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In the USDA’s first-ever market report about the local foods economy in the U.S., the story that emerges is of two distinct farming cultures. Small farms, defined as those generating $50 grand or less in gross yearly sales, account for the vast majority of farms selling local fruits and vegetables, mostly to the actual consumer. Yet — no surprise here — a few much larger farms took in half of all dollars spent on local food, to the tune of $2.7 billion, through more traditional distribution channels.
Especially striking was how much time small-farm farmers devote to selling, as compared to the bigger guys. And yet these small-farm folks bring in an average of just $7800 per farm per year — and they don’t tend to work off farm, to boot. What that means is they take home less dough than just about anybody else in America including the unemployed.
This is worrying if you like eating locally. You wonder how many farmers will eventually decide they require more than sub-poverty level wages, no matter how obsessed and passionate they are about growing good things to feed people.
It’s also cause for soul-searching as a consumer. I know it’s heresy to suggest as much, but are farmers markets really the best way to ensure a strong future for local foods if they generate little income for farmers? Can retail markets evolve so that local foods are increasingly available, while paying small farmers a living wage? Will consumers continue to buy local produce if there isn’t a face and story to accompany it? Do the smallest craft farms deserve special support, or is the bigger-is-better model simply more sustainable?
What do you think?
Having married into a New England family, I know to leave chowdah to the experts. But an opportunity presented itself in the form of 22 lbs of sockeye salmon, sustainably harvested out of Bristol Bay, Alaska, and now tucked away in our freezer thanks to a neighborhood purchasing co-op. Unless you’ve been charged with feeding a small army, this situation calls for fast diversification of your recipe portfolio.
A recent cooking problem went like this: leftover roast salmon, rapidly aging corn on the cob, wrinkly potatoes. I floated the chowder idea to the husband, who pointedly refuses foods such as lobstah when prepared so far from home. But he didn’t immediately nix the plan, and this creamy, herby chowder was the delicious result. Bonus, it was a hit with the Biscuit, who has also diversified her portfolio of late.
The recipe looks more complicated than it really is, and experience may yet simplify it. For starters:
Creamy Salmon Chowder
4 thick strips bacon / 4 medium-sized waxy potatoes, diced into ½-inch cubes / 1 clove garlic, minced / 2 shallots, minced / 1 ear fresh corn, kernels stripped, or 1 cup frozen / 1 bay leaf / 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves / hot pepper to taste / 1 cup clam juice (optional) / 1 cup heavy cream / 1 lb salmon fillets, skinned and cut into chunks / whole milk if needed / salt & pepper / 1 tbls fresh dill, chopped / 1 tbls fresh chives, chopped / 2 tsp fresh lemon juice
Heat a heavy stockpot over medium-high heat. Render bacon until just crisp, then remove bacon to a paper towel. Pour out all but 1 tbls bacon fat from pot. Turn heat down to medium and add diced potatoes, garlic, and shallots, and cook, stirring, until flavors are released, about 4 minutes. Add clam juice if using, 3 cups water, and corn cobs if available, plus bay leaf, thyme, hot pepper, and 1/2 tsp salt and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and cook on low until potatoes are tender, about 12 minutes. Remove corn cobs and squeeze juices back into the pot.
Add cream and salmon and cook gently for 5 minutes on medium low heat. Don’t let the liquid boil. Add corn kernels and continue at a simmer until salmon is just cooked through, 3-5 minutes more. Thin chowder to desired consistency with whole milk, if you wish. Remove bay leaf. Stir in dill, chives, and lemon juice, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately. Feeds 4. Serve with crusty bread and a salad.
At today’s farmers market you could pretty well sense the seasons turning. Marketgoers swarmed the ripe tomatoes, perhaps contemplating a last Caprese salad. There were deals to be had: Tonnemaker offered their flavorful heirloom tomatoes at 10 lbs for $15, and Billy’s luscious seconds were 20 lbs for $25. On a square of cardboard somebody had written, “Great for sauce! Perfect for canning! Tomatoes all winter!” There was a certain frenzy — or was that anxiety? — in the air.
