11 October 2007

Small Potatoes

At the beginning of my September diet, I bought a bag of local potatoes. I still have five left.

That tells you two things: potatoes have a long shelf life, and we don't eat many potatoes in this house.

I did bake (microwave) potatoes a couple times for lunch and ate them in lieu of pasta or rice a few times at dinner. I planned to make potato chips at least once-- my family likes my homemade chips, but they are an exercise in frustration for me. I can't slice them consistently enough and I'm left with a guessing game in terms of at what temperature and how long to cook them.

I'm pleased to report my success with a new recipe last night. Oven fries from the Joy of Cooking. Cut potatoes into wedges or slices a half-inch thick, coat with oil, bake at 450 degrees (F) for 30 min or so, turning occasionally. Rest on paper towels to soak up excess oil, sprinkle with salt and paprika, and serve.

I'm looking forward to making them again.

Local Food Stores

Recently, a petition went around to try to convince Trader Joe's from coming to Albany.

I've never shopped at Trader Joe's -- a California-based chain store that sells grocery and gourmet foods -- but I have listened to many friends talk about how great it is. They've shopped at Trader Joe's in Boston or New York or West Hartford (!) CT. I guess I can be stubborn in my ignorance, but I could care less about whether the store comes to town or not. Besides being a popularity contest for the coolest cities with the most discerning (affluent?) customers, to me the petition represents a desire for the convenience of the known rather than the discovery what's already here.

Happily, I read about a local place yesterday, Eats Gourmet Marketplace at Stuyvesant Plaza, that opened last year. A picture showed a chef using local produce to make Italian bean salad. Another day's newspaper had an article about a local Italian food market that I have occasioned. The accompanying photo showed the 92-year-old patriarch, Augusto Cardona, making meatballs. The text describes the seven different pasta sauces that Cardona's Market makes in house.

I'd like to point these stores out to those who signed the Trader Joe's petition. Right here in Smalbany, there are local foodstuffs being cranked out everyday in stores that uniquely reflect their owners' visions. I'm sure there's something that's a favorite at Trader Joe's for which there's no substitute at these stores, but why not look to a local source before inviting a mass-marketed (even if a specialized market) approach to food?

05 October 2007

To Health

How healthy is the 100-mile diet?

I'll start with a disclaimer -- personal health is not my primary motivation. It's more about environmental health, living smaller and more sustainably, contributing less waste. Still, I do think I ate a healthier diet this past month, and I'm happy to chalk it up as a desirable side benefit.

I certainly ate far fewer processed foods. That means less refined sugar, no transfats, fewer additives and preservatives, and very little of the starchy carbohydrates that usually fill my diet.

The main thing, I think, was how I altered the proportions of the major food groups in my diet. I ate meat, but less of it. Local meat is a chore to get (a farther drive for me, if not the meat) and is much more expensive. I see that expense as reflecting the work that went into preparing it in a small, sustainable way (that is, not on a factory farm). I ate bread and pasta, but only after expending calories making those things from scratch. I still relied on dairy products like cheese and yogurt -- a good protein source and nicely filling.

I upped my volume of fruits and vegetables. All fresh, given the season. And those turned out to be the easy snack items. I could eat an apple when I was hungry, or munch on some carrots before dinner, or quickly slice some cucumber to fill an empty spot on my plate. I also used vegetables to cook main dishes like ratatouille, marinara sauce, baba ganoush (an excellent sandwich filling), in addition to the usual sides of green beans, broccoli, squash, and corn.

And so while I've lifted the restrictions, I've tried to maintain this new formula. At a recent family dinner, I ate only half a hamburger and had a second serving of acorn squash with butter.

I can do that and feel good about it both for my ideals and my health.

03 October 2007

The Grocery Store

I went to the grocery store over the weekend, for the first time in a month.

In September, for my 100-mile diet, I shopped only at farmer's markets and at a local farm store, all providing lots of local products and produce from the surrounding area.

Now I was confronted by the bright lights and wide aisles of the supermarket.

