Eating locally: The dark months

December 5, 2007 at 10:36 am Leave a comment

Things have been quiet in this quarter since the farmers’ market closed for the season. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and our household is deep into winter comfort food, which often translates as big pots of “beans and …”, simmered for hours on lazy Sunday afternoons to provide meals for several days (and often, some to freeze).

I’ve been taking the opportunity to study up on the whole concept of eating locally, and how a person with a normal, busy, 21st-century life might move in that direction without either breaking the bank or becoming so food-obsessed that it borders on disorder.

Google to the rescue. Search the phrase “eating locally” and you’ll find a ton of resources, with the list headed by the wonderful Eat Local Challenge blog, whose member writers commit to “challenging themselves to eat mainly local food during a specific period of time during the year.” Presumably, those who meet the challenge will develop permanently changed buying and cooking habits that result in a more food- and environment-friendly diet.

Why eat locally? The challenge blog presents 10 good reasons, ranging from the obvious(Local food just plain tastes better”) to the less obvious (“Local food protects us from bioterrorism”. No, really.)

Where to start? The site offers the Locavore Pledge, developed by a group of local-eating advocates in the San Francisco Bay area, as a good rule of thumb:

If not LOCALLY PRODUCED, then Organic.
If not ORGANIC, then Family farm.
If not FAMILY FARM, then Local business.
If not a LOCAL BUSINESS, then Fair Trade.

With this whimsical addition from one blogger’s spouse:

If all else fails, at least don’t eat at McDonald’s!

When I ponder the challenge, I realize that I’ve already moved in that direction – at least during the growing months of the year. My household does a weekly grocery run on Sundays, starting at the farmers’ market and then filling in at the supermarket. There, we tend to “shop the perimeter,” a practice that puts most of our supermarket dollars into produce, meat and other “ingredient” foods, rather than the packaged-and-processed-and-hauled-from-parts-unknown items that pervade the middle aisles. And even here in small-town Oregon, where we have a decided lack of specialty whole-foods markets, the supermarkets are stocking more and more organic produce and even packaged goods. There’s some controversy in the whole-foods movement about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing – on the one hand, house brands like Safeway’s “O” organics line make organically grown food available to a wider range of shoppers; on the other, those who distrust all things corporate worry that the big players will crowd out mom-and-pop organic producers and dilute the meaning of the already hazy term “organic.”

It’s more difficult in the winter, at least in this part of the world. The market is closed, at least until the indoor winter market in neighboring Corvallis starts up in January. I once again failed to sign up in time for the early winter harvest box from our local CSA. And even with a growing range of organic produce, our local supermarket won’t offer anything like a real tomato this winter.

We do the best we can. The Locavore pledge is a good place to start reorganizing our shopping habits, and although I’m not planning to give up coffee, chocolate, salt or spices any time soon, being mindful of their sources and trying to direct the bulk of my shopping dollar to local producers is, I think, a step toward eating better and reducing my personal impact on the food environment.

Speaking of food: Here’s this week’s “beans and …” meal, improvised from a rough description posted on writer Elizabeth Bear’s blog, where she described it as “like white beans and garlic having sex in a rosemary bush.” Oh, yeah.

I’ve italicized the ingredients that came from local sources – the market, a local sausage-maker, and my own garden. Don’t be put off by the amount of garlic – most of it becomes one with the soup, mellowing and transforming into a rich and hearty flavor that isn’t overpoweringly garlicky.

Bean Soup with Garlic and Rosemary

White beans, soaked overnight or quick-soaked (see notes)
Extra virgin olive oil
One small onion, chopped
2-4 ribs of celery, chopped. Save the leafy tops if you have them.
Two heads (yes, heads – the whole thing) of garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
Two or more large sprigs of fresh rosemary
Fresh Italian parsley – several sprigs
1 smoked pork chop (optional – vegetarians can leave it out)
1 large parsnip, peeled and cut in chunks (or two carrots, ditto)
2 cans of diced tomatoes and their juice
Lots of black pepper
Salt to taste (you may not need it)
Andouille or other spicy, smoked, fully cooked sausage (again: Vegetarians can skip this, and you’ll still have lovely bean soup)

In the bottom of a large, heavy stock pot, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Add onions, a couple of cloves of the garlic (minced), and celery; simmer, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables turn limp and transluscent.

Add the soaked, rinsed beans, and enough water to cover the beans by several inches. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer.

Dice the pork chop and add it to the pot, along with the bone and any fatty bits.
Make a little bundle of one spring of rosemary, the celery tops and a couple of big sprigs of parsley; tie it up with kitchen twine so you can retrieve it later and toss it in the pot.

Add the parsnip/carrots, and most of the rest of the peeled, whole garlic cloves, reserving 3 or 4 of them. Add a generous amount of pepper, freshly ground if you’ve got it.

Put a lid on the pan and prop it open a bit with a wooden spoon. Let the soup simmer for 2-3 hours, until the beans are completely tender.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine:

1/4 cup olive oil
A tablespoon or more of rosemary, minced
The remaining cloves of garlic, sliced

Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring now and then, until the garlic just begins to show signs of browning. Remove from heat and set aside.

Go read a book or play on the computer or (what I usually wind up doing) do the laundry until the beans are done. Now and then, stop by the kitchen and give them a stir to make sure they aren’t sticking to the bottom of the pot or scorching.

When the beans are tender, dump in the canned tomatoes (see notes). Slice the sausage, if you’re using it, and add that to the pot. Continue simmering for 30 minutes to an hour to reduce the liquid a bit and let the flavors blend.
Finishing the dish: Use a slotted spoon to fish out the herb bundle, along with any bones and unrendered fatty bits from the pork chop; discard. If you like a thicker soup, ladle 1/3 to 1/2 of the soup into a separate container and use a wand blender or food processor to puree it, then stir the puree back into the soup. Add some minced parsley – I used a good handful. Taste, and correct the seasoning if necessary (I added still more minced rosemary at this stage, because I lovelovelove rosemary; I did not add salt, because the smoked meats provided enough salt to punch the other flavors without making the dish aggressively salty).

Serve with a spoonful of the rosemary-and-garlic infused olive oil swirled into the bowl, and big hunks of good (local!) bread.

Notes: To quick-soak dried beans, put them in a big pot with a couple of quarts of water. Bring to a boil, put a lid on the pot and remove from the heat. After they sit for an hour, they’ll be ready to cook; just drain off the water, replace it with fresh and proceed as for soaked beans.

Why not add the tomatoes at the start? Because they may prevent the beans from ever getting tender. It took me decades of cooking to find out why that is: High acidity reacts with the soluble cellulose that makes up the beans’ cellular walls to prevent them from softening. (Some cooks also insist that salt makes beans tough; food scientists say that’s not so, but salting the dish too early may result in over-salted beans, so save that till the end.)

Entry filed under: eating locally.

Thanksgiving: Feasting for two Yule fare: Wild Mushroom Pie

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December 2007
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