5 Food Habits to Adopt this Earth Day and Daily

Happy Earth Day! Starting 35 years ago, April 22nd has been designated a day to celebrate our earth and recognize that it needs nurturing just like anything else we care about. Our earth supports us in so many ways, and of course, we need a happy and healthy planet to grow our food and nourish our bodies.

By 2050, our planet will be host to 9 billion humans. With hunger already prevalent, we need to feed all these mouths as sustainably as possible, which is especially important as our earth is challenged. Did you know that our food supply is a contributor to climate change, green house gas emissions, and waste?

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Add to this the deforestation and pressure on species as we clear more and more land to feed our demands.

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But every little we do as consumers can help alleviate some of these challenges. Let’s consider the 5 R’s as good habits to start today and nurture for our future:

Reduce: It’s tempting to stock pile on food but what tends to happen is food expires or goes bad if we don’t get around to it quickly enough, and who wants to waste precious food? Reduce your dependence on highly processed and packaged food, because the processing and packaging requires massive energy inputs. And do you really need that mega meal? Cutting back on your portions size is great not only for your waist line, but also for the planet. The food that contributes the most to green house gas emissions tends to be livestock:

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(Source: Environmental Work Group)

Today may be a good day to revisit how much meat you eat. You can reduce your meat intake, and add plant-based protein sources like beans, legumes and tofu. Start with one day a week – how about participating in Meatless Mondays? Also think about reducing your carbon footprint by selecting locally grown or produced foods from your nearest farmers market. On average, most conventionally grown and produced food travels 1,500 miles, which adds up to green house emissions. Supporting your local producers cuts this back, and adds to your local economy.

Reuse: Have you got some leftovers in your refrigerator? How about reusing these tonight? Maybe convert it into another meal? Yes, you can reuse food! Think about a whole chicken. Roast it, add some vegetable sides and you have one meal. Use the remaining meat the next day in a chicken salad. Left with the carcass? Make your own stock with this. Just one example of a food you can reuse a couple of times over!

Recycle: If you haven’t already, start recycling all the packaging for your food products.

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(Source: Edinburgh University)

Recycle leftovers following ‘Reuse’ and take your own drinking containers for water and coffee drinking throughout the day or bring your reusable containers for leftovers when you eat out. Choose recyclable packaging by using paper disposable products versus foam products, the latter being awful on the environment. The more fresh food you buy, the less packaging you may need – take your favorite tote to the grocery store or farmers’ market.

Restore & Replenish: Another perk to supporting local farmers is that they tent to be more mindful of how they treat the land upon which they grow or rear food. Farmers who use organic materials and even make their own compost are using the ‘Reuse’ and ‘Recycle’ principles to turn food waste (cuttings, peels, eggs shells etc.) into nourishment for soil to restore and replenish nutrients, bacteria, fungi and other living organisms that contribute to the livelihood and vitality of soil. You can also do this and grow your own food in your backyard, maybe even restoring some balance to your back yard ecosystems and biodiversity. Also think about how buying fresh or whole food is great form of nourishment to your body, restoring an replenishing critical nutrients to keep you happy and healthy.

So this Earth Day, embrace these 5 habits and run with them. You really can make a big difference!

Yours in all things food,

Jess

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Celebrate Dad by Celebrating Seasonal Food

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Fathers’ Day is just around the corner… and so is your farmers’ market. Sure, dads like their gadgets, household tools, and ties, but sometimes a good feast (or good cocktail) is the way to his heart too, and if done right, it can be good for his heart.

I’ve been experimenting with fresh berries and peaches, because my hubby has a sweet tooth (and so do I), and currently both are in full swing here in Georgia. The hidden beauty of these seasonal fruits is that they’re packed with great taste and nutrition. Strawberries and blackberries owe their remarkable colors to anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants that keep your body in fine tune, preventing any number of health issues from cancer to cardiovascular diseases. How about peaches? Low in calories, peaches are a good source of vitamins A and C, both important in promoting immune health. So how about a few ideas to turn these fruit into tantalizing treats dad won’t turn his nose up to?

IMG_1597First on my list, breakfast. I adapted a Hugh Acheson recipe for super easy blackberry compote, a great topper to my buckwheat and buttermilk pancakes:

Compote: Add 1/4 a cup fine sugar and 1/4 cup muscadel wine (mine is from my home country South Africa) to a pot, bring to a gentle simmer to dissolve the sugar. Add about 3 cups blackberries, toss and heat for about 1-2 minutes. Add a dash of orange zest, stir and tip into a cool glass or ceramic bowl.

