Thursday, May 23, 2013

Scratch Update

We couldn't stand it. My husband and I went back to Scratch today for lunch. I got some photos of the suppliers and daily specials:

 Again, a very, very local bunch. Clark Farm in Danvers is where I buy my compost, actually. Furthest supplier is in Corinth, VT.
As we pondered our menu and the specials, our waitress provided us with a basket of homemade potato chips. Slightly oversalted, they were nonetheless a tasty appetizer. My husband ordered the Scratch BLT with their homemade bacon and sourdough white bread. He inquired after the tomatoes and was told they came from a hothouse in Maine. I had a bite and thought the bacon was thick and flavorful but not all that remarkable. I ordered the "Happy Pork Belly" special: "beer-braised heritage pork belly with sweet-heat pepper relish + pesto mayo + cabbage slaw served on a baguette." I asked that they hold the slaw; I love cabbage, but it hates me. We also shared a side of the grilled asparagus from Wilson Farm in Lexington.

Pork bellies sound like some weird political joke. I assure you, they're pure deliciousness when done well, and this pork belly was done very, very well. Pork belly consists primarily of fat, with thin strips of muscle layered in. I don't know how they did it, but Scratch Kitchen gently teased the muscle out of all that fat, resulting in thin filets of pork. Pork belly can also be quite tough, but this meat was tender and juicy, with a slight residual tang from the beer. I wasn't convinced that pesto mayo was going to blend well with a sweet pepper relish, but I was happily wrong about that. The relish was excellent, sweet and bursting with pepper flavor and carrying a very slight kick that countered the smooth creamy mayo. The subtle pesto flavor permeated the bread, which was crusty enough to stand up to both the mayo and the relish, so that I found myself tasting layers of flavor with every bite. Excellent.

The grilled asparagus was served with beurre noir, made with lemon juice. It was the tastiest preparation of asparagus I think I've ever encountered. The cook also cleverly peeled the tough ends of the asparagus so that the spears were tender all the way down. My husband adored these and wolfed down most of them. Both our sandwiches were also served with a pleasant surprise: bread-and-butter pickles including not just cucumber slices but zucchini, summer squash, red and green peppers, carrots, celery, and onions. They were sweet, tangy, and pleasantly firm, not at all mushy. I ate all of mine and most of my husband's, enjoying them far more than the asparagus, which is saying something since asparagus is my favorite vegetable.

For dessert, we had the rhubarb crisp. I have a soft spot for rhubarb. It's early spring comfort food, since it cannot be eaten raw and thus is always served thoroughly cooked and warm. Poorly cooked, it retains a bitter flavor that many people dislike. I tolerate it well, but I didn't have to. This rhubarb was perfectly cooked, not at all bitter, and yet not too sweet, topped with a simple oatmeal crumble. The dish usually comes with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream, which I waived in favor of tasting the lovely rhubarb and because, at this point, I was feeling very, very full.

We inquired on a few points. The waitress told us that their hot dogs are made at Smokehouse of Boston, which appears to be a meat shop in Mattapan. Also, their clam chowder is made using an older recipe that includes no flour, so it's gluten-free and safe for my younger daughter to eat. She'll be delighted.

Once again, we were impressed by the prices. The BLT was $8.50, the pork belly sandwich was $12, the asparagus $4, the rhubarb crisp $7. I can't say it enough: these are great prices for the exceptional quality of the food. Yes, the sandwiches were served in plastic baskets on wax paper. Who cares? That lunch was probably the best meal I've had in months. Hmm... I still need to try the fish tacos. How soon can we go back?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

That Elusive Oxymoron: Inexpensive Local Food

Since The Green Land restaurant closed in Salem, we've been having difficulty finding a good locavore restaurant on the North Shore. And then we came across the Scratch Kitchen. Located within easy walking distance of the Peabody Essex Museum in the heart of Salem, the Scratch Kitchen is something I never expected to find: an inexpensive, family-friendly restaurant that serves locally-sourced cuisine.

I took the family there last week, and we were uniformly delighted. My husband, a serious blue cheese lover, ordered the Maine Fries and Great Hill Blue Cheese Fondue, which was utterly delicious. My elder daughter turned up her nose at the stinky cheese, which just meant more deliciousness for the rest of us. One caveat: while this dish is on the menu as a main course, it really is just Maine-grown potato fries and blue cheese fondue. Next time we go, we intend to order it as an appetizer. My elder daughter ordered the kid's mac 'n' cheese, which she loved and which definitely did not come out of a box, creamy and cheesy. My younger daughter ordered the hot dog, which she loved. We're not sure whether the hot dog was locally sourced, but it looked nicer than your standard Nathan's. Minor gripe: my younger daughter is gluten-sensitive, and their menu did not particularly have GF options, but we've learned to carry GF bread with us to new restaurants, and they were happy to take it back to the kitchen and toast it for her dog.