Here's my list:

Orange juice. Not labeled regarding the source of the oranges. I'll guess Florida.
Milk. Not labeled regarding the dairy site(s). I'll guess New York.
Ground beef. Label said it was ground in the store, but I don't know where the animals lived.
Apples. Labeled New York.
Lettuce. Fresh Romaine. Source unknown.
Carrots. Bagged baby ones. Labeled by a wholesaler in Massachusetts. I hope that means they were grown there.
Eggs. Carton said New Hampshire.
Cheddar cheese. Labeled New York.
Crescent rolls. Labeled by a wholesaler in New Hampshire. Not sure that helps me with ingredients.
Pretzels. Company in Pennsylvania.

Overall, not too bad. If not necessarily locally sourced ingredients, for the most part the producer or packager was in the Mid-Atlantic or New England regions. I'd be satisfied with that.

But it's still the unknowns. Where those steer lived and where that wheat was grown. I wonder if the local food movement will reach the point where labeling gets more informative and where consumers may choose food growers in their state.

I'm paying attention. Anyone else?

01 October 2007

October is here...

... but I've been slacking off for about a week now.

I went into the 100-mile diet with the intent to go for a month. As previous posts recount, fatigue set in after a couple weeks.

I went out to dinner the Friday before last and had decided to enjoy a break and eat whatever was served. (Mmm... Beer.) Then the next day, I was packing sandwiches for a family outing and made an apple and honey sandwich for myself — on store-bought wheat bread! I just spaced out, I guess, and I didn’t realize my error until I’d taken a bite. It seems weird that at the same moment that I'm making my sandwich, pleased with my creative New York solution to the picnic, I was tripped up by habit.

I had a big work project looming, due the following Monday, so I used stress and fatigue as an excuse to give the diet a rest.

Now what? I'd like to stay local to stock certain categories of food in the house. I'll still plan and cook the occasional all New York meal. I also might try a new challenge, like committing to never drive anywhere less than a certain distance.

I also want to do some homework. About grains, oil, cider vinegar, and raisins, for example, to find out if there's a New York source. And if not, why not.

29 September 2007

A Perfect Harvest Dish


Garlic, onion, eggplant, bell pepper, zucchini, tomatoes, garden herbs.

A little olive oil, salt, pepper, wine, and tomato paste. I use the Moosewood recipe.

That's it!

The only difficult decision is whether to eat it with bread, pasta, or cornbread.

25 September 2007

What I miss

I thought I might have some serious food cravings by now, but that's not the case.

I still raid the closet in the afternoon for my fix of chocolate. But I also find myself looking longingly at the dried apricots and cashews while the closet door is open -- my former cure for late afternoon stomach grumblings. I used to eat yogurt and fruit sprinkled with granola -- I miss the granola. It doesn't help that my 3 yo daughter has started eating just that for breakfast. I miss my before-dinner appetizer of fat pretzels. My 8 yo daughter has asked for them on more than one occasion.

I miss my habit foods. Perhaps if those things weren't there, if I wasn't living a separate diet from that of my family, I wouldn't miss them.

Other things? I miss eating dinner that my husband has cooked. I miss eating pizza at pizza night. I miss going out for a quick bite or a nice dinner. I miss pulling a beer out of the fridge.

I miss easy.

24 September 2007

Simple Pleasures

During this month, I've rediscovered the simple pleasure of using butter or honey for flavor. Good butter on homemade bread? Lovely. Local honey on cornbread? Delicious.

I've also made some new discoveries, namely fromage blanc and homemade pickles. Fromage blanc is a mild cream cheese I learned about by my cheese guy at the Troy Farmer's Market. I've spread it on herbed foccacia and layered it on a tomato sandwich. The cheese guy recommends fromage blanc and pepper jelly on crackers with wine. I'll try it soon.

The pickles came from a friend who grew the cucumbers and cold-packed them (whatever that means). They are glorious. I like pickles, and had missed eating them, so when she brought hers over I was looking forward to eating them. But I'm not sure I can do justice to the taste and texture of munching that first pickle with a glass of white wine one evening. Swooning comes close.

That's the thing. With fewer flavors at the ready, I find I'm eating things with more attention, focused on what they have to offer. It makes me wonder how I otherwise eat to fill, paying little mind, or else adding heat and sweet and tart and sour to satisfy gustatory desire. Adding more and noticing less. Wasting taste instead of savoring flavor.

