Learning to Eat More with Less, within 130 miles for 130 days

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Thoughts, Reflections and a Global Food Crisis

Apologies for the long wait between posts. We have been busy with work, weddings, birthdays and traveling. This is not to say that there hasn't been a host of local eating involved. One great treat was the trip to Windsor for the wedding of our dear friends Luke and Alyssa, where we scored some exceptional canned Tomatoes from the Tomato capital of Canada. We highly recommend Thomas Utopia organic canned tomatoes if you can get them. Bold flavour, great texture and dripping of summer freshness.
On another note, though, this post is meant to speak to an issue we have been been talking and thinking about over the past month and a half of eating and thinking local. Inspired largely by two couples who are very close friends of ours who are traveling to Malawi, we have been learning to stop, look around us and be grateful for where we live. Southern Ontario has been blessed as the greenbelt of the country. Come summer, the farms and orchards are bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables, the vineyards are hanging low with grapes and the fields of corn, soy and wheat (yes, wheat) blow along the highways in Wellington, Grey-Bruce and Prince Edward counties. Even when the dark and blowing winter winds wind their way through the province, the fields still bring forth potatoes, carrots, cabbage and chard, bringing a welcome freshness into the depths of the cold. Yet throughout all this bounty, it is still easy for people looking for alternatives. A trip to any of the many Korean produce markets in the city of Toronto attests to this. The big attraction for many to these markets is the big, cheap boxes of berries flown in from California. Granted these berries look attractive. They are picture perfect, uniform in size and bright in colour, why wouldn't you want to eat them, right? If you were to shift your glance a little though, you would find a smaller selection of Ontario produced berries nearby. This berries appear in waves over the summer beginning with strawberries in June, shifting to raspberries and blackberries in July and then sweeping to blueberries in August. Now these berries do look different then their California cousins. They are smaller, often misshapen and perish very quickly. The difference, however, is in the bright, sweet, juicy taste hidden behind their deep colour. There is nothing, nothing that compares to the flavour of a local strawberry in season. It bursts in your mouth and fills you with a flavour that is so distinctly strawberry, you will be longing for them for the rest of the year. But that's just the point, they aren't around for the whole year, you are only able to savour them for 3 short weeks. But people are not satisfied within that 3 week limit. Instead, they buy forced, tasteless California berries all winter just to meet a craving and then continue to buy them in the summer because they are 'picture perfect' and can survive a few weeks in the fridge. The silly things we do for convenience.
But it's this culture of convenience, in all parts of our lives, that truly is the heart of the problems with our eating habits. Frequently, as we introduce our local diet to people, we receive accolades for our efforts, but are met with comments that the individuals could never do the diet themselves. Whether it's a comment of not knowing how to cook, a perceived lack of vegetarian options or not want to live without imported product 'x', people remain reluctant to step away from what they are used to in order make a change in the way they eat, how they live or what they want. Now, regardless of the efforts we have made in own own eating adventures, we absolutely identify this reluctance to change. We've struggled with our own haunts (coffee, chocolate, pepper etc.) as you've heard and have had to learn a whole new way of cooking and we are still working on resisting our temptations. But lately, what has been helping us through is an appreciation for the food we have available to us. The fact that we are even so 'lucky' to have a choice between local berries and imported ones is astounding. In comparison, we recall a story our friend Luke told after his first trip to Malawi. After working on a small local farm for a day, plowing a field, he was offered a handful of groundnuts and a cup of tea as his meal for the day. Hungry as he was, he was still grateful for whatever he was blessed to eat. This is what it means to truly not 'have options' when it comes to food. We, in Ontario, in Canada, in North America have been given a great gift of nutritious, fruitful land that produces beautiful food and we have the tools to work the land with greater ease. So many places in the world do not have this luxury. Many people perform back-breaking work by hand in dry, rotten, swamped or scorched conditions and marvel when they are able to grow the smallest piece of food. For them, local eating is not a choice, it is survival. In thinking globally, eating strawberries for only 3 weeks a year isn't restrictive, it is a treat and needs to be valued as such. We don't need imported fruit to eat well, we just need to switch our thinking, look around and maybe begin to feed our needs a little more than we feed our wants. And that is applicable to all parts of life!

P.S. Looking for a drink to substitute for the lack of 100% local beer! Try cider! Why didn't we think of this before? Two great Ontario options from Prince Edward County are Peeler and Wappoos. You might not even miss the beer...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Temptation Thwarted

Tonight was the first night since starting the diet that neither of us felt like cooking dinner. At all. We both got home from work somewhat later than normal, and the 33 degree temperatures outside made doing as little possible a much more appealing option than standing over a hot stove or oven. Throw in the relative lack of food in our house at the moment and not only were our options even further reduced, but motivation fell to an all time diet low.

