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Dark Days: Local Bits, Pieces and Pizza

roasted brussels sprouts and ham

I had a harder time cooking for the Dark Days challenge last week than I ever have before. It’s not that we didn’t eat locally. There was carrot soup, made from farmers market carrots and onions, and simmered in chicken stock that I made from local chicken feet and pressure canned last summer. A roast chicken that had once happily roamed a pasture out in Lancaster County. Freshly made (although not by my hands) fettuccine, tossed with sauteed portobello mushrooms, kale, onions and ricotta (the veg was all-local and the ricotta was freshly made from Claudio’s).

But there were also things like the cauliflower I pureed with some dill havarti on Tuesday night. The cauliflower was from the Italian Market, bought two for a $1. Cheap, nutritious, but from far, far away. The cheese was a hunk of Trader Joe’s finest, of origins unknown.

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And last night, I made whole wheat pizza to satisfy a craving of Scott’s, who was coming off three weeks of no carbs and, in that moment, needed a slice as much as he also needed air, water and sleep. It is not wise to respond to a hungry man’s request for pizza with the words, “we can’t have pizza, because my flour and cheese aren’t local.”

So I made pizza, following Joy’s recipe for dough with flour from the bulk bins at Whole Foods. One was topped with some of my homecanned tomatoes, whole milk mozzarella from who-knows-where, buying club onions and Claudio’s pepperoni. Another wore that same base, with local ham, those same onions and slivers of red pepper from Mexico.

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We ate the pizza with a side of roasted brussels sprouts (bought from local farmers at my Saturday market) and a great deal of satisfaction.

While there is no one meal I can look at from the last seven days and say, “Yep, that one there, that’s my Dark Days meal for the third week in January,” the challenge was with me in some way with each bite I took. And I think that that’s really the goal.

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Dark Days: A Local Salad in January

all-local salad

I’m feeling a little lazy tonight, so instead of telling you about the local sausage we ate tonight with some of my homemade, home-canned, red sauerkraut (the picture is still on the camera, which is all the way across the room), I’m going to feature a little salad I had for lunch yesterday.

I had a lazy Saturday morning, so slow-moving and indulgent that it was afternoon before I managed to walk over to the farmers market. When you go to a farmers’ market within it’s last hour, you run the risk of finding nearly nothing left. I was fortunate in that I was able to pick up carrots, eggs, some gorgeous portobello mushrooms, a slab of locally made goat cheddar and most wonderfully, a bag of tender salad greens.

bag of local salad greens

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that I was able to buy locally grown salad greens in January. It’s not like I live in Southern California or Florida. I’m in Philadelphia, where last week we had lows of 19 and 20 degrees. Finding them was a joy. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t completely abstained from salads during these cold months. However, they’ve been dull tasteless things in comparison to these greens. They were so soft and delicate. And, at $3.25 for a six-ounce bag, they weren’t that eye-poppingly expensive (the stand was even running a “two for $6 deal.” I’m kicking myself for not buying a second bag).

local goat cheddar

I tossed half the bag with a sprinkle of balsamic (not local), olive oil (nope), salt and pepper. Topped with some of that goat cheddar and eaten with a hunk of multi-grain baguette (also purchased at the Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market). I didn’t share this salad with Scott. I ate hunched over my bowl, chasing those last slivers of lettuce onto my fork with a bread crust. Had I had a red slicing tomato along side, I would have thought it was July. I was a balm to my potato-weary soul and I feel restored.

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Dark Days: Sausage, Kale and White Bean Soup

soup with kale

I’m coming to realize that during the winter months, Sunday is nearly synonymous with soup in my brain. Here in Philly, it barely got above 30 degrees today, making soup doubly necessary. Luckily, I had everything I needed in my pantry and freezer to make a big pot of sausage, kale and white bean soup.

navy beans

First step was to break out the pressure cooker and cook off two and a half cups of navy beans. I bought these lovely little white beans at the Headhouse Square Farmers Market last fall and have had them tucked into a jar since then. To be perfectly honest though, I don’t know for sure whether they’re locally grown. The woman who operates this particular stall isn’t the most friendly and so I rarely try to engage her in conversation. I realize, though, that it’s poor locavore behavior on my part.

Side note about navy beans. I spent years thinking that since they had the word navy in their name, that meant that they were navy in color (somehow I never connected those small, creamy beans my mom put into soup with the name “navy”). It wasn’t until I was far past voting age that I learned that they were actually essentially white beans and were called that because they were commonly served to sailors. Live and learn.

