Friday, December 9, 2011

Local Food Report

Although winter vegetables dominate the offerings this week, several varieties of fresh chili peppers, from Jefferson County, remain available in the market. The daikon radishes from Whitley County, Kentucky, are exceptional. I also noted Jerusalem artichokes (Hawkins County), bok choy, lettuce, mustard and kale (all from Loudon County) and mixed cooking greens (Jefferson County). Regional offerings included apples from North Carolina and ginger from Alabama.

A happy find, oyster mushrooms from Sevier County are some of the best I've ever seen. They surely benefited from the wet, relatively mild weather of late. Three Rivers Market maintains an excellent selection of mushrooms, even offering pre-inoculated shiitake logs for the mycophile on you holiday gift list. Although only a few varieties are locally produced, I've enjoyed white button, crimini, portabella, shiitake, oyster, king oyster, maitake, and three types of beech mushrooms (yellow, brown and white.) One thing I love about mushrooms is that they are always organic (whether certified or not), because fungi will not grow successfully with chemical contaminants in their environment.

Shiitakes, for example, are cultivated on freshly cut logs. The best time to start a shiitake log is in autumn and early winter, hence the appearance of ready-to-go logs in the marketplace. Growing your own shiitake is easy, if you follow the simple instructions that come with each log. The logs have to sit for a year before they will bear mushrooms, but the wait is worth it, and they require little attention in the meantime. Jerry and I are planning to start some logs from a Bradford pear we plan to cut down after Christmas. If this works, cultivating shiitake would be a good use for all the weedy, dangerous Bradfords that need to be taken down around the county.

Many people are aware that the Bradford pear is prone to splitting at the crown. Untold numbers of them came down during last spring's spate of severe storms. We have lost two out of three in the last few years, so number three is coming down on our schedule, not its own.

What is not commonly known is that the tree is also notorious for sprouting from seeds carried by birds, whereupon it out-competes native trees and will eventually dominate an area. Like privet and kudzu, Pyrus clevelandi 'Bradford' is an exotic pest plant. Even the undeniable attractiveness of its spring blooms is offset by their scent, which is reminiscent of a fish processing plant.

I say we cut them all down and use the logs to grow mushrooms.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Local Food a Fool's Errand?

A few weeks back, Knoxville alternative newspaper, Metropulse, published an article that pooh-poohed local food movements across the country as a silly fad pursued by the affluent. Concluding that

  • "Not all local food tastes better, but the food that does is the best tasting food you’ll have. So let’s stop pretending there’s any other reason to eat local than that."
journalist Cari Wade Gervin dismisses the movement's other claims.

I wonder if it has occurred to Ms Gervin that the people indigenous to this Valley prior to the arrival of Europeans fed themselves quite successfully without resort to imported food? Further, many of the European immigrants who settled into the Southern mountains were so isolated from the rest of the country that they had little choice but to be "locavores," although the term itself would not appear in our vocabulary for two centuries. Indeed, I can recall my Grandmother's grocery lists, which began, "sugar, coffee, oatmeal..." but seldom itemized eggs, fresh vegetables or pork.

It is undoubtedly true that busy urban/suburban dwellers lack sufficient time to raise and slaughter their own hogs as my grandfather did. But, why not Benton's, if you are going to buy bacon, anyway?

I also thought the article gave short shrift to the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of local vegetable gardens that have appeared in recent years. One even sees planters of herbs perched upon apartment balcony railings. This is the ultimate local food, and its increasing prevalence is surely having a measurable effect upon garden centers, based upon my personal investigations. It therefore seems hard to deny that locavorism benefits the local economy and provides better, more nutritious foods while conserving fossil fuels. To disregard the local food movement only because it remains relatively small is equivalent to having said, several decades ago, that the human impact on climate could be disregarded for similar reasons.

To demonstrate that one can produce highly enjoyable food using ingredients available in pre-European America, consider this delicious holiday season treat that I developed. Wild pecans became available for the first time this season at one of the local markets. Pecans once grew throughout the eastern United States. Measurements are given by weight, rather than volume, to allow for easier substitution of, for example, standard Georgia pecans (which are of hybrid origin and therefore much larger than the wild ones). The total yield is about three cups.

American Munch Mix

2 ounces wild pecans or Georgia pecans
2 ounces raw pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)
2 ounces raw sunflower kernels
4 ounces raw American hazelnuts
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon sunflower oil (or other flavorless cooking oil)
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon ancho or other pure ground chili pepper
1 1/2 ounces sweetened dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. In a large bowl combine the nuts and seeds with the salt. In a small microwaveable bowl, combine the oil, honey and chili powder. Microwave 30 seconds, just to blend the ingredients. Drizzle the dressing over the nut mixture, stirring until everything is well coated. Transfer to a parchment lined rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake, stirring every 10-15 minutes until the pepitas are lightly browed, about 45 minutes in all. Cool slightly, then combine with the dried cranberries. Serve at once, or store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week. (But it won't last that long!)