February 26 is CSA Day

by Plaxedes Chitiyo

It is that time of the year again to celebrate Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)! CSA Day is February 26 and marks the second year of celebration since its inception in 2015 through the initiative of Small Farms Central. According to the organization’s annual report, in 2014, February was the month during which most people across the country signed up to join a CSA. It is a time when CSAs across the country celebrate this sustainable community driven initiative as well as raise awareness to the public at large about a great opportunity to support their local farmers and get high quality produce in return.

So what is CSA? CSA is a community-based program that connects communities with local farmers such that they benefit from each other. Consumers provide up-front financial support to local producers, to enable them to jump-start their growing season, and the local producers in turn provide seasonal produce to their customers, delivered to their door or picked up at specific locations. Different types of CSAs exist across the country with some managed only by farmers and others operated as multiple-farm co-ops offering a wider range of products. Some are summer-only while others offer special winter shares. Some CSAs offer a discount to members who help out in the field during the growing season.

farm-to-table

(Source: fix.com)

Joining a CSA is a great opportunity to connect with your community, eat healthy and support local farms. CSAs enable consumers to know where their food comes from through relationships with their local farmers, hence a better appreciation of human environmental conditions for food production. In addition, consumers get fresh, seasonal, highly nutritious produce and have the opportunity to try new food varieties, leading to better eating habits. CSAs promote economic development, by keeping money and jobs within their region and community. They also enhance community cohesion, as the community interacts and builds relationships around local food businesses.

The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), a non-profit that supports profitable farms, healthy food, and environmental protection, produces a yearly Pennsylvania CSA Guide that promotes its members and Buy Fresh Buy Local partners offering CSA programs. The 2016 PASA CSA guide is coming out soon.

Buy fresh. Buy local. Join a CSA!

About the author: Plaxedes Chitiyo lives in Bethel Park, PA.  She has a PhD in Environmental Resources and Policy from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her research interests are in the areas of sustainable agriculture in developing regions, sustainability, and community development.

Recipe Contest: Winter Fresh & Local Harvest

Calling all home chefs! 

Do you love cooking seasonal local (Pennsylvania) food? Do you open up your winter CSA box eager to create a new seasonally-inspired dish or whip up the one your family can’t get enough of? Consider entering your recipe in PASA’s Fresh & Local Recipe Contest.

Deadline: February 15, midnight

Recipe Contest poster

PRIZES:

First Place – Cash prize of $300 & one year, Full PASA membership

Second Place – Cash prize of $150 & one year, Full PASA membership

Third Place – Cash prize of $75 & one year, Full PASA membership

Honorable Mention (5 to be awarded) – Apron & One year, Full PASA membership

Click here for rules.

Restaurant and Resolutions: Woo de La Kitchen

by Debbie Yahnke

It’s January 2016. The weather is getting colder, nights are long, holiday hustle and bustle is over and the new year is here. It’s a time when people start making resolutions and thinking of a new self.  The new year means a new time, creating new memories and a new self. Some people make a resolution to become healthier, to break bad habits or to give to others.  One of the top resolutions is to get healthier, which means exercising and eating right.

Eating right can be a challenge.  When we think about being healthy, we want to break the habit of eating fast food, fried food, pizza, sweets, etc.  When we want to satisfy our hunger, cravings kick in and we are faced with choices of new ways of eating. Changing eating habits can be a bit daunting when junk food is all around us. For those of us who buy our food at grocery stores, convenience stores or restaurants, temptation (in the form of processed junk) appears at every turn. At times, prioritizing high-quality food goes out the door. Plus, at this time of year, when buying ingredients that are out of season locally but are shipped in from thousands of miles away, the food tastes bland, so all efforts to get healthy are dull and boring.

Local food to the rescue–yes, even in January. The enjoyment of food should not be taken out of the diet. Go for quality. Don’t sacrifice the joy of food by torturing oneself with mediocrity.

Resolve to seek local food when dining out. Woo de La Kitchen in Hershey, PA is trying to change the way we eat, one high-quality local meal at a time. Chef Jordan Albert, along with his mother Anne, sister Jess and brother Logan, cooks according to tradition, inspired by their English heritage. The family commits to providing guests with nutritious, delicious meals through their menu flittlepeace2eaturing local ingredients from Little Peace Farm in Schuylkill Haven. The farm is not certified organic, but their customers trust these long-time growers and their practices that avoid treated seeds, herbicides and pesticides. At times, Chef Jordan can be found picking his own ingredients, right from the farm.

