For centuries all food was farm to table. People grew most of their own food or bought it from nearby farmers. The food that they put on the table was fresh, local and literally farm to table. During the early part of the twentieth century more people moved into urban areas and, along with improved transportation and refrigeration, made it possible for foods to be transported from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. Food was no longer picked on the farm and served within just a day or so. The longer the time between harvest and your dining room table, the more quality is lost. Nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly.
As we become more concerned with where food comes from and how it is prepared, the term “farm-to-table” has become more prominent. Farm-to-table is more of a movement than a particular cuisine. The focus is on eliminating as many steps as possible between where the food is grown and where it’s eaten. Getting food straight from the farmer cuts out the middleman – like packaging and processing plants and commercial vendors – and assures consumers that their food is fresh, nutritious and locally produced. When you buy locally produced foods, you are being more environmentally friendly, keeping business in the community and supporting the local economy.
Farm-to-table food offerings encompass any type of whole food imaginable, as long as it’s in season. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, nuts and even baked goods; just not anything processed – like a bag of potato chips or packaged chicken nuggets. A common fallacy is that the farm to table label means that the ingredients are organic. Sometimes the farmer uses organic techniques but can’t afford to meet the procedures that the government requires for the certified label. Other times the farm may use non-organic fertilizers or pesticides.
Wondering where the nearest farmers markets are to you?
The USDA launched a searchable Farmers Market Directory that includes over 6,000 locations in the United States: http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/default.aspx
After the long winter months of scanty crops, root vegetables and tubers, the farmers markets are reawakening and brimming with bright-colored vegetables, enticing baked goods and delicious jams that make for a full sensory experience. Strolling by the colorful stands of produce, you’ll find fresh field strawberries, crisp green beans, plump artichokes and bright green asparagus. Following are some facts about the spring produce that is emerging and some recipes on how to make use of them.
Perhaps because it’s only harvested during a brief six to seven-week period between April and June, asparagus is the one vegetable we most associate with the arrival of spring.
When picking asparagus at the farmers market or at your local store, look for bundles with firm spears whose tips are closed, plump and green. Avoid dry, brownish looking spears. Once you’ve made your pick, it’s very important to store your asparagus properly to keep them fresh, as it is a rather fragile vegetable. Wash asparagus repeatedly in water until clean, pat dry, and cut off the hard stem ends. Then wrap a moist paper towel around the stems and place them in a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator. Or, even better, stand them upright in a couple of inches of cold water. If stored properly, asparagus will keep for 2 or 3 days.
To blanch asparagus, drop whole or cut, into a large pot of simmering water and cook for 3 minutes. Then, drain and shock the asparagus by running it under cold water or putting it in an ice bath. When blanched, the texture of asparagus becomes a little softer, but it is still crisp and the color brightens.
Steaming is the perfect cooking method for a health-conscious diet because it utilizes very little or no fat. In a large deep pot bring 1 inch of water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Fasten the asparagus stalks in a bundle with a string and place the bundle upright in the water. Cover and steam for 6 to 8 minutes or until tender. Alternatively, use a wide pan or Dutch oven, add a thin layer of water and place a single layer of asparagus at the bottom. Cover and steam.
Stir-frying is a very quick cooking technique that uses relatively low amounts of fat and very high heat. The secret is to keep the food in constant motion in a wok or sauté pan. Once you’ve cut the asparagus spears in the desired shape (cutting them on a slant is typical for stir-fry dishes), blanch them, then heat a small amount of oil in the pan over high heat. Once the oil is hot enough, add the asparagus and stir constantly until tender but still crisp on the surface, about 2- 3 minutes.
Sautéing asparagus is fairly similar to stir-frying. While stir-frying is more often used in Asian-inspired recipes, sautéing is typical of Western cuisines. It’s the cooking method most often used to prepare asparagus as a side dish to meat or fish entrees or in sauces for pasta. With sautéing, as well as with stir-frying, it’s preferable to use blanched asparagus. In a skillet, heat oil or butter, add the asparagus and cook, tossing occasionally until tender but still firm and crispy, about 3 to 5 minutes.
This is my favorite way to serve asparagus.
- 1 bunch asparagus
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Half a lemon
- Parmesan cheese, grated
- Salt and pepper
Preheat your oven to 400°F. Snap off the bottoms of the stalks. On a large baking sheet, toss asparagus in the olive oil with salt and pepper to taste. Roast until tender and lightly browned, about 15-20 min (depending on the thickness of the stalks). Squeeze the lemon juice over the asparagus and sprinkle with Parmesan.
Sweet potatoes are not yams and vice-versa. They are two totally unrelated botanical species, although the roots can be similar in shape. What’s the difference? The true sweet potato is related to the morning-glory vine and is native to South America; the yam is native to Africa and Asia. All of this is especially confusing because orange-fleshed sweet potatoes have been traditionally referred to as “yams” in parts of the US. In general, true yams have a drier texture, are starchier in taste and are much lower in beta-carotene (but higher in protein) than sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes are number 38 out of 53 on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The roots are susceptible to a number of different pests and diseases that are controlled with insecticides and fungicides, so check with your local sweet potato farmer, if you’re concerned about this.
