Posts Tagged 'Sustainability'

Spinach Grilled Cheese


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This being Connecticut, my CSA membership does not start for a few more weeks – not a ton is in season right now. In addition, I did not wake up early enough this morning to go to the farmer’s market near my house. So when I decided to make a local meal today, I knew I would have to get creative when finding my ingredients.

I decided to go to Mrs. Green’s, a small, specialized grocery store that only sells organic produce, grass-fed beef, herbal teas – you get the idea. I thought, Mrs. Green’s is so big on organic produce, they must have something grown locally, right? Wrong. I was so naive. Walking around the store, I saw that most of the produce was grown in Mexico. I asked the manager if he had anything local. He looked slightly pensive, slightly confused, and then responded no. He said it wasn’t really the season for local produce yet – try back in a few weeks. Okay, Mrs. Green’s, I know that you can’t sell tomatoes or peppers or strawberries grown locally right now, but I know you could find some greens, like spinach or kale. Just ask Jamie Oliver, world-renowned chef who cooks seasonally in the UK, which has a climate similar to that of Connecticut.

My experience at Mrs. Green’s showed me that the local and organic movements are not always on the same page. When it comes to sustainability, local is clearly the better choice – the food miles speak for themselves. And since sustainability is my priority, I will vote local over organic any time. Other people – Mrs. Green’s shoppers, for instance – see freedom from chemicals as the most important factor, and will choose organic. I don’t think either view is wrong, both health and sustainability are important priorities and it’s hard to declare one more valuable than the other.

Anyway, on a Sunday afternoon in Fairfield County, there aren’t many options for local ingredients. I had to go to Whole Foods. It breaks my heart a little bit go to Whole Foods, because I think they are overpriced and not as good-hearted as they like to sound. Their definition of local, for example, is anything that travels less than 7 hours to get to the store. I’d say that’s a bit farther than Elm City Market (AKA heaven) qualifies as local. By these standards, though, I found local spinach and cheese, as well as bread baked right here in Fairfield. And I have to say, New Jersey is a lot closer than Mexico.

I decided to make spinach grilled cheese, which is easy to make, looks extremely fancy, and tastes delectable. Here’s how: First I cut up the spinach and sautéed it with olive oil and sea salt. I also took some tomatoes (organic, but unfortunately not local), sliced them up, and let them sit in the pan for about 30 seconds on each side. Once the spinach was wilted and the tomatoes were warm, I put them aside on a plate. Next I took two slices of bread, buttered one side of each piece, and placed them (buttered-side down) on the pan. Then I put a slice of cheese on top of one slice of bread. Once the cheese melted a little, I placed the spinach and the tomato on top of the cheese. I placed the other slice of bread on top of the pile, and voila, a sophisticated grilled cheese.

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It All Comes Down To Taste

When I did some research on Alice Waters, I found both articles of extreme praise and subtle condescension. Some people love her through and through, attempting to emulate everything she stands for. Others, though, while complimenting her talent and intentions, quietly allude to her hard and fast philosophies as elitist; they say her lifestyle is not one that the average American can live up to.

I say you can hate on Alice Waters if you want, but you have to admit that people respect her first and foremost because her food is legendarily delicious.

A quick review: Alice Waters opened her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, in 1971. Today it is one of the most highly regarded restaurants not only in the United States, but in the world.  Chez Panisse was one of the first restaurants to use local, organic ingredients and hormone-free meats. Waters’ choice for fresh and local food was initially just because she knew that these ingredients gave her food the best flavor. Now, though, people know Alice Waters as a local and organic food activist, crusader for the Slow Food movement, and mother of The Edible Schoolyard. Slow Food USA works to globally promote “good, clean, and fair” food and the “from plate to planet” ideology. Slow Food emphasizes that food is a universal right, and highlights the link between the food we eat and the health of the earth. The Edible Schoolyard sets up farming programs in schools, where children learn to organically grow and cook produce.

No one would listen to Alice Waters or travel thousands of miles to eat at Chez Panisse if her food didn’t taste good. And that’s what initially drove her search for organic ingredients – taste.  In a 1996 interview, Waters was asked why she prefers organic produce and she responded, “Taste, for sure.” She then continued with her other reasons, “And I’m interested in it because I know I need to support the people who are taking care of the land and thinking of the future, people who are thinking about how communities come together. It’s my feeling that that can happen when the person growing the food is connected with the person who is eating it.”

I think that many Americans have the same line of thinking – taste is the initial draw to local and organic ingredients, and the environmental benefits are an added appeal. The environmental impact may gain importance for some, but I’ve found that most people were originally attracted by taste.

I talked to my class’s Head Adviser, Ben Taylor, who also happens to be a food enthusiast, and he said the same thing. Mr. Taylor is a dedicated cook; a subscriber to Cook’s Illustrated, he said that cooking is the center of gravity for his friendship circle. “It would be lying to say that the environment is my primary motivation,” he said. “The best taste is my priority.”

Mr. Taylor’s high standards for ingredients, though, go hand in hand with the local food movement – he referred to tomatoes that hail from afar as “phlegm balls.”