They are open for breakfast and lunch. Their motto is to keep it small and simple, to assure good quality and to manage the demand. Chef Jordan states with sincerity. “If we can’t provide good ingredients we will not serve it. That means we use local ingredients, and we serve what we are given. So when we run out; we run out. We want to keep it fresh. I make soups at least three days out of the five days we are open. Nothing goes to waste. We won’t sacrifice the quality of our food.”

In addition to using local produce, Woo de La features bread from Philly Muffin, located in Schuylkill Haven. The bread is naturally fermented, and the wheat flour is locally grown, and milled in-house. (Expect to see a breakfast sandwich on the menu with Everything English muffin made from the bakery.)

Resolve to buy food directly from local farms. Woo de La provides customers the means to take home fresh produce from the farm. People can sign up for Little Peace Farm’s CSA and have their share dropped off at the storefront.

Resolve to give the gifcsast of local food. Little Peace offers a Good Steward Bank (GSB) where CSA members can purchase a share for a family who can not otherwise afford a share, and when the member pays for half of the share, Little Peace donates the rest.

Resolve to eat more local food at home. This time of year, one might guess there isn’t any good produce to be found. That’s just not true! I asked Chef Jordan for a seasonal healthy (and delicious) resolution solution, and he conjured up a recipe for a winter salad featuring swiss chard, kale, Brussels sprouts and/or cabbage as the base; dried fruit and nuts for flavor and texture; and topped off with protein. Drizzle it all with a simple homemade dressing. Chef Jordan suggests, “You can make a simple dressing whisking together 1 T. of Dijon mustard, 1 T. of lemon juice, ¼ cup of vinegar (I use white balsamic), 1 cup of olive oil, about a teaspoon of honey, 1 clove of chopped garlic and salt and pepper to taste.”

enchNo time to cook? No problem. Woo de La offers “What’s-Woo-Cooking” take-home dinners. They announce what they’ll be cooking, on Facebook, and people can call ahead every Tuesday, and pick up their pre-made meals for a family of five the very next day. (How about enchiladas with a choice of chicken or vegetarian? Sign me up! They even have a gluten-free option.) Customers can even choose to have it cooked or bring the ingredients home to cook themselves.

Woo de La makes it easy for their customers to fulfill their local-food resolutions by simultaneously walking the local-food walk (as seen on their menu) and bringing a greater awareness to where their food came from. Customers can take comfort in knowing they are eating high quality, healthy food while supporting local farmers.

What are your local food resolutions? Please leave them in the comments!

About the author: Debbie Yahnke has worked in the food industry for over 20 years. She combines her experiences behind the scenes and her passion for learning about the farming industry to help others gain a better understanding of where our food comes from.

Restaurant Profile: Horn O Plenty – Bedford, PA

by Debbie Yahnke

In the late 2000s, Jeff and Mandi Horn began farming on 300 acres of land. Their CSA–that is, Community Supported Agriculture–program started with fifty members, and they also sold produce at the local farmers market.

And by 2012, Jeff and Mandi Horn opened Horn O Plenty Farm-to-Table Restaurant, to strengthen their role as a connector between farm Dining_Roomand forks. They found the second oldest house in Wolfburg, PA, which was built by William Todd, uncle to Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s wife. They refurbished the dining area, built tables and chairs by recycling the building’s original wood and installed a wood-fire oven, where they do most of their cooking and all their bread baking.

Their dream is “to nurture a close relationship between the people who grow the food and those who eat it,” according to the Horns. “Our cooks and servers also work on our farm and thus will have an intimate knowledge of where your food came from. Imagine the opportunity to participate in an informed three-way conversation linking producers, servers and customers.”

Mandi primarily runs the restaurant, which seats approximately 80, and Jeff manages the farm. Together they place equal care implementing sustainable practices for their operations. Much of the food featured on the menu is sourced from their farm, including their own beef, lamb and eggs. If they can’t get meat and produce from their farm, they collaborate with neighboring farms so people can be sure their food has been grown, raised and sold locally.

Spinach_Pot_PIzzaWhen Horn O Plenty opened, their CSA program developed into a CSR–Community Supported Restaurant–where members have the option to dine at a 10% discount if paying that day or deducting their meal from their CSR account balance, at a 20% discount.

