PART 1: ROOT VEGETABLES
As I write this, it is the last day of September. Though you will not read this until November, I must get this article off to press. So I sit in the cozy basement of the Co-op, both hands wrapped around my favorite coffee mug, thinking about what tomorrow means. You see, tomorrow brings with it not only October, but also the first day of the Eat Local Challenge, in which I am a participant. The Eat Local Challenge (www.eatlocalchallenge.com) is a commitment that I have taken, along with hundreds of other people across the country in this web-based community, to eat only local foods for the entire month of October.
Of course, in any such endeavor one must define some parameters—the first and most obvious of which is how I will define local. Personally, I am choosing to utilize the definition Willy Street Co-op uses so that I may make use of our purple “Local” shelf tags as a means of determining which foods I will eat. We define local as that which is grown or produced either in Wisconsin, or within a 150-mile radius of Dane County. There is obviously a difference between a vegetable or animal grown in Wisconsin and products such as bread or pasta that are made in Madison—or nearby—with some non-local ingredients. Like the Co-op, I am opting to include both in my definition of local. This is so I can support both local farms and local businesses, and also because I am not interested in making such things from scratch. In addition to bread and pasta, some other examples include coffee, which I buy from a local roaster who practices fair trade, and local kombucha made with non-local teas. When making my own kombucha, I will continue to use tea imported by my favorite fair trade Milwaukee-based tea company.
What exceptions will I make to the local rule? Spices (though I will use fresh local herbs if available) and olive oil (though I will use butter if possible because it is produced in my area). I will also make exception for food cooked for me by friends and loved ones. Though the Eat Local Challenge is a commitment I am taking very seriously, I don’t intend to impose my own food ideology on my loved ones. I will answer questions and would be thrilled if my actions inspired others to make similar choices, but I have no intention of refusing generously offered meals in the name of food politics. Finally, as for restaurants, I will still eat out on rare occasion, but only at locally owned businesses who explicitly state that they source their ingredients locally.
Since I already eat pretty locally, many people have asked me what my goals are in participating in the Eat Local Challenge. Mainly I wish to deepen my preexisting commitment to eating locally, the motivation for which is two-fold. First, I want to support our local economy. I want to put my money literally where my mouth is—here in Wisconsin! Rather than funnel increasingly scarce economic resources to California or elsewhere, I want to sustain the ability of my local food producers to keep making fresh, high quality foods in my area! If in turn, they spend their money locally, we can maintain a true economy which supports the long-term health of our community. Second, I like the environmental benefits of eating locally. Food produced here has a smaller distance to travel, decreasing our consumption of pollution-causing (not to mention difficult to source) foreign oil.
But most of you already know my reasons for wanting to eat locally. In fact, most likely you have similar desires, as well. If you are reading this, you are likely a member of the Co-op, and someone who takes measures to educate yourself on matters pertaining to food. This means that you already know the good news—that the times are a’changin, so to speak. We are privileged enough to live in an era that many of us have only dreamed about since the industrialization and globalization of our food supply. Grassroots, community-based activism is having a tangible effect. Discourses of food politics are becoming increasingly prevalent. Terms like “local” and “organic” are in the national vocabulary, and books arguing for a more local, unadulterated approach to food such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food are national bestsellers. (And both great reads, by the way. I highly recommend them.) Our population as a whole is becoming educated on topics that were once relegated to farmer, gardener, hippie, and increasingly, scientific spheres—the process through which our food goes from seed to plate. We have a population of indoctrinated people who ideologically support chemical-free food production and a true economy comprised of dollars exchanged locally. However, to best ensure this model will affect real, macro-level shifts in buying patterns, I think it is important to address potential barriers to taking the next step in participating in such a local diet.
Because industrialized, globalized food has now been around long enough to establish itself as a norm, many of us grew up eating non-locally or without even cooking our own food. As a result, even the most educated of us may not feel that we always know how to go about selecting and cooking the less popular foods native to our area, because they remain unfamiliar. Michael Pollan explains this phenomenon in his book In Defense of Food: as dinner choices became increasingly informed by scientists and food marketers, our mothers lost control over our menus. This resulted in most of us not eating what our mothers ate as children, which likely would have been foods available regionally, dictated by the season. Now, during the stretch of time in those long winter months where relatively few local produce choices are available to us, it becomes easy to fall back on those imported familiar foods, especially if you lack confidence or knowledge of compelling ways to prepare many Wisconsin-grown winter storage crops. Yet our reasons for wanting to eat locally do not decrease with the temperature, so we must think of a way to overcome this obstacle. Here I intend to address produce items that are available to us locally throughout the leaner months, while offering recipes that can make them appealing. It is these that our customers report to be intimidating: root vegetables.
