Tuesday, August 5, 2014

National Farmers Market Week: Tales from the Farm

In honor of National Farmers Market week, I'm posting this creative nonfiction piece I wrote a few years ago.

The smell of fresh tomatoes hits me like a sudden slap. No matter how much time I spend handling these fruits, their smell never blends in with the world and makes my senses immune to it the way the smell of a close friend's house sometimes will. As I reach into the bed of my beloved little pick-up truck to grab the day's first tray, the smell rushes through my body and I know I'm about to sell a product you simply won't find at the supermarket. I bring the tray out to one of the folding tables and go back to the truck for more.
Cucumbers in a wicker basket, green beans in a wooden box, a bushel of potatoes: half Yukon Gold and half Red Bliss, and a carton of yellow squash so freshly picked their skins are still prickly. Then the paper bags, cash box, and scale. Now I'm ready.
My two tables are set up under a small white tent at the far end of the market. Under the matching white tent to my left, Maura and Rachel from Temple Gardens in Fairfield are taking boxes of corn and Swiss chard and collard greens from their truck. On my right, Mark is attaching a banner to his tent that proclaims Smith's in Montville to be "Connecticut's Oldest Certified Organic Farm". I find a bit of chalk in the cash box, and write on my chalkboard "Stony Lane Farm, Route 1, Durham. All Produce Grown Sustainably", displaying it in front of one of the bushel baskets.
Saturday is my favorite market day. For one thing, it's the biggest and the busiest. The business makes the day go by quickly. The vendors are in good spirits because their sales are up, and the customers are in good spirits because it's Saturday. These are the people who delight in getting up and out by nine o'clock to be sure the get the best produce.  It's refreshing to see, in the heart of the city, people helping each other select the freshest loaf of bread, the juiciest plums, the zucchini of the deepest green. The same regulars come on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but they are different people then, and the city is a different city. On weekdays these people are on their lunch breaks or in the midst of tedious errands, in a rush to grab something for that night's dinner before scurrying back to their offices and soccer practices and dentist appointments.

I see Ben bringing the breakfast tray: the other wonderful part of Saturday.  It's nothing special really, just some pastries donated by a local bakery, but they make all the difference to people who have been hard at work since before the sun came up. As far down the line as I am today, I know my chances of there being a chocolate one left by the time Ben gets here are slim, but I cross my fingers anyway.

Friday, July 25, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Grass Fed

A lot of people are surprised to find out that Corn Free July extends down the food chain. Avoiding not only corn syrup and corn starch, but corn fed animals products, seems to give the project increased weight. It's in part the realization of how much mainstream food is off limits, but I think it's equally a question of why this next level is important to me, and what possessed me to take it this far.

The truth is, I don't really see the animal products clause as a different level. The corn that feeds the cow in your burger is the same corn that sweetens your Coke. In terms of its effect on the system, I wouldn't say that one is less harmful than the other. They just take different branches. In the big mess that is industrial agriculture, there isn't much of a difference here.

Last week I talked a little bit about how hard it is to nail down exactly where your food came from and how it was processed, amid all the marketing and catch phrase labels that almost never mean what they want you to think they do.

A fully sustainable ecosystem means taking every piece of the equation into account. Which brings me to what exactly it is that the term "grass-fed" embodies. Certainly for cows it has a tangible purpose. Cows eat grass because cow stomachs are very good at processing grass. Cow stomachs are not, however, particularly good at processing corn and other grains, which is part of the reason that the factory farming system is so unhealthy for the animals it raises.

With other animals that Americans commonly eat, the rules are a little bit different. Corn is perfectly nutritious for a pig, say, or a chicken. For Corn Free July purposes, factory farmed meat of all kinds are off limits, technically because the same type of commodity corn from large, subsidized farms makes up a larger part of their diet than it does for animals raised on smaller farms. What it really comes down to is pasture. Animals raised on pasture, with access to forage and room to move around and find food at their leisure, along with whatever supplemental feed the farmer opts to give them, corn or otherwise, are, in my opinion, healthy food choices.

Which brings us back to that pesky word "sustainable." Along with "organic," "natural," "free-range," and maybe even "non-GMO," "sustainable" has become a catch-all meaning something good that, if pressed, we might not actually be able to define.

In order for something to be literally "sustainable," all it has to do is work on a large scale for a long time. Our current corn-dependent food system is unsustainable because the money and the fossil fuels that prop it up could go away at any moment. But the alternative organic system is unsustainable because it requires all that pasture. There's are good reasons CAFOs came into existence, and one of them is that the demand for meat is greater than the land available for pasture.

So if we're going to create a food system that is truly sustainable, we're going to have to cut way back on our consumption of meat. Which isn't bad news at all, even for meat lovers. A food system based on meat that is guaranteed to be high in quality, even if it's more expensive or less readily available, shouldn't really impact our lives all that much if we know how to use it well, and how to enjoy going without it. Here are a few of my favorite recipes that don't happen to include meat.