In addition to running a restaurant and keeping up with the farm, Mandi and Jeff take their home-built, mobile cob oven (for making wood-fired pizzas) to events. They became interested in outdoor cob ovens when they visited Mexico, and have taken what they learned and begun teaching workshops on how to cook from and build cob ovens.

With all their efforts and time, Jeff and Mandi work hard to bring greater awareness to local and sustainable dining, not only in their own community but across Pennsylvania.

About the author: Debbie Yahnke has worked in the food industry for over 20 years. She combines her experiences behind the scenes and her passion for learning about the farming industry to help others gain a better understanding of where our food comes from.

The Christmas Orange

Marking our days with celebrations and ritual is a hard-wired impulse all humans seem to share.

Insulated from the harsh necessities of preparing for winter by chopping and storing wood, caring for animals, and stockpiling and rotating food supplies, our holiday busyness comes from other sources like holiday recitals and office parties, shopping for holiday gifts, running our kids to practice sessions and delivering treats to school.

We throw our energies into decorating our homes with electric lights and blow-up statues, buying color-coded cupcakes and cookies at the grocery store, and picking up the meat we’re supposed to eat that holiday. Hectic, busy and clutter-filled, we’re driven by sales, deals, and our new favorite activity, cyber-shopping.518U0MgiK4L._SX353_BO1,204,203,200_

I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic when I read Edna Lewis’s magical book The Taste of Country Cooking. Here, the James Beard Living Legend Award winner richly describes the country year in her Virginia home of Freetown, founded by former slaves, freed after the emancipation of 1865.

Can I call it nostalgia if I pine for something I’ve never had? Without cell phones and computer games, kids made significant contributions to the preparations for the holidays and agricultural events that engaged the entire community. Activities required planning and advance preparation, and the results were a great source of collective entertainment, gratitude, pride and joy.

Edna’s memories aren’t ones of receiving a gazillion gifts on Christmas day but rather, ones more personal, where the pleasures of making and doing was a gift in and of itself. In Freetown, residents tackled large projects as a community, making hard work a festive occasion to be looked forward to. And the slower times in the agricultural year were savored and relaxed with much visiting and sharing back and forth between residents.

Life in Freetown was very much about understanding and appreciating the bounty of the place in which you live. Nearly everything was raised, nurtured, foraged and preserved just a few steps from the kitchen. Even Freetown children knew good food, where to find it and how it was prepared.

The personal investment of labor and skill in the harvest, preservation and presentation of local treasures ensured that the humble Freetown residents ate far richer than their wealthier urban counterparts.

Buying foods from afar, something we do daily, was in Freetown very rare. Because it was so rare, what was bought was enjoyed, savored, treasured and looked forward to.

“There was a special excitement in the kitchens, as many of the things we prepared were foods we tasted only at Christmas. xmas orangeThis was the only time in the year when we had oranges, almonds, Brazil nuts, and raisins that came in clusters.”

And those oranges? They were appreciated fully, with all the senses. And every part of them was put to use so there was no waste. What would you say about me if I gave you an orange for Christmas?

“It is hard to describe the taste of those oranges; their sweetness had no equal as we ate them.  Mother would gather up all the orange peels and dry them for flavoring sauces for summer puddings. She also used them to flavor tea.”

Christmas preparations of local bounty began much earlier in the year, with special preserves and liquors made from summer fruit, the fall gathering of hickory nuts and the special feeding of the Christmas fowl. Mincemeat and fruitcake was made at least a month or so in advance, and the kids helped prepare the popcorn garlands for the tree and gathered greenery from the woods.

roasting-chestnutsToday, the sensory overload of so much retail overrides the simpler, more interior joy taken from the rituals of a handmade home. With less shopping and more doing, young Edna fondly remembers the rituals and rewards of making her home special:

“I loved the way the greens looked set off by the white hearth and walls and the stiff white curtains which they draped. In the evenings, the soft orange glow from the fire and from the candlelight and the fragrance of the cedar and juniper mingling with the smell of chestnuts roasting always made me wish that Christmas week would last until spring…”

The holiday season is an excellent time to treat yourself to a good read–one that captivates with story, entices you with delicious ideas and makes you look forward to filling your year with all sorts of exploratory kitchen projects to honor the beauty of each and every season.