Anyway, 2 1/2 cups of navy beans, cooked with 6 1/2 cups of water in a pressure cooker for 30 minutes will give you six cups of tender beans, which just happens to be an ideal amount for this soup.

two quarts of ham stock

For the liquid component, I used two quarts of the ham stock I pressure canned last July. Lately, I’ve been really working on using the foods I’ve preserved (I get so excited about stocking my pantry that I sometimes forget that preserved food needs to be in near constant rotation) and so having an opportunity to use some of my canned stock was an added boon when making this soup. It’s also great because I know that the ham hocks I used to make that stock were local and humanely raised.

carrots celery onion garlic sausage

The soup started in the same way that many of my soups start. One minced onion, three fat carrots (diced) and four celery ribs (that darn celery is the only non-local component in this soup. I wasn’t thinking when I added it.) diced and sauteed in some fat/oil. I used some of my local lard (when my porcine-free mother reads this post, I am certain she will cringe at the number of pork products that went into this meal) but you could use also happily use olive oil. As the veggies browned and softened, I crushed and minced four big garlic cloves and the leaves from one sprig of rosemary and added them to the pot.

Once the veggies had some color, I created a well in the center and added two pounds of fennel sausage (set free from its casing) from the Meadow Run Farm buying club. I am addicted to this sausage. It has great flavor, is relatively lean and comes from those same happy, local pigs that provided the hocks that made the ham stock. Two pounds of sausage makes this a very meaty soup. Next time I make it, I will probably cut the meat by half. However, right at the moment, my husband is doing phase one of the South Beach Diet, and so I went a little heavier than normal on the protein for him.

After the meat was cooked and stirred into the veggies, I added the ham stock and beans, but the lid on and allowed the soup a bit of simmer time.

washed kale

I recently joined Winter Harvest, which is a wintertime buying club here in the Philly-area, run by Farm to City. It is a terrific way to get reasonably priced local produce, meat and dairy when most of the area farmers markets are shuttered for the season. In my first order, I got red and yellow onions, some sweet little beets, vividly orange-yolked eggs, a gallon of raw milk and the bundle of kale you see above.

Kale is one of my favorite vegetables, particularly because it can be prepared raw or cooked. It plays really well in soup and was a shining star in this particular batch. Stripped from the stem, I washed the leaves well (nothing makes a dish sadder than sandy grit from poorly washed greens) and chopped them to bits (first, fine ribbons. Then, rotate the board 90 degrees for bittage). I stirred the chopped greens into the soup during the last fifteen minutes of cooking.

kale stems

Had I planned better, I would have stripped the stems from the kale sooner, cut them into small bits and sauteed them with the onions, carrots and celery (probably would have been a good substitute for the non-local celery, too). Sadly, I didn’t think that far in advance and so ended up pitching the stems. However, they are quite edible (my mom likes to eat them raw with a bit of hummus).

When the soup was finished, it was deliciously warm, filling and happily, almost entirely local (particularly if you skip over the celery and don’t look too closely at my beans). If you’re not a pork person, you could easily substitute turkey sausage and some homemade chicken stock. It wouldn’t have that smoky flavor that the ham stock lends, but would still be quite delicious (although, now I’m wondering about making stock with smoked turkey wings. Could be delicious and just the thing for the pork avoiders in the crowd).

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Dark Days: Chicken Soup on New Year’s Day

new year's day dinner

For New Year’s Eve this year, Scott and I hosted a little party. It wasn’t anything fancy. In fact, the idea for it sprung out of a simple desire to have people over to help us drink up some of our leftover wedding champagne (truly, a tough problem to have). I made cheese fondue (not much local there, with west coast wine and Trader Joe’s cheese), a big green salad and roasted a chicken (bought from Meadow Run Farms) for those in need of animal protein.

We sat around for hours with a living room full of friends, eating, drinking and laughing. Our guests brought wonderful things to share like a jar of trail mix (I’m planning on eating a handful on top of my oatmeal tomorrow morning), handmade marshmallows, home fried tortilla chips (with freshly chopped salsa) and some truly miraculous chocolate cookies (each topped with a single, toasted pecan).

I roasted the chicken in my oval Staub dutch oven, sauteeing several fat leeks (chopped in half moons and triple-washed) in the bottom of the pot first, then browning the bird on all sides, before sliding the whole thing (lid on) into a 300 degree oven for about three hours (lid off for the last 45 minutes, to get some nice browning). I served it on a big platter, drizzled with the leek-y juices from the roasting pot and we made seriously quick work of it. Scott actually had to leap in and keep a helpful friend from tossing out the carcass when it looked like there wasn’t a morsel of meat left to nibble (he knows me so well!).