Dijon Portobello Steaks from V-Lish
Three Bean Sweet Potato Chili from La Casa de Sweets
Grilled Ale Portobello Mushroom Burger from The Adirondack Chick
Quinoa Salad with Black Beans and Mango from The Veganomicon
Grown-Up Grilled Cheese Sandwich from Just a Taste

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Corn Free July 2014: What Labels Tell Us

I was looking for ricotta cheese because I wanted to make stuffed shells.

I was at Savenor's Market in Cambridge, perusing their eclectic dairy case, trying not to keep the door open for too long as I took out one product after another, carefully reading all the fine print. I settled on a brand I didn't recognize: Mozzarella House from Peabody, Massachusetts.

The label said things like "local" and "organic" and "not treated with rBST,", but nowhere did it actually say "grass-fed," "pasture-raised," or anything specific about the farming practices used. In fact, it was difficult to tell whether the actual milk was local, or just the end product.

When I got home I dug around a little on their website, and was assured that the milk is in fact local, and since there aren't any CAFOs in New England that I know of, I can pretty safely infer that it's grass fed cheese we're dealing with. But why isn't this kind of label a priority? Grass-fed beef is something of a trend right now, and so it's pretty easy to find that out, but when it comes to dairy products, the farming practices don't seem to matter.

This got me thinking about labeling in general, and how it can be difficult to wade through the endless sea of information and zero in on what's important to you. Which got me thinking about the debate over GMO labeling.

I used to be very, very in favor of the mandatory labeling of GMOs, simply because I think that consumers should have as much information as possible. But I'm no longer sure that such a law would actually provide real information, any more than labels like "natural" and "organic" and "made with real fruit juice" do. What exactly does genetic modification mean? Is it the same for every product? Does every genetic modification raise the same amount of concern, or are there gray areas? And what are we really avoiding when we choose to steer clear of GMOs?

In eliminating corn this month, of course I'm not actually condemning the plant itself. My fight is with the ways in which corn has been used to damage our food system. The project is also a way to rethink how I get food and to deconstruct what it means to me. When I'm in the grocery store, I don't blindly grab the first bag that boasts "no HFCS;" I read the full list of ingredients. Similarly, no one with a food allergy is going to eat something labeled "free from allergens" without double checking that statement. And of course, by now we've realized that the term "low fat" is really just code for "high sugar."

How much weight do you give to catch phrase food labeling? What do you look for in a food product? Is more labeling a good idea, or should we do away with it altogether and trust the ingredients and their sources to give us the information that we want?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Summer Vegetable Pasta with Crispy Goat Cheese Medallions

"Don't even say the word 'pasta.' It sounds so hopeless, like surrender: 'Pasta would be easy.' Yes, yes it would. Pasta. It doesn't mean anything. It's just a euphemism people invented when they stopped eating spaghetti."

That's a quote from one of my favorite plays. Anthony Hopkins said the line in the movie, but when I read it, the voice I hear belongs to Dan Derks, who played Hopkins' character on stage when we were in college. It's from a bit of dialogue really just meant to warm the audience up to the beginning of the second act. It's a throwaway scene, and not one terribly essential to the plot, but a really good point nonetheless. Pasta is what you make when you're feeling uninspired or faced with an empty fridge. It's the food equivalent of wearing your oldest, rattiest clothes the day before you can no longer put off doing laundry.

So it's good to have a few variations on pasta in your back pocket for those days when it just can't be avoided. This is one I based on a recipe from Eating Well magazine, and one of which I actually look forward to eating the leftovers for lunch the next day.


  • 8 ounces pasta (Something bite-sized like bow-tie or elbow works best.)
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano or other savory herb.
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons breadcrumbs (Its can be hard to find corn-free breadcrumbs. You maybe have to make your own by putting toast through the food processor. Or, if you have an electric spice grinder, crushed raw lentils make an extra-crispy coating.)
  • 4 ounces goat cheese (As far as I know, all goat cheese is pasture raised. They don't have goat factory they?)
  • 2 tablespoons of your favorite high-heat cooking oil
  • 1 1/2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 6 cups baby spinach
  1. Preheat broiler and line a small baking sheet with tin foil.
  2. Cook pasta according to package directions and drain, saving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
  3. Combine breadcrumbs and oregano. Divide goat cheese into 4 equal portions. Shake each into a disk shape. Coat the cheese disks in bread crumb mixture. Place disks on the baking sheet and set aside.
  4. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add tomatoes, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook until tomatoes release their juice, about 2 minutes.
  5. Stir in the pasta water, spinach, and pasta until well mixed and spinach has warmed.
  6. Broil the goat cheese rounds, watching closely, until light brown and crispy on top, about 2 minutes. Divide pasta mixture into 4 portions and top each with a goat cheese medallion.
Serves 4.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Corn Free July 2014: Strawberry Chocolate Chip Pancakes

My neighbors went strawberry picking last week and were very generous with their haul, sending me back upstairs with a quart of fresh, local berries, so I celebrated my first day of vacation from work with my favorite breakfast indulgence.