Sweet potatoes are in season in most parts of the US from fall through spring and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most are large and football shaped, with a fat middle and tapering ends, although some heirloom varieties are quite small and slender. Their skin can be russet, tan, cream, light purple or red. Sweet potato flesh is just as colorful: it may be orange (like the common Jewel sweet potato), yellow, creamy white (like the Japanese sweet potato) or even purple-magenta (as seen in the Okinawan sweet potato). Sweet potato varieties can also be divided into “dry” varieties (better for frying or boiling, because they hold their shape better) and “moist” or “baking” types. Look for sweet potatoes that are firm, with no bruises, shrivel-y spots (especially common on their tapered ends) or brown bits. Avoid sweet potatoes that have begun to sprout.
Sweet potatoes can be stored for several weeks under the right conditions: cool, dry and away from light. Don’t store them in the refrigerator, as this accelerates their decline — they don’t like to be too cold or too moist. Sweet potatoes that get too warm tend to sprout and become shriveled and mushy.
Sweet potatoes can be baked, roasted, boiled, fried, grilled, mashed or pureed. They are commonly paired with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and other warming spices, along with brown sugar or maple syrup. They also are delicious paired with oranges (juice or zest) and apples. They can be mashed and added to any number of baked goods, like muffins, biscuits and cakes. Cook sweet potatoes in their skin to retain the most nutrients. You can peel them after cooking. An enzyme in sweet potatoes that converts starch to sugar is most active between 135 – 170 degrees (Fahrenheit), so cook sweet potatoes for a longer period of time at a lower temperature to get the sweetest sweet potatoes. Baking sweet potatoes in the oven at 350 degrees or lower will achieve this.
Sweet Potato Soup with Apples
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 1 small, tart apple, peeled, cored and diced
- 1 carrot, peeled and diced
- 1 celery stalk, diced
- 8 small sage leaves or Italian parsley
- 3 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable stock
- 2 ½ cups peeled, cooked sweet potatoes
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- Kosher salt
- Juice of half a lemon
- 1/4 cup sour cream or yogurt
- Italian parsley for garnish
In a medium Dutch oven, heat the extra virgin olive oil and butter on medium-high heat until the butter is just melted. Add the onion and cook until translucent (but not browned), about 5 minutes. Add the diced apple, carrot, celery and sage and cook and stir for another 2-3 minutes. Add the chicken or vegetable stock. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil, then turn the heat to low. Simmer until the carrots and celery are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the cooked sweet potatoes, cayenne, nutmeg and salt to taste. Stir to combine. Puree the soup in batches with an immersion blender or food processor. Stir in the lemon juice to taste and swirl a tablespoon of sour cream or yogurt on top of the soup. Garnish with parsley.
Kohlrabi is a member of a group of vegetables that include kale, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cauliflower, turnips, radishes, horseradish, mustard, arugula and rapeseed. The kohlrabi “root” is actually the swollen stem of the plant that grows above ground, topped by leaves resembling kale or collards. Fast growing and easy to cultivate, kohlrabi is becoming more popular in the US, but its strongest foothold is in Germany, Eastern Europe and India.
Kohlrabi are susceptible to the same diseases and pests as other members of the cabbage family, so pesticides to control fungi and insects may be applied. If you are concerned, the best thing to do is ask your local kohlrabi farmer about his or her growing practices.
Kohlrabi are available in most US markets from late spring through late autumn. In many areas, the vegetable can only be found at farmers’ markets, CSAs and smaller grocery stores (like food co-ops). Kohlrabi prefers cooler weather, so summer-harvested kohlrabi may be woodier than those grown in the spring and fall. In warmer climates, kohlrabi may be available in the winter and may even have two growing seasons. The kohlrabi bulb should be firm with no spongy bits and no visible brown spots. If leaves are still attached, they should be firm, green and free of wilt or mold. Younger kohlrabi are more tender and you can differentiate between young and old primarily by size — younger kohlrabi are smaller, usually between 2-3 inches in diameter. Kohlrabi should be spherical in shape; stay away from kohlrabi that are tapered, as they also tend to be woodier.
Kohlrabi will keep in your refrigerator’s veggie drawer for several weeks. Note that the bulbs tend to become woodier the longer you store them. Remove the leaves before storing. The biggest barrier to frequent kohlrabi consumption is peeling the bulb. The little knobbly bits make using a vegetable peeler virtually impossible, so you’ll have to use a paring knife to get the skin off. The bulb can be quartered and roasted like potatoes, pureed, steamed, grilled or simply thinly sliced raw and tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Kohlrabi also makes a delicious slaw, grated or cut into thin matchsticks.
Apple and Kohlrabi Slaw
- 2 tart apples, cored and grated or julienned on a mandolin
- 4 small kohlrabi, peeled and grated or julienned on a mandolin
- 2 shallots, diced (or 1/2 an onion)
- 4 tablespoons Italian parsley, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
- Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all of the above together and chill in the refrigerator until serving time.