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Pancakes: In a bowl mix together 1/2 cup buckwheat flour, half cup all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons ground flax-seed, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 teaspoon baking soda, pinch salt, 1 egg and 1 and 1/4 cup buttermilk. Makes about 6 to 8 three inch pancakes.

Second, get a dessert ready. For this, I adapted a Jamie Oliver recipe to come up with slightly healthier peach and rhubarb cobbler.

Peach filling: I sliced 6 peaches and 2 large stalks of rhubarb into an oven proof dish. Stir in 1/2 cup fine sugar, 2 tablespoons bourbon (I love cooking with this!), scraped vanilla beans from one pod, zest of a lime, and freshly squeezed juice from an orange. Bake at 375F for about 20-30 minutes, depending on the peach ripeness. You want your peaches tender, not mushy. Remove from oven, add a little water and stir in any fruit stuck to the sides of the dish.

IMG_1605Cobbler: In a food processor, grind up 2 tablespoons pine nuts and 1/4 cup walnuts. Then add 1 cup self-raising flour, 1/4 cup sugar, pinch of salt, and 6 tablespoons chilled and diced butter. Put processor on pulse until you reach a bread crumb consistency. Add a sprinkle of water to be able to work this dough into a ball. Add a handful of unsweetened craisins. Add dollops of this on top of the baked peaches and rhubarb. Bake at 350F for about 30 minutes until the dough is just golden, and serve with fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice-cream. Both are sublime!

And last, you have got to have a great summer cocktail ready for fathers’ day! I’ve been working on something similar to a strawberry daiquiri, using tequila (what we had in the house) instead of rum. Put about 1/2 pint of fresh strawberries into a blender or juicer, and add 1 tablespoon agave. Add a handful of fresh mint, a couple of large fresh basil leaves, juice from half a lime, and a generous measure of chilled tequila. Blend, add to a cocktail shaker, add a handful ice and you’re set. And rim your glass with sugar. Healthy, packed with summer flavor, and one that will bring a smile to his face.

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I hope you enjoy these as much as we have. Fathers’ day arrived early in our household!

Stay hungry my friends,

Jess Avasthi

Easter Bunny Digs Organic Carrots too

I am standing in the heart of the operations for Burge Organic Farm. On the outside, it’s a quaint log cabin.But once the door opens, agrarian paraphernalia come into view. Multiple deep washing sinks, two large refrigerators, farming equipment and tools… . I am accompanied by Cory Mosser, farm manager and excellent tour guide. My my cogs are turning, trying to process all the information Cory is sharing. I learn that the refrigerators are operated by air conditioner units, which do a superior job regulating temperatures to maintain produce integrity and trim energy costs. He jumps into a seat attached to a piece of equipment and describes how this is a transplanter, so while someone drives the tractor (which is also included in the tour and is a beauty), two folks will sit on this metal conglomeration and oversee transplanting. This saves a bunch of time, so instead of taking three days to manually plant 1500 tomato transplants, it will take less than day. All-in-all, I am struck by the investments this, and another nearby farm, Crystal Organic, have placed on the shared equipment to enhance efficiency. Small scale farming is industrious, but not industrialized, an undercurrent to upholding the integrity of good quality, locally grown food.

I want to ride my bicycle...

I spot an old school stationery bicycle. It’s a gem, but what on earth is it doing here? With the enthusiasm of a little boy who has just got his first bicycle, Cory jumps on and enlightens me. He grabs another box-shaped piece of equipment, demonstrates where this fits on the bicycle, and then how the pedaling will operate these units… And we have a pea-sheller! This hot item is going to make its debut at the farmer’s market this season. Cory enjoys getting customers engaged at the markets, and he intends to get them on the bicycle to shell their own peas. A brilliant way to break the ice and connect with your food!  And then, in the midst of all of this, there is a white erase board. The ‘to do’ list is lofty… my eyes are happily scrolling but they are interrupted by the words ‘Easter Bunny Idea’.

...And shell my peas!