So naturally we thought about going out. There are a fairly large number of restaurants in Toronto that strive to use as many local ingredients as possible (check out http://www.savourontario.ca/) and many do a pretty good job. The problem is they are almost all on the pricier side (at least for us) and only one is near our house (well, actually two but the second is both pricy and Italian so we'll avoid that for now). Now, we're not exactly shy on spending more than we should on a good dinner, especially for a good occasion, like celebrating a birthday or finishing a final school assignment. Or coming back from a vacation, preparing to leave on a vacation, celebrating the end of spring, celebrating the start of summer, celebrating friends going on vacation, or payday, or pretty much any friday or saturday night...

Despite our historic lax with spending money in restaurants, dropping what would likely be close to $80 or more on dinner simply because we were lazy we just couldn't justify, even though Holland's win in the world cup today is reason to celebrate! So we decided on a chicken dish pan fried in an egg and parmesan coating with beet greens, beets, and carrots. Sounded good and fairly simple, but we didn't have any eggs so off to the store. Now the store right at the base of our street carries eggs from within our radius, so that's not really a big deal. But we decided to first walk down to the Shoppers (drug store) to get a few items we needed for the house and then just stop by the Globe - local restaurant - in case maybe the menu didn't look as expensive as we remembered. It was so it was short visit, but by the time we got back to the store for eggs it was 9:06. The store closes at 9. Damn.

Plan B. Sushi? It was tempting. So were the smells from the Greek places we walked by on the way to the store and the Brass Taps' (a favorite pub) weekly $10 pasta special. But we held out deciding we could forgo the eggs and instead make a corn meal breading using yogurt to bind the corn meal to the chicken.

By the time we ate it was 10 and we were both ridiculously hungry, but it was worth the wait! We found a new use for red fife flour, it made a great coating on the raw chicken and the yogurt stuck to it perfectly. We mixed some parmesan with the corn meal and coated that over the yogurt covered chicken. It all held together wonderfully even throughout the pan-frying. The parmesan melted a little as it cooked binding with the corn meal and making a delicious cheesy corn crust and the chicken stayed nice and juicy. We topped it with a garlicy ranch sauce and served over a bed of cooked beat greens with a side of carrots and beets in a maple syrup and thyme glaze. Not too bad for being tired and not inspired. We just need to remember this when we're not doing this diet and stop spending so much money at restaurants just because we don't feel like cooking. Certainly glad we decided to cook tonight.

The Fate of the Fife

The red fife, our hardy Ontario heritage wheat, certainly has its endearing qualities. It does have a great taste, a little nutty, a bit sweet. It's very heavy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing depending on the dish. And then of course there is its history and it's low inputs needed to grow (ideal for organic agriculture). But... it has also certainly been a challenge to work with, especially because we're lacking a few other baking essentials, like baking soda, that might otherwise compensate for its dense texture. So while we're not totally giving up on the fife, we have found a few alternative flours that are taking a more prominent role in our cooking.

Two farms, Grassroots Organics near Desboro On. and Merryland farms near Peterborough both provide some good alternatives. So far we've tried kamut and Spelt flour, both of which have been much easier to work with than the fife (although we both must admit that they don't quite have the same flavour) and an all-purpose flour which blends the two with the red fife. Grassroots Organics also has a pastry flour, which is from a local wheat, but lighter than the red fife. We've only used that one once so far in making pasta, blended with the all-purpose. It was certainly a lot easier than our pasta making experience with the red fife. And because it still tasted great, we think we'll be avoiding red fife pasta again.

But the fife still does have a place in our local kitchen. It's still good to mix with another flour for some added flavour without becoming too heavy or tough to work with, and we found out it makes for a great coating for breading (see 'Temptation Thwarted' post). Maybe after this experiment is over we'll still buy some on occasion. But for the bulk of our baking needs, it looks like Kamut, Spelt, mixd all-purpose, and newly found pastry flour will take over.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Let's Eat!

More than anything else so far this diet has made us expand our cooking creativity and pushed us to experiment a bit more. We've always been used to substituting ingredients when we don't have what the recipe calls for, but this has really forced us to a new level. Straight substitution isn't always possible so often we've really had to find new ways to get flavor. And perhaps even more than finding flavor, we've taken on making from scratch the foods that used to easily come from the store. It feels in a strange kind of way like pioneers, everything we want to eat takes thought, preparation, and of course time. But, now about three weeks into our experiment, the preparation time seems to be paying off: our food is tasting better, each success feels bigger, the effort even seems easier and it is increasingly clear that the best way to eat locally is to just always have great food around. We barely even miss any of the simple staples like baking soda, sugar, condiments, or canned tomatoes and beans. We feel like we've come a long way in these three weeks so here's a quick run-down of some of our highlights in the past week.

