From October 16th to November 5th, I decided to pledge to Slow Food‘s “Eat Local Challenge”. What’s Slow Food, you ask? Just what it sounds like!
Slow food is the exact opposite of fast food. The Slow Food movement began back in 1986 when its founder, Carlo Petrini, decided to fight back against the opening of a McDonald’s at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome.
I love that this is how it all began, because to me it shows what a unique country Italy is: can you imagine this happening in the US, or anywhere else really? In a country whose cuisine is so dependent on fresh, simple ingredients, a business like McDonald’s threatens everything this culture has worked so hard to maintain: a traditional, simple cuisine that highlights food that is local and in season, food that has had time and energy invested into it, food that is transparent and delicious and untouched by complicated industrial production. In other words, food that is “good, clean, and fair for all” (AKA Slow Food’s motto).
One of the things I loved most about my travels in Italy was this transparency in food. As I’ve mentioned here before, I once took a cooking class in Vicenza where we began by walking outside to the market, deciding the menu based solely on what was available. The question of the morning: what on earth would we eat with our rabbit ravioli? A man working one of the many produce stands showed us some white asparagus that had come in fresh that morning, so white asparagus it was! It was that easy.
Meanwhile in my little university town of Padova, I used to love visiting the Piazza della Frutta, oogling over beautiful baskets overflowing with heaps of bright, colorful fruits and veggies from just outside the city. The perfect snack, a ripe piece of fruit, was always only a step away.
Before living in Italy, I honestly never heard of the idea of eating seasonally, but it soon became a part of my daily life. For the first few months, I ate more radicchio than I ever had before (I don’t think I’d eaten any radicchio before this point, actually). Why was my host mom always cooking radicchio? Because it was winter and that was what was available. She made salads, soups, and even savory tarts (man, I miss those tarts). If my friends and I went out to a trattoria around the corner, guess what the risotto special was? Risotto al radicchio. Radicchio was everywhere, in all shapes and forms. My eyes were opened to a whole new way of cooking focused around appreciating the versatility of an ingredient and taking full advantage of it when it was available, or as the Italians say, to fare la scorpacciata.
Whether its in the fruits and veggies, the aged cheeses, olive oils, or balsamic vinegars, it’s not hard to notice (and taste) the time, attention, and care that Italian food has invested in it. This is the main reason why I love it so much, and why the way I cook is so heavily influenced by this culture and my time spent immersed within it.
While the Slow Food movement originated in Italy, the strive to return to food that is wholesome and simple is universal. Since its induction, Slow Food chapters have popped up all over the world in their commitment to conserve local food traditions. There’s even one right here in Boston!
Ever since I first heard about Slow Food through my job at Eataly, I’ve really come to identify with it. I’m now more aware than ever about where my food comes from, and I try to pay close attention to the impact my food habits have across all levels – from production, to transport, to dealing with leftovers and food waste. It can be easy to commit yourself to these standards without really thinking about them, so I was really excited to hear about this challenge as a way to be even more mindful.
So, the challenge! Here were the rules:
- Eat two meals a week sourced with local, traditional ingredients
- Eat only free-range meat raised in their region
- Shop at a farmers’ market at least once a week
- Buy no imported food or products made over 200 miles away
Admittedly, I didn’t follow this to a T. The first two points were pretty easy: I had a lot of fun constructing recipes centered around local ingredients, and I don’t normally purchase meat anyways. I don’t know if it’s because it’s fall now and farmers markets are more sparse, or because I was lazy and didn’t actively seek one out, but I failed at #3. I’m only human!! The last point is where I focused the majority of my efforts: I truly tried to source my food from within this 200 mile range, and surprisingly it wasn’t that difficult.
As I started this challenge, I quickly realized this would be the perfect opportunity to conduct a sort of ‘self-study’ and really delve deep into every aspect of my own little food system. How would this affect the foods I chose to buy, and where I chose to buy them from? So over the course of the challenge, I made an effort to buy groceries from a few different stores to compare my experience: both in price, variety, and ease in finding local ingredients. Here are those findings!
#1 Whole Foods
Unsurprisingly, Whole Foods won across the board: for most transparent sourcing, availability of local products, and price (ding ding ding!). Finding local ingredients at Whole Foods was always the easiest compared to the other stores I visited over the course of this challenge. Whole Foods has a color-coded system where produce is labeled with a bright blue “local” tag along with the state it came from…ya can’t miss it. I do applaud Whole Foods for this transparency because, even if I weren’t doing this challenge, I think I still would have noticed this tag and probably altered my choice of produce, opting for a more local option just because it was so in your face. They have a huge variety of produce, so it wasn’t hard to find local varieties of the fruits and veggies I love, plus some new kinds I’d never had before. It’s on the more expensive side, but fingers crossed their prices keep getting lower with this whole Amazon deal…
I work here so I’m a little biased, but I had to include it 😉 I think a lot of people are hesitant to buy ‘regular groceries’ from a place like Eataly. After all, it is a specialty Italian market that focuses on goods that come from thousands of miles away. BUT, this fact withstanding, their local selection is quite amazing and highly underestimated, particularly their produce section. Every morning I witness the arrival of carts and carts of fresh produce, and one of my favorite things to do after work is to visit this section in the store and see what’s new. The selection is constantly changing depending on the season, and I’ve across more weird, funky fruits and veggies here than I have at any other store. Back in the spring I tried fiddlehead ferns for the first time, and now that we’re in the fall there are heaps of 5 or 6 different varieties of apples and squash that I’ve never heard of. I like to stop by here at least once a week and pick up whatever is in season, forcing myself to figure out what to do with it. I’ll admit it was difficult working here and not being able to buy my favorite Italian products during this challenge (particularly the cheeses), but I found some awesome local products from VT, MA, and NY that were just as delicious and fun to try. Price-wise I’d say it’s comparable to Whole Foods, but I get that discount…ayoooo!