Half an hour of touring the open fields, stepping into the high tunnels, handling a teething ten month old, squeezing into the greenhouses crammed with tomato and Brassica transplants, taking in the view of the incredibly diverse fruit orchard… but these three words have whipped me away from all of the information rushing through my head. It’s been a while since my Easter Bunny days. When I was about four years old, I almost scared the bunny away when my mom caught me peeking through my bedroom window one beautiful Easter Sunday. Easter Bunny makes me think of hollow chocolate eggs and chocolate smeared faces. And yes, while bunny rabbits can be found on many farms, I am not sure how this erase board ‘to do’ item fits into the highly efficient and productive farm operations heart.

Cory is not short on ideas. After all, how many folks get married, then shortly after tying the knot, head off on a five month trail through the Appalachians only to realize that law school is no longer an option, but farming is. And why? Because while Cory was on the trail, he saw what was wrong with our food (the long strip malls of fast food) but also what was better (the vast rural land and diverse, productive family farms). He stepped off the trail and entered the world of food production, marketing, and distribution, learning and applying new skills and knowledge. Several years later, he joined the historic Burge Plantation to manage seventeen acres of certified organic farm land. And he has never looked back.

So it turns out that Easter Bunny has something to do with what I continue to encounter on small-scale farms managed by young farmers: ‘innovative marketing’.

Yup, small-scale farming is picturesque, altruistic and quaint, but many of our young farmers realize that to keep the tractors running, there is far more work beyond the scope of tending to land and harvests. Cory acknowledges that as a farmer, he does get caught up in daily operations of seeding, translating, weeding… but at the end of the day, he reminds himself that the fruits of his labor need the gentle hand of marketing to move them on. Seeing that the new season is on the horizon is in sync with Easter, may as well use this time to pitch CSAs. Cory and his wife have three daughters. Their youthful imagination lead to the idea to pack a turnip, radish and carrot into a little bag with their CSA information, and to give these out to school kids for Easter Bunny. The kids go home, jump up and down because they have some yummy organic treats for the bunny, and their parents, like me, think ‘What a novel and clever idea! Who are these farmers? Wow this carrot tastes delicious… sorry Easter Bunny, no treats for you!’. And hopefully, some new CSA sales are generated. Brilliant!

We talk some more and once again the topic of consumers comes up. Cory agrees that whether consumers are avid local food supporters or just wetting their toes, education is integral in providing them the skills and resources to maximize the potential of good food. Yes, it takes more enthusiasm and dedication to keep committed to a CSA, but eating well-grown food is  a valuable investment in health of local communities, their children, and their economy. So whether you celebrate Easter or not, this is the time of year to get connected with your farmers and to invest in their efforts to provide all of us with better, more wholesome food. And if Easter Bunny is going to visit your household, be sure to dangle that CSA carrot, because rumor has it, he digs organically and locally grown too.

Jess Avasthi, Real Time Farms Food Warrior, Winter 2012

Keeping Food Real… for humans and bunny rabbits.

‘Tis the season to be at the market

Spring has swept in and Summer is knocking on our doors. The farmers’ market season has kicked off. It’s time to dust off your market basket and head to your nearest farmers’ market (go hungry, please!). Whether you’re a seasoned market shopper or a novice, it’s a good time to get the 411 on this. And yes, I know you’ve seen this kind of info before but guess what happens during the off-season (between fall and spring)? Holidays, new years, cold weather, busy households… So let’s fine tune our memories shall we?

1. Who are you buying the food from? You can always ask the vendor, but I know there are folks out there who are used to shopping for food no questions asked, so this is for you. Take a good look at the fresh produce vendors. Spot some gritty fingernails? How about their produce? Is most of this displayed loose and is it of varying shapes, sizes, varieties, and dusted here and there with a little soil? Consider the season. We’re in early spring, so if you spot lush leafy greens, radishes, carrots, and turnips, and you take all of the above into consideration, you’re bound to be buying from a local farmer. Now quit being shy and ask them about their farm. You’ll see their eyes light up. They’ll tell you what they grow, how they do it and what you can make tonight. Yay! You’ve met the face behind the food. A farmer! You go you…

Now, be mindful of other vendors. Do you see some tomatoes? Summer squash? For many parts of the country, these aren’t quite in season yet. Check how these are stored. If you spot a cardboard box that brags ‘California’ but you’re thousands of miles away from this sunshine state, know that you may be buying your goods from a produce wholesaler. Nothing wrong with this. They offer some produce at lower costs, but their produce may not be local and may have travelled the infamous 1500 miles to get to this market. I’m all for making healthy food accessible to all, but it’s just good for you to know what’s out there and to make some philosophical decisions. Supporting local farmers is a great investment in your local economy, and the wholesaler may very well have some items they source locally or regionally, so just ask them. Otherwise, learn what’s in season in your neck of the woods, and that way you’ll be able to discern the local ‘growers’ from the wholesalers.

