ReLocavore: Redefining "local"

Back to Wisconsin, my cheesehead friends


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My chest freezer is a 15-cubic-foot frozen sedimentary rock

ChestFreezerFairy

The Chest Freezer Fairy. If you set out a dish of homemade jam, she’ll leave presents in your chill chest. Mostly frozen food, but the occasional frozen human finger has shown up.

Thinking back to your Elementary School Geology class, rocks come in three forms, igneous, sedimentary and some other type that I certainly can’t spell. Metamorphic? Point is, sedimentary rocks are made from silt and sand and other types of stuff that piles up in layers and gets packed down by the weight of the stuff on top of it.

My chest freezer is a 15-cubic-foot frozen sedimentary rock.

As we put food by, I freeze bags of stuff, and pile it into the chest freezer. Down at the bottom are the frostbit remnants of previous years’ preserving. Above that goes the strawberries and blueberries in the spring, through other fruits, herbs, corn all the way to the broccoli that sits at the top.

Once the fall comes, a massive geologic event hits the chest freezer.

We don’t eat our food in the order it went into the chest freezer, so each Fall I have to stir up the layers, bringing the spring fruits to the top and moving some of the fall vegetables to the bottom. To do this, I don thick gloves to protect my hands from frostbite (learned that lesson real quick) and I have to unload the whole chest freezer, spread out piles of corn, strawberries, etc, across the floor, then reload the whole thing in a mixed-up order.

I often find presents in the bottom of the chest freezer left by the Chest Freezer Fairy. This year I found some chicken stock frozen into 1-cup cubes, ham hocks, and Japanese fried tofu pockets to make Inarizushi. We’ve got a 4-rib bone-in pork roast that I should defrost and cook into something yummy. I moved the strawberries from the bottom to the top, and made room for the broccoli that should be arriving next week sometime.

We’re getting close to the end of the season of putting food by, and into the season of eating it all up.


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Canning 101: The three types of canning

A steam canner.
A water bath canner with a rack to hold jars.
A pressure canner with a gauge to tell the inside pressure.

Canning is the process of sterilizing and sealing food into air-tight glass jars. Canned goods can last for years at room temperature as long as the seal is intact. Foods that have been canned can retain most of the nutrients and flavors of the fresh food, and, for some foods, canning actually helps release nutrients and flavors that aren’t present in the raw food. I’m going to explain differences among the three types of canning to help you decide when to use each method.

The whole point of canning is to heat up food to kill off any wee beasties that might spoil the food. The most concerning wee beastie is Clostridium botulinum which produces botulism toxin, a powerful neurotoxin. C. botulinum mostly hangs around in a spore form which can only be killed with heat over 240F, but can start metabolizing and producing the toxin in low-acid environments.  Additionally, heating up the food also heats up the air in the jar, and as the jar cools, the rubber seal helps form a negative pressure space that seals the lid onto the jar.

There’s three types of canning: steam, water and pressure. Each method has a different way to heat up the contents of the jars and kill off wee beasties.

Steam canning uses a little bit of water which is vigorously boiled to envelope the jars in hot steam to raise the temperature of the jar contents. I personally don’t use a steam canner. I realize that the thermo-conductive potential of hot gas is the same as hot liquid, but something about it gives me the willies… I can’t believe that a hot gas is enough to sterilize my food. Additionally, most canning books that I have tested their recipes in water bath or pressure canners. And, by “testing” recipes, I’m not talking about tasting only for flavor, but also to ensure the food is sterile and sealed. Untested recipes could mean unsealed jars or not sterile foods. I’m not willing to take the risk of converting recipes to steam canning from other canning methods.

Water bath canning uses boiling water at 220F (or thereabouts, depending on your altitude) to sterilize the jar contents. However, some wee beasties still thrive at temperatures above 220F, but, lucky for us, they can’t survive in acidic, sweet or salty environments. So, if a food is sweet, salty or sour (e.g. jams, pickles, naturally acidic fruit) then you only have to heat it up to 220 to kill off most of the wee beasties, then the sweet, salt or acid keeps the other beasties from metabolizing and spoiling your food. A water bath canner is nothing fancy, just a deep pot with a lid.