A relative of buckwheat, rhubarb is native to Siberia, and it grows best outdoors in similar climes such as northern Michigan, Washington state, Ontario and Yorkshire in the north of England. Rhubarb can only be harvested several years after planting, as it needs time to develop an appropriate root system. While not as popular as it was in the first half of the 20th century, rhubarb is receiving renewed interest in the U.S. as a local, seasonal plant.
Rhubarb is typically harvested in early spring while the plant is at its maximum flavor. Choose medium-sized ruby colored stalks that are firm and crisp. Greener stalks are usually a sign of sourness, while a thick stalk will be stringy. Rhubarb keeps for about a week wrapped in the refrigerator. Rhubarb freezes very well, so stock up during the spring season. I cut the stalks into one inch pieces and freeze 2 cups per ziplock freezer bag. Frozen rhubarb is great for making a fruit pie.
Just like celery, rhubarb has strings. To remove, use a paring knife. The strings will likely break down during cooking, but cooked rhubarb has a smoother texture without them. An easy way to cook rhubarb is to slice the stalk into inch-long chunks, remove all leaves, add sugar and boil until tender, adding a little bit of lemon zest to the mix. As rhubarb is quite sour, it pairs well with foods and ingredients that balance out the acidity. This sauce is good served over ice cream or frozen yogurt.
Combine 1 cup flour, 1/3 cup oats, 3/4 cup sugar and a pinch of salt in a bowl.
Stir in 6 tablespoons melted butter and 1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts; with your fingers squeeze into large crumbles and place in the freezer for 15 minutes.
Mix 2 pounds chopped rhubarb, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/4 cup flour, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/2 teaspoon orange zest and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a 8-by-8-inch glass or ceramic baking dish.
Scatter the crumbles on top and bake in a preheated 375 degrees F oven until golden and bubbly, about 45 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.
Locally grown strawberries are available only from Spring to the middle of Summer. Look for glossy fruit without visibly bruising, softness or moldy spots. Strawberries range in size from tiny wild-like, or alpine, varieties, to the fairly enormous Tri-Star type. The berries start out white on the plant, so look for strawberries that are deeply red colored without traces of white at the stem. Strawberries are labor-intensive to cultivate and are susceptible to a variety of diseases and pests. The seedlings must be planted by hand and the berries are still harvested by hand, even in large industrial operations.
Strawberries rank a super high number 3 out of 53 on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide. The EWG recommends buying organic due to the high pesticide use in conventionally grown strawberries. Unfortunately, the pesticides used in conventional strawberry production are some of the very worst – including methyl bromide, which sterilizes the soil and acts as an insecticide. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methyl bromide is categorized as a “powerful ozone depleting substance.” It was “phased out” in 2005 in the US’s attempt to comply with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, but the US lobbied for — and won — “exemptions” that include strawberry production, both for seedlings and fruit. In addition to its effects on the ozone layer, methyl bromide is a highly toxic pesticide that can cause neurological, lung and kidney damage and an increased risk of prostate cancer. And it’s not just methyl bromide — a variety of other pesticides are also used in conventional strawberry production. The environmental and health-related impacts of conventional strawberry growing are high, so if you are concerned with these issues, look for locally grown strawberries and ask your local farmer about his or her production methods.
Fresh strawberries deteriorate fairly quickly after purchase. You can keep strawberries fresh by waiting to wash them until just before eating and by storing them in the refrigerator in a paper-towel lined basket or bowl without a cover.
Strawberries are a versatile fruit and perform well under a multitude of cooking methods — they can be roasted (try tossing with a tiny bit of sugar, roast just until caramelized and drizzle with good balsamic vinegar), stewed, baked into a pie, made into jam, churned into ice cream or frozen into an icy sorbet. But strawberries really shine when eaten raw, either completely unadorned or sliced and tossed with a little sugar, orange juice, red wine or balsamic vinegar.
Quick Refrigerator Strawberry Jam
Unlike other jam recipes, refrigerator jams don’t require canning equipment or techniques. The sugar and acid in the jam preserves the fruit, although refrigerator jam keeps for far less time than classic strawberry preserves — only about 2 weeks in the refrigerator. This jam will also be a bit looser than regular strawberry jam, as there is no pectin (a thickening agent commonly used in canning) involved. Adjusting the amount of sugar will also affect the looseness of the jam (more sugar equals less liquid).
Makes about 1 1/2 pints
- 1 quart ripe, organic strawberries, hulled and sliced
- 3/4 to 1 cup granulated sugar, depending on the sweetness of the berries
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
Place a small plate in the freezer.
Combine the strawberries, sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring the strawberry mixture to a rolling boil, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon and mashing the strawberries slightly. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer for approximately 10 minutes.
Put about a teaspoon of jam mixture on the cold plate from the freezer and swirl it around on the plate. If the jam runs, cook for 2-5 minutes longer and repeat the process. (The jam should firm up when it hits the cold plate and should no longer run.)
Transfer to clean glass jars and cool. When completely cool, cover and refrigerate.
- Asparagus with Lemon Sauce (virginiaknewbest.wordpress.com)
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