Red Currants & Random Mangoes

Yesterday dawned a sprinkly day out here in the bump of western Minnesota. A good day to relax a bit after a couple hard days of cutting small trees, pulling odd bits of chicken wire, tomato cages, rocks, and fencing out of the weeds, and string-trimming clear various patches of ground around the house and yard.

The red currants are ripening alongside the chicken coop–a jungle of big bushes smothered in red berries. So far, the birds haven’t really attacked them, so I suited up in long pants, socks, boots, and a long-sleeved shirt. About the time I stepped out the door, it decided to rain in earnest.

The first thing I learned about red currant-picking was to scale down the size of the vessel you think you’re going to fill. I went out with my biggest stockpot and soon realized there’d be more rainwater in there than berries. But I did manage to get about 3/4 cup clean-picked (no stems) before deciding it was enough for now.

And then I had to figure out what to do with them. It certainly wasn’t enough for a batch of jelly. I didn’t feel like making muffins or scones. So, I decided to experiment.

My lemon basil needed cutting back from the flower stage, so I grabbed some of that, and I simmered the currants and basil leaves with a tiny amount of water and about 1/3 cup sugar. I threw in a little splash of white wine because it was there. Twenty minutes later, I strained the fruit mixture through a fine sieve and called it good.

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It tastes a little like Twinings Four Red Fruits tea, only sweeter and thicker, of course. Yummy. I drizzled some over roasted veggies last night, and John is talking about finding some salmon to use it with. Next time, I’ll make more–maybe enough to do it as a jelly. There are a lot of currants left in that jungle.

Fresh basil (whether sweet or lemon or another variety) is a great complement to a lot of fruits. If this sounds weird to you, consider that basil is considered a natural complement to tomatoes–which are a tangy-sweet fruit even if we treat them & eat them like a vegetable most of the time.

The success of the red currant-lemon basil syrup inspired me to look at other interesting fruit-basil pairings, and since I just happened to have a random ripe mango sitting in my kitchen, I figured why not try something with that?

I don’t buy mangoes often. They’re obviously not local, and because of that, they’re often not of very good quality by the time they make their long journey up here. But, I had a weak moment in the grocery store with my son, and when he asked for one, I thought, at least he’s asking for something healthy, and bought it.

The mango has been sitting in a bowl on the kitchen island ever since (a couple of weeks), and it finally started to feel soft enough to use–which usually means half of it is rotten. But, I peeled it and it wasn’t too bad. I always start out thinking I’m going to slice a mango in a completely civilized manner and then end up squashing and squeezing the super-ripe flesh off the pit. Oh, well.

I added a sprinkle of sugar, a few drops of vanilla extract, and some slivered sweet basil leaves, then immersion-blended the pulpy mass to a smoother consistency. We had it over peach ice cream, and it was fantastic. There was a little left over, and I couldn’t find a small enough storage container to justify taking space in the fridge, so I just hid out in the kitchen and gobbled the rest with a spoon.

When I went down to shut the “girls” into the coop last night, I decided to see if they like currants, too. Several fruit-laden branches have pushed their way into the enclosed run, and I popped a few berries off to see what would happen. It only took a couple before all the hens were in a mad rush to grab the gleaming red berries as they fell. Guess it’s good they can’t get to the rest of the patch!

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Keeping the Community in Healthy Food Access

Accessing fresh, healthy, and affordable foods in rural communities can be a real struggle. Helping people in Big Stone County build those healthy, local food systems has been my work for the past couple of years, and we have seen some good results from it, along with some economic revitalization in the local food sector. There’s always more to be done.

Production of and access to fresh, affordable produce in a rural “food desert” is a problem with many facets: producers cope with weather stresses, low prices, and lack of markets for their product; retailers deal with quality, pricing, and sourcing issues, and consumers may not always be able to get what they want for a price they’re comfortable paying.

So, it seems like any strategy that can help community members increase their access to and intake of fresh fruits and veggies at an affordable price would be a real boon. Bountiful Baskets, a buying club with chapters across the western U.S. and now starting up in Ortonville, purports to do just that. For a $15 (or $25 for the organic option) “financial contribution,” local residents will be able to place an order online for a large portion of produce and pick it up every other week.

