September 2009 archive

It’s Fall, isn’t it?

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This is the time of year when a food lovers thoughts turn to apples, potatoes, roast pork and gorgeous winter squashes.  After all, Fall starts tomorrow and all the food magazines are publishing gorgeous spreads of food featuring hearty autumn fair.  It's time to make rich stews and bake apple pies and snuggle up with your significant other in thick cable knit sweaters in front of a roaring fire.  

If I tried snuggling in front of an roaring fire right now, I'd pass out from heatstroke.  I live in Tennessee and while the temperatures have cooled down some, days in the low to mid 80s and evenings in the low to mid 60s don't exactly cry out for chili. In fact, right now is when our gardens tend to be producing the most.  If our plants have survived the dog days of summer, the cooler temperatures are encouraging our tomatoes to actually set fruit.  And the lack of high 90 degree heat actually encourages me to get back outside and reclaim the garden I gave up a few weeks ago.  The peppers are full of blossoms and the second crop of cucumbers and squash I planted are starting to set fruit.

Even when the leaves have turned, it doesn't mean our gardens stop producing.  I get tomatoes well into October and I've even heard tales of some crazy people (present company excluded of course) who have draped their tomatoes with plastic clamped together with large binder clamps and managed to keep their tomatoes going well into November.

The farmers markets are still full of summer produce.  You can find everything from okra to watermelon.  Peppers are still in abundance and the only thing that seems to be in scarce supply are cucumbers and summer tree fruits.  Apples are available and sweet potatoes and winter squash are starting to appear.  Jerry's got new cornmeal and sweet Fall broccoli will appear in a few weeks.

September is the month I really focus on getting a lot of foods preserved and put up for the coming winter.  I don't have air conditioning in my kitchen and although I do have to attempt some canning in August, standing over a steaming kettle is not my favorite thing to do when it's blazing out.  I end up freezing a lot of tomatoes whole and dealing with them when it's a little cooler.

My favorite way to use those tomatoes that are piling up in the freezer is in Roasted Tomato Sauce.  It's a great way to take a mountain of produce and reduce it into a concentrated sauce that's my favorite pasta sauce in the whole world.  I pressure can mine but it also freezes well.  The long cooking concentrates the flavors and caramelizes all the wonderful sugars in this sauce.  My husband has been known to can it himself because he says if I do it, I end up eating half of it before it's even canned.  

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to run Office Depot for some (cough, cough) office supplies. I hear the binder clips are on sale and everyone can always use more binder clips, right?

Roasted Tomato Sauce

First off – you need to understand that this recipe is very flexible.  None of these quantities are set in stone.  If you have tons of red peppers, use them!  If you want a sauce with a lot of garlic flavor, add lots of extra garlic.  You're also going to need to be flexible with time.  If you start out with frozen tomatoes, it will obviously take longer.  If I have a lot of tomatoes, as the sauce cooks down, I add in more frozen tomatoes to make more sauce.  This slows down the cooking process as well.

Heat your oven to 425 degrees.  I take a large baking or roasting pan and fill it full of tomatoes. Some of these are fresh and some of them are tomatoes that I threw in the freezer to deal with later.  I added three onions that were peeled and quartered, a few sweet red peppers that I seeded and cut in half, four Big Bomb hot peppers that were seeded and approximately 25 cloves of garlic – separate the cloves but you don't need to peel these.  Then drizzle on 1/4 cup of olive oil.  Put it in the oven.

This batch contained 10 pounds of tomatoes:
 

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I couldn't fit all the tomatoes in at the start so I added them as the sauce cooked down.  I usually stir this sauce about every 30 minutes.  After a couple of hours, the sauce looks like this:

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As you can see, the skins are getting very brown.  Keep stirring every 30 minutes.  This sauce is going to reduce quite a bit.  Those ten pounds of tomatoes and other vegetables ended up reducing to about five cups once it's been pureed.  When it's done, it will look like this:

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As you can see, there's very little juice in the bottom of the pan.  I cooked the above pan of sauce for 4 1/2 hours.  Let the pan cool for about 30 minutes or until you can handle it without burning yourself.  You want to put it all through a food mill on the finest setting.  This will take all the seeds and skins out of your sauce and puree all the vegetables together.  Once you've put it through the food mill, make sure to stir the sauce thoroughly.  If you don't have a food mill, you could use a fine sieve and press it through. 

The sauce you've just made is very concentrated.  For two servings of pasta, we usually use around a 1/4 cup of sauce, diluted with pasta water.  

Now that you have this stuff, what do you do with it?

  • Toss with pasta and some of the pasta water to thin it out a bit and serve.
  • Saute some eggplant, red peppers and zucchini until done.  Add sauce and thin with pasta water.
  • Thin it out with a little bit of milk or cream.
  • Thin it out with red wine and add some more herbs to it.
  • Soak some diced, sun-dried tomatoes (I use ones I've marinated before drying) in a half cup of hot whole milk.  Puree in the blender and add to roasted tomato sauce.
  • Puree it with a little bit of canned tomato and use it as a pizza sauce.  Or just thin with a little bit of water and use as a pizza sauce.