Simple, reverent and thrifty, A Taste of Country Living is a book that snaps us out of our commercialized haze and reminds us of the treasure hiding in plain sight all this time: home.

Get it, gift it or borrow it from the library, but most of all read it. Then read it again. And again. You will be inspired. First to see the absurdities of modernity, then to live its opposite: authenticity, simplicity and contentment.

What is your favorite handmade holiday tradition? Please leave it in the comments.

Butter & Jackie

Jackie Cleary is a cook, farmer and writer eating her way around her small farm in Western Pennsylvania. Like all old fashioned farmsteads, Auburn Meadow Farm is constant source of humble pie and local deliciousness. Visit Jackie and her quirky livestock anytime at AuburnMeadowFarm.com.

Where have all the cauliflowers gone? (with recipe!)

by Michele Cook

I joined a four-week winter CSA expecting salad greens, beets, kale, cauliflowers, etc. The first thing I always do when receiving my CSA bounty is research recipes, to try something new and use the ingredients to their maximum potential. I refuse to just steam or boil them and make a boring stir fry.

I found a bunch of recipes for cauliflower that sounded great, with Roasted Cauliflower Lasagna and Kale and Cauliflower Alfredo rising to the top of the list. Monday I decided on the Kale and Cauliflower Alfredo. 

I needed a few ingredients that I did not have at home including yogurt and pasta. My husband volunteered to pick these up, and upon reading the recipe, thought I might need another head of cauliflower. He went to our nearby chain grocery store and found no cauliflower. It turns out the store, the produce clerk who told him, couldn’t get cauliflower due to California weather.

Upon further investigation, it looks like grocery shoppers all over the East coast are missing their cauli. Major distributor Sysco apparently released the following note in their daily report: “CAULIFLOWER ALERT: Supplies have diminished and the market is extremely active. Yields are at historical low levels. Quality issues of discoloration, yellowing and inconsistent sizing are reported. Florets continue to be limited.” (Oh no, not inconsistent sizing!)

Fortunately our Pennsylvania local food system has all the seasonal cauliflower goodness I needed to make my alfredo dream a reality. I made a fabulous Kale and (CSA) Cauliflower Alfredo, savoring every morsel. At my CSA pick up this week, I coveted the cauliflower knowing what I held was special.

And rumor has it a farm stand on a back road has huge beautiful heads for $1.00!

Kale and Cauliflower Alfredo

Serves 4
30 minutes or fewer
(reproduced from vegetariantimes.com)

Eat without guilt or regrets. This rich, comforting pasta is lightened up with a cauliflower “cream.” For a more filling dish, stir in 2 cups small, steamed cauliflower florets before serving.
3 cups small cauliflower florets
1 cup 1% low-fat milk
2 Tbs. chopped shallot
2 Tbs. plain non-fat Greek yogurt
8 oz. linguine
1 Tbs. butter
10 oz. baby kale, three leaves chopped and reserved
1 cup (3 oz.) grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 Tbs. grated lemon zest
¼ tsp. ground nutmeg

1. Bring cauliflower florets, milk, and shallot to a simmer in large saucepan. Reduce heat to low. Cover pan, and cook 15 to 17 minutes, or until cauliflower is very soft. Transfer contents of pan to blender. Blend until silky smooth, adding 1 or 2 more Tbs. milk, if necessary. Transfer purée to small bowl, and whisk in yogurt. Season with salt and pepper, if desired.

2. Meanwhile, cook linguine in large pot of boiling salted water 10 to 11 minutes, or until al dente. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup pasta water.

3. Melt butter in same pot over medium heat. Add whole kale leaves, and toss 2 minutes, or until wilted but still bright green. Add pasta, 11/4 cups cauliflower purée, 2/3 cup Parmesan, lemon zest, and nutmeg. Toss until sauce coats pasta, adding reserved pasta water by 1/4 cupfuls if dry. Season with salt and pepper, if desired. Serve sprinkled with reserved chopped kale and remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan.