Unfortunately, if your food isn’t sweet, salty or sour, then heating it up 220F only kills off some of the wee beasties, leaving the hearty high-temperature beasties to thrive in your foods. This is how you kill people with botulism… Foods that aren’t sweet, salty or acidic, like vegetables and meats, don’t have a second method for retarding spoilage, so you have to get the food REALLY REALLY hot to kill off the wee beasties. The only way to get stuff in jars hotter than 220F is through increasing the pressure – hence the third method of canning is pressure canning. Because of the amount of heat and pressure necessary,  low-acid vegetables like beans (green or shelled), potatoes, corn, peas, mushrooms, and all meats, eggs or fish MUST be pressure canned to kill off the wee beasties. A pressure canner is a special pot with a tight lid, an air-tight seal and a valve or weight to adjust the pressure.

Water Bath or Pressure Can? Technically, any food will be sterilized using pressure canning. But with sweet, salty or acidic foods, pressure canning is overkill. The amount of heat and pressure applied to the food to get it sterile will break down tender fruits, turn pickles into mush, and make jams hard and unspreadable. If your food is really sweet, salty or acidic, then water bath can it – it’s gentler on the food. There are some foods that are marginal in their sweetness, saltyness or acidity. For example, tomatoes are acidic, so whole tomatoes can be water bath canned, but when you cook tomatoes (heat reduces acid) with onions (low acid), and bell peppers (low acid) to make tomato sauce, you may reduce the acid enough to require pressure canning. Some fruits are acidic when unripe and less acidic (more sweet) when ripe (e.g. apples, pears) so the ripeness of the fruit may necessitate pressure canning. The solution is to test the acidity using pH strips or a pH meter and either add lemon juice or vinegar to bring the acid up and water bath can, or to pressure can the low-acidity food. According to the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, (Guide 01, page 4) the cutoff point is 4.6 pH. Lower than that (more acidic) and your food is fine to water-bath can. More than that (less acidic) then your food must be pressure canned. (Note most foods fall into the range of 3.0 to 7.0 pH, and few foods are alkali or basic and have pH between 7.0 and 14.0.) Additionally, any food with meat, regardless of how acidic, MUST be pressure canned. So, if you add italian sausage to your tomato sauce, it MUST be pressure canned.

In summary, avoid steam canning unless you have specific recipes that are tested using a steam canner. Follow the flowchart to determine if you water bath or pressure can the food.

CanningFlowChart


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Necessary Equipment: A Bag Filler

I have always hesitated to reveal my dark secrets to home preserving. I closely guard the tips and tricks that I use in my kitchen to help me can and preserve food quickly and efficiently. Mostly, I want you all to come to me after the Zombie Apocalypse to preserve the food necessary for the continuation of the human race. If I tell you my tips and tricks, then you may be able to save yourself… But… Give a man a fish, teach a man to fish…

One of the problems with freezing in plastic zipper bags, is that you always fight to keep the bag open while you’re filling it with food. Also, once the bag is full, you have to seal it right away because it has a tendency to tip over and spill. To solve this problem, I use a bag filler –  a rigid plastic tube that holds the bag open while I fill it.

I make my bag fillers from Gatorade bottles. Unlike other plastic bottles, they have ridges so they’re strong around the middle and won’t collapse.

Cut off the top and the bottom, and make sure not to leave sharp edges that could puncture the bag.

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The bag filler can go inside the bag or the bag can go inside the bag filler… Either way, the bag stays open and is kept upright and free-standing.

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Squeaky Cheese Curds. Mystery Solved!

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Fresh cheese curds are squeaky.

You didn’t know that? Yeah, neither did I, until I had the squeakyness explained…

Thanks to Joe Dobosy and Mich Minoura for explaining squeaky cheese curds, to Hook’s Creamery for jalapino cheese curds, and to Carl Geissbuhler of Brunkow Cheese for explaining why cheese curds are squeaky.


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Locavore Survival Guide: What is a locavore?

So I need to address the obvious – What is a locavore? The most boilerplate comes from the very first post of this blog – The dictionary definition, “A person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food.” There’s two problems I have with this definition. First, it frames locavore as a “diet” and second, the definition leaves “local” to be defined elsewhere. Please excuse me as I pick at nits.