20 September 2007

Promoting the 100-mile Diet

Instead of blogging yesterday, I was promoting my 100-mile diet on the air and in my home.

First, I was a guest on a radio show talking about sustainability. A friend of mine -- who knew about my experiemnt -- produces a morning talk show for the NPR-affiliated radio station in Cleveland. When she invited me to be on the show, I quickly refered her to Cheryl Nechaman, who spearheads the 100-mile diet challenge here in Albany. She contacted Cheryl, but still wanted me to appear, as the average Jill who'd accepted the challenge. That sounded somewhat better than representing the 100-mile diet as some kind of expert.

The hour-long show was live in Cleveland, but now can be heard on WCPN's website. Cheryl and I can be heard in the last ten minutes of the show.

Later that afternoon, I spent a couple hours in the kitchen preparing nibbling food for my book group that night. I had a bounty of eggplants from one of the book group members who grew them in her communal garden, so I made baba ganoush. I looked to the Moosewood cookbook for guidelines, but kept it simple and all New York -- eggplant, garlic, onion -- except for fresh-squeezed lemon juice. I had a variety of cheeses, but nothing to put them on so I made herb foccacia flavored with sage from my garden. I used a recipe from The Good Stuff Cookbook. It didn't rise as much as it should have, but somehow with foccacia -- also known as flat bread -- it doesn't matter so much.

In addition to the sage foccacia and baba ganoush, my coffee table spread included a dipping sauce of olive oil (flavored with garlic, lavender, and pepper), sliced vegetables (carrots and red bell pepper), sliced cheese (mild farmer's cheese and more pungent Couronne), and a tub of honey-sweetened fromage blanc with crackers. The crackers were for convention's sake, but weren't local in any way. For drinks, I served wine -- a red from Pindar Vineyards on Long Island and a white from Chateau LaFayatte Reneau in the Finger Lakes. Beer came from the Saranac Brewery in New York, although I'm sticking to my pledge not to drink beer because the ingredients aren't local. (An easy pledge when wine is available!)

And dessert? Cherry pie! Once a lapse, a guilty pleasure, a true confession (see previous post) -- now a tasty exception.

17 September 2007

True Confessions

I ate a piece of cherry pie Friday night.

It happened at our friends' house where we went for pizza night, a casual Friday night tradition. I brought my own food -- German style brats, cooked and sliced into appetizer-sized chunks, and Couronne cheese from my favorite cheese guy at the Troy Farmers Market. My friend -- who gets a load of seasonal veggies every week through her CSA (community-supported agriculture) -- quickly sliced cucumber and red bell pepper onto a plate. That's what I ate while the others ate pizza.

The four of us -- our hosts, my husband and me -- sat in the dining room the entire time chatting and eating and drinking (NY State wine for me). It's a lucky occurance when all six of our children, aged 2-10, play so well together. We were celebrating a birthday as well and that's when the cherry pie came out. Once I learned it was locally baked, I decided I didn't care if the baker used Crisco and canned cherries from South America. I ate and I enjoyed.

Guilt set in later. Not for breaking my diet, exactly, but whether this conscious (if impulsive) act would trigger more lapses. I also worried about how to address it here on the blog. I really don't want this to devolve into true confessions.


I'm amazed and maybe even a little proud of what I haven't eaten in the last twelve days.

No added sugar! Not from sugar cane, corn, or chemical laboratories. No high fructose corn syrup, no aspartame, no saccharine, no sucrose. The only sweeteners I've consumed are honey and maple syrup.

After feeling rather impressed with myself, I began to doubt my own claim. Could it really be true? What have I eaten that might have carried a little sugar into my body?

The French bread at the restaurant likely harbored sugar in its recipe. What about the wild elderberry jam I've been spreading on my toast in the mornings? The ingredients list (taped to the jar) says: sugar, elderberry juice, lemon juice, pectin. Whoops, 1 for 4 for the 100-mile diet. Digging deeper into the fridge, I discover dextrose lurking in the German style brats I bought from a pig farmer at the Troy Farmers Market.