January/February 2015 p.52

Building Sustainable Local Food Systems

by Jessie Pierce

The challenge of food access in America is a tricky one. Paradoxically, small local farmers struggle to stay afloat, unable to make enough money on their products to cover input costs, whileGleaned produce local produce continues to be out of the price range of the general public. Chef Boyardee ravioli—a high calorie value-added product containing traditionally expensive meat and dairy ingredients—costs 89 cents a can, while free range eggs cost upwards of 4 dollars a dozen. Food banks, whose clients are overwhelmingly working poor, have skyrocketed in number and volume to meet immediate need, but ultimately the hard work of the good people in food banks is subsidizing an unfair economic system: the federal minimum wage has not been adjusted for inflation in 35 years, leaving poor workers with no choice but chronic use of the food banks. The fact is, charity and cheap calories will not save us. We have to find a better way to handle hunger. But how?

Let’s cut to a sunny Friday afternoon in November, in the back room of the Meetinghouse in downtown State College, where twenty-five people Local food summitsqueezed around a couple of folding tables and introduced themselves to one another. These people came from all sorts of backgrounds and professions. Some were college students; others were retired. There were cafeteria managers and campus pastors. Food bank representatives were there, and so were restaurant owners, farmers, professors, entrepreneurs and master gardeners. All manner of folk were present at the first Centre County Food System Summit, a gathering intended to foster greater connection among key food system stakeholders and open a conversation about how we can work together to strengthen our local food system. In our breakout session (one of four), we addressed one question: How can we ensure that every local resident has access to safe, healthy food?

The problems in America’s food system may seem daunting and complex, but as we went around the room and shared our experiences and ideas, it began to seem simpler: the solution, as is often the case, is to start local. It is truly remarkable what can be accomplished when a community pools its resources: the farmers offered to grow extra produce; the college students offered volunteer labor; the master gardeners offered to do gardening education. It turned out that despite our preconceived notions of scarcity, we had a lot to go around.

My own role in all of this was rather unique: I am neither a college student nor a full-time professional; neither a farmer nor a food bank volunteer. I attended the Centre County Food System Summit representing the Food Reclamation Network of Centre County, a gleaning FRN logo network that I started this year in conjunction with other dedicated community members. The Food Reclamation Network provides food transportation between businesses or gardeners with excess produce and relief organizations in need of fresh food. Our goal is to reduce food waste and increase food security by rescuing fresh, nutritious food that would otherwise go to waste and distributing it to people who need it. This is a much-needed service, as nearly 40% of the food produced in America goes into the garbage can before ever reaching a plate, while 50 million Americans—22,000 in Centre County—go hungry. The Food Reclamation Network also has the privilege of working on a new, unconventional, and—we hope—revolutionary project called The FoodCentres. The FoodCentres project aims to transform and amplify Centre County’s system of food aid into an abundant food community.

The Food Centres project will create three food hubs in Centre County, consisting of a walk-in refrigerator stocked with gleaned produce, a commercial kitchen and a community garden. Together, these three elements make up the building blocks of a welcoming and vibrant multi-use campus for food-based activities. Volunteers will preserve gleaned fruits and vegetables for food pantries to use in the winter months. Food insecure children will prepare and eat healthy afternoon snacks with their friends while their parents benefit from afterschool daycare. Local foodcentreshomesteaders will lead curious cabbage-lovers in workshops on how to make their own sauerkraut. By offering an approachable location—a Centre, if you will—for community members to come together around food, the FoodCentres will improve our local food system for everyone.

At that summit breakout session, myriad potential pathways to food security were discussed, but three primary themes emerged: first, that education is key to improving food access; second, that education must be provided in ways that are convenient and approachable to those who need it most; and third, that working together and pooling resources was essential to a food-secure future. The FoodCentres project aims to address all of these, and I have faith that my fellow summit attendees will bear them in mind in their work, whether or not they choose to be involved with the FoodCentres. The future of Centre County’s food system is bright.

“Buy Fresh, Buy Local” is an effective strategy for putting dollars back into the local economy, supporting small family farmers and providing the freshest produce available. But a local food system can’t be sustainable unless it is for everyone, and in order to do that, we have a lot of work ahead of us. Starting local and working together is the best place to start. A sustainable local food system isn’t just about agriculture; it’s also about building a fully inclusive food community. Here in Centre County, we believe we can make that dream a reality.

NOTE: The Food Reclamation Network of Centre County is currently looking to expand in anticipation of its role in the FoodCentres project next year. If you are interested in helping the FRN grow, visit their Growfund crowdfunding campaign site!