Fresh pasta with alfredo sauce.

So not exactly an experiment in new flavors, but this was our first attempt at making pasta from scratch. Using the red fife was a bit tricky, it is thinker and can't be rolled out as finely as regular dough, but it worked and the flavor was terrific! Mixed with some raw sheep's parmesan we found, butter, cream, and egg it really made any dried pasta seem pretty weak in comparison.

Real Ranch Dressing

Why ever have it from a bottle when a little bit of milk, yogurt, sour cream (all from Hewitt's Dairy) blended with a hand mixer and some fresh chive, garlic scapes, and a touch of salt gives you the real thing in about 5 minutes. It gets better the longer it sits. A few days is perfect.

Herbal Ice Tea

We found some great local teas - mint and chamomile. Nice with some honey added when you steep the tea. Simple but delicious!

Spicy Tomato Sauce

This was Dave's proudest feat of the challenge so far. Didn't even miss the olive oil! Slow cooked some onions in butter, red wine, red wine vinegar and a bit of smoked chipotles (from Kawartha,these have really been a gift). Add to it about 6 chopped tomatoes and some porcini mushroom broth. Simmer it down for a good few hours. Sweet, spicy, and full of flavor. We put this on top of a black bean burrito casserole we made the night before with some sour cream. We also ate it on top of homemade wheat crackers with a hewitt's dairy chevre (another great find that will become a staple).

Preparing food from scratch like this has also made us more careful to use every drop of food we have, leaving nothing to waste. Vegetable scraps are saved for stock, water from boiling beans or mushrooms is saved for soup or sauces, extra dough is made into dumplings or crackers. When you have quality ingredients and you have put a lot of effort into preparing your meals, you don't want to waste one bit! What a lovely gift it has been to gain this appreciation for what we consume and where it comes from.

These are just a few examples of our recent culinary feats, and we hope to have a lot more to report to you soon. So take some chances yourself, try an all local meal and see what kind of kitchen confidence you discover. We'd love to hear your results too!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Post Wedding Reflections (taste of the forbidden fruit)

So we have returned from south of the border after a marvelous time at Dave's sister Allie's wedding, an a marvelous food experience. We first would like to pay tribute to a fantastic chef, a very close family friend and an all-around great guy, Lennon Lewandowski who catered the event. He is the heart and soul of the kitchen at Oliver's restaurant in Buffalo, NY and has a great commitment to developing the local food movement in B-lo. Check him out at oliverscuisine.com where you can watch videos of him preparing some of the dishes they had on their winter menu. Thanks for the spectacular strawberry shortcake! (made w/ fresh picked strawberries from their CSA)

Our trip was a time of learning as well as a time of reflection as to why we are doing this diet (or as the groom renamed it "our alternative food lifestyle experiment") an how it makes us feel on all levels. Firstly, as you can imagine, we spent most of our weekend explaining to people what this crazy experiment we are doing is, and why in the world we would possibly take it on. Our comments fell to mixed reviews. Some people thought it was progressive, allowing us to connect with where we live and have a greater independence from the global food market. Others though we were down right nuts! Why live without convenience food when you don't have to? Some of this is likely largely due to the relative infancy of the Buffalo locavore movement itself. While we only had a limited time to explore the local food scene, it seemed that finding meats and produce was fairly easy, but the less obvious and more challenging ingredients were a bit lacking. No local oils, flours, grains, vinegar, and a surprising paucity of niagara wine (in restaurants especially). Now granted, we are coming from Toronto and the vastly different size, economy, and active food culture between the two are really not comparable, but we do think there is one specific difference separating the two: in Buffalo it seemed that the restaurants using local ingredients source specific items that easily fit into their style of cuisine. For example, using a local pork chop and local tomatoes to enhance a classic Italian style pork chop. The 'localness' of the ingredients is certainly highlighted, but it is not integral to the composition of the dish. In Toronto, however, the local ingredients drive the development of the menu. If local pork isn't around, you'll be having local chicken as the special. There is a greater emphasis on eating seasonally and allowing the creative development to come from what's available, rather than having the idea and finding a few local ingredients that fit in. That is the true meaning of local eating, something we are discovering very quickly.