I ordered the fresh catch of the day, which happened to be hake. It was marvelous, extremely well done, buttery and flaky and substantial enough for me to share with my husband. It was served with rice over cooked spinach and accompanied by a sauce that wasn't quite tartar but was delicious.

Don't look for that on the menu. In fact, there were a lot of things not on the menu: rhubarb crumble, soups, and sandwiches designed to take advantage of what's currently locally available. The waiter apologized for being out of fiddlehead ferns. In fact, unlike most locavore venues, they don't post a specific list of suppliers on their web site because that list is constantly changing according to season and availability. Nonetheless, the photo on their web site impresses me with the sheer number of suppliers that aren't just local but very, VERY local: Salem, Wenham, Danvers, Essex. These are all towns within spittin' distance, which means that the owners have done a fantastic job making connections with the farmers in their local neighborhood. And naturally, they take advantage of being just down the coast from Gloucester and use locally caught fish in their dishes. Cheeses come from farther afield in New Hampshire and Vermont, but that's still within the 100 mile radius we strive for.

Scratch Kitchen uses locally raised beef, pork, and eggs, and they smoke their meats on site, including their bacon. They make their own black bean burgers and use Bob's Red Mill flours and oats. They have an impressive selection of locally-produced sodas and locally-brewed craft beers.

What I liked most about Scratch Kitchen was how gracefully the ingredients were selected and harmoniously prepared. My main gripe about Nourish in Lexington is that, while each individual component of a meal is fresh and local and delicious, they have a tendency to throw things together just because they have them and without really thinking about how they should work together. My meal was a seamlessly complementary selection of fish, vegetable, rice, and sauce.

My hake was the most expensive dish at $20, which you have to expect with fresh fish, but everything else was amazingly inexpensive. The fondue was $10, and the kids' meals were about $5 each. I've never seen a locavore restaurant with such good prices, much less one with a good kids' menu. I am looking forward to returning again and again to work my way through all their other offerings: fish tacos, goat cheese panini, burger with bacon and onion jam. Mmmm. Can't wait.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Farmers to You

When we recently moved to Beverly, almost exactly a year ago, we came missing our old Brookfield Farm CSA. Casting about for a replacement, we found Farmers to You, recommended by a friend back in Cambridge. It has been a tremendous boon to our family out here, where the nearest Whole Foods is in Swampscott, precisely because it is NOT a CSA.

Farmers to You is a consortium of local food producers in Vermont. Many of them are organic farmers, providing exactly the sorts of fresh produce we'd expect to get in a farmshare, but there's so much more, including:
  • Dairy farmers (cows and goats), providing milk, cream, yogurt, eggs, ice cream, and some truly fabulous cheeses. 
  • Meat farmers, providing beef, chicken, turkey, pork, and sausages.
  • Bakers and mills, offering fresh breads, pizza crusts, and pies as well as organic flours, oats, rye flakes, and granola.
  • Other food producers, providing pickles, jams, pesto, maple syrup, honey, even soups, black bean burgers, tofu, and rice milk.
And the beauty of this model is that you choose what you get each week. Just login to the F2Y web site, and you'll be able to browse their offerings and choose what you want in your order that week, so long as you order at least $40 worth. I'm not sure if this is true at all sites, but here in Beverly, we order by midnight on Sunday night and get our orders delivered to a nearby distribution site on Wednesday.

F2Y has distribution sites all over the Boston area, from Newton to Newburyport. If you're interested, and there isn't one near you, just get a group of friends together and ask if they can add a distribution point near you. Schools, churches, and community centers are great places for distribution centers. When we first started at F2Y, our nearest distribution site was at a nearby Waldorf school. But just a couple of months later, one of the intrepid teachers at our daughters' school, Harborlight Montessori School, organized a distribution site there, so we happily switched.