About the author: Jessie Pierce is a cofounder of the Food Reclamation Network of Centre County, a member of the FoodCentres project team and Assistant Online Market Manager for the Friends and Farmers Co-op. She is dedicated to creating resilient, sustainable and inclusive local food systems, where everyone has adequate access to fresh, healthy food.

Farm Profile: Livin’ Dreams Farm (plus recipe!)

Livin' Dreams FarmWhen you’re in the midst of relocating, and your car is loaded to the gills with most of your worldly possessions, isn’t that the best time to make a drive to a mushroom farm? Well, my husband and I think so. We were both feeling a bit frazzled and stressed from the move, but we had already made arrangements to visit Livin’ Dreams Farm in Millville, PA. As it turned out, that visit was exactly the calming respite we both needed. Dustan and Carlyn McKee were incredible hosts on that lovely fall afternoon.

Dustan graciously showed us the mushroom growing process, from sterilizing the substrate all the way to harvesting the finished product. It’s an involved and intricate process. I appreciated the attention to detail as Dustan explained Livin’ Dream’s approach to sustainability. They source nearly everything locally and carefully choose materials that are recyclable and/or biodegradable. They reuse whatever materials they can, and they add the compost to their garden for the benefit of next year’s garden. As we walked through their amazing barn and fields, Dustan passed along many helpful tips.

Did you know that resting your mushrooms in the sun for a bit before consuming them provides even more Vitamin D? Or that mushrooms have the ability to regenerate contaminated soils? Mushrooms are so much more than just nutritionally dense bundles of goodness–but oh-how-yummy they are!

Livin’ Dreams has really filled a niche within the community for sustainably grown and forward-thinking mushroom growers. In addition to year-round fresh mushrooms at Bloomsburg & Williamsport Markets, Livin’ Dreams Farm also sells dehydrated mushrooms, mushroom tea and variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. These are busy folks who are keenly aware of the challenges of farming sustainably, but conscientiously make the choices that will benefit the community and the environment in perpetuity.

So, while we started the day overwhelmed, we left Livin’ Dreams Farm loaded with smiles, hopefulness and bags of mushrooms. The first thing we unpacked at our new place was a skillet. We feasted on simply sautéed mushrooms and onions. That sure beats the take-out pizza we had originally talked about. (Oh! I need to order more mushrooms from Livin’ Dreams Farm so I can make mushroom pizza!) Speaking of good mushroom recipes, I’m sure you know how delicious soups, stews and stir-fries are when you add good quality mushrooms. Below, though, is a recipe that may not immediately come to mind: Mushroom Ketchup.

Since Livin’ Dreams Farm is a historic farm, here’s a variation on a very historic recipe. Mushroom Ketchup is a great accompaniment to any stew or meat dish. Or think of it as your local vegan-friendly soy sauce. Make a big batch, as it keeps at least a few years!

Mushroom Ketchup

Ingredients:
1.5 pounds fresh mushrooms (we did Oyster mushrooms from Livin’ Dreams Farm)
salt
½ Tablespoon whole peppercorns
¼ oz. whole fresh ginger
1 small bay leaf
allspice, cloves, mace (all whole) to taste
⅛ c. whiskey

Cut the mushrooms to lay flat (a simple way is to separate stems from caps). Arrange a single layer of mushrooms in a large container and generously salt. Add another layer and salt again. Continue until all mushrooms have been added. Let rest, covered. Every few hours, though, use your hands to break down the mushrooms. At first you won’t see much liquor, but resist the temptation to add more salt.

At the end of the 24 hours, allow to rest, untouched, for 12 hours. Carefully pour off the liquor, then strain the mushrooms through a cheesecloth, squeezing to remove all possible liquid. This should produce about one quart, give or take. To each quart, add all remaining ingredients (peppercorns, ginger, bay leaf, allspice, cloves, mace, and whiskey). Jar and cap. Store in cool dark place.

 

Holiday Hickory Nut Macaroons

In looking toward the holidays I’ve been reading an older book by a new favorite writer, The Christmas Cook: Three Centuries of American Yuletide Sweets, by William Woys Weaver (Devon, PA). The mix of compelling history, endlessly fascinating illustration and authentic recipes puts this in a category all its own. It’s not a cookbook, but it is. It’s not a history book, but it is. It’s not a Christmas book, but it is. It’s a book that transcends genre altogether.

