Winter can be bleak for an East Coast locavore. I get giddy moving from spring through fall, from asparagus to peaches and finally to grapes, but come November my choices dwindle down to roots, apples and squash. Recently, I decided to loosen the reins when winter arrives and add the mangoes, oranges and pineapples that I don't allow myself during the bountiful growing season. Bananas for a locavore? Yes, I buy bananas, but only in winter.
When I discovered organics 10 years ago, I eagerly believed anything organic was superior. It didn't matter if I bought strawberries in January from Mexico as long as they were organic. Seasons and seasonality never came to mind. I certainly wasn't thinking about my pocketbook: $6 for eight strawberries?
Cracks in my belief system formed when I learned about our carbon footprint and the amount of fuel used to ship organic produce from all over the world year-round.
So I decided instead to focus on local foods that may not be certified organic but have few or no pesticides. Until World War II, local was all most humans had eaten, with the exceptions of spices brought over the crossroads of the Middle East and coffee and sugar from the Caribbean and South America. It didn't need a catchphrase; local was a way of life.
Now, people are rediscovering the wonders of eating as we're meant to eat, from fruits and vegetables grown within a reasonable proximity to our homes. I prefer local produce that isn't necessarily certified organic but that is raised without pesticides or with low spray in a sustainable and humane manner, rather than produce from thousands of miles away.
I started visiting the farmers markets with my baby daughter three years ago as something to do. At first, I was shy about talking to the farmers, asking about their growing practices and how to prepare such things as quince and kohlrabi. However, my excitement over the variety and the possibilities were overwhelming and, when I finally opened my mouth, the farmers welcomed my questions and eagerly gave me cooking ideas.
About The Author
Peggy Bourjaily lives in New York City, where she writes about many topics including food, mothering, health and her family. Her work has appeared on TheDailyMeal.com and in Body+Soul, Pregnancy, Cooking Light and other publications.
Try to find that at a grocery store.
The supermarket soon became a foreign destination, a place I went every few weeks for a box of cereal or a bottle of soy sauce. I fed my family almost entirely from the farmers markets. We basked in asparagus so firm they easily snapped in two and strawberries that actually stained Baby Girl's clothes because they were red all the way through, not just along the edges. As fall turned into winter and Thanksgiving approached, the markets shrank and I was left mourning the loss of my latest discovery: vine grapes.
Three years have passed since that first dreadful winter where I lived like a frontier woman who hadn't prepared for the long, cold drought, but since then I've found a new way to live where I can respect my now indelible (and sometimes annoying) locavore tendencies while taking advantage of the accessibility of the modern world. I continue my weekly trips to the same outdoor farmers market where I buy humanely raised and caught dairy, meat and fish and any available fruits and vegetables. Some of the farmers use greenhouses over the winter. However, I've also started appearing at the grocery store again and even buying produce.
While I applaud those who have challenged themselves to eat beets for three months straight, try explaining the logic to a 3-year-old and ditto to my taste buds.
I was able to reconcile buying fruit out of season with the help of master pastry chef Claudia Fleming's book The Last Course. For me, it was a small section she wrote on local eating — not the desserts — that struck the biggest chord. Fleming, formerly of New York's Gramercy Tavern, works hard to use fresh seasonal fruits in her baking, but when winter comes, she says, she searches out exotic fruits that are at their peak in other parts of the world rather than making do with the dearth of fruit during an East Coast winter.
Following her lead, I decided to practice what I'd call practical locavorism. I eat nearly 100 percent local during the spring, summer and fall, but in winter when produce is scarce, I invite other fruits and vegetables into my life: fair-trade bananas, boxes of oranges from Florida, and avocados, without which the Super Bowl would be lackluster. While I eat lemons year-round (they're my Achilles' heel), I take full advantage of fall-and-winter-seasonal Meyer lemons and use them in cakes, cookies, pasta dishes and more. I draw the line at produce that eventually comes into season in the Northeast, where I live. I won't buy cherries from Chile, but chirimoya, a creamy fruit native to Chile? Absolutely.
The Practical Locavore's Top 3 Survival Tips
Don't Deny Yourself: Do your best year-round. Buy as much as you can from local purveyors and fill in the gaps. I find using mostly local ingredients in my cooking and then adding in more exotic fruits and vegetables as accessories helps me get in a new fresh flavor without buying a million lemons. Coffee, lemons and chocolate are all nonlocal foods I can't live without.
Get As Close As You Can: Oranges will never be local to New York City or blueberries to Florida, but wait until they're at their peak to buy, and then source them as close to home as you can. As an Easterner, I buy oranges from Florida.
