Living La Vita Locale 5/30: Salad greens

What’s fresh at the market this week? Salad greens, kale, collards, and spinach. If you are new to eating seasonally, treasure these greens now, because once high summer hits, the baby greens and cool weather lettuce are done. Granted their place is taken with other greens and lettuces, but these sweet greens of spring and early summer are truly delightful.

Salads are great, and dressing is really easy to make, like Basil Vinegrette, but how about something that elevates these greens to main dish status?

Asian Burgers with Greens

1 lb. ground beef (100% pastured is best), preferably 85% lean

¼ C Mirin

¼ C soy sauce

2 T rice wine vinegar

1 t brown sugar

½ t black pepper

1 clove of garlic, crushed and finely minced

½” piece of ginger, grated

Mix all of these ingredients thoroughly and let rest in the refrigerator for at least three hours, or overnight.

In a small food processor, or single-serve smoothie blender combine the following:

½ C olive oil

¼ rice wine vinegar

2 T soy sauce

1 t sugar

½” piece of ginger, finely grated

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

Blend until smooth. Open the container and taste the dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste. This can be made up to a week in advance. Refrigerate until you are ready to use it.

Heat the grill to medium hot. Make four patties from the ground meat mixture.

Before you put the meat on the grill, mix some greens together in a bowl. You can use any combination. At the Collingswood Farmer’s Market this week, there were a variety of lettuces and spring mixes, and at the Fernbrook Farm CSA, shareholders received lettuce and kale. From my garden, I thinned my beet patch, so I have baby beet greens. You could slice bok choy. Include a variety for texture and taste. Mix the greens with the ginger dressing and let it sit until you finish grilling the meat. The dressing will wilt the greens.

Grill the burgers to the desired doneness. Plate the burger on a bed of greens.

Spiritual Uplifting from the Strawberry Patch

The strawberries are done for the year. With a little sadness and the help of my daughter, I removed and rolled up the bird netting for another year. We had a good crop, about 15 quarts, which I think is pretty respectable for a bed that is 1 ½ feet deep and 25 feet long.

We also get strawberries from our CSA. It is one of the U-pick crops, so I like to get out there on the early-side, and crawl around the rows while it is still fairly quiet. I had two funny experiences in the strawberry patch this year. The first one was me being that CSA veteran, who always has something to say in reference to what to do with all the food we take home. It can be a little overwhelming, I think. This woman was saying that she didn’t know what she was going to do with all of the strawberries she was picking (2 quarts), that it was more than her family could possible eat before they got mushy. I commented that she could jam them, or put them in the freezer to eat frozen, make smoothies out of, or make jam later, which is what I do, that I had frozen most of the strawberries from my home patch because I didn’t have time to make jam.

Another woman was in the row next to me and she stopped picking, looked up at me and said, “If you grow your own strawberries, why are you picking these? There could be more for the rest of us.”

I replied, “I am picking these because the CSA doesn’t offer a ‘No Strawberry’ share.”

At the time, I was a little perturbed by this woman’s attitude – I paid for my share, and I will use all of the produce I bring home. Where did she get off even thinking that I shouldn’t have my share of strawberries?

But I realized that people come into the CSA with all kinds of preconceptions about how the community functions. In some respects, this woman is a theoretical communist – we all take only what we need. I can imagine her thoughts pertaining to the first woman’s initial comments, “If you aren’t going to eat them, leave them for someone who will.” But what was most interesting about this woman was what I saw when she left the strawberry patch, balancing her quart containers. Not overflowing, mind you, but exactly level with the top of the dry quart. She took exactly her share, unlike many people who try and balance as many strawberries on top as they possibly can. It can be amusing to watch them tip-toe out of the patch.

The next week, I was out there early again, and a mother was out there picking with her daughter. I am guessing the daughter was about three or four years old, very patiently crouched next to her mom, picking berries. It was one of those ‘wish I had a camera’ moments. The mom said, “Oh! Don’t pick the little ones. Only pick the big ones.”

I looked over and said, “We love the little ones. We call them sugar bites. They are usually really sweet.”

She replied, “Shouldn’t they stay on the plant until they get bigger?”

“Once they turn red, they don’t get any bigger.”

