Saturday, September 27, 2008

Here we go!

Thus begins Cooking the Seasons. Logically, we would start this endeavor in the Spring, but Keja and I are more impulsive than logical, which is perhaps why we get along so well. We also had strangely similar upbringings, on opposite coasts. Add to that that our parents went to college together in Ohio, we randomly moved to the same neighborhood in Somerville, MA where we met while walking sleeping kids in strollers, and our sons are fast friends, and you get the picture: we were meant to do this project together.

We technically started a few months ago when we decided to jump in feet first and drove over to Sears to pick up a chest freezer. We showed up in the pick-up area and the Sears guy came out and saw the two of us, combined probably 230 lbs. dripping wet, and incredulously asked if we had a car with us (we did: a pick-up truck). You could see the bubble over his head with a picture of us sitting in our Jetta, arms out the windows, holding on to our chest freezer. We successfully got it into my basement, where it was promptly filled with Trader Joe's pizzas and overflow homemade stock that my husband and son make after any dinner where we eat meat with bones. But soon, I was buying pounds of extra peaches and berries at the local farmers' market and freezing them.

Berries: wash, let air dry. Spread out on cookie sheet and freeze until solid (4 to 6 hours should more than do it). Put into a freezer-strength ziploc bag or tupperware and freeze until ready to use.

Peaches: peaches are the best fruit ever invented. They also have really nasty spray, and I am never sure if the ones I get at the farmers' market are sprayed or not, so I err on the side of caution and peel them. If they don't peel easily, they're either not ripe or mealy (compost them if they're mealy; there's really no hope for them, unless you have a lot of good ones that can masque the mealiness of a few in a pie or the like). Once peeled, slice into ten or twelve slices each. Put a few cups worth into a ziploc or tupperware and freeze. I have rarely found peaches worth buying in a grocery store, although at least once a year I fall for it and am almost always sorely disappointed and embarrassed (I should know better! Every time, Renée, every time.). Starting with a quality product is very important. The best way to ripen them is in a paper bag for a few days.

Introducing Cooking the Seasons

Cooking the Seasons is a step by step journal documenting the process of two women who live in the city yet still want to eat locally-grown food. We are doing this to be environmentally responsible and to feed our families healthier food. The seed was planted when, after swimming lessons one day, we were lamenting the dearth of cooking magazines that focused on seasonal food (a lot do) and also spoke to our particular region (southern New England).

So we decided to do it ourselves, and write a cookbook that goes through the year and gives recipes for what's in season and also explains how to freeze, can, dry, preserve, etc. so food that isn't in season can still be enjoyed. We will also touch on composting and container gardening.

This book (and blog) are for people who live in our area and who want to tap into local foods, if only because seasonal foods are less expensive, but also because they taste better, are healthier (for the consumer and the environment), and support local growers. Along the way, if they want to explore gardening, composting, and food preserving, great!

We are not experts on this. We know some, and want to learn a lot more, and think that our experiences will be helpful to people in a similar situation. We hope you enjoy our journey, and are inspired to start your own.

Renée Scott and Keja Valens

Friday, September 26, 2008

About Renée

I grew up in Vermont, in a tiny town where my parents always have a garden and raise chickens and turkeys, and some years even pigs and beef cows. A few families In town use an informal bartering system: my parents trade chickens for lamb or eggs or maple syrup. They can some tomatoes and pickles, fill in the corners of the meat freezer with a few bags of beans, and even once tried a garbage can root cellar, but except for meat, once winter rolls around, they buy most groceries at the store.

It's a short growing season in Vermont. The majority of spring flowers don't start popping out until late May or early June. And early September is fall: it gets cold, there's serious frost, the leaves turn. After 9 years in Boston, I am still surprised when I see crocuses in April. And when summer really does extend into mid-September, I realize that for some places, the calendar makes sense!

I was fortunate to grow up in a community that placed great value on the health of our environment. Farms were small, everyone recycled and composted and gardened. I went to school for environmental science, though considered culinary school. I also have always loved food.