One recipe really caught my eye because of a bit of serendipity. I was out visiting White Oak Nursery in Strasburg, PA (no web page, they’re Amish), because some friends had touted their apple selection (over 30 varieties the day I was there; Galarina is my new all-time favorite, closely followed by Razor’s Russett and Gold Rush). Inside the store they also had, sitting quietly in a wicker basket on a middle shelf, Shagbark Hickory nuts. I’d never seen hickory nuts in person before, but I’d heard of them and had come across recipes from time to time that used them. The recipes all indicated that other nuts could be substituted, but that the dish just wouldn’t be the same. That’s the kind of thing that sticks in my brain. So I bought a sackful, not completely sure what I’d do with them. The day I bought them I found the recipe for Hickory Nut Macaroons in The Christmas Cook. That the recipe’s original source was cited as being from 1877 sealed the deal. I needed to make these and had everything needed to do it.

The reason you never see hickory nuts in grocery stores is because they are notoriously difficult to shell, so the chains won’t carry them. The best way to get your hands on hickory nuts is to connect with your local foodways. In addition to White Oak Nursery, I’ve heard that they can be gotten shelled from Dietrich’s Meats in Krummsville if you get on Verna’s good side. I also recently saw a small quantity of them, in the shell, at Lemon Street Market in Lancaster. Other sources are out there, I’m sure, but to find them will take some hunting and effort. This recipe is worth the effort.

Hickory Nut Meat

Sweet Success

The meat is sort of walnut-like, but the shell is a real nightmare and hard as all get-out (so be really sure there’s no shell bits in with the meats). At first I attempted to use a plier-type nutcracker and a pick. After a blood-blistered thumb, a stabbed palm and two completely pulverized nuts with zero usable meat, I took to the internet to find out how this should really be done. There are special devices available, but I needed a more immediate solution. I found an explanation of a hammer and brick method that looked promising, so I went that route. There’s a learning curve of about two pounds involved, but by the final, third, pound I’d pretty much gotten the knack of it and could even get out a few whole halves.

The recipe as given in The Christmas Cook is reprinted below in its entirety with permission from the author:

Hickory Nut Macaroons
(1877)

This excellent recipe comes to us from Philadelphia confectioner James W. Parkinson. He sold these at his famous restaurant on Chestnut Street. Yield: Approximately 5 dozen macaroons.
3 egg whites
2 cups superfine sugar
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups finely chopped hickory nuts (see note)

Preheat the oven to 250°F

Beat the egg whites until stiff and slightly dry. Sift together the sugar and flour twice, then sift and fold this into the egg whites. Fold in the nuts and mix thoroughly. Using your hands, break off balls about the size of a walnut and roll them on the palms of the hands to make them perfectly round. Line baking sheets with baking parchment and set the balls of nut mixture on them. Dry in the preheated oven 55 to 60 minutes. These macaroons will puff as they dry in the oven. Cool completely on racks and store in air-tight containers.

Note: It is necessary to have 1 pound of nuts for this recipe. Weigh them before chopping. You may chop them in a food processor. For each 8 ounces of nuts, allow 40 short pulses. Hazelnuts may be used instead, but the flavor of hickory nuts is unique.

Source: The Confectioners’ Journal 3 (July 1877), 17.

Hickory Nut Macaroons

Finished Macaroons

I would add to this that it may take a bit more than three pounds of in the shell nuts to get to the one pound of shelled. I had quite a few duds in my sack, and of course, I destroyed a bit of meat during my learning how to extract. I think if you start with about three and a half pounds, you’ll get there fine. I made mine a little too big, more like golf ball sized than walnut sized, and so dried them about 10 minutes longer. I think they’d be better at the correct size. Don’t substitute any other kind of sugar for the superfine, which is often sold as “caster” sugar. The finished macaroons are deliciously crunchewy and surprisingly light in the hand.

Also worth noting: I did some pre-preparation to the nut meats that is purely optional. While I was buying the hickory nuts I mentioned that I would be back for more if the nut meats didn’t make my wife’s mouth itch, which is what keeps her from eating walnuts. He told me that nuts that irritate mouths or stomachs (and in fact, all seeds) are coated with a chemical that prevents germination until it has been leached away by sufficient time exposed to water (which tells the seed it’s time to grow). He recommended that I soak the meats overnight in salt water (the salt isn’t necessary, he said, but he likes the flavor improvement), and then lightly toast them (again, not necessary for the anti-itching effect, just something he prefers for the flavor).