I must confess that I am extremely excited to write about beets. There are a myriad of health benefits to be gained from them, including liver support, protection against cancer, and reduction of inflammation response. According to the World’s Healthiest Foods website (http://www.whfoods.com), “chronic inflammation has been linked to a wide range of conditions including heart disease, osteoporosis, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, and type-2 diabetes.” And to think that beets, a preventative measure against such illnesses, grow and thrive right here in Wisconsin soil! But how should you prepare them?
How I choose to prepare them depends upon the variety of beet. We offer several varieties of beets throughout the year, including bunched and bulk reds, chioggia, and golden. If eating locally is important to you, note that during the winter months our bunched beets—beets with the greens still attached—are imported from California, while we carry bulk ones from Wisconsin much longer.
There are many great ways to prepare beets, but I will offer some simple advice: don’t overcook them. The cooking process reduces the amount of vitamins and nutrients in food in general, but additionally overcooked beets will look and taste bland and unappealing.
Jimmy Downtown’s Famous Beet Salad3-4 large beets (I use red)
2 medium carrots, peeled and grated
1/3 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 bunch (more or less) fresh chives, finely minced
1/3 cup brown rice vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
1 clove (or more, to taste) garlic, finely minced or pressed
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
1 medium Jerusalem artichoke (a.k.a. sunchoke), peeled and grated.
A pinch of dried oregano and/or paprika in the dressing
Top with fresh dill and goat cheese
Directions: Peel, quarter and steam or parboil the beets. You may also use them raw. If you decide to cook them, remove from heat about 3 or 4 minutes after boiling point is reached, drain and cool immediately under cold running water. They are best if they are still deep red and not pale. While the beets are cooling, lightly toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet...be careful not to burn them! Keep stirring them so they are evenly toasted. You should notice that the smell changes from nutty to toasty. Coarsely chop or crush them when they have cooled a bit. Grate the beets and carrots (and optional Jerusalem artichoke) into a mixing bowl. Put vinegar, oil, garlic, chives, salt and pepper into a lidded jar and shake vigorously until the mixture is uniformly emulsified. Pour over the root vegetables and stir in. Mix in chopped parsley and pine nuts until ingredients are evenly distributed. Serve cooled.
Some other ideas for beets include shredding them raw onto the top of a salad, serving them steamed with butter and salt, and serving them vinegared with strong cheeses. Golden beets, another favorite of mine, are delicious cut into rounds and roasted with olive oil, garlic cloves, sea salt and fresh black pepper until soft. Chioggia beets work well in this recipe, also.
I admit less enthusiasm for the burdock root than I hold for the beloved beet. Though its health benefits are impressive, I have yet to fall in love with burdock. Another powerful anti-inflammatory (I’m talking to you, arthritis sufferers!), burdock may also aid in the elimination of toxins from the system by supporting the liver, kidneys, and colon. It also boasts antimicrobial properties, may help chronic skin ailments, and may help prevent cancer. Add to that list the fact that it is locally produced with the ability to be stored a very long time in the refrigerator; burdock does not deserve the stigma it receives!
I admit that until now, I have only consumed burdock when I have been on a short-term cleansing diet intended to rapidly rid my body of toxins. I cut it into rounds force it down any way I can, usually as a vehicle for some type of dip, from hummus to baba ganouj to even guacamole. I do not recommend burdock as a dip for guacamole, as corn chips taste worlds better...but I digress.
I suggest you ease your way into burdock if you are apprehensive about it. Toss unpeeled burdock rounds into a stir-fry with other vegetables or into a miso soup with soba noodles and tofu. Add it, cut into matchsticks, into a spring roll with carrot and daikon. The Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition’s cookbook, From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce, suggests a lemony burdock sauté with toasted sesame oil, grated lemon peel and miso, as well as thinly sliced fried burdock chips to use as a topper for soups or salads.
Otherwise known as celery root, celeriac is one of the more exciting of the root vegetables, though it is ugly. Celeriac contains large amounts of Vitamin C and potassium, and supports the liver and kidneys, lymphatic and nervous systems. It’s great juiced with apples or carrots, roasted with other autumn root vegetables and garlic, added to potato-based soups, or boiled and mashed with potatoes. My favorite way to cook celeriac is to shred it and add it to my potato pancakes! I also like to dice it in a sauté of onions, garlic, and potatoes that I combine with wild rice which I stuff into a hollowed-out, pre-baked pie pumpkin.
The most intimidating thing about celeriac is its appearance. Many people have asked how to go about cutting into one. I recommend slicing off the top and bottom to create a flat surface. Sit the celeriac upright, and then trim off the remaining outer layer with a downward motion of the knife. Once outer “skin” is removed, the bulb can be shredded, cubed, or sliced into rounds. Experiment. Try one of the recipes in the From Asparagus to Zucchini cookbook—the au gratin is calling my name—or add it to your favorite soup. Approach it with confidence and excitement, you will have fun in the kitchen and likely embrace a new favorite food!