I don't want to stop eating these local delicacies even after facing the facts. I'm happy to settle for close enough. I still can say I've drastically reduced my processed foods intake.

14 September 2007

More Exceptions

1. Balsamic vinegar.

I already had olive oil on my list. I figured I'd want it for cooking. But I wanted to dress my home-grown lettuce for dinner. Usually when I run out of vinegar, I'm happy to substitute lemon juice. That's not going to work for the 100-mile diet.

2. Concentrated tomato paste

I made a marinara sauce for spaghetti that I wanted my kids to eat. When you chop fresh tomatoes, you get a lot of watery juice. It helps flavor the sauce and makes it easier to simmer the sauce for a long time. I don't mind the way a watery sauce looks on pasta, but I was worried about my kids rejecting it before they even took a taste. It was bad enough that my sauce was going to be chunkier than the jar sauce they're used to. So I succumbed to temptation and added a squirt of concentrated tomato paste (the stuff that comes in a tube).

Turns out my exceptions are very particular and mostly imported. Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and concentrated tomato paste from Italy, coffee from Central and South America, chocolate from umm... I don't really know. (Even when I can source the chocolatier, I don't know where they get their cocoa.)

Seems okay to me. If I get the majority of my food from nearby, I don't have any issue with purchasing a few select items, even premium ones, from the world at large. But it's a slippery slope where to draw the line. I'll continue to be strict with my exceptions for the month and then see how I feel about the foods I've banned.

More Flavor

I've given myself a break on leavening agents for baking, but I'm trying to stick to the 100-mile diet for other ingredients.

This means substituting local honey for sugar. The Joy of Cooking advises:
As honey has greater sweetening power than sugar, we prefer to substitute 1 cup honey for 1 & 1/4 cups sugar and to reduce the liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup.

I don't calculate my changes with much precision. I just use a little less honey and often forget to compensate for its liquid nature. For my loaves of white sandwich bread and rounds of herb foccacia, honey has turned out to be an easy swap.

Corn bread was a different story. "This smells yucky," said my 3 yo daughter as she stirred the batter. I smelled. The scent of olive oil and honey were strong, much more so than the generic vegetable oil and sugar I would normally use. (I also used local butter to grease the pan, rather than Crisco.)

But when I served the cornbread at dinner, it was liked by all. Once I mentioned using honey as the sweetener, my husband and son said they could taste it -- in a good way. The olive oil blended in to the point of being undetectable. (There's no good reason to use this more expensive oil. I was just trying to follow my own rules -- and I made an exception for olive oil, not any oil.)

12 September 2007

Bread and Restaurants

I went out to lunch yesterday, which presented some dilemmas.

A nearby restaurant was participating in the Albany County Farm to Restaurant Week, a program meant to spotlight local food. A table of brochures described local resources and events, including the Capital District 100-mile diet challenge. Two menu items were highlighted as being 100-mile diet friendly. One was sliced apples and cheese on French bread; the other was butternut squash lasagna.

A quick but necessary digression: I am struggling with grains. I'm trying to source ingredients, not just foodstuffs. Homemade style salad dressings are great, but if the chef is buying his oil and vinegar from the supermarket, that doesn't seem to be fulfilling the 100-mile diet goals. A purchase may support a local business person, but it's not really living off one's "foodshed."

I've been shopping at a local farm whose store boasts a broad inventory of fresh food from several local farmers -- including locally milled flour. The flour, packaged in heavy, waxy brown paper with large lettered black text, also was certified organic by California law. Does that mean the wheat that was milled in New York was actually grown thousands of miles away?

I'm not a hardliner. I bought the flour (at least its locally milled) and have been baking my own bread (a practice I enjoy). And at the restaurant I figured the same issue likely lurked in the French bread, proudly labeled local because it came from a bakery in town.

But imagine my surprise to taste mustard on my sandwich! I tried not to think about it.

10 September 2007


Let me be clear about something. I am doing this myself. Just me. I've talked it up to my husband and children, but I haven't asked anyone to join me. I don't like to dictate what others should do. And I didn't want to deal with anybody else's negativity. School lunches are hard enough even with a closet full of packaged foods.