“Oh. Thanks!”

And we returned to our picking. So here is someone who knows nothing about how food grows. She only knows that she has never seen a tiny strawberry before because the only strawberries she has ever seen came from the grocery store, where they have to be a certain size and certain shape to make it into the basket. It was an awesome moment. A door opened. And not just for the mom. But for the little girl, who will grow up with an entirely different perception of food, and where food comes from, and how it is produced.

I find these two experiences uplifting because it illustrates how the CSA can work to shape cultural attitudes. In the first example, the woman is concerned with the people who take more than their share. It is an issue. I have seen people pick ¾ of a bag of green beans and call it a ½ a bag. Stand up, shake the bag and say, “That looks like ½ a bag.” I don’t say anything, figuring that the farm manager probably low-balls the amounts to consider that some people will high-ball the level in their U-pick bag. And while that woman was upset that I was picking berries even though I grow my own, I applaud her sense of being part of a larger community and her willingness to speak her mind.

The second woman and her daughter are the reason I will continue with this blog, and to continue to teach the Politics of Food unit in the classroom. Our American culture, for the most part, has no idea how food gets to the table. And there is so much political maneuvering, and corporate manipulation, that it seems nearly impossible for the simplest of processes to take place. In the classroom, the Food Politics Unit is something of a metaphor – for students to see that something as simple as grow food, harvest food, prepare food, eat food has become an extraordinarily complicated and cut-throat business. I think this is true for many things in their lives: my childhood was much less complicated; education was much less complicated; my working parents’ lives were much less complicated. The more technology makes things “easier,” the more techno-dependent we become, the more steps we create to get from start to finish, the less energy and drive we have to accomplish anything.

Can’t I Just Eat Anymore?

It seems that everything has become specialized.

Even how we eat.

Back in the day, we used to just stuff our faces.  We were raised on Tang, Campbell’s soup, Chef Boyardi, and Quisp cereal.  For my younger readers, that puts me at 50ish years old.  As the end of the Baby-Boomers, we were raised by many parents who did not cook the same way their parents did.  Convenience foods were all the rage and primed the pump for the deluge of the current Industrial system.  Many of our parents didn’t cook, and therefore, my generation did not learn how to cook from one of our parents.

My siblings and I are anomalies.  We can all cook.  What sets us apart?  My mother cooked and we learned by osmosis.  Children model what they see.  The quickest way to change a behavior in your child is to look for it in yourself and then change that behavior in you.  Do you have a child who has temper tantrums?  Look in the mirror and see how you respond in a situation where you aren’t getting what you want.  Are you calm and cool about it?  As a child, my food model was my mother, who worked outside the home, and took care of everyone, and cooked dinner every night.  She also had breakfast set out for us every morning and packed lunches for us everyday.  BTW, Thanks Mom!  That was my model — make it yourself.

And so we do.

Frequently, I am asked if I am a locavore.  No.  I drink coffee, and I haven’t found any that grows locally.  I am asked if I am a vegetarian.  Not even close — more like a omnitarian.  Although that isn’t true, either, because there are things that I don’t like, such as mussels and clams, that the rest of my family adores.  We are not even close to self-sufficient.

We are an average suburban family.  I am a high school English teacher, which does give me flexibility in the summer, but once school begins I have very little flexible time.  Yes I get home earlier than the average 9-5’er, but I leave the house earlier, as well.  What makes us different is that we made a decision to eat better.  We found it to be a multifaceted decision that colors the way we approach food.  What I gave up in TV watching, or Facebook reading, I gained in health and wellness.

We are out of pork right now.  Our hog won’t be ready for another couple of months.  We are impatiently waiting.  My husband was “jonesing” for pork, so he bought a shoulder roast at the grocery store and stuck it on the rotisserie.  It smelled great and I realized that I really missed pork — we haven’t had any for over a month.  We made a discovery: it didn’t have much flavor once we got below the fat cap.  All of the discussion we have about the lack of flavor in other people’s cooking came down to this discovery — it isn’t how they prepare the meal.  The ingredients being used are not the same as the ones we use — a pastured pig has a very different flavor than a commercially produced pig.  Pastured meat has a flavor.  I would venture a guess that the preponderance of people who desire things hot and spicy may stem from the general tastelessness of commercially produced food. Most things are salty, or sweet, or maybe salty and sweet, but the flavor of the base food, the meat, or the corn, or even the string bean, is missing.

