Thursday, July 31, 2008

Farmers Come to Market

While on vacation in the Catskills, there was a back road called Farm to Market Road which ran parallel to the main road, 9W. Maybe it preceded 9W or was merely more direct route from the farm to the city. The road ran past many rolling hills of farmland, much of it which appeared to be "still working." As I drove, I thought of a local article I'd just read by Amy Kenyon, "A Sense of Place: The Catskills Working Landscape" (Catskills Region Guide, July 2008). She writes about the goal of preserving not just land, but a workable, sustainable landscape. This represents the farming hertiage of the Catskills, she argues, and provides not just scenery, but community, economy, and culture--not to mention, great food.

The real Farm to Market road these days is I-87, which upstate farmers use to bring their goods to the City and local suburbs. Traffic, gas prices, accidents, and weather all contribute to make this a daunting journey, even in the high summer season. The City, in a renaissance of local food awareness, is welcoming the bounty and the effort, ready to renew the "farm to market" connection. It's exciting that so many people are interested in local food and willing to pay more for the privilege.

The relationship comes with "issues" apart from logistics. Small local farmers may find it difficult to "ramp up" production and deal with success of having many more buyers, as the recent Dines Farms case points out. Organic or local standards may get bent or even broken, despite efforts to assure quality by the Greenmarkets and others. (Many consider the USDA organic standards to be onerous for small farmers.) Plus, what may be fashionable this season, may not sell in the next, or the overall economy may push people back to cheaper food. Nonetheless, I hope that the local food trend itself is sustainable and will not just be forgotten or co-opted by Whole Foods and the "big-business" farmers. In the height of the summer growing season, here's to hoping that the business model grows too, and that the interest in local, sustainable food and food hertiage helps sustain and support these hard-working farmers for many years to come.

Some great recent articles about local food, and one very old one (1989!):
The Man with a Pig Over his Shoulder, by Daniel Meyer on Bittman's Blog, 7.28.08
I've seen the Flying Pigs Farm truck in my Brooklyn neighborhood, so they must be delivering here too.
Farmer Deals with Drop in Business and Credibility, by Irandi Sen, NYT, 7.30.08
A Locally Grown Diet with Fuss, but No Muss, by Kim Severson, NYT 07.22.08
Farmer's Apples Aren't Pretty, and She Like Them That Way, NYT, 10.09.89
An old profile of Amy Hepworth, who runs one of my favorite family farms; every week I buy her produce at the coop. Her family's farm was found in 1818, so that's pretty sustainable!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Finding Farms (or Farm Stands) in the Catskills

Farm Fresh Pie, optional blueberries

Our family vacationed in the Catskills earlier this month, and we made it a mission to seek out local farm stands and farms. The quest almost had a false start. It was my husband's birthday and I thought a fresh fruit pie from a country stand would be just the thing to celebrate. The only store in town was a Stewart's (a convenience store/gas station type of place) and I asked the 20-something clerk if there was a place nearby that I could buy a fresh pie or a cake. He was stumped for a minute and then said, "There's Wal-Mart in the next town. I think they have cakes." My heart sunk. Luckily, I pushed a little and said, "Isn't there a farm stand or a bakery or anything else, anywhere?" "Oh yeah," he replied, "there's a farm stand about 15 minutes from here" and he promptly gave me back-roads directions.

Well, the farm stand was Black Horse Farms in Athens, NY, which is sort of like a Wal-Mart of farm stands. Yes, they had pies, about 20 different kinds, as well as fresh breads, jams, fruits, veggies, flowers and all sorts of "gourmet" items like Raspberry Chipotle Salsa and "Gourmet Dipping Sticks" (aka thin pretzel sticks). My husband picked out a Country Apple Pie, which is out of season, of course, but it was his birthday choice. The 20-something clerk said as she rang up the items," Oh I hope you like that pie, I made it this morning." Priceless, and it was a good pie.

Through our travels in the area, I picked up a guide to "farm-fresh products" in the Catskills (from an organization called Pure Catskills). Unfortunately we were a long drive from many of the farms in the Catskills region or those along the Hudson Valley. But we did seek out and find the Three H Ranch in Hudson, NY. We were very much the Brooklyn tourists driving down the road to the farm and ooh-ing and aah-ing over the various chickens, goats, and even alpacas. The young farm hand said, "We only have fresh goat cheese today." No was the freshest, lightest goat cheese I've ever had. We left talking about whether we could raise chickens in our own backyard or community garden!

It would have been great to find more places (the guide lists hundreds), but it was hard for our city-temperaments to put up with the required hours and hours of driving. Luckily so many family farms make their way to the city to sell their wares at the farmer's markets, grocery stores, and restaurants.

