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What happened is: I had a baby. Then another. Now those babies are riding bikes, reading books, and reprogramming my phone. We moved for more space, and then again because of traffic. Through it all, I kept my day job. So we get ingredients where we can. We need broccoli, spinach and lemons—that’s the grocery by my work. We want pork shoulder, that’s the fancy store near school.

Some moms work full time, attend every soccer game, and serve their family beautiful vegetables from the CSA every evening. I’m happy when we eat a meal sitting down. Maybe when the kids are through college and we retire to our farmstead, we’ll become locavores again.

But we still cook from scratch, because it turns out you have to feed children every day. And home cooking is the most reasonable way for all of us to eat good food without spending more money than we make. We don’t run a restaurant, so what we make for breakfast or dinner needs to work for grown ups, too.

When the babies were five months old, it was about creating taste blobs of pureed green beans and minced pork chop, with ingredients cribbed from the grown up dinner. It was also about having less than zero time for grocery shopping, and needing to bang out a tasty, healthy meal in fifteen minutes. A couple years hence, it was about sitting down together to eat food everyone would enjoy, such as grilled teriyaki salmon, rice, and broccoli. And making dinner in twenty minutes.

My kids were reluctant eaters, especially with new flavors and textures. It took a year of sampling dozens of foods over and over for my daughter to become less skeptical. Now at eight she enjoys everything—or “everything except eggplant,” as she says. The other is still kind of finicky about what goes in his mouth. But both will eat sushi anytime, anywhere. They devour dim sum and fried rice and pad kee mao without hot chiles, known as ‘noodle whip’ in our house. They could subsist on ramen.

A couple years ago my kids rejected that childhood staple, boxed mac ‘n cheese. (Annie’s).

“It’s just not very good,” my son said. “Ours is a lot better.”

I was proud of my mac, prouder of his palette.

They love playing in the kitchen. Over the years kitchen play has morphed into rolling out pasta dough for ravioli, making pizza from scratch, and when we have time, making an entire dinner together. My daughter learned fractions from baking banana bread. And just like it says in the parenting books, they will eat everything they cook.

The five year old, the ‘fussy’ eater, is serious about his farming and knows a ripe plum from one that’s three days too early. He grows beans and zucchini and cucumbers in our the community garden, and he eats everything he grows except tomatoes, which he gives to his sister. He was willing to try parsley this summer, because we grew it.

Of course it’s better to eat local: the ingredients are uber-fresh and harvested close to their peak, so the flavors are more sophisticated and interesting and just better. It’s just not always the reality of life with a family, a job, and a desire for basic sanity. But flexing to life as it is, rather than what you wish it was, that’s the essence of parenting. And I wouldn’t give up eating sushi with my children, anytime, anywhere, for anything in the world.

 

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Last fall I saved tomato seed. This was not about my carbon footprint. It was just something to try, another life experience. And why not Sun Gold tomatoes, those portable flavor bombs that produce for weeks — months — in the garden? So there I was in my kitchen, fermenting, decanting, drying the fuzzy little things. Come spring, the seeds sprouted into beefy seedlings. Anybody can do this, I thought.

I was so proud I gave plants to friends, neighbors, a colleague at work. A fellow pea patcher planted two in the kids’ garden. Everybody exclaimed over them. “They’re so healthy!” they said. The plant I kept has outpaced them all, a novel situation for someone who’s usually a day late and a dollar short. It’s because the seed is so local, so acclimatized, I decided. Mid-July, despite of months of cool and rain, and the plant’s limbs are frothing over the top of their wire cage.

Yesterday I caught a glimpse of the first green fruits. On second look, they didn’t seem quite right. Not like Sun Golds of yore, at least. And well. Here’s why: Sun Golds are hybrid tomatoes. Which means the tomatoes themselves don’t produce true seed. Second generation F1 hybrids, which these are, tend towards a random smattering of yellow, red, and orange cherries — of uncertain taste and character, I hardly need mention.

So this life experience now involves calling seedling recipients to say, “Just letting you know about your mutt tomatoes!” And the kicker is I actually bought fresh Sun Gold seed this year. Just in case things didn’t work out with my little experiment. Never even opened the package.

Not much to brag about at the pea patch right now. Snow peas are done, fava beans distant history. We got our ten strawberries for the year. And owing to a cool, rainy June it’s still weeks before summer’s first beans, squash, and tomatoes.

Yet these rogue flowers from another gardener’s seed spill — calendulas possibly? — are producing like a dream. We don’t eat them, of course, but a jar of blossoms on the table sure makes everything else taste better.

The homegrown berry harvest has been stuck for years at about a dozen strawberries. Per year. In prior times this meant a few intense summery bites in a composed salad or a creamy dessert. Prospects were low for an increase in harvest size; our plants grew in pots, their runners stymied by by concrete and wood and trampled by dogs.

These days a free-range Biscuit pounces on anything showing a blush of crimson, meaning that the berries rarely make it back to the kitchen.

I’m coming to terms with the reality that we grow berries now mostly to make a point. Feeding a family has come to mean purchasing fruit in quantity, wherever it’s sold — at the grocery store, produce markets, from farmshares and from Costco, where berries are sold in giant plastic clamshells that carve up your hands if you’re careless.