Indeed, you can feel in your bones that fall has arrived. But there’s still something delicious about these last few warm days. Maybe it’s knowing that the flavor and brightness of summer will soon be gone, that all you can do is savor what we have now.
Recipe Refurb: Basic Tomato Sauce
3 lbs tomatoes / 1 onion, minced / 2 cloves garlic / 1 carrot, minced / 5 leaves fresh basil, minced / 1 bay leaf
Blanch the tomatoes by dropping in boiling water for 30-40 seconds. A crack should form across the tomato skin. Remove and cool tomatoes then slip off skins.
Heat a heavy pot over medium. Swirl in vegetable oil. When oil is warmed add onion, garlic, and carrot celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes, stirring some. Add basil, bay leaf, and peeled tomatoes (I like seeds in, but you can squeeze them out), and simmer with lid off for an hour. Remove bay leaf, then puree sauce on ‘pulse’ mode in a food processor. Makes about 6 cups. Use some towards penne alla vodka.
A trip to the farmers market with the Biscuit — what could be better? Well. Set this Biscuit down on two wheels, and you better keep one eye on the pickling cucumbers stored down low while you browse the chile peppers and eggplants. I was feeling ambitious: corn and tomatoes looked at their prime, there were huge boxes of fragrant summer fruit, and plenty of stuff the Biscuit actually eats, like broccoli and chard.
But not so fast. The little critter ducked under the tables and climbed into crates of plums and apples, pausing briefly to pet a doggy. I was not to be deterred; I scooped her up, stopped to look at the carrots and greens, picked up a happy bundle of dahlias. We contemplated potatoes.
“You sure do like to sing,” a woman told the Biscuit on our way out.
These days we get to the farmers market so infrequently that I try to cram it all in. Which means sometimes I forget when to say when, and back home found the peaches and perfectly ripe tomatoes smashed to a pulp, having jostled with a honeydew melon and a purple cabbage, and lost.
Oh not funny, not funny at all.
But eventually I got over it, with this jam. You need to bring your ambitions down from the heights, this is your recipe.
Peach and Ginger Freezer Jam
1 lb peaches / 1 oz minced crystallized ginger / 2 cups sugar / 1 tbls lemon juice / ½ package pectin
Blanch peaches in boiling water for one minute. Drain, then peel and pit peaches. Crush fruit flesh with your fingers and mix with minced ginger, sugar, and lemon juice, then bring to a boil hard for one minute in a medium saucepan. Add reconstituted pectin and stir. Pour into glass jars. Store in the fridge, using within two weeks, or freeze for up to three months.
Fresh corn is now at the farmers markets. This week’s supplier was Alvarez Farm of Mabton, Wash. — three ears for two bucks. Which meant corn on the cob for dinner, plus a bonus cob. And that led to this easy salad combining sweet corn kernels with fragrant basil, a pairing that delivers fabulous summery flavors. The recipe, if you can call it that:
Corn and Basil Salad
2 ears fresh corn / 2 tbls olive oil / 2 tsp cider vinegar / salt & pepper to taste / leaves from 2 sprigs fresh basil, sliced thinly
Shuck corn and cook in boiling water for 4 minutes, then drain. Strip corn kernels from the cob and toss with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Gently mix in basil. Let rest for 20 minutes, then serve at room temperature. Feeds 4 as a side.
Summer has apparently been cancelled here on the damp and gray side of the state. But Billy Allstot‘s tomatoes out of Tonasket, Wash., are at the farmers markets lately and their flavor is improving week by week. You can hunt down the tomatoes at a number of markets including Columbia City and Wallingford on Wednesdays and Madrona Fridays. Or enjoy them at a variety of local establishments like Serafina, where they’re on the menu right now.
Here at home we paired tomato slices with fresh mozzarella from Golden Glen Creamery, basil from Alm Hill Gardens, which was selling pinched basil tops by the ounce last week, plus drizzles of a nice olive oil from our friends’ NorCal olive trees. Talk about a place where the food always tastes like summer.