It turns out buying from local farmers is pretty affordable. After all, you’re happy to spend three bucks on a beer, coffee, or dvd rental, so three bucks for a bag of locally grown greens is fair game to me.

Now, some farmers may not have the man power to be at the market, and this has created the ‘distributor‘ channel. Distributors are handy. They go from farm to farm to gather the goods and then sell these on behalf of the farmers. This enables farmers to keep their resources on the land, to maximize their growing, and be able to market and sell their products without having to spend hours attending to this. And some farmers will admit that they are not the most adept in marketing and distribution.

2. Plastic bags are at Farmers’ Markets too. Most of our farmers do a sterling job in following growing practices that are kinder to our planet. The only reason why they have plastic bags is because of you. So note to dear consumer… save them the hassle, and save the environment by bringing your market basket. We have to rely on each other to be more conscious of our environmental impact.

3. Which leads me to how your food is grown or raised (I call it ‘graised’). Most but certainly not all farmers are certified organic, and in a nutshell (I know… You don’t want to have to read a compendium) this means no synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, no hormones and antibiotics for livestock, and no genetically modified organisms (GMO) (and the latter takes a compendium to explain so click here to learn more). But it doesn’t stop there. These farmers follow diverse growing practices, including crop rotations, using cover crops during winter (which give the soil a great nutritional shot), and increasing the biodiversity of crops. This certification process is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). While very beneficial, some farmers opt out of this government regulation for Certified Naturally Grown, which is pretty much organic but farmers are accountable to each other rather than the USDA. So either way, you’re supporting growing practices that our grandparents and generations before applied to food production. It’s how food should be grown, and mother nature prefers it too.

4. Cash, credit, or debit? Some markets can facilitate all forms of payment, others are strictly cash, so check ahead and be prepared because you won’t be able to barter your car, children, or pets for yummy food. I have been to markets where you can pay credit and receive cash ‘discs’ at $2 each to go around and pay the vendors. I have paid vendors credit and cash directly. I like to carry both forms in case. In fact, some farmers’ markets are set up to accept Electronic Benefits Transactions (EBT), which is part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (commonly known as the Food Stamp program). My personal favorite is markets which double up SNAP dollars through programs like Wholesome Wave. So for every dollar, you get an extra dollar to spend! This is a super way to encourage all folks, regardless of socioeconomic status, to access and participate in their farmers’ markets. And the cherry on top? We all get to eat delicious and nutritious ware.

And last but not least…

5. Behind every great market is an equally great person. Every market has a manager. If it wasn’t for their year round efforts, there would be no market. They are the ones who plan the season, communicate market events, source and retain vendors, seek funding, coordinate the smooth operation… and the list goes on and on. So if you know your market manager, be sure to thank them and maybe offer to volunteer some time. If you don’t know your market manager, find them and give them a big thankful hug. They, and the farmers, artisans, artists… make your market happen.

Happy shopping, happy noshing, and happy season folks!

Jess Avasth  MS, RD, LS & Mindful Eater

Keeping Food Real and Lover of Farmers’ Markets

Talking ’bout a Canvolution

For many food enthusiasts, the clinking approach of a glass jar, metal lid, and huge stock pot are about as terrifying as Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining.’ They think ‘All that time, that effort… then you may end up poisoning and killing someone….’ Yup, that homemade apple butter sure is a killer… to your waist line! Once you take a bite, you won’t be able to stop. It’s a terrifying thought… homemade. Who made it? Is their kitchen clean? Um, how is it possible that this apple butter tastes so good? Yes, all homemade canned apple butter must come with a warning label ‘By the end of your meal, 100 fearful thoughts would have passed through your head BUT you would have eaten all of this’. So come on now, have no fear. The canvolution is here!

After all, canning is what got generations through winters. Back in the day, seasons were respected and there was little importing of summer fruits and vegetables to fill the shelves in the middle of winter. Canning preserved and sealed the summer sunshine captured in berries and cucumbers… nothing better than opening a jar of strawberry jam in the middle of a wintery strawberry famine. So seeing you are here, reading this, surely someone in your family canned? Your parents? Likely a grandparent?