We did have an interesting encounter with some delicious grapefruit. As part of the CSA Dave's Dad and stepmom Sandy receive a bi-weekly box of grapefruit, oranges, and tangerines. The neat part is that CSA owns a sister farm in Florida where all of the citrus is grown in the same organic way down south. Then twice a month, the fresh produce is trucked up to NY and CSA members get a box load of great citrus. They had one last grapefruit, and while, yes Florida is well outside of our local radius, we feel this is really the intent behind local eating anyway, and man it was good. This kind of co-operative farming reminds us a bit of Chocosol, a group of local Toronto chocolatiers. Stating that if possible, they would canoe the cacoa beans from Latin America to Toronto, the company is dedicated to developing sustainable and local driven farming practices. Working closely with local communities, they have been learning the traditional methods for growing cacoa and making all kinds of delicious chocolates from these ancient techniques. Pretty damn cool! While we won't be indulging in any more citrus, or chocolate from that matter, when we start eating it again, this is definitely the way to go. So props to Thorps (the local CSA) and all the other people, restaurants, and companies in Buffalo, Toronto, and everywhere else striving to bring into focus the connection between food, life, and culture.

Stay tuned for some postings of our recent local dinner recipes we'd love to share, especially our reconciliation with red fife wheat, which evidently makes wicked good pasta!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Challenge!

This weekend we travel to Buffalo for Dave's sister's wedding, which means a basketful of fun alongside a basketful of temptation! Although we do not expect to eat local all weekend, there are some things we can't control, we are going to do our best. This means staying away from items we can avoid, such as coffee, chocolate, beer, citrus etc and with a great chef catering the event, this could be a bit difficult. Our first test of commitment, but we feel ready. Now hopefully our stomach's are! We'll keep you posted...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ups and Downs

The past few days have been just that, a tidal wave of highs and lows as we adjust to a new way of eating and a new way of living.

Thursday, our second day of the diet was very challenging. Dave's persistent headache from the previous day returned with a vengeance. We were both ridiculously hungry all day, and had an icky, aching feeling radiating throughout out bodies that we just couldn't seen to get rid of. It was trying for sure! We started questioning our sanity for taking on a challenge such as this!
By dinner, however, we had gained some new perspective. We concluded that with this diet, we are essentially on a detox. Even though we do tend to eat foods that are low in sugar, organic and unprocessed, there are a whole lot of hidden sweeteners and fillers in food that are hard to avoid. As a result, we may have been burning through our food faster, as our bodies were previously used to heavier, more complex foods. We felt like we had low blood sugar! The truth, though, that we tempered ourselves with was that it was only day two and that it that it probably is natural for us to be feeling so physically confused and out of whack, at least we hoped so...

Now five days in we feel much better. We are no longer suffering from the aches and pains of earlier and we are actually feeling fully satisfied with what we eat, no more crazy cravings (at least for now). Dave actually remarked this evening that he has more energy than before and has an easier time getting up in the morning. This, he feels, is largely due to being rid of coffee. Coffee before had offered him a temporary burst of energy and then a big drop-off, leaving him longing for more coffee to regain the high he felt. Now with a steadier intake of healthy, whole foods, his energy levels are more consistent and he reluctantly admits that maybe a reduced diet of coffee upon the end of the diet my be a good idea.

Cooking has been a challenge. Mairin, a relatively confident hand in the kitchen, has found it a bit of a struggle to adapt to these new ingredients. It's not just the Red Fife, it's having to deal with dried beans and sunflower oil and the whole lack of condiments and flavourings we're used to having at hand. Gone are the steadfast go-to's of cumin, coriander, curry, cinnamon, chili powder, and pepper that pretty much make most of our cooking attempts legendary (well, ok hardly legendary, but quite tasty at least). Replacing all of these spices with fresh herbs is not exactly an unsurmountable task, but it is taking some time to learn what flavors mix well with each other and the other local ingredients we have to choose from.

While the spices are dearly missed, we are making some progress on finding alternatives in the local herb world too, so it has not been an entirely bland few days. Watercress apparently has a very strong pepper taste! Something I don't think either of us knew before. Mixed with some local salt (thank you Goderich), we've used it in salads, frittata, chicken salad, and grilled veggies and don't even notice there's no pepper. It also has its own spiciness to it that brings out a lot of other flavor in our food! We've rediscovered the value of a BBQ, (thanks to the kind neighbor who decided to get a new one and left, now our BBQ, on the side of the road) and that has made for a few very tasty local meals that don't required huge preparations. And to address the condiments issue, we successful had our first attempt at homemade local mayo! It was a bit dodgey at first as the oil egg mixture did not want to solidify for us, but after a night in the fridge it actually congealed quite well. We did use sunflower oil, which in the future is not ideal as it has a very strong sunflower taste that really isn't too great for mayo. We added enough salt, watercress, and dill however to mostly mask that and it worked brilliantly in our chicken salad.

So all in all after a few days of local eating, we've come to the happy mindset that, yes this may be difficult, but we are learning everyday and will continue to eat well all summer!