Read Supermarket Labels: Believe it or not, even at the supermarket in the center aisles, you can find locally produced goods. Read labels closely and you might find baking flours that are grown and milled within a few hundred miles of your home or peanuts grown a few states away. Think in quadrants of the U.S. — North, South, East and West — and you'll probably be able to track down some great local products within your quadrant to stock your pantry.
Recipe: Fennel Citrus Salad
Before I was an experienced cook, I was an experimental cook. One day I had fennel and citrus on hand, and I made this for dinner. After years of tinkering, the finished product is a bright, fresh salad perfect to serve alongside fish or chicken. A Minneola looks like an orange with a knoblike formation on the stem end. Locally sourced fennel and pomegranates are available in many areas year-round.
4 Minneolas, segmented with any additional juice reserved
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup Meyer lemon juice
1/8 to 1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
Salt and pepper to taste
Use a mandoline (an upright tool with a sharp blade that can be adjusted to any thickness) set on the narrowest setting to slice the onion and fennel bulbs. If you don't have a mandoline, slice the fennel and onions as thinly as you can using a chef's knife.
In a medium bowl, combine the fennel, onion, oranges, citrus juices and olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Mix the salad well and top with pomegranate seeds.
Recipe: Roasted Branzino Stuffed With Leeks And Meyer Lemons
I adore the Mediterranean style of roasting a whole fish with citrus and herbs. Branzino is traditional overseas and widely available in the U.S., but any local white, flaky fish can be used in its place.
2 whole branzino or other white-fleshed whole fish, butterflied*
2 leeks cut into thin strips
1 to 2 Meyer lemons cut into thin rounds with one wedge reserved
4 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Place fish on a roasting pan open and flesh side up. Sprinkle salt and pepper over both fish. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice over each fish. Line one side of the fish with lemon slices, top with a generous amount of leeks and 2 sprigs of thyme. Fold the empty side onto the filled side. Drizzle with olive oil and salt and pepper.
Cook for 12 to 18 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through.
*Butterflied simply means that the fish has been slit from its chest down to the tailfin and can be opened like a book. I ask my fishmonger to do it for me. If you don't have a willing fishmonger, any whole fish will have a slit down the belly because it has been cleaned. You can either stuff the ingredients into that slit or take a knife and cut from the bottom of the slit to the tail.
Recipe: Banana Bread
This recipe was local when it was created. My grandmother used to spend the winter in Miami. One day, faced with throwing away a bunch of overripe bananas from the tree out back, my grandmother's cook turned them into this light, moist and almost cakelike bread. It makes an excellent breakfast bread, but for our family, it's an any time of day bread and rarely lasts more than a few hours.
1 1/2 cups white whole-wheat flour or all-purpose white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup mashed overripe (brown or even black) bananas (2 to 3 bananas)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup milk, any percentage fat
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a loaf pan and set aside.
Whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder and set aside.
In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment*, cream the butter and sugar on medium high speed. Add the bananas. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Turn down the mixer speed to medium low. Add the eggs one at a time. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Turn the mixer speed to low and slowly add the flour. Once combined, add the milk. Scrape batter into the loaf pan and cook for 1 hour or until a knife inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean.
*If you're using a hand mixer or other mixer that only has beaters, it will work just as well.
Recipe: Chicken Salad With Mango And Pomegranate
This pretty dish, which combines ingredients that can be locally sourced with some that are more exotic, would be a knockout at any luncheon table. Rather than buying a separate chicken breast, think about making this a day or two after you've enjoyed a roast chicken for dinner. To increase the number of servings, just double or even triple the salad ingredients below. There is enough dressing for 6 to 8 servings.
6 to 10 large shavings of parmesan cheese (use a vegetable peeler), or another salty, hard cheese
1/4 cup pomegranate juice from half a pomegranate*
1/8 cup champagne vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
* Greenhouse-grown pomegranates can be found year-round in many areas. To squeeze, cut the pomegranate in half and squeeze like a lemon over the measuring cup. Be careful — pomegranate juice stains.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Salt and pepper the chicken breast and roast until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part reads 165 degrees. Let it rest for 15 minutes and slice thinly.
While the chicken is cooking, make the dressing. Combine the pomegranate juice, vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper in a sealed container. Shake vigorously until well combined.
Make an even bed of arugula on a platter. Top here and there with chicken slices. Follow with a ring of Vidalia onions atop the chicken slices. Next scatter the mango. Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds all over, and follow with a leaf of cilantro every few inches. Drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons of dressing over the salad and finish it off with parmesan shavings.