It is so very easy. Order my food on Sunday, pick it up on Wednesday when I pick up the girls. Even with a burgeoning garden running over with fresh vegetables, I easily hit that $40 mark each week. My typical order includes half a gallon of organic whole milk, a pint of organic heavy cream, some fresh chevre, a dozen eggs, and whatever else we're low on. For most of the winter, I got fresh greenhouse spinach, important in managing my anemia. In the spring, I was delighted to get asparagus, strawberries, and fiddlehead ferns. This week, I'm getting fresh green beans and beefsteak tomatoes, since mine aren't quite ready yet. In the fall, we're looking forward to apples and cider.

Who needs Whole Foods? I can get most of my groceries this way, effortlessly, without the temptation to impulse buy while walking through the aisles of a grocery store. Of course, I still do need to shop occasionally; laundry detergent and sundry toiletries, breakfast cereal, and whole wheat tortillas all draw me out to the local Trader Joe's. But I find that I spend less and less time at the store as F2Y's offerings continue to expand. I would love to see more local offerings such as mushrooms, handmade soaps, oils, and lotions, even "Eat More Kale" T-shirts.

My one gripe is that this food all has to be driven down from Vermont. I recognize that this is a slightly silly gripe. New England is very small, and all of it would fit easily inside my home state of New Mexico. Still, why get produce from Alamogordo if you live in Albuquerque? I'd love to see a similar consortium of Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire farmers and food producers. F2Y is a good model, and I hope other areas around the country will adopt it.

Disclosure: I'm now the site host for the Harborlight distribution of F2Y. The intrepid teacher left on maternity leave in February, and I took over. I unpack the orders from their crates, add in the bread orders (kept in a cooler to prevent crushing) and any frozen items from another cooler, receive and keep track of returned bottles and bags, and sell a few extras to members and nonmembers alike. For this, I receive a $30 credit on my order each week. I love doing this, honestly. I'd do it for free because I love meeting and talking with other parents interested in healthy, sustainable, local foods.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sustainability Isn't Just About How It's Raised

An article in the New York Times on April 12, 2012 argues that sustainable meat cannot possibly be truly sustainable because raising animals sustainably requires far more resources (land, feed, etc.) and contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

But the author, James E. McWilliams, entirely misses a crucial point of sustainability. Sustainability isn't just about production; it's also about consumption. McWilliams argues, "If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs)." Well, I'd believe that, but it presupposes that we would continue raising the same number of cattle and eating the same amount of meat.

My family buys sustainable meat almost exclusively. The vast majority of that meat we get from Chestnut Farms meat CSA. Each month, we pick up a cooler filled with 10 pounds of beef, chicken, lamb, and pork, for which we pay $88. That may seem like a steep price to pay for meat, but it's what allows Chestnut Farms to produce high quality, sustainable, organic meat. We also purchase eggs from them and occasionally buy some goat meat for curry, ham or bacon ends for beans, or smoked polish sausage.

And, in general, that's all the meat we buy for the month. We do buy more meat for special occasions, such as a Thanksgiving turkey or a leg of lamb for Easter, but that's a rare indulgence. Now, think carefully about the amount of meat you bought last month. Did it exceed ten pounds? Fifteen? Twenty? Thirty?

American cuisine revolves around meat. It's the entree, the main dish, and everything else in a meal is generally selected to support it. We eat far, far more meat than we need, resulting in unsustainable meat production practices and poor health. What if you were to change meat from starring to supporting role? This evening for dinner, my husband made carbonara sauce using eggs, heavy cream, and three strips of Chestnut Farms bacon. It was completely delicious - yes, fatty, but we plowed our garden today and were in serious need of extra calories after all the digging. Most of our meat dishes are heavily supplemented with vegetables. When I make burritos, I use ground beef cooked with potatoes and carrots, served with brown rice and black or pinto beans, along with lettuce and tomatoes and a substantial vegetable side dish such as calabacitas (zucchini, corn, onions, and cilantro, topped with cheese).

We do supplement our meat with fish, but again, the fish tends to be a spice or condiment rather than the main course. We'll eat pickled herring as an appetizer, or my husband will make kale and sardine stew (this is much, much tastier than it sounds). I love making smoked trout salad with onions, apples, capers, pickles or cucumbers, pecans, and fresh herbs. We also grow our own gourmet mushrooms and use them as a delicious protein source.

By eating less meat, we are eating healthier, saving money, and helping reduce our burden on the environment. Sustainable eating starts on the farm and ends at the dinner table.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Not Your Average Joe's Goes Local

We were in Arlington Center yesterday to pick up our meatshare from Chestnut Farms, and we decided to hit Not Your Average Joe's for dinner. To our surprise and delight, Joe's is in the middle of their Summer's Best Fest, and all of their specials include local ingredients. I spoke with the manager, and he told me that he and the chef had hit the farmers' market last Wednesday and bought vast quantities of local produce and other ingredients for their menu this week.