Friday morning, after sleeping until noon, we made the decision that we weren’t going to set foot outside all day long and so I started investigating what we might eat throughout the day. Lunch was some of the frozen appetizers we’d forgotten to heat up for the party (delicious, but very greasy and not at all local) and for dinner, I started a pot of chicken broth. I used the rescued remains of the roasted chicken (all the juicy remains from the roasting pot too), as well as some frozen chicken feet (they make the best stock/broth), an onion, several cloves of garlic (both from the Fair Food Farmstand), a few sprigs of rosemary (plucked from a friend’s garden more than a month ago, they’ve remained green and fragrant wrapped in plastic and refrigerated) and two fat carrots, purchased at the Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market before I left for the holidays. I had no celery, so I left it out (it felt oddly thrilling and rebellious, I NEVER skip the celery).

The soup/stock/broth bubbled away all afternoon. An hour before we wanted to eat, I pulled out a dutch oven and browned a minced onion and a couple more carrots. Several ladled of broth went into keep things from burning. Cubed potatoes, some turnips from the bottom of the crisper (remnants from my CSA, which ended the second week of November!) and shredded brussels sprouts (I’d typically use cabbage, but I didn’t have any). More broth. The bits of chicken, picked out from the solids that I’d strained from the broth making. Salt and pepper.

Once the potatoes were tender, we feasted on this local soup, dipping in hunks of day old baguette from Philly’s Metropolitan Bakery. A perfect way to welcome 2010, if you ask me. (And lest you think that there wasn’t a jar in sight, I nibbled on some dilly beans plucked straight from their vessel in between bites of my soup, just for a bit of pucker.)


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Dark Days: A local snack

ricotta cheese and a fuji apple

I spent last night on an airplane, struggling to get comfortable in a narrow seat, in the very back row. When I got back to Philly earlier this morning, on very few hours of sleep, my brain was slow and I felt a little squishy in the stomach. After a shower, I headed into work and proceeded to spend the rest of the day gazed blearily in the general direction of my computer.

I haven’t done much in the way of cooking since Christmas day, and I’m certainly not in any state to be operating a cooktop right now (I’m not to be trusted with a stove on less than four hours of sleep). But knowing that I wanted to keep up my Dark Days participation, I wandered into Sue’s Produce on my way home and bought three lovely local apples (that one up there is a Fuji) and a scant pint of wonderful, creamy ricotta cheese.

However, this isn’t just any ricotta. This is Claudio’s ricotta, made daily in their Italian Market cheese factory (it’s made with Lancaster milk, just blocks from my own 20th floor home). It is luscious cheese, and when combined with slices of apple, becomes something akin to a tangy whipped cream. Putting out a generous bowl of this ricotta along with slivers of sweet-tart apple is one of my favorite party food tricks (just make sure to toss the apples with a bit of lemon juice first, to keep them from browning badly). It is incredibly easy and is so, so good to eat.

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Dark Days: Local Beans, Holiday Chaos

beans

When I was still in Philly, anticipating this vacation I’m currently on, I imagined that I’d rise early (being an east coaster out west), snag a car and spend a couple of hours each morning at a coffee shop with my computer. I figured keeping up with the blog would be easy, given all that concentrated time I’d have, communing with the internet.

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Of course, the best laid plans rarely see the light of day. I have not been waking early. Instead, I’ve been sleeping until 10 or later, gobbling up nearly 12 hours of sleep a night (my candle was fairly well burnt by the time I boarded that plane last week) and allowing myself to flow with the chaos that is family during the holidays.

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I did manage to sneak away on Saturday for a couple of hours, in order to wander the final PSU Farmers Market of the season. I bought mountains of sweet potatoes, onions, beets, tiny red potatoes (for Christmas dinner), brussels sprouts, garlic, apples, pears and a beautiful orange squash for pie. I wandered for a bit with Sarah, chatting while she bought some local beef and mushrooms.

Sarah, buying meat

Knowing that I wanted to try to cook my Dark Days meal even though I was away from my normal vendors and sources, I searched out a main dish that would keep everyone in my parents’ tiny house happy (my mother doesn’t eat pork, my sister avoids red meat entirely and her friend Jamie is a vegetarian). I wound up with some gorgeous local pinto beans, purchased by the tin scoop (I felt delightfully like Laura Ingalls Wilder as I ladled up my beans into a crunchy paper bag).

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I cooked three cups of them with twice as much water, a pungent chopped onion and several mashed garlic cloves until they were tender (towards the end of cooking, I added a bit of chili powder, salt and pepper). For dinner tonight, we set up a bar of tops and bottoms and let everyone compile their own dream bowl of beans. I ate mine with some toasted local bread and cheese. The rest of the house paired theirs with some tomatoes (the last from my parents’ garden, picked green and ripened slowly in the garage), chopped red onion, brown rice, tortilla chips, avocado, cilantro and sour cream.

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