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.