Cocoa beans growing in the Périgord?

April 30th, 2008

I would love to say that we eat totally locally, and while winging my way back across the Atlantic after a swooping three week visit in the U.S., the idea pushed its way around in my thoughts. The movement to “eat local” is ripe in North America, a truly hot topic. My first stop was New York, where a bookshop window devoted to books on the subject enticed me into McNally Robinson in Nolita near the West Village. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma is center stage on themed displays in this bookshop, and in many others I browsed through. During the early weeks of April, eating local in an urban center tests the principles defined by the Locavores movement, which suggests that 80% of the foods on your table should be grown and packaged within one hundred miles of your home. The popular Union Square Market brings many regional, seasonal products into the city for urban locavores. An emphasis on organically grown and sustainable agricultural practices is clear in open markets and many grocery shops. Call it a wave, a fad or a trend, I say: At Last! But it means choosing, calculating 80% of your foods – the remaining 20% covers coffee, tea, chocolate, rice, spices, and the occasional pineapple or avocado, shipped in from warm climates.

I arrived in Minneapolis just in time to read the Taste section of the Star & Tribune (see April 10, www.startribune.com/taste/sectionT) on Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. A quote from author and farmer, Wendell Barry, sums it up: “Eating is an agricultural act”. Let last summer’s sun-dried tomatoes add flavor to the risotto, avoid all those summer Provençal ingredients for the ratatouille that can wait a few seasons as you plan menus around roots, winter greens and frozen berries. An increasing number of farmers around the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are applying CSA methods, now used on 1,500 farms across the US. To have vegetables delivered in season, people buy CSA shares to both support local growers and enjoy the freshest broccoli, turnips and new potatoes. The Land Stewardship Project (see www.landstewarshipproject.org) is one of several companion projects. Markets and grocery stores, such as the Wedge Co-Op in the Twin Cities reflect these efforts to observe sustainable production as well as a focus on seasonal ingredients.

By the time I stepped off of the Larkspur ferry into the dynamics of San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Market, my curiosity piqued about what features of the “eat local” movement I would find on the west coast, the issue became more confused. Glossy greens, tempting asparagus, olives and jam-tastings fit the local and seasonal profile – as well as smoked fish straight from the bay’s docks (and smoke houses). If I lived in the mild climate of the Bay Area, it would be easy to fill up 80% of the locavores equation, allowing an occasional square of chocolate from Scharfen Berger or other luxurious temptations. Local or Global: everywhere I looked during two rounds of the Embarcadero and its market, I was tugged between a vast array of imported spices and products from Italy, Spain and Mexico and the Bay Area’s ever-changing offering of home-bottled vinegars, sauces, chilis, nut products and cheeses. CowGirl cheeses bring an amazing selection of artisanal, locally made creamy and firm cheeses to the market. But farther north, into the mountains and forests reaching towards Oregon, it would take a greater effort to limit what goes on the table to only locally grown, seasonal products.

Last stop, back on home base in southwest France, the selection in our local market stalls has evolved into spring’s bounty of greens, red Treviso endive, shiny bulbous new onions and carrots with their green tops attached. All of this, with chicken, duckling and fresh rabbits, fits into my 80% – but the lemons, bananas, basmati rice, coffee and cocoa beans remain outside, crowding that 20% of imported, exotic treats. Fish that we enjoy weekly, straight from Atlantic waters an hour away, stretches the one hundred mile limit to define local.  Eating habits, I mused, can be changed, adapted – with an effort – to reorganized culinary priorities.

Oh, Spinach!

April 1st, 2008

Spring greens have the edge, that sharpness so complimentary to mild meats such as chicken or rabbit. Tidy little bundles of sorrel (oseille) are to be found in markets this month, and mounds of tender spinach, along with the ever-present white-ribbed (blette) swiss chard. It occurred to me that spinach might add some punch to a pot of herbed Le Puy lentils – after reading about a Spanish dish of chickpeas with spinach strips stirred in at the last moment. So, after a good wash/rinse and dry, two generous cups of destemmed spinach were cut into chiffonade strips and wilted, stirred for four minutes in a hot skillet, then drained before tossing into lentils that were still a tad al dente.  Occasionally a nostalgic flash comes to this cook’s rescue for a final touch, this time I recalled many wonderfully fresh spinach salads with hot-bacon dressing – from college days in southeastern Wisconsin. To adapt this idea, trimmed smoked bacon slivers or slices of pancetta did the trick: seared-crisped in a hot skillet, arranged on each serving of lentils, then the pan juices deglazed with sherry vinegar (and a pinch of sugar) to drizzle over all. Try variations on this some rainy spring evening, scoop up lentils and spinach to serve as a side with almond-crumb-crusted chicken legs – or as a bed for roast rabbit. And a little culinary nostalgia adds to the pleasure.