Often times the terms local and organic are clumped together, but I saw organic strawberries at the super market grown in Mexico, and there’s a farm in the town next to mine that uses pesticides. One does not necessarily mean the other. “Local means more to me than organic,” Mr. Taylor said. “From an environmental standpoint it can be superior. You could have an organic product that has created a gigantic carbon footprint to get to your supermarket.”

And, to those Alice Waters critics out there, you can shop local without breaking the bank. You don’t have to spend your whole paycheck at Whole Foods to find local food. There’s Elm City Market, for one thing, which I wrote about in a previous post. Mr. Taylor recommends Big Y. He said that when the grocery store near his house turned to Big Y, he was initially disappointed. A lot of the imported ingredients he liked weren’t there. But then he noticed a lot more local produce. And it’s true – in the name of local economies, the earth, and health, Big Y is working to promote local ingredients.

The subtle criticism of Alice Waters that I have encountered suggest that she is unrealistic with her expectations that everyone will soon enough live as she does. These same articles, though, always mention the delectable flavor of her food and the beauty of the ingredients. So no, we can’t all live like her, buying solely from farmers’ markets and cooking with fireplaces in our kitchens. But if we follow our taste buds, we will be on the right track.

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Nothing like fresh eggs and fresh rhubarb for a delicious cake.

In the middle of suburban Fairfield, not five minutes from Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Party City, Old Navy, and about seventy-five other stores, is a farm. A real farm, too, with cows, chickens, horses, and organically grown vegetables. The real farmer? Wyatt Whiteman.

Mr. Whiteman knows all there is to know about farming – he has spent his whole life living on this farm, inheriting the home and the land from his parents. He teaches a course on canning at Motherhouse Farm, which also has classes on plucking chickens, making butter, and other skills that promote self-sufficiency. He knows all sorts of tricks to farm efficiently: “Anyone who is seriously thinking about gardening should have some rabbits,” he said. “You can feed them all your scraps and then they’re natural fertilizer for the soil. It’s all a cycle.” Sustaining yourself – that’s what Mr. Whiteman is all about.

Mr. Whiteman has more helpful information on local farming than I could ever gather, because he has experienced farm-to-table living his whole life. He had started a website about his farm that was going to include tips for gardening, cooking, and other valuable farming advice. He said he knows people could benefit from what he has to say, but “really – who has time to sit around and make a website?” Well, me. And other bloggers with CSA memberships. But that’s because we don’t need to spend all of our time farming, we just pick up our food every week. The farmers – the people who really have the best advice – are the ones who don’t have time to peruse the blogosphere. Of course, the enthusiasm of local eaters is essential to the livelihood of the farmers, and the blogosphere has expanded the “community” aspect of CSA to include people from across the country… pretty cool stuff. But talking to Mr. Whiteman reminded me that when it comes down to it, the farmers are the ones who know it all.

I had initially stopped by Mr. Whiteman’s farm to buy some fresh eggs that he was advertising with a sign on the edge of his lawn. But we got to talking and he told me about a rhubarb upside-down cake that he’d made from the rhubarb that is currently thriving in his garden. I decided I had to try that, and asked if I could buy some rhubarb, too.

He grabbed a knife that was stuck in the fence and snipped me some rhubarb on the spot. He cut off the green leaves that sprout from the stalks, because the leaves are poisonous, and handed me the stalks, which have a sweet, tart, and refreshing taste.

So, inspired by Mr. Whiteman, I set out to make rhubarb upside-down cake with fresh eggs and just-picked rhubarb. I got the recipe from this page in The New York Times, but I made some adaptations to the instructions:

What you need:

2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature, more to grease pans

1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, rinsed and sliced into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar 1/2 cup light brown sugar

2 cups cake flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

Zest of 1 lemon, grated

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 large eggs

1/3 cup sour cream

Lemon juice from half a lemon

Prep the pan:

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 9 inch circular pan with parchment paper butter it. Wrap a layer of foil around the bottom of the pan, and then set the pan on a baking sheet.

Make the topping (or the bottom, depending how you look at it):

In a medium bowl, mix rhubarb, cornstarch, and ½ cup of granulated sugar. Set the bowl aside. Then, mix the brown sugar and 1/2 stick butter in a pan over medium heat. Whisk until smooth and bubbling, about 2 minutes. Then set the stove on low heat and leave the pan until later.

Make the batter:

Whip two sticks of butter with a mixer. Then add in the remaining 1 cup of granulated sugar and the lemon zest. Cream together at high speed. (Don’t forget to scrape the sides of the bowl occasionally) Add the vanilla and then the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the sour cream, then the lemon juice. It’s ok if the mixture has a weird consistency at this point. Slowly add the flour, about ¼ cup at a time, until well combined.

Assemble the cake:

Pour the brown sugar mixture into the cake pan, the spoon in the rhubarb and its yummy juices. Pour in the batter so that it covers all the rhubarb. It’s ok if the batter is a little thick.

Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the top is firm to the touch and you can stick in a tooth pick and it comes out clean.

Let the cake cool for 15 minutes before flipping it onto a plate. Don’t wait any longer or it will stick.

Sustainable Sipping

Check out this cool water fountain in the LaGuardia Airport! It promotes using your own water bottle, and keeps track of how much waste is saved by doing so.

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