I also had to be reminded not to eat the fat.  I am accustomed to eating the fat because in a pastured animal, the fat is good for me — full of Omega 3 fatty acids that are in correct balance with the Omega 6’s.

We won’t do that again.

I urge you to check out what you can get directly from farmers.  Buying individual cuts is very expensive, which I why I encourage you to buy whole or 1/2 animals directly from farmers.  Check out eatwild.com and Local Harvest to get you started.

X-Games? No, Just X-Food

            My mother informed me that my lifestyle is extreme.  She hesitated before using the word, thinking that I would be insulted or get defensive.  But the truth of the matter is, compared to the average American food consumer, our life-style is extreme.  I want to stress that we did not wake up one day and change everything about the way we eat, we did not make extreme changes.  These changes came about slowly over a decade, one decision growing organically out of the previous decision.  Life is about choices, and we always have choices.  Even if we feel as though we do not.  How and when do we feel that pressure of “no choice”?  When the consequences of all choices barring one are too heinous to consider experiencing.  You see, the thing about choices is that they all have consequences.

            One consequence of our choices led us to Nature’s Sunlight Farm in Newville, PA, run by Mark and Maryann Nolt.  Before our first visit, I think we must have called the farm a half a dozen times with questions.  Ordering, timing, butchering, more timing, driving directions, what other things they might have available.  I told my husband they would probably be relieved when we finally picked up, just so we would stop calling.

            We had no idea what to expect when we got there.  OK, yes, a farm, but we had never done an on-farm pick up before.  And even after all of our phone calls, I think we were still a little nervous about the trip.

            When we arrived, it was like a cliché postcard: there were two horses running side-by-side in a pasture.  The most beautiful kitchen garden was in its full glory.  We parked under a tree and spilled out of the car.  Mark Nolt came out to greet us and invited us to walk and stretch our legs.  He pointed to where the cows were, so we took a walk up in that direction.  We told the children that this is what we were here to get – a calf for us to eat.  And you know what?  They didn’t freak out.  Children are much more practical than most people give them credit to be.  If we can’t handle the truth of our food, we pass along that bias and fear to our children.  Afterward, we ate a picnic lunch and then Mark helped Greg load the car with our veal.

            OK, stop freaking out.  This is not some calf that got tied up in a dark barn for the duration of its life.  This is a calf that was out on the field with its mother, doing calf-like things: frolicking, playing, eating, enjoying the sunshine.  This veal had a better life than any Purdue chicken.

            While Mark transferred the meat via a little red wagon and Greg packed the car, I had the opportunity to speak with Maryann, who explained their transition from more conventional farming methods.  She said that there was no reason to use all the equipment and machinery to bring food to the cows when they had four good legs and could just as easily go out to where the food is.  So rather than paying off a huge debt that many farmers incur in order to pay for the very expensive equipment required for conventional farming, they returned their equipment and changed over to a grass-based system.  Just to put it in perspective, a used 59 HP tractor (that’s a small tractor) can run about $8,000.  A used combine can set you back about $20,000.  She pointed to some stakes in the ground and explained that they were going to build a milk shop there.  So rather than paying off debt, they were able to improve their property.

            We left the farm that day with veal, milk, cheese, eggs and a new vision of how our food is produced.  By having less technology, by taking a simpler approach to their work, the Nolts created a situation were they could do better.  And I mean that as a general statement.  In Judaism we have a phrase, Tikkun Olam, it means “Heal the World.”  The change the Nolts made in their approach to farming helped them improve their personal situation in creating a profitable farm.  But there is a much bigger picture: they improve the earth by using natural cycles that enhance sustainability.  Less machinery equals less fossil fuels being used to produce the food.  They set an example for how to make this work for other farmers, and take the time to explain it all to their customers.