On their specials menu:
  • Tomato and watermelon gaspacho
  • Chatham stuffed quahogs
  • Corn, arugula, and tomato pizza
  • Watermelon steak salad
  • Grilled pork tenderloin
  • Chicken paillard
  • Free-form vegetable lasagna
  • North Atlantic swordfish
We sorely tempted by the quahogs, which the menu described thusly: "rhode island clams, locally made chourico, grilled corn from wilson's in lexington and tabasco aioli." But our ravenous children convinced us that we should eat swiftly, so we went straight for the entrees. My husband ordered the chicken paillard while I ordered the swordfish. The kids both ordered pasta with butter, and I ordered them a side of sweet potato hash to go with it.

The swordfish, when it came, was grilled to perfection, topped with a cilantro and pumpkin seed pesto, accompanied by a roasted cob of corn (from Wilson Farm in Lexington) sprinkled with cotija cheese and watercress with a lemon vinaigrette. I am in no way exaggerating when I say here that it was the best swordfish I have ever tasted. It was astonishing. The fish was perfectly cooked, just slightly crispy on the outside, tender and moist and delicious on the inside. The pesto complimented the fish beautifully. The pumpkin seeds gave it a nutty flavor without overwhelming the flavor of the fish. I almost didn't notice the watercress, but it was fresh and crunchy and refreshing. The corn, what my children did not claim for themselves, was also delicious, the cheese adding some nice saltiness.

For all that, my husband's chicken was actually better. The menu describes the dish as "chicken paillard with a panzanella salad of brioche croutons, tomatoes from ward's in sharon, cucumbers, capers and red onion, topped with locally grown arugula and romano cheese." My husband had serious doubts about ordering what he took to be a chicken salad. His doubts vanished when the dish arrived. The chicken, like the fish, was grilled to perfection, cooked through but moist and tender with a sauce that he could not get enough of. When he had finished the croutons, he was reduced to filching uneaten bread from our daughters to sop up the very last bit. To complement, he had a glass of pinot gris 2008 from Nantucket Vineyard which he liked quite a bit.

The downside to the meal was the lackluster service. Our dour waiter seemed to be perpetually annoyed that we wanted anything at all, though he was prompt and refilled my water glass frequently. The food was slow to arrive given that we were there quite early and the restaurant was nearly empty. What annoyed me most, though, was the thorough lack of imagination applied to the kids' menu. Pasta with butter or tomato sauce, no sides? For $5.99? That's absurd. I would have loved to see some locavore offerings for the kids. I'd like kid's meals that integrate vegetables. But their menu seems to consist of stereotypical kid food (mac 'n' cheese, cheese pizza, burgers, pasta) or cut down versions of adult fare (sirloin tips, balsamic-glazed salmon.) How about a kid-friendly stir fry? Maple-roasted root vegetables? Pasta with chicken and broccoli or asparagus in a mild cream sauce? Even the sweet potato hash, when it arrived, turned out to be too spicy for the girls to eat.

Well, regardless, I'm delighted to see a chain restaurant, even if it's a semi-local chain, jumping onto the locavore bandwagon. Best of all, their prices were quite reasonable: $13.99 for the chicken, $21.99 for the swordfish and worth every penny. Not Your Average Joe's Summer's Best Fest lasts until September 20th.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why You Should Ask Who Picks Your Food

For the past couple of weeks, I've been buying organic blueberries from Georgia, reasoning that this is more local than California or Mexico. However, a blog post today about the farming crash in Georgia informs me that those blueberries were most likely picked by illegal immigrant laborers, who are now fleeing the state in the wake of new anti-immigrant legislation.

Jay Bookman writes,
After enacting House Bill 87, a law designed to drive illegal immigrants out of Georgia, state officials appear shocked to discover that HB 87 is, well, driving a lot of illegal immigrants out of Georgia.

It might be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Thanks to the resulting labor shortage, Georgia farmers have been forced to leave millions of dollars’ worth of blueberries, onions, melons and other crops unharvested and rotting in the fields. It has also put state officials into something of a panic at the damage they’ve done to Georgia’s largest industry.
It turns out that illegal immigrant migrant laborers earn an average of $8/hour for their work. Only 7.7% receive health benefits.

Now, I have little objection to illegal immigrants working in fields in the U.S., since they're providing a useful service, contributing to a troubled economy, and since few legal Americans would work so hard for so little. I do, however, have a serious problem with this degree of exploitation.