Daikon radish is a long, white root that looks rather like a washed-out carrot. High in vitamin C, daikon aids in the digestion of starchy vegetables. It is very versatile, and may be eaten raw, cooked, or fermented like a kim chi or sauerkraut. Raw daikon is a welcome local addition to relish trays, a grated topper for salads, and is a staple in spring rolls. Cooked, it may be added to stir fries and soups, especially miso soup. Or try it sliced into thin rounds, soaked in ice water, dried, and then deep-fried in toasted sesame oil for a great chip. Ingredients that really bring out the best in daikon include miso, toasted sesame oil, tamari, tofu, ginger, carrots, scallions, and cucumbers. Of course, not all of these are local ingredients all year round, but many of them are at least during some months. The purpose of the Eat Local Challenge is to help us to make eating locally a habit. If, in order to do so with increasing regularity, we must buy the occasional piece of non-local ginger as an accompaniment, so be it. I still believe that it’s an improvement.
Jerusalem artichokes are high in iron, potassium, and Vitamin C, and are used as a potato substitute for diabetics. They also happen to be one of my favorites of the root crops, because they are easy to use, versatile, and tasty. They have a very nutty, sweet flavor. I use them a lot—unpeeled because the skin contains valuable nutrients—in pureed soups, especially combined with celeriac, garlic and onions. I also love to slice them into rounds and fry them in olive oil with garlic and salt. They get crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, and are absolutely dreamy.
A coworker of mine insists that they are delicious raw grated into a chicken salad. I have yet to try them this way, but I can imagine. They are also a great addition to a slaw, or to a raw vegetable tray with dip. Toss them raw or steamed with olive oil and lemon juice and parsley, or instead of potatoes in a cheesy potato soup recipe.
Parsnips are a good source of Vitamins K and C, and contain decent amounts of folate and manganese. They are delicious served a myriad of different ways. You can boil or roast then mash them like potatoes or with potatoes, adding, of course, cream, butter and salt. I like to add them to fall soups with pumpkin and apple, then puree partially, leaving some chunky. Of course they are an essential ingredient in roasted root vegetable medleys with garlic, salt, and black pepper. A good rule of thumb is that they go well in almost any dish calling for carrot. For the meat eaters, parsnips, carrots, rutabaga and onion are wonderful in the bottom of a crockpot while slow-cooking a beef roast or beef stew. Some recipes in From Asparagus to Zucchini that look especially good are parsnip patties, parsnip gratin, oven-fried parsnips, and cream of parsnip-leek soup. Who knew they could be so versatile?
Rutabaga is perhaps the root with which I am least familiar. Reasons to become increasingly familiar with them in addition to their status as local staples include their potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamins A and C, and folate. While researching this article, I had many coworkers gasp once I said that I didn’t know how in the world to eat a rutabaga in anything other than soup or roasted with other root vegetables. The responses I got were overwhelming. Apparently I have been missing out on a lifetime of them boiled and mashed with butter and salt, baked in pasties with other vegetables and meat, cooked with beef in crockpots, and roasted at very high heat with balsamic vinegar. (The last recipe can be found in the MACSAC From Asparagus to Zucchini cookbook.) Though I have yet to try any of these recipes, I most definitely will this winter.
Last, but certainly not least of the root vegetables, is the turnip. Turnips are high in Vitamins C and A, fiber, and are a good source of lutein. The timing of this article is perfect, since until last week I was convinced that I actually hated them. I know, I know. I’ve tried them cooked with bacon, brown sugar and balsamic vinegar, and that was the closest I’d come to accepting the turnip as a regular in my diet. That is, until my friend had me over for dinner last week. He served roasted (locally hunted) duck over wedged turnips in a light sauce of duck fat, butter and bourbon. I went back for seconds, even for the turnips....make that especially for the turnips. And then I licked the plate. I think the secret is that they were soft and tender, and they had lost that spicy quality that I had always found so objectionable.
Other recipe ideas include mashing them like a potato with butter, salt, and fresh herbs. Like potatoes, I have heard that they are delicious scalloped or in a gratin. Many people also like them cut up raw in a vegetable platter. Experiment.
Hopefully this article has inspired you to return to your local diet with renewed vigor. If you would like some support in your attempts to increase the amount of local foods in your life, there are a multitude of printed book and web-based organizations that can help. Here are some that I find especially useful:
- Madison Area Community
- Supported Agriculture Coalition
- (MACSAC): www.macsac.org
- Slow Food USA: www.slowfoodusa.org
- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
- From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm Fresh Seasonal Produce by MACSAC
- In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
- Local Flavors by Deborah Madison
- Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
- Eat Local Challenge: www.eatlocalchallenge.com/
- Livin La Vida Local: localtarian.blogspot.com/
- Living the Local Life: livinglocalnh.blogspot.com/
- 10 Reasons to Eat Local Food, from the weblog Life Begins@30 fogcity.blogs.com/jen/2005/08/10_reasons_to_e.html
- 100 Mile Diet: 100milediet.org/why-eat-local