A long holiday weekend entertaining dinner guests, baby still not sleeping well (still!), and I was out of steam. More time in the kitchen genuinely did not appeal. But we had to eat, as these things go, and to help things along was a half-carved leftover ham in the fridge. Hearty soups like split pea or white bean were one idea, but the timing seemed wrong for a warm, sunny evening before a week of forecast rain. Lasagne with ham, mushroom, and ricotta sounded tasty, but too much of a process. Chinese food? I didn’t have the energy to think about it.
That’s a lengthy process of elimination to get to this pasta, which cooks quickly and gently and makes use of a few things available locally or in the garden right now. That it’s tasty — the cream picks up a nice hit of smoke from the ham — was our good luck, and it was lovely with leftover wine, a nice Chenin Blanc from Washington state vintner L’Ecole No. 41.
Green garlic is around for just a short time in late spring, so there’s not a lot of opportunity for trial and error, at least not in a kitchen like mine, where the emphasis right now is on getting people fed. I used small young bulbs and their leaves, which are often compared to leeks in flavor and attitude. The stem was hot and garlicky, and I chopped it into the compost pile instead.
Pasta with Ham, Peas, and Green Garlic
½ pound pasta such as farfalle / 2-3 bulbs young garlic plus green leaves / 2 tbls butter / ½ cup smoky ham, cut into slivers / ½ cup shelled green peas / ½ cup cream / salt & pepper to taste / shredded Parmesan cheese to taste
Boil salted water, cook pasta, and drain. Meanwhile heat a skillet over medium heat. Mince the young garlic bulbs. Cut garlic leaves in thin slices.
Melt butter gently in pan, swirl, then add minced garlic bulbs and ham. Ham will become warm and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add peas and cream and cook until slightly reduced, 3-5 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss with cooked pasta, Parmesan, and sliced garlic leaves, and serve immediately. Feeds 2.
While on hiatus from the food blog life — a hiatus I’m enjoying quite a bit, thank you, because this gig can really suck you in — things evolved on the Interwebs. The whole food-cart phenomenon caught on, enabled by Twitter, a happy development for those traveling with bambino in tow. People are opening brick and mortar restaurants. One favorite blogger, Langdon Cook, published his first book, the fabulous Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager. Another favorite blogger, Hank Shaw, is at work on a book about honestly gotten food.
Then there’s this new trend of blogging farmers, which includes the Stokesberry chicken people from Olympia, Local Roots Farm in Carnation, the Foraged and Found folks, and Shelley at Whistling Train Farm, all purveyors of some of the best local things to eat. Seriously, how do they find the time?
In any case, I was psyched to read that the Stokesberrys are raising their first flock of ducks for market. Could I be any more excited about the prospect? No, I don’t think I could, even if the gratification isn’t quite as instant as, say, Twitter to Skillet street food in 30 minutes. But knowing the Stokesberrys, this is going to be some seriously good fowl.
During by last couple of visits to the South Anchorage Farmers Market I found myself looking a little more closely at the numbers. I’ve always been willing to pay more for local (chorus: it’s healthier, tastes better, uses less energy, preserves farmland) but the prices weren’t that different, and in some cases were better, than those at my local box store.
Here’s a comparison for some of my recent purchases:
Artichokes: $2.50 at the market vs. $3 at Palmer Fred Meyer
Onions (yellow): $.75/ea (market) and .99/lb, or about $.50/ea (FM).
Broccoli: $1 a crown (market), $.79/lb at FM, or about $1/crown (FM)
Corn: $1/ear (end of season price), $.79/ear (FM).
Cauliflower: $2/ea (market), $2.29/ea (organic, FM)
I’m curious: do you see similar pricing Outside?
Best find at this week’s farmers markets is the $2 cantaloupe from Tonnemaker Orchards, of Royal City, Wash. You can tell from the sweet scent and heft of these babies that they won’t disappoint. A smallish one that we chilled, sliced, and ate unadorned was rapture-inducing. You can find Tonnemaker at a variety of the Seattle farmers markets including Columbia City, University, and Broadway.