So here's another reason to buy local: that pint of blueberries has no label stating "produced and picked by fairly-compensated labor." But at a farmers' market, you can talk face to face with a farmer and ask, "Who picked these blueberries? How many people work for you? Do you offer health benefits?"

I also have a suggestion, or perhaps a challenge, for the folks in Georgia, particularly the unemployed: it's an incredible waste to allow these fruits and vegetables to rot in the fields. So talk to your neighbors and raise a crop mob. Get out there, bring in the harvest, and then donate what you earn to a workers' rights advocacy group such as the United Farm Workers of America, or to an immigrant legalization advocacy group such as the Farmworker Advocacy Network.

Farmers, if you can't get workers to pick for low wages, don't just throw your crops away. Contact some area gleaners groups, such as Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network in Alexandria, VA. Volunteers will come pick your crops and bring them to area homeless shelters and food banks, and you'll at least get a nice tax write-off.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What It Means to Be a Locavore today has an interesting and pretty well-reasoned article today arguing against locavorism.

However, the article misses a crucial point about locavorism. Being a locavore means more than just buying locally grown food. It also means being mindful about what food reasonably grows in your area.

The article argues:
One recent UK report found that the greenhouse gas emissions involved in eating English tomatoes were about three times as high as eating Spanish tomatoes. The extra energy and fertilizer involved in producing tomatoes in chilly England overwhelmed the benefits of less shipping. Even New Zealand lamb produced less greenhouse gases than English lamb.
This sounds like a good argument, but it misses several points:

  1. True locavores are mindful of their regional limitations. If you're buying tomatoes at Massachusetts farmers' markets right now, you should know that they were either grown in a hothouse, which isn't terribly efficient and probably produces more greenhouse gases than shipping them up from Georgia or California, or they were, in fact, shipped in from out of state. Which means that if you want to be true to locavore ideals, you must resist those plump, juicy heirlooms and wait until late July before buying tomatoes. Cherry and grape tomatoes may be ready sooner.
  2. If you're using vast amounts of artificial fertilizer to grow tomatoes in England, you're doing it wrong. Organically grown tomatoes use compost and well-composted manure, which do not contribute significantly to greenhouse gases or watershed pollution.
  3. Comparatively, Spain is closer to England than Florida is to Boston, and tomatoes from Spain are likely shipped via rail or boat, rather than by truck, which is also a more efficient use of fuel. So for England, from an environmental standpoint, Spanish tomatoes are, in fact, probably a better idea than English tomatoes. As long as they actually are from Spain.
Really, what it comes down to is this: do the research. Find out what it takes to grow a particular crop in your area, and then determine when it makes sense to start buying that crop locally.

You also need to determine for yourself what local means. Many locavores set the limit at 100 miles from home. But if you can't live without bananas in your cereal each morning, you're violating that limit. Ditto olive oil, chocolate, or coffee. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver wrote that each member of her family was allowed to choose one non-local food to buy.  If you can stick to that rule, you'll be reducing your footprint significantly.

To be honest, my family isn't there yet. We buy organic produce from California and prepackaged pastas and canned tomatoes. But whenever possible, we try to buy local. We buy 90% of our meat in a meat share from Chestnut Farms. We buy almost all of our eggs locally from Chestnut Farms and Pete & Jen's. We plant and pick in a communal garden in my cohousing community. Until this year, we bought a CSA farmshare from Brookfield Farms. We buy almost all our dairy locally through the Dairy Bar or Sherman Market (exception: we have not found a good local source of goat milk for my lactose-intolerant daughter). Now that the farmers' markets are open, we gleefully buy fresh greens there (kale!) every week. And in a month, we're moving to a new home in Beverly with plenty of land where we hope to grow most of our own food.

The path to locavorism is a tricky one, but the most crucial skill you need to become a locavore is this: ask questions, find answers. Ask the farmers at the market where they are, whether they grew the produce themselves, how they grew it, whether they use a hothouse, how they heat that hothouse, and whether they use pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers. Talk to them about the pasture area their cattle have, or what they feed their pigs, or how they slaughter their chickens. Ask the farmers who works for them, whether they're paid fair wages. Ask them how far they have to travel to come to the market, how much fuel they use, and whether they partner with other farmers to save on transportation costs (I spotted Pete & Jen's eggs at a Blue Heron farmstand yesterday).

The more you know, the better and more sustainably you'll eat.