Bountiful Baskets calls itself a “Food Co-op,” and its local organizers refer to it as a “non-profit volunteer co-op.” But Bountiful Baskets does not appear to be incorporated as a co-op nor registered as a non-profit in any of the several western states’ records I searched. It was started in 2009 as a for-profit corporation in Arizona, and it was administratively dissolved by the state in 2011 for failure to file annual reports.

Still, Bountiful Baskets organizers refer to the service in the language used by its administrators, and those administrators are careful to indicate that you are not “ordering” the merchandise, you’re contributing to a pool of money to, well, order something with a whole bunch of other people:

“Making a contribution is sometimes referred to as ‘ordering’, but this is not accurate. We call it contributing or participating, because Bountiful Baskets is not a business that you buy from, but rather a co-op where we all pool our money to buy things together.”

So, why does it matter that they are not incorporated as an actual co-op or non-profit? Because being a real co-op actually means something beyond putting your money in a collective pot to purchase a basket of goods–specifically, a co-op is a member-owned, democratically controlled enterprise that operates according to a specific set of principles. The Granary Food Co-op in Ortonville is one such incorporated cooperative, serving its member-owners and community since 1979.

Being a non-profit actually means something, too. Actual non-profits must report how their money is spent–but Bountiful Baskets is silent on the subject of staff, profits, or anything fiscally related other than the above-quoted “contribution” piece. Being a non-profit does not simply mean that you’re relying on local people to do work without being paid, which is a part of the Bountiful scheme.

Bountiful Baskets and its organizers talk about this service being a great community-building enterprise, and there certainly does seem to be a sense of camaraderie among the volunteers at pick-up sites from the comments and reviews I saw online. But, no money is retained in the local community from these online “contributions.” Food from Mexico and the southwestern U.S. comes in on a truck and gets sorted out and taken home by individual “contributors,” bypassing local grocery stores, local farmers markets, and yes, the local food co-op.

In short, Bountiful Baskets is simply a buying club–and one in which you’ll for the most part be purchasing things you can already get locally. Calling it a co-op or a non-profit or comparing it to a CSA (you never know what you’ll get!) or farmers market (all that produce!) is simply disingenuous–capitalizing on the good feelings people have for those things while not actually doing the things that make people feel good about them.

This is not to disparage those unpaid local organizers attempting to set up chapters in their communities–I can certainly empathize with the strain of sourcing good food on a budget–it is simply to tell the truth about what this business is and what it isn’t.

And it is also to ask specific questions: Where do the “contributions” go? Where does the food come from? Who is making money from this enterprise, and how much are they making?

Yes, ordering through Bountiful Baskets can save you money. But the money you’re saving over buying locally is money that pays for local jobs and local infrastructure in your community. It’s money that keeps the rent paid, the lights on, the coolers running, and the farmers farming. It’s money that pays for employees and the merchandise they stock on the shelves.

Building local food systems and increasing access to healthy food isn’t just about the food itself–it’s also about the role of healthy food and local grocery stores in a strong and diversified local economy. Sourcing cheaper produce by circumventing local retailers may be a boost for your family’s budget, but it should not be confused with real strategies for building and investing in community.

New Potatoes

I haven’t watered my potato patch but once this season–and then only a few days ago, when I realized that the end of our stretch of extreme heat wasn’t going to give us any rain.

I never got the red potatoes in at all, so all I have is three rows of German Butterballs and two rows of Austrian Crescent fingerlings.

Fingerlings don’t make good “new” or early-harvested potatoes in my experience–you really have to wait for the plants to die down to get tubers of any reasonable size. Then, when they are ready to harvest, their thin skins and tender flesh make them kind of similar to a new potato anyhow.

But they’re not ready now.

Thankfully, the German Butterballs are. They are a yellow-fleshed heirloom variety similar to a Yukon Gold. Yum!

