in your area? Check out Shoppe Black’s list of Black-owned farms and food gardens.

 

 

Support organizations fighting for racial justice in the food system

For more organizations and individuals fighting for racial justice in the food system, see here and here.

 

Support Farm Workers

As Simran Sethi writes, the Covid-19 crisis has made all too evident that farm workers and migrant laborers — a majority Black and Hispanic population — are people whom “we treat as invisible when [the system] is working and only notice when it’s not.”

How to advocate for those who feed us? Head over here to read the rest of Sethi’s thorough and powerful article on empathy towards farm workers could transform our food system.

 

Eat a “Social justice Diet”

We’ve been famously called to “vote with our fork” but, most of the time, it’s been about promoting good land stewardship by going for organic, or local, or vegan, or whatever the case may be. Too often we have omitted racial justice in the food system as something that we can move the dial on with our individual choices.

Here are some ideas.

  • Support initiatives that enable Black & Indigenous people to eat culturally appropriate, nourishing, traditional foods. One of my favorite examples is the Cafe Ohlone, mak-‘amham, in Berkeley, CA. mak-‘amham means “our food” in the Chochenyo Ohlone language and the cafe serves only traditional Ohlone foods, made with ingredients indigenous to California.
  • Ask questions about where your food came from and how it was grown. To shift policy, we need to become a food-literate society again — a society where people invest in food, take the time to prepare it and eat it, and care about the land it was grown on and the people who grew it.
  • Buy regionally and eat seasonally. It’s what Ray Levy-Uyeda calls a “social justice diet”: “If consumers and voters understand the environmental implications of what they’re purchasing and which businesses they’re supporting through their consumption, then food policy at the federal level might look different.” The industrial food system, supported by billions of dollars of federal subsidies, is a juggernaut that is degrading both human health and environmental health. Every time you buy fresh directly from a local small family farm, you are taking a little power away from that system. You have that power. Use it.

There’s so much work to be done in this realm. We don’t yet have a social justice food system, but we have to start asking: what would that look like? As my friend, food writer and butcher Meredith Leigh writes, it has to start with confronting the uncomfortable:

“We force ourselves to become accountable to the inequities that we don’t have answers for, the fact that the farm to table movement springs first and foremost from an environmentalism that did not fully include social justice. And when we begin to deal with that, we realize all the other conversations that we have been ignoring because we have had the privilege or the permission to do so.”

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

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!

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