Well for Lyn DearDorff, founder of a small canning and teaching business ‘Preserving Now‘ based in Atlanta, Georgia, canning started with her grandmother. The only reason she would venture into the eerie depths and darkness of the basement was to help with her grandmother’s sauerkraut, fermenting in large crocks in the basement… and she was left unscathed each time. Later, during summers, she would admire the array of colorful jars that lined the larder of her future mother-in-law’s home. Before she knew it, she was reeled in.

Alright, canning can be scary. I feared the can, but once I did it, it became like riding a bicycle. Lyn has witnessed trepidation in the eyes of would-be canners who attend her canning classes in Atlanta. She has seen wives’ eyes roll as they introduce themselves and blame their husbands for ‘dragging’ them to the class. And then what happens a mere four hours later? A simple ‘pop’ of a sealed can lid sends these very folks reeling around the room exulting “I did it! I can can!”

For Lyn, forty years of canning here and there turned out to be the yellow brick road to this business, and with her good friend Karin Kane, life since retirement revolves around grandchildren, pets, and the happy rumblings of boiling water as it works to seal the delectable preserves in glass jars. But how do you can safely? Well, it depends on the recipe and what you want to preserve. Rule of thumb is if you want to preserve vegetables, a pressure canner may be in order. But if you’re making certain fruit jams or jellies, all you need is a pot willing and able to hold enough water to submerge the jars. And your delicacies will be safe for human consumption.

Alright then. Most of us should have a pot that meets this job description. But if you prefer to keep cool and are still not convinced, the good news is you can make a refrigerated pickle instead. Adding sliced cucumbers to some vinegar and keeping this in the refrigerator is absolutely fine as is, no heat sealing required! Add a smacking of sugar, spices, or any other vegetables to your liking and you have your own recipe for success! Splendid.

But wait a minute (cue horror themed music)… there’s got to be more than this, no? The peeling, coring, chopping… Apple butter ain’t butter without all these workings? Hours of workings? Well not according to Lyn and Karen. Just cook the apples, skins on, and when cooked down, bring out your food processor. Viola! Beautifully smooth butter. Ok then. What about the sugar? The pectin? The magic wand that is the alchemy of all things preserved? Surely the chances to screw up lie in how these ingredients are married?

Let’s start with sugar. While it’s true you that if you use pectin (which helps the fruit “set”), you must add lots and lots of sugar. But keeping the peel gives you the natural pectin that lies in the skin of tree, allowing it to set on its own. This holds true for apples, peaches, plums – the list is endless really. You can add sugar if you like but only a small amount is necessary. Ripe fruit in the prime of its season is sweet enough. Lyn prefers to use agave syrup in apple butter as it compliments the apples perfectly. And what about the pectin for other fruits that demand to be placed in jars and wintered-over? Well, Karin recommends just including a couple of granny smith apples to the cooking berry jam or jelly (no peeling required, just cored), and then blend these together for your final product. Apples contain pectin in their skins and provide the perfect lending hand to thicken and set preserves. In all cases, Lyn also suggests using organic fruit to avoid preserving pesticides too! Super! Kid-friendly food (well, ok, adult and maybe pet-friendly too).

Honestly, it’s not all that bad. In fact, according to these ladies, canning is getting more main stream by the minute. I have canned the last couple of years as a means to preserving summer goods and for gifts. I make a simple (super simple) crock-pot apple butter than turned out to be a hit over the holidays (and everyone survived to nag me for more). I have noticed more canned pickles appearing at farmers’ markets, and am hearing about more folks ‘dabbling’ in their kitchens with this. Lyn and Karin are excited that there is an emerging interest, and they are noticing that the younger generations will follow this suit. After all, we all want good, wholesome food, and we are all capable of contributing to the reform of our food through gardening or supporting our farmers, so a canvolution may very well be one of the offsprings of this reform. Lyn and Karin support this wholeheartedly. All of their ingredients are organic, and they’re exploring opportunities with local farmers too. The very fact that they teach canning is a blessing to would-be reformers.

But, if you’re still hiding behind the kitchen door, afraid to embrace a Mason jar, then do yourself a favor. Find a business like ‘Preserving Now‘ and go get some homemade deliciousness… minus the fussing. But don’t get mad at me if you devour the entire batch in a sitting. Bon Appetit folks!

Jess Avasthi, Real Time Farms Food Warrior, Winter 2012

Keeping Food Real