P.S. Stewart's was not all bad. It was definitely the local meeting place and they had fantastic, inexpensive local ice cream. (The store started as an ice cream shop in the 1920s). We found a new family, favorite flavor, too: "Crumbs Along the Mohawk." It is a non-chocolate version of Cookies and Cream made with Graham crackers and caramel. My strictly non-chocolate son loved it.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Home Away from Home Cooking

I'm on vacation with my family this week and we're taking family dinner on the road. Our typical vacation is to rent out a house by the week, preferably near some body of water. It ends up cheaper than a hotel and more "normal" since you can cook your own meals and not eat out every single meal. You get the suburban thrill of letting the kids play outdoors in wide open spaces otherwise known as a lawn. The downside is that there's still the basic routine of making and eating dinner, all while negotiating someone else's kitchen.

Often we go to the beach. But this year, we are trying out the Catskills, with its lakes and mountains. It's a bit cheaper and I have fond memories of lake swimming. When we go to the beach, I try to pack all kinds of food and drink, because the island provisions can be slim and pricey. But this time, I'm going to try the local sources, which may just mean big suburban grocery stores. I hope, though, I'll be able to connect with local farms stands and wineries. We'll be near the Hudson Valley which has been touted for it's produce and wines. I'll report back on my success.

For cooking on the road to work, you have to be willing and able to improvise. It's good idea to bring a few staples: olive oil, some herbs and spices, garlic, rice or pasta, so that you have a foundation to work from. A grill is necessary equipment for a summer house and should be pressed into service daily. Vacations and grilling should be intertwined whenever possible. Plus, I'll let the kids have potato chips, and maybe soda or popsicles. Eating summer treats, outside, in a wooded locale or by the lake is a summer memory in the making.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy 4th of July!

Staying in the city this Fourth of July weekend; it's hot and muggy, and threatening rain. Not the perfect weather as we wonder if thunderstorms will drown out our BBQ plans and the fireworks. Never fear, rain or no rain, there will be a red-white-and blue dessert!

My older daughter wanted to make a special dessert for the holiday and we whipped up this banana cream pie in about 20 minutes. (I was glad we had all the ingredients on hand, didn't have to turn on the oven for long, and could do it before the littlest one woke from her nap.) Happy 4th!

Easy Banana Cream Pie
1 box of pudding mix (we used Dr. Oetker's Organic Vanilla which is probably less sweet that others)
2-3 bananas
Other fruit to decorate

Make pudding according to box. Line graham cracker crust with sliced bananas. Pour pudding into pie pan over bananas. Decorate with fruit on top. Chill until ready to eat.

To Make Crust:
Use a pre-made grahman cracker crust or make the simple one below:

20 graham crackers, or 2 cups of similar cookies
4 Tbsps of melted butter
1-3 Tbsp brown sugar (adjust based on sweetness of cookie used)
1/2 tsp. cinnamon (optional)

Use food processor to pulverize cookies into crumbs. Add butter, sugar and cinnamon and process a few more seconds. Pressed into pie plate and bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes. Allow to cool.

PS. The pie was demolished, even after a big steak dinner. My son declaimed it his favorite, ever. The rain held off to only drizzle and we hiked down to DUMBO to see the Macy's Fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge. A "little" exercise after a big meal never hurts!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Summertime and the living is...

easy? I don't think so. The kids are home for summer vacation, and all hell breaks loose with the schedule, while battling the twin evils of boredom and shuttling three kids to separate activities all day long. It can be fun, but it can also be exhausting. (And it partly explains my lack of posting. Apologies.) Dinner is the last thing I seem to plan for.

Still, everyone's got to eat and quick, easy and cool is the way to do it. We've been having "salad meals" and picnics; eating outside if the mosquitoes don't seem too bad. For meal salads, I start with lettuce and then just add on whatever I have: ham or turkey and hard-boiled eggs for a Chef salad, chicken and parmasean for a Caesar salad. (Bell and Evans makes great pre-cooked, frozen chicken breasts that make it easy.) Bittman has a great list of 101 picnic ideas today. These can easily combine for family-friendly, fast dinners.

Tara Parker-Pope also wrote a compelling piece recently about how kids often gain weight over the summer (Summertime Nutrition ). It struck a chord, because I do find myself allowing many treats over the summer: ice cream, Italian ice, pizza, soda, etc, just to get through the day. Ice cream or pizza is usually after a long day at the playground, but not always. It's sometimes the carrot to get one of my older ones at least out of the house, away from the TV and on a dog walk or other errand with me. Luckily, as a no-car family, we do get quite bit of exercise just schlepping around. Everyone's pretty fit, but it's easy to worry. My older kids go to sleep-away camp, which traditionally has bad, starchy food in abundance. But their camp (Beam Camp) is "food righteous." The camp director, a friend of mine, is a foodie and he makes sure there is quality food, with right-size portions and absolutely no junk. Plus they do so much physical exercise, each of them comes home fit like an tri-athlete. They love it, and it's an inspiring example of how when you do more, you enjoy life more.

So here's to finding a good balance of summertime fun: embrace the sliding schedule, the late bed-times, the fireflies, enjoy the occasional ice cream cone (ie., buy one for yourself rather than just stealing licks) and savor the summer while you can.