There is no messing about digging in the hills, filching potatoes from underneath live plants like eggs from under a setting hen. If I’m going to have new potatoes, I just go ahead and dig out one whole plant. That way, I’m not disturbing the roots of several plants.

I don’t know if filching potatoes makes much difference to a growing plant, but it just seems to me that it would–even if only a little. It’s a common practice though, so if you have a preference in your own potato patch, do what thou will.

Digging the whole plant also gives me a sense of how well the variety is doing in the rest of the row–if there is a good mess of potatoes under a plant, I expect a better harvest from the row than if I only get a couple measly tubers.

New potatoes have more sugar and less starch than storage (full grown) potatoes. They also have more vitamin C, though I assume a lot of that cooks away. And speaking of cooking–new potatoes are done a lot faster than a full-grown potato. It’s easy to overcook them if you’re not paying attention.

The “B-sized” red potatoes that show up in the supermarkets around this time of year are really not “new” potatoes. New potatoes are special–their thin skins and tender flesh mean they don’t ship well, and they spoil/turn starchy quickly. Find a local farmer or visit your local farmers market if you want the real deal, and cook them as soon as you can.

Most sources say new potatoes are ready to harvest as soon as the plant flowers. I usually wait a bit longer–my potatoes have been flowering for over a month now, and to my mind, the size of the potatoes I’ve got now is just about right.

How to fix them? I say the simpler the better. Steamed with just a little water, or roasted in the oven with nothing but salt, pepper, butter, and maybe just a little parsley. Butter is pretty important in my mind, but use oil if you must. You can toss them alongside a roast for the last half hour of cooking, too.

Whatever you do, save the heavier seasonings for your full-sized potatoes this fall and winter, and savor the bare, earthy flavor of these tender, early gems!

Supper Salad Season!

All hail the return of the supper salad! It’s produce season again in the Big Stone County area, and while the farmers markets don’t start for close to two weeks, there’s produce to be had if you know where to find it. Soon, it will be at The Granary Coop–hopefully as soon as tomorrow or Wednesday!

All Hail the Supper Salad!

I snuck on over to Milbank to Rocky Gardens roadside stand to pick up their advertised asparagus, lettuce, and radishes on Saturday afternoon. I’d seen the signs up last week, and I was dreamin’ and droolin’ over the prospect of some green (and red) goodness. It has been too long!

Saturday night, I brought steamed, buttered, and lemon-juiced asparagus spears to my friends’ house for supper (and the next day I returned to help clean their chicken coop–don’t underestimate my desire for free manure!). There were a few spears left over (I made a lot), so I added them to lettuce, sliced radishes, and a sliced-up Pastures A Plenty mild Italian brat for a big supper salad all for me.

When I do a supper salad, I don’t mess around. I just go ahead and use a big serving bowl to create the thing because a stingy little soup or cereal bowl won’t be nearly enough. And because I live on the prairie (OK–and because I admit to liking it a good deal), I dressed it with a little Annie’s Cowgirl Ranch dressing from the Granary.

So, you may think this is effete or silly or whatever, but one of the things I replaced pretty quickly after getting back into a home place after last summer’s fire was my salad spinner. I am really not a fan of all the latest kitchen gadgets and gewgaws and especially of tools that take up a lot of space and only do one thing, but a salad spinner is a tool that does one thing really, really well. It helps wash and dry leafy greens quickly and neatly.

True story: back when I was married and we moved out of our very first co-residence, we had to leave a lot of stuff behind as we traveled across the US. One of those things was the salad spinner I bought at Orange Tree Imports in the Monroe Street district of Madison, WI. I bought that spinner after I joined Vermont Valley Community Farm CSA as a worker-member, and I realized that it would make my life about a bazillion times easier.

So, I brought that spinner with me back to South Dakota, and then I left it in a storage shed to be plundered by friends the second time I left the state. Who knows what ever happened to it. The next spinner lasted a bit longer–bought at a drugstore in the same town where I abandoned my first spinner, and I kept that second one through thick and thin (and living on the rez, and the divorce, and later moving to Minnesota) until arson claimed it.