I pressure can my sauce in quarter pint jars.  This is not a tested recipe so I don't recommend following my example but I follow the recipe for pressure canning meat sauce in the Ball Blue Book.  This sauce cooks down so much that freezing is much simpler to do.  I just tend to have stuffed freezers this time of year so I can it to save room.

For printable recipe, click here!

Tips and Resources I Use for Local Eating

A few weeks ago, a few of my fellow Knox Vegas residents emailed me to let me know that they were interested in some resources for local eating.  This post contains a few local market reviews but I hope the other information is helpful to the rest of my readers.  Please jump in and post in the comments if you have any other helpful resources.

Marcus and I first started trying to eat local about seven years ago.  At the time, this wasn't an easy thing to do.  Our "official" farmer's market had been turned into a discount food store.  The one actual farmer's market was located out in West Knoxville in a church parking lot where it got so hot that we actually saw people pass out when we were there.  There were very few organic growers and I can remember a farmer screaming at me when I asked him if he grew anything without chemicals.  "Don't you know that you can't grow anything around here without chemicals?" he told me snidely and when I asked him how our grandparents managed to do it, he tried to convince me that farmers everywhere had been using petrochemicals on their crops since this nation was founded. Needless to say, it was quite the experience.  Trying to buy free range beef meant taking out another mortgage on your home so you could afford it.  Fruit and vegetable resellers ran rampant.  There's nothing like seeing a "farmer" selling produce out of a box labled 'Florida Tomatoes'.

Compared to those times, It's a lot easier now.  Knoxville has never really been on the forefront of trends.  I joke around that we're about 15 years behind Seattle but the local foods movement is picking up steam.  We now have a farmer's market every day of the week, except Sunday and Monday.  More and more farmers are growing organically so there's a lot more choices available to consumers.  I now see local chefs at our downtown market on a regular basis and I'm hoping that the Three Rivers Co-op move will give them more space to expand their local offerings.

I'm not a local foods expert.  I think it's such a huge concept that no one person can really consider themselves an expert unless they devote the bulk of their time to it.  But it is a big part of my life and it's gotten to the point where so many of the choices that I had to think about at the beginning, now just come naturally to me.  This isn't a comprehensive post by any stretch of the imagination – it's just a post to help those starting out on the local foods bandwagon.

Tips for Eating Local:

Tip #1 – Just Try
The first tip I can offer is just to try.  Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good.  Start by deciding to eat as seasonally as you can.  Start by trying to eat one local meal a week.  Start by taking a food that you often buy and pledge to buy that food locally. Start with one small thing and make that a habit before you do anything else.  That's how we got to the point where we are now.  We started by eating seasonally and buying as much produce as we could at local farmer's markets.  Then we started substituting local beef for one meal a week.  We increased that and started trying to eat mainly local fruit.  Then we searched out local grains and ventured into canning.  Little steps add up.  Making our own bread, canning our produce, dehydrating stuff from our garden, eating seasonally and locally is so second nature that for the most part, it's easy.  

Tip #2 – It's Not a Competition
 A word of warning – don't get caught up in the competitive aspect of it – I'm only saying this because I'm guilty of it. I participate in a blog challenge were everyone agrees to cook one local meal a week.  When I first started, I felt a little embarassed by some of the other participants meals – stuff with local olive oil, flours.  I decided then that I was going to eat the localest local meal that ever localed.  Needless to say, this is completely against the whole idea of the challenge which is to make local eating more of a part of your everyday life. 

Tip #3 – Adjust Your Menus & Shop Your Farmers' Markets
You're going to need to adjust the way you cook as you get more into local eating.  I used to plan out my meals for the week, write a shopping list and go to the store.  Now I head to the market, buy what looks good and then figure out my meals for the week.  That's where cookbooks based around the season and recipe sites that show recipe by vegetable come in really handy.

One of the best ways you can start eating more local foods is by going to one of the local farmers' markets in the area.  It's the best way to get an idea of what's in season.  You'll learn that when local corn is at the market, you buy it.  You can begin to understand that eating locally in Tennessee means that salads in the summer will need to consist of something besides lettuce.  You'll learn that the tomatoes available in late June have nothing on the tomatoes that will arrive later.  You'll learn that fall broccoli is almost always sweeter than spring broccoli and that some kinds of winter squash taste like chestnuts.