It’s quite the opposite of what we first practiced when embarking upon this local food adventure, and not exactly the model I envisioned setting for our daughter. Fact is, though, we’re not doing very many composed salads right now. We’re reconsidering our household approach to dessert. And more to the point we’ve decided that good eating means you may eat as many fruits, vegetables, and nuts as you’d like, at meal and designated snack times. And that means having ample fresh supply on hand without killing the family shopper. It’s a method that works for all right now, including a toddler who manages to eat widely, and well.

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Here in the cool Northwest we’re still snapping snow peas from vines and pulling up the last overwintered fava beans. The Biscuit couldn’t be happier. She overgrazed the peas until a rationing program was put in place. She devours the favas warm and just skinned, can’t wait for a drizzle of olive oil or crunchy salt. She sits on the back porch and tears open the big spongy pods, samples the beans raw, says, “I want to eat them now — now — now!” Patience, grasshopper.

Because getting to those delicate, ethereally green favas is a process. There’s the shelling, the brief swim in boiling water, the fingers fumbling with pale, tough, hot skins. It’s meditative, yes. But you also feel it in your legs, planted for long minutes beside the kitchen table. Along the way, a generous pile of pods turns much smaller pile of beans. You worry there won’t be enough to feed your people. But it gets done and then dinner practically cooks itself: pasta tossed with ricotta, parm, a handful of beans.

This iteration incorporates wilted arugula, because ours was bolting. You can use spinach instead, or skip greens altogether. We found that cooked arugula delivers the mild, pleasing taste of spinach without the oxalic acid. Spring through and through, no matter that it’s June.

Recipe: Fusilli with Fava Beans, Ricotta, and Wilted Arugula

1 lb fava bean pods, for approximately ½ c shelled and skinned fresh fava beans / ½ lb fusilli / olive oil / 1 clove garlic, minced / ½ lb overgrown arugula or spinach / 2 tbls toasted walnuts, chopped / ¼ cup ricotta cheese / Parmesan cheese to taste / salt & pepper

Remove fava beans from their pods, drop the beans in boiling salted water, then slip off skins while still hot. Toss the beans with olive oil and salt to taste. Rinse the arugula or spinach. Leave some water clinging to the leaves and chop leaves coarsely.

Cook the pasta until al dente, then drain. Meantime warm 1 tablespoon olive oil in a saute pan. Add minced garlic and saute for 30 seconds over medium heat, until just fragrant. Add arugula or spinach and saute until wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in walnuts, ricotta, Parmesan, and favas. Toss with pasta. Salt and pepper to taste. Feeds 2-plus.

The most homegrown thing on the table this Thanksgiving was pie, and though it was lovely, I’m not sure I want to have that life experience again.

The main trouble was that the pumpkins were just awful in the garden this summer. Maybe it’s that we’re city folk at the 48th parallel, with postage-stamp backyards and 24/7 shade. But they hogged all the warmth and sunlight, blocked access to the back steps and killed about half the grass, leaving behind a cold season mud pit. Much coddling was required to produce just three little sugar pumpkins, and even then powdery mildew brought down the vines in late September, the fruits dark green and speckled, not a blush of orange in evidence.

A blasting indoor radiator turned the eldest of them orange by Halloween. The Biscuit notched this as a major victory. The two remaining ones continued their ripening at a glacial pace. We finally roasted them yesterday morning, and I wish I could tell you it was an epiphany. For sure, we had fun running our fingers through pumpkin guts. We counted seeds until we got to twenty and lost interest. But truth be told, roasting and pureeing pumpkins was just one more thing to do on a long Thanksgiving prep list. It’s hard to want to go through all that again.

(Just in case, though, here’s what I learned: the more orange they get, the sweeter they taste. We followed Lane Morgan’s infallible instructions for pumpkin pie in the Winter Harvest Cookbook. )

Rempel Family Farm

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?

The story starts with a fistful of cavolo nero leaves. Time was tight. There was no game plan to speak of, and cheesy ziti bubbled and browned in the oven. But who was ready to embrace winter — by which I mean stewed kale on the side? Not here. The snappy decision was raw kale salad. We’d declined to try it a few years back, when it was all the rage.

And well! I’m late to this party, but let me tell you this stuff is actually delicious. I love the salad’s slight crunch and green freshness; the lemon juice softens the kale ribbons just enough to blunt its raw edge. Should you require further proof of concept, consider that my husband, a skeptic through and through, packed the remnants for lunch today.

Recipe: Tuscan Kale Salad

1 bunch Tuscan kale, aka black kale, dinosaur kale, cavolo nero (see photo above) / 2 tbls lemon juice / 3 tbls olive oil / 1 small clove garlic, minced finely / 3 tbls Parmesan cheese / scant ¼ tsp salt / crushed red pepper to taste / ¼ cup breadcrumbs, toasted

Strip stems from kale and slice into ½-inch ribbons. Mix together lemon juice, oil, garlic, cheese, salt, and red pepper, then toss thoroughly with kale until all strands are dressed. Toss again with breadcrumbs and let sit for 5 minutes before serving. Feeds 4 as a side. Adapted from Melissa Clark.

Fifteen days left for these guys to put on some serious orange. My money is on indoor heating to beat nature this time of season. Any pumpkin-ripening tips — especially chants, spells, or strange brews — would be welcome.

Ferndale fries, made from locally grown potatoes, will replace tater tots and French fries at one public elementary school in Ferndale, Wash. I like it!

Eat Local Northwest

A food blog documenting the adventures of two friends trying to cook and eat sustainably in Seattle and in Anchorage.
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