  • 1 1/4 cups flour (I used whole wheat)
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 cup vegan chocolate chips or (read the ingredients list carefully, but milk is usually the only one to avoid with chocolate chips)
  • 1/4 cup chopped strawberries
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons grass-fed butter
  • pure maple syrup

  1. Whisk together flour, cream of tartar, and baking soda until well blended.
  2. Gradually stir in milk, a little at a time, until the mixture is just a little bit doughier than cake batter
  3. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Meanwhile, stir in chocolate chips and then strawberries until just combined.
  4. Pour the batter into the frying pan, making pancakes your desired size.
  5. Flip when the batter starts to bubble, then flip again after about 3 minutes to make sure both sides of golden brown.
  6. Serve hot with maple syrup.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Corn Free July: Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

Corn Free July 2014 is off to a pretty good start. I was pleasantly surprised by how much corn-free and otherwise unprocessed stuff I already have lying around. The first couple of days are usually a steep learning curve, but this time around I realized that things like bread, cooking oil, and even chicken breast that were already in the kitchen just happen to be Corn Free July approved.

As I was planning out my meals for the week, I came across some handwritten index cards in a recipe box that I seem to have inadvertently stolen from my friend Krisha when we stopped living together. It was such a great found object. No credit for where it came from, just her familiar bubbly printing on a green index card with the bare bones of how to make stuffed portobello mushrooms. Here it is:

Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms


  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 carrot, peeled & finely diced
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1/4 green pepper, finely diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. basil
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • 1 cup cooked brown rice (I used quinoa. Same thing, right?)
  • 4 medium portobello mushrooms


  1. Heat 1 tsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add carrot, onion, green pepper, & garlic. Saute until crisp-tender. Stir in basil & oregano.
  2. Remove from heat & combine with rice. Salt & pepper to taste.
  3. Remove stems from mushrooms. Place mushroom in lightly oiled casserole dish. Top with rice mixture, packing down slightly. Brush with remaining 1 tsp. olive oil.
  4. Bake at 400 for 20 minutes.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


You know what I hate? I hate it when food bloggers try to tell you every little detail about their life. I hate that feeling of "No, I just came here for the banana bread recipe. I don't care that your kid started the first grade."

And I really hate it when food bloggers, or any kind of bloggers, try to explain to their readers why they haven't posted in awhile. I really don't care. Your blog isn't Mad Men. I haven't spent the week dying to know what happens next. Honestly, I didn't even notice that it had been so long.

Of course, some people can pull it off. Some people can write something you don't expect them to write and have it be delightful. They can go off on a tangent about their personal life and you can eat it right up. There are some people who just know how to craft a sentence so bloody well that you would read the transcript of their conversation with a telemarketer and beg for more.

It's a gamble, though. It's a gamble even if you're that good. And I'm not sure that I am.

So with all that out there, let me tell you that it's been a rough couple of weeks.

Among other things, the building I live in might be getting sold this summer. The landlord has put it on the market, which we found out by reading the sign advertising Hammond Residential: Max Dublin, Realtor. Max Dublin seems like a nice enough guy. He has been in contact via e-mail with my upstairs neighbor, Helyne, who has been nice enough to forward their correspondence on to the other ten inhabitants of out little three decker. There was an offer. It feel through. He'll be showing it again this coming week.

Neither our landlord, Terry, nor his wife, Lynn, who likes to remind us whenever we have a complaint and her husband is too drunk or otherwise irresponsible to come to the phone that the building is not in her name and none of this is, strictly speaking, her problem, have said a word to anyone about the impending sale. Which leaves us with the following options:

  1. Do nothing and hope that the house either doesn't sell, or that the new owner will choose to renew our leases without a substantial rent increase
  2. Find a new place to live
What with option 1 being so pathetic and depressing, and option 2 sucking up so much time, the annual 4th of July party just isn't coming together this year, which makes me sad for its own set of reasons. This cookout has always been an important one for me. It kicks off Corn Free July, gets people excited about it, gets me excited about it. (See? I made it relevant!) The grass fed burgers on the grill, the red, white, and blue cheesecake, the conspicuous absence of corn on the cob, it's all become a tradition. But this year it just isn't happening, and so Corn Free July will come in not with a bang but a whimper, though it will be no less important.

There are a lot of things that can be sacrificed when time and resources and focus run low. The fact that I still plan on sticking Corn Free July out reminds me that there is always room for our top priorities in life. Rather than a fad diet that can be forgotten if things get too chaotic to maintain it, my month away from processed foods is something on which I won't compromise. It's too important. We shouldn't eat the way we do. Our farm system shouldn't work the way it does, and neither should the system by which we obtain goods on the other end of the chain. It's not good for our physical health, and it isn't good for our mental health either. Our brains deserve a diet. A cleanse. Some time away from fast food, from stolen lunch breaks and hasty dinners before rushing off to whatever's next. July is going to be a time of change, and no matter what else happens, I'm going to make sure that I'm well nourished.