That said, I cooked two New York State dinners over the weekend that everyone ate. On Saturday, we ate roast pork, apple sauce, green beans, and corn bread. I flavored the pork loin -- purchased at the Troy Farmer's market -- by inserting garlic slivers under the fat layer and dredging in flour with pepper and lavender. Apples are just coming into season, so I think I'll be making applesauce several times this month. I made the bread from corn meal milled in the Champlain Valley, substituting local honey for sugar.

Sunday, we ate homemade pasta, fresh tomato sauce, and buttered white toast. Making our own pasta has been a fun weekend activity in recent winters, especially now that the kids are old enough to truly help. This time it was my 8-yo daughter who I invited to help me roll and cut the pasta with the hand-cranked pasta maker. My 10-yo son was drawn into the kitchen earlier in the day by the smell of garlic cooking in olive oil. He watched as I chopped onion and red pepper very finely (the pressure! -- my kids are accustomed to smooth sauce from a jar) and asked after the herbs I picked from the garden (making do with what I have, I used oregano, marjoram, and lavender). Later I added chopped tomatoes and basil. I was charmed when my son -- who far prefers butter to marinara -- wanted to try a little sauce.

I'm finally hitting my stride. I have accumulated enough ingredients to put together a meal that feels complete. I like cooking and baking bread, I like the challenge of coming up with a dish or a meal with what I've got, and I like working with my kids in the process. It was a thrill to feed the family with my crazy diet and have them enjoy it,

Don't get me wrong -- I'm happy as a clam to eat cheese and apples for a meal. But I enjoyed having a plateful of food and eating until I was satisfyingly full not once but twice this weekend.

07 September 2007

Why am I doing this?

Why am I doing this? It's hard to wrap words around my motivation to try this. I have a lot of vague notions, leanings, and beliefs that tie in. Eating local can mean eating less processed food, supporting local business and small farmers, saving energy, and showing my kids where food comes from (our garden and local U-pick farms for summer fruit). I also like the simple living and self-sufficiency aspect (not that I grow near enough food in my garden to survive). The 100-mile diet is one of those things that pulls together a lot of strands to make a satisfying web.

I told my kids it was about energy conservation. Typically food travels 1500 miles before it reaches the average American's plate (that's the stat bandied about by 100-mile diet proponents). For us in New York, maybe it's more. Our produce seems to come entirely from California and, while it's harder to source, I'm guessing that our meat and grains come mostly from the Great Plains.

So, I said at the dinner table on the eve of my experiment, if I eat food that's from New York or neighboring Vermont, not so much gas has been used to get it to me. My 8-yo daughter wondered how that saved gas, because the food will still come "whether you eat it or not." Well, yes.

My husband jumped in to say that if a lot of people did this, that might make a difference. But for me it highlighted the fact that I'm doing this as an experiment, for my own self-edification. How accustomed have I become to the vast variety of food that is available to me? Me, who eats fresh, whole foods, who tends toward the perimeter of the supermarket (produce, meat, dairy, and baked goods), who thought I was part-way to eating locally already.

My daughter's challenge is most welcome. I expect many more assumptions on my part will be challenged in the coming weeks.

05 September 2007

The 100-Mile Diet

For breakfast this morning, I sliced a Macintosh Apple and some NY State sharp cheddar cheese. I also drank coffee (one of my exceptions) with a splash of milk.

Today is the first day of my experiment with the 100-mile diet, in which you try to eat foods grown or produced within 100 miles of where you live. I live in Albany, NY, so the 100-mile radius includes the Hudson Valley, southern Vermont, and western Mass. But because I'm lazy, I've modified the restriction to the states of New York and Vermont. This will make it much easier to source my food without examining a map to see if the location of a particular small town falls within my circle. It will also allow me to drink wine made in New York (the major wine producing regions -- the Finger Lakes and Long Island -- lie farther than 100 miles from Albany).

Most people allow certain exceptions like coffee, chocolate, olive oil, and spices. That sounds wise to me. I think I'll be baking bread, so I'll add leavening agents like yeast, baking powder, and baking soda.

I loaded up on local produce at the farmer's market yesterday. I still need to shop for local dairy products, meat, and flour.

Breakfast was good, but I hope I don't have to eat the same thing for lunch.