Soaking Hickory Nuts

Soaking Hickory Nuts

Dan Waber is a poet, playwright, publisher, and digital artist whose work is almost (but not always) text-based (http://logolalia.com/). His professional life has been in food and sales and marketing. His life was well and truly changed by reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, and he has committed the next stage of his life to supporting sustainable food by all means possible. He can be reached at danwaber@gmail.com.

Step Up Your Meat Game

“The key to the 99 is the 1.” ~Steven Covey

Reworking 99 percent of my food habits at once is way too much for me to wrap my brain around. I mean, I’ve got a busy life to lead, right? But one percent? That I can handle. Giving my full attention, for a short amount of time, I can elevate a key habit and create lasting change. One foot in front of the other. Step by step. And in no time, your solitary effort will create ripples that will inspire others to seek out and upgrade their own one percent.

In my last blog post, I questioned a variety of food provisioning habits that most of us mindlessly repeat. Today, I’d like to briefly focus on one in particular: meat–how to buy it, cook it and store it to improve your budget, your palate and your heath.

Here, my goal is to offer ways to explore your blind spots and upgrade your meat game, one percent at a time. Not only are these improvements for the greater feel-good, but the upgrade in deliciousness rewards your efforts exponentially.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

–Stop at that local butcher shop you always wondered about. Ask the butcher what he/she eats and why. Learn the difference between boxed meat and old school butchering.
–Explore your local library. There’s a treasure trove of books on food preservation, thrift and making the best use of your freezer; a world of new recipe ideas; and information about farming and nutrition.
–Tuck a cooler in your car so you’re prepared for spontaneous purchases.

–Double your recipes and freeze or can leftovers for quick meals later.
–Visit your local farmers markets and farm stores – this is why that cooler is in your trunk!
–Find a buying club or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) meat share.
–Consider purchasing a quarter or side of beef or pork directly from a local farmer.
–Instead of buying processed single-meal cuts like chicken tenders or stew beef, learn how to use a whole chicken and a bone-in roast.
–Expand your cooking methods to incorporate less expensive proteins in extremely satisfying ways. Using homemade stock, leftover meats and poached, pastured eggs to enrich vegetable-based dishes for a thrifty and satisfying meal.
–Consider portion size. Do you consider a meal complete only when a large portion of meat is the focus? Commit to weighing recommended portion sizes. Just for a little while. You’ll be surprised at how much you’re probably overeating.
–Create a pipeline of uses for leftover meats, stocks and pan juices. Thrift is a beautiful and delicious thing. Worked into meatballs, sauces, pies, omelets and soups, a little meat or meat juice adds a lot of flavor.
–Master the meatball and meatloaf. Get creative and try a variety of meatball recipes. Who doesn’t love meatballs?
–Explore ways of wrapping, packaging and storing meat. Investigate food storage container options; learn to freezer wrap; and be sure to consider the waste stream created by your storage. You don’t need to run out and invest in an expensive vacuum packing system; many less expensive options can be just as effective.
–Fear not the fat. Think about this: we buy meat, discard the fat we have paid for, then pay again to purchase a different fat (like butter or olive oil). Why? In the day, the fat was as valuable as the lean meat. Science confirms that fat from pastured animals is more healthful than lab-produced margarine and shortening. If I buy and cook good quality bacon, I strain the fat and keep it to brown roasts and veggies later. If I smoke meat, I put a drip pan underneath to capture the fat drippings. I buy pork kidney fat and make lard at home for pies, frying and browning. It’s cheap, has not been hydrogenated and is so much more delicious than synthetic fats.
–Do you know how the animals have been raised? Have they been treated well, fed and housed in an environmentally beneficial way?
–Are the ranchers and processors local? Supporting local butchers, ranchers and farmers is the best way to build a healthy, stable food supply and invigorate your local economy, too.
–Do you know what the certification labels mean? What is organic? Grass-fed? Pastured? Free-range?
–Read the ingredients. You may think your pork or chicken is just pork or chicken, but many meats are processed in flavored broths and contain added ingredients.

So what’s it going to be? How will you maximize your meat mastery? Share your adventures in the comments so we can all learn together.