Along the way, I also acquired a 5 gallon salad spinner–used for dealing with big batches of greens coming out of my market gardens. I tell you–once you are spinning salads and greens for twenty CSA members of your own plus your farmers market customers with a single-family spinner, the big investment in a professional model doesn’t seem so bad.

Gone, but not forgotten

That spinner also melted down in the fire, and I’m not sure when or if it’ll be replaced.

Anyhow, my point about all this is that there are some kitchen tools that only do one thing that are still worth having if you can swing it. Even with a limited amount of storage space. Even though they might seem effete or silly or whatever. The best thing about a salad spinner is simply this: it will encourage you to eat more leafy greens.

And though I’m not as happy with the new spinner as I was with my old one, I’m sure happy to be eating greens again!

PS–The Big Stone Lake Area Farmers Market starts soon! Ortonville: Saturday mornings starting May 12th. Clinton: Tuesday evenings starting May 15th.

Dinner That’s Days in the Making

I’ve been putting in a lot of hours lately between workshops, conferences, and end–of-last-year reports. That can mean catch-as-catch can meals and little snacks here and there.

With a fridge cleaned out from pre-travel noshing, things are getting a little thin in terms of real sit-down meals. But in between typings and travelings, I’ve been prepping some seriously slow food meals. I mean really slow food meals as in, I’ll get around to finishing that project tomorrow–or the next day–or…

Round about the holidays, I started getting a craving for rye bread. I think it had something to do with all the pickled fish I was consuming–what with living amongst people whose culture it is to eat such things. I picked up a portion of rye flour at the Granary Coop, and I’ve made more than a couple decent loaves.

I like to soak rye flour for a day or two before making it into bread. I don’t know why I started doing that, but something Klaas Martens said at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society’s winter conference last weekend confirmed my intution: rye is harder to digest than a lot of other cereals. That’s why rye is traditionally “soured,” fermented, or soaked before using in recipes.

Three (four? five?) Day Rye Bread

So, this is what will be my next batch of bread–when I get around to it. I started some rye flour soaking a couple (three?) days ago–just about a cup whisked into some water with a pinch of sugar. I left it for a day or two, and then I whisked in a little more liquid and some all-purpose flour.  Notice all those bubbles? That’s the wild yeast that lives here colonizing and fermenting my mixture.

Tonight or (more likely) tomorrow at some point I will add more flour, caraway seeds, honey or molasses or sugar, sunflower oil or butter, and a little salt, and I’ll make this into a loaf of bread that’ll be absolutely scrumptious (at least, based on my previous experiences).

Or, I’ll just take a scoop out and use that to start a loaf–I have a small crock into which I could toss the rest and just let my beginning sourdough prosper with regular feedings of flour and liquid. That’d be quicker than starting over each time–especially since I usually don’t think about doing so until I’m on my last little heel of delicious homemade bread and wishing there was more.

I’m all about instant gratification, dontcha know!

On another slow food front, I started a split pea soup last night that just might be ready sometime later tonight if I’m patient enough. I wasn’t patient last night, and I took out and thawed in the sink a lovely thick Pastures A Plenty ham steak. I ate the bulk of that rather large piece of meat with my own garden’s onions sauteed in butter, saurkraut given to me by a friend who pitied my kraut-less pleas, and a sweet and spicy mustard.

The steak had a bone and a few gristly bits, and I took those parts and what was left from my feast and started simmering them with green split peas.

But it was too late at night and my simmer was too low to create something edible quickly. As anyone who adores the sludgy green concoction knows, split pea soup takes patience. I turned the heat off before I went to bed and refrigerated it when I woke this morning (no, this is not ServSafe approved behavior).

26-Hour Soup

When I returned home this afternoon, I brought it up to heat again, and also started some garden onions and organic celery (yay, Bonnie’s Hometown Grocery!) to saute in butter. The peas have now come together in a mass of green smoothness, the ham is removed, diced, and replaced, and the celery-and-onion pan is deglazed with red wine. A little more simmering, and a late supper will be ready.

Or maybe it’s lunch tomorrow.