I am a good home cook. I want to feed my family delicious, healthy food that has been raised and grown in a way that is both respectful of the animal or plant, and also environmentally sustainable. I am tired of pink tomatoes in January. I've read "Omnivore's Dilemma" and I don't want to pretend any longer that organic also means that the animal had a good life, and a good death. I want to see where my meat grew up. I like cookbooks and cooking magazines, but very few address seasonal foods grown in southern New England. Even in northern New England, the growing season is shorter by a few weeks on either end, so I want something specific to my region.

I fell in love with Boston because it is a big city, but you can drive for 15 minutes in three directions and be in the country. I love that. It lends itself to farmers' markets and pick-your-own gardens because active farms thrive so close by--there's even one working farm within Boston's city limits. But information about exactly what to look for where and what to do with it once you get it home comes in piecemeal. If Keja and I know what we're looking for, perhaps we don't need to outsource. So we are starting a blog to journal our journey of discovering how to live in the city yet still eat locally-grown food. It's no secret that eating food in season is tastier and healthier. Don't get me wrong: I'm not going to give up pineapple or pomegranates or send back the amazing Nebraska steaks my husband's family treats us with. But, I am going to become more aware of what I eat and where it came from; I'm going to grow some of my own; I'm going to increase my family's intake of food grown in our area. There's a lot we can do in our little backyards to be good stewards of our planet and over the next year, I hope to maximize those things.

About Keja

I grew up in a California town of 600, closer to the neighbors’ farms than to the nearest grocery store. I was shocked when I moved to New England to realize that on a regular basis people pay for things that I have always thought of as dropping faster than anyone could pick, let alone sell: blackberries, plums, oranges… But I also grew up knowing the joys and pains of a little home plot and a commitment to sustainable agriculture, cooking, and eating. Generally for the good, and occasionally for the very gross, my mom is a dedicated food experimenter: 100% whole wheat pasta was gloppy, mushy, and bland, but was more than made up for by fresh fruit tarts to break up apple pie season, pressure cooker meats that brought Sunday dinners to Wednesday, and cous-cous with merguez that makes even the 100th zucchini of the month perfectly divine. California is bountiful but my parents’ home is in a small valley with limited sunlight and highly resourceful wildlife. For a few years we hung panther piss, which the San Francisco zoo gives away free if you’ll just come and pick it up, to keep away the deer, and on a recent visit I rigged a motion detector to a sprinkler system to ward off bean-plant-digging raccoons. No boring place-setting for me: climbing to the branches that could only support kid weight, pouring out beer for the snails, and squishing spit bugs was as fun to me as it was helpful to my mother. Though I do now balk at an apple picking adventure, saying, “but why on earth should I pay someone so that I can do chores for them?”
Twelve years into becoming a New Englander, I’ve begun to savor the quick succession of firsts and lasts that four season living offers. And I’m learning how chopping overflow zucchini on the porch on a breezy summer afternoon leads to warming the house with the sweet scent of fresh zucchini bread in February. I feel a little like a chipmunk, but my new commitment to seasonal food is turning Fall from a time when I mourn the end of summer’s bounty to such a flurry of foraging and storing that I yearn for the empty farm stands of midwinter.
I live in Somerville, the most densely populated city in the United States, and I try to pack into my postage stamp back yard a vegetable garden, a raspberry patch, a toddler’s pool, a sandbox, a fruit tree, and a compost pile. I had to shut down the compost pile because of rats, the raspberries jumped the fence to the driveway next door, and my son can’t seem to distinguish between ripe tomatoes and bouncy balls, but other than that it’s working out beautifully. It turns out that the tomato seeds sprout right where they fall so for every squished “ball” I get five new plants, and the neighbors love my raspberry pies so much they donated the back half of their driveway to the raspberry patch. I’m still searching for a fully rat-proof composter. If I can get a fifty percent alls-well-that-ends-well rate in the garden, maybe I can also expect to truly make half of my family’s meals local.
Local cooking in the city requires the combined efforts of more people than I can name:  my son and my friends who (usually) eat my experiments, my neighbors who share tips, offer encouragement, and don’t look too far askance when they see or smell what’s going on in here, the neighborhood groups that arrange for the local farmers’ market, the farmers who come to the market, the city and state officials that regulate the market… and bloggers who read and share in our endeavor. But each little piece also carries multiple effects: our food tastes better (usually), offers more nourishment, carries less environmental impact, and strengthens our community.