Tip #4 – Challenge Yourself
Challenge yourself by doing something fun and/or weird!  Last year I made cheese.  Seriously – I was so pleased with myself that it was ridiculous.  I got major bragging credo on that accomplishment alone.  I was able to serve a roasted vegetable sandwich with homemade bread, homemade cheese and vegetables from our garden.  I was so proud of that.  Another example – I've never been a big baker but about a year ago, when the bakery that made our favorite peasant bread shut down, we tried making no-knead bread.  It was so easy and so good that we've never gone back to buying bread.  I've also developed a newfound interest in baking that I might never have had without the satisfaction that I got from baking that first loaf.  Buy a vegetable that you've never seen before.  Just do something different and see what happens 

Tip #5 – Enlist the Help of Your Family & Friends
Talk to your friends and family about local options.  One of our neighbors had a sourdough starter that she's had for years.  She was nice enough to let me have some.  I posted on the blog about a search for local flour and someone emailed me with information that might help me track some down.  I grow lots of different tomato varieites each year and I share how they do with my farmer friends.  Get your friends and family together for a local potluck once a month – encourage one another.

Tip #6 – Sometime There Will Be Setbacks
A few years later, Marcus and I decided to only eat local fruit that year.  That was the year that we had one of the warmest springs on record, followed by several nights in the high teens.  We managed to save our strawberries by covering them with plastic and putting lights under there with them, but farmers in the area were hit hard – some of them went out of business because of it.  All the tree fruits lost their blossoms that yea,r along with all the berries that needed to flower on the previous year's wood.  We ate a lot of melon that year.  This year, farmers all over the Northeast lost their entire tomato crop to late blight.  Farming is hard, uncertain work and if you pledge to support your local farmers, you'll have to find workarounds when they encounter setbacks.

Market Reviews:

There are three local farmer's markets that I know of in Knoxville.  I've been to the one in Oak Ridge some time ago and enjoyed it but since I live close to downtown, I don't go to many of the markets in the surrounding area.

Market Square – this is the market that I'm at every Saturday morning. This is the market where Marcus and I sell heirloom tomatoes every spring.  I'm very biased towards this market because I've been a part of its community since the day it started.  I've felt like a proud parent as I've watched it grow over the years.  I trust the farmer's here to tell me how they grow their food. I've watched their kids grow up and we've shared recipes and garden tips.  Saturdays from 9-2, Wednesdays from 11-2

Knoxville Farmers' Market in Sequoyah Hills – This is a very nice market and they tend to have a little more choice than the market downtown.  However, you're going to pay for that choice. I hesitate to say this because I may make a few people angry but there a few reasons why I don't like this market better.  I don't like that they market themselves as the REAL farmer's market.  I've been turned off because a few times I've gone and I've seen hybrid tomatoes marketed as heirlooms, probably to get a premium price.  I've dealt with line jumping and pushing here as well.  However, some of the same farmer's that sell at Market Square sell here.  I also visit here at least once a month to buy beef or chicken from Laurel Creek Farms and they're good people. Tuesdays & Fridays 3-6pm

New Harvest Park Farmers' Market – I'm ashamed to say I've never been to this market.  With our garden pumping out produce and my visits to my main stay market, I just haven't gone.  I hope to get there before the season ends and when I do, I'll post an update. Thursday 3-6pm

Cookbooks I use:

One of the best helps for me has been to make sure that my cookbook collection contains as many cookbooks in it that make local, seasonal eating easier. These are all cookbooks I either own or check out from the library all the time.  I'm sure there are other helpful books – please let me know in the comments below!

These cookbooks are arranged around seasons:
Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets 
A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen: Easy Seasonal Dishes for Family and Friends 
Fresh Food Fast: Delicious, Seasonal Vegetarian Meals in Under an Hour

These are all-purpose cookbooks but I find them all very helpful:
Passionate Vegetarian
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food

If you want to try preserving, here are some great books:
The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving: Over 300 Recipes to Use Year-Round 
Ball Blue Book of Preserving
Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving 
The Joy of Pickling

These are the books that have inspired me to eat locally:
This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader - this is the book that first got me interested in local eating.  It's a fun read and makes you think without being preachy.
Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet 
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life 
Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Food

Recipe Sites Online:

There are tons of recipe sites online that I love but these sites in particular are very helpful when you're trying to figure out how to cook the strange vegetable you bought at the market.

Mariquita Farm
Live Earth Farms
Nobel Foods Farm
Green Earth Institute

The list of blogs that I read that talk about local foods is really too extensive for this post.  I'll try to feature some of them over the next few months because they've helped me a lot.

Local eating is the way I support my local businesses and neighbors.  It's the way I show that I honor the hard work that farmers have to do to stay afloat.  It's the way I It's also the way I show the food companies that I don't like the way they do business and I won't support them.  The less money I spend on their food, the less money they have to fund campaigns that try to convince us that Froot Loops are healthy.

Last but not least, let me know if any of you would be interested in a local foods potluck every couple of months. I'd be more than happy to host it at my house as long as you promise to ignore the never ending cycle of renovations that would surround us.  My kitchen is a disaster (those of you who live here with me in ONK will appreciate how difficult cooking in old kitchens can be) but I'd love to plan a canning get together next year if any of you want help getting started canning.

PS – Thanks for the help from the Twitter community.   Marsula, KitchenMage, EatLocalChall & SweetSavoryLife all weighed in with helpful tips.  Please check out their blogs.  I enjoy all of them.