I don’t like diets – in the modern use of the word as a set of guidelines on choosing food, not in the Anthropological meaning of the word as anything that people eat. Diets come as arbitrary sets of rules or guidelines that ossify eating practices and attempt to define the world into “good” and “bad” foods. Lard? Bad. Broccoli? Good. Locally-raised pig lard? Bad (unless you’re a locavore, then it’s good). Conventionally farmed broccoli from Argentina available in New Hampshire in February? Good (unless you’re a locavore, then it’s bad…) I really do NOT want anyone to think there is some list of goods and bads making up the Locavore diet and that you may only eat things on the good list and nothing off the bad list. Diet also emphasizes choosing foods and avoiding foods – a universe of possibility that neglects what you do with the foods you choose or what happens to the foods you avoid. I want locavore to mean more than just choosing foods that are good and avoiding foods that are bad because locavore is more than just the food – it’s about preserving food, cooking food and enjoying food too…

Second, the dictionary leaves out what “local” means. The dictionary defines “local” as “belonging or relating to a particular area or neighborhood, typically exclusively so.” Local as geography. So each locavore is a pin on a map with a circle around it. I don’t much like that either. We can use other definitions of “local” to broaden our understanding of food. I think of food using a network definition. Imagine a network of food producers, packagers, distributors and consumers. Each person or organization is a node and is linked by the transactions between nodes. We all eat within this type of network-I buy a can of tomatoes sold at the coop, shipped by a grocery wholesaler, packages by a plant, picked by a person, grown by a farmer. Alternatively I go to my pantry and get a jar of home-canned tomatoes that I bought at a farm stand that were picked by the farmer. Local, to me, means both geography AND relationship networks. How can we act to minimize both distance and connections?

So, I’m being pedantic, but I want to explore these ideas more fully in this blog… This is why I started in the first place. To gain a better understanding of how and why I eat locally.

So back to my original question: What is a locavore? The dictionary says, “A person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food.” Let’s modify this…

A locavore is person who acquires, preserves, cooks and eats food in order to minimize the distance between the food production and consumption.

What do you think?


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Locavore Survival Guide: Storing Greens in the Fridge

This is the first post of a new series – the Locavore Survival Guide. I hope to provide some advice for novice locavores who are trying out the Farmer’s market, maybe purchasing a CSA (Community sponsored agriculture), or just choosing from the “locally grown” section of the supermarket. After 10 years of eating locally, I hope to have learned a thing or two, and I can share some of my experiences making this same transition. Look for Locavore Survival Guide posts on Tuesday mornings…

Storing Greens in the Fridge

In the early Spring,  my winter stores are low, my kuhlschrank is empty and turned off, and I have more empty canning jars than full. Spring vegetables don’t take well to preserving – they’re leafy and tender. So, in the Spring we scramble to eat all of the veg before it goes mushy.

Some examples of Spring vegetables that we ate in Wisconsin and hope to eat in New Hampshire include: Spinach, radishes, lettuce, asparagus, cooking greens (frisee, endive), Chinese vegetables (bok choi, tatsoi), tiny beets, and sweet salad turnips. Most of these are leaves, a few stems and swollen roots, and no fruits yet…

Most of these leafy greens will wilt and dry out if just put in the refrigerator. Compared to store-bought greens, locally-bought greens will stay crisp and moist much longer in the fridge. The local veg that I get in our CSA is often only 1 or 2 days out of the ground, while some veg in the grocery store may have been picked weeks before. For locally picked veg, by my accounts, you have about 2 days in the fridge with unprotected greens before they’re wilted and inedible. However, if you put a little effort up front, these vegetables will stay very crisp and moist in the fridge, without getting soggy and mildewy. You can plan to pick up your CSA on Friday and still have crisp veg to cook with on the following Thursday. It’s all about moisture control.

First, all leafy greens need to be in a bag to keep in the moisture, but if there’s too much moisture, then the greens with get soggy. To absorb extra moisture, I wrap greens in paper towels, then put them in the bag, and twist the bag shut. This gives an environment where the moisture will stay constant, and any extra will be absorbed by the towels. Store the bagged veg in the bottom of the fridge, in a “crisper” drawer, if you’ve got room. However, bagged like this, the greens should stay crispy for 5 days, longer if they’re really recently picked.

Lay the veg out on a clean, dry paper towel. If the greens are visibly dirty, spray off the dirt, but don't leave too much water clinging to the veg.

Lay the veg out on a clean, dry paper towel. If the greens are visibly dirty, rinse away the dirt, but don’t leave too much water clinging to the veg.

Just like a tiny infant, bring all of the leaves together and tightly wrap in the paper towel.

Bring all of the leaves together and tightly wrap in the paper towel.

Put the paper towel-wrapped veg into a plastic bag. Twist the top closed.

Put the paper towel-wrapped veg into a plastic bag. Twist the top closed.