            That evening, after the veal was put away and the children were a-bed, we sat on our patio and watched the last remnants of the sunset.  Greg said, “We need to simplify our lives.”  Yes.  Yes, we do.  Herein lies the paradox:  In order to simplify our food, to eat simple food, not complicated or altered by processing, our life-style looks complicated, and our way of eating is considered “extreme,” and yet, this is the way people ate for thousands of years, up until about 100 years ago.  Why has the acquisition of simple food become extremely difficult?  Please reply because I don’t have an answer!

Felony Milk

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Cows on Grass at Freedom Acres Farm

I am a felon.  I’ve not been convicted, nor even charged with anything.  And if I ever was charged, I’d be appalled that the government would waste money prosecuting a case over smuggled milk.

“Milk?” you ask.

Yes.  Milk.  I’m one of those people.  You know, the ones who drink raw milk.

“Raw?” you ask.

Well, not cooked, which is what pasteurization does.  And my argument for raw milk will come in another post.  The good news is that because I can’t buy it in a store because it is illegal to sell raw milk in NJ, I have to go directly to a farm.  In Pennsylvania.  And then bring it home, across state lines (that’s where the felony comes in), with the intention to drink it.

One of the big changes we made in our lives is trying to remove as many links as possible from our commodity chain.  We have a garden and we produce a goodly amount of tomatoes and cucumbers.  We have a thriving “s-berry” patch (an old farming superstition to not say anything good about them by name, or we jinx ’em!), as well as raspberries and young apple trees (so far so good on the apples, but who knows!).  Most of what we don’t grow ourselves, we get from a Community Supported Agriculture Farm (CSA) and local orchards.  And yes, in the winter, we sadly return to the grocery store…

At the moment, we are single-sourcing our meat, from Nature’s Sunlight Farm in Newville, PA.  I’m not going to get into our amazing relationship with the Nolt Family today because they are a post (or 6) in and of themselves.  No feedlot meat for us.  No battery-produced chickens.  No links between.  We pick it up from the farmer.

A beautiful Jersey cow at Freedom Acres Farm

Our raw milk odyssey has taken us up and down the NJ/PA border, finding different dairies, trying their product.  While all of the dairies with whom we dealt have wonderful milk, we felt that we were “trading out” on the various value-added products available, and that prices were kind of steep.

My friend Andrea (her name is changed to protect her from harm due to contraband milk smuggling collusion) called me a couple of weeks ago with a lead on a new farm.  She, as a resident of Pennsylvania, can legally purchase raw milk at a store.  However, she can save $4 a gallon by going directly to a farm.  She went and checked it out (doing nothing illegal, mind you, because her milk was not going to cross state lines).

Because she was so impressed with product, I had to go with her on the next milk run.  One blustery morning, I found myself at Freedom Acres Farm in Honey Brook, PA.  The farm is run by husband and wife team, Samuel and Esther Fisher.  Esther was at the door a minute after we arrived.  We brought in the “empties” and chatted about their products.

Andrea had warned me that the milk was going to be in big jars, but I had to chuckle when I saw the them.  They are institutional-sized pickle jars.  I find that irony really amusing.  Esther brought out a variety of cheeses, cream cheese and yogurt.  Samuel came in a bit later and started to chat with us in what I will call “teacher-mode” (enough people chide me about going into “teacher-mode,” so I do know it when I see it!), about pastured, grass-fed milk.  Andrea held up a hand and said, “Samuel, Natalie is the one who got me started on raw milk.”

I have been back, and plan to continue purchasing milk and dairy products from Freedom Acres.  The milk is creamy and delicious.  The cheeses are truly wonderful.  The cheddar is a house favorite.  The jalepeño cheddar wasn’t hot enough for my husband (but nothing ever is, unless his taste buds get seared off), but my son who has tastes the polar opposite of his father, thought it was delicious.  The Monterey Jack melts beautifully and has a nice silky consistency.

And oh, the butter.  The butter! Spring butter!  And if your head isn’t swimming in a moment of ecstasy thinking about spring butter, then you have never tasted it.  It is rich and has a flavor unlike anything I’ve ever spread on bread.  The color is a bright, deep yellow, and it is full of good nutrients like CLA!

If you are in the area of Honey Brook (or maybe even not so in the area… I’m driving over an hour to get there), I strongly recommend this farm.  The products are outstanding and the farmer and his wife are lovely people.

Freedom Acres Farm     Honey Brook, PA    610-273-2076