Wegman’s is slightly cheaper than the above two, but there was a huge difference in transparency in sourcing of their produce. While Whole Foods and Eataly have tags clearly marking the location of the farms where it all grew, I noticed this information was severely lacking as I perused Wegman’s produce section. I ranked this above Market Basket only because of the variety of produce available, but I found the two to be equal in terms of source information. One area where Wegman’s was strong was the availability of local dairy products, cheese specifically, but I was surprised to find their produce section so void of information.
#4 Market Basket
Growing up in Massachusetts I have a soft spot in my heart for this place: there’s just something about those fluorescent lights and red and white detailing everywhere that brings upon waves of nostalgia and reminds me of trips to the store with my mom as a kid. Although Market Basket is by far the cheapest grocery option around while still providing great quality food, I’ll admit I was pretty disappointed when I found out just how difficult it was to find local ingredients. Exploring the produce aisles, there was really no labeling for where the food came from. I even tried looking at the stickers on the produce itself, and often times I was still left wondering about its source. The selection at MB also doesn’t really change with the season: the same staples are always available, and it doesn’t lend much to trying new things or focusing on what’s growing now. I still love ya, MB, but your produce section needs work.
Overall I learned a LOT from doing this challenge, and it’s made it almost unavoidable not to pay attention to all this now as I walk through the grocery store. My shopping habits have definitely changed for the better, and I’m excited to continue this awareness. Here were some of my biggest takeaways:
Shop without a list. One of the things I loved about this challenge was walking into the store not having a clue about what I would walk out with. Who knew if I’d even be able to make that soup I wanted to try – would they have carrots that were grown within 200 miles? Entering the store with a clean slate, zero expectations, forced me to figure out what I would eat that night based on what was available, and I found I really liked shopping this way. Having an open mind while shopping can lead to new and exciting meals: it can be so easy to get into a habit of buying the same produce every week, but making an effort to stick to local, seasonal ingredients made me pleasantly venture off the course.
Go shopping more often, but buy less. This becomes especially apparent in regards to fresh produce. Who says you need to stock up on everything all at once, often times once a week? It’s convenient, but I’ve found it doesn’t really work for me. I’ve found that I’m bad at meal planning for multiple days in advance. When I buy too many different types of produce to last a whole week, it usually ends up going bad before I can even use it and that’s just a lose lose situation in every way: I lose money, and I lose out on a delicious meal that’s now gone to waste (at least it’s composted, but still!). I much prefer going to the store two or three times a week and buying the ingredients for what I’m going to make that very night. I like to think back to the piazze in Italy and think: what is here now and what do I want to make tonight?
Source your food from more than 1 store. Just because Whole Foods won this challenge doesn’t mean I’m going to exclusively shop there now (HA, I would go broke). I’m not giving up on Market Basket just yet: it’s still a great option for non-perishables and pantry staples. But when I want fresh produce, I’ll go to places like Whole Foods because of their quality and local options. And when I need more fresh bread, I’ll stop by the bakery at Eataly after work. Pick and choose a few places that have their own strengths. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with this many options, take advantage of it!
Eating local doesn’t always mean spending more money. I think this would have been more apparent if it was still farmers market season, because it really is true: local food, produce specifically, sold at a local shop or stand can be a lot cheaper than anything found in the store. It’s not always the case, but then again, you’re paying for quality and, in my opinion, you should never sacrifice quality when it comes to food.
You don’t need to eat “all local” all the time! And often times, you just can’t. For example, olive oil? I don’t know of many olive groves within 200 miles of Massachusetts (if you know of one, hit me up). Some products just don’t grow here because of the climate, but that doesn’t mean you should stop yourself from enjoying them. I’m not going to stop buying all bananas, pineapples, and other tropical fruits because those are some of my favorite foods and I don’t want to torture myself. But what I am going to try to do is eat less of them. What I started doing during this challenge and will continue to do is opt for a more local, seasonal fruit or veggie instead.
All in all, my biggest take away from this challenge is this: when you can, eat local. And when you can’t, just choose wisely. Pay attention to where your food comes from and its path from farm to fork. It shouldn’t be too convoluted, but if it is, maybe it’s a sign you choose to source from somewhere else. Because even in this day and age of industrial processing, I’ve learned that it is completely possible to live by the rules of this challenge. And it’s kind of fun! So take a moment to be conscious, make an effort to truly feel good about the food you choose to eat and buy, and do as the Italians and slow things down.
To tie this challenge up, the recipe section! Here are some things I made over the past few weeks to pull together all these local ingredients I found (highlighted). Because it’s the fall, there are a lot of pumpkin, squash, and apple recipes. Now that I’ve done this, I’m thinking of replicating the challenge in each season just for fun. Enjoy and happy cooking 🙂
Butternut squash soup
I adapted this from a recipe from Food Republic and had to change a few things because, interestingly enough, the carrots in the grocery stores here all come from California! So instead, I used radishes which came from Massachusetts. This combines so many delicious fall flavors: butternut squash, apples, ginger…add some crispy kale and salty pumpkin seeds on top, and dip with some warm toasty bread? It really hit the spot as the weather started to get cooler and the nights longer.
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and diced
- 1 bunch radishes, diced (save greens for salads)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
- Splash of dry white wine
- 5 C of water
- 2 apples, peeled, cored, and cut in quarters
- 1 tsp salt
To make: Melt the butter butter in a large soup pot, add the onion and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the squash and radishes, sauté on medium-high heat for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add the garlic and ginger, sauté until fragrant. Deglaze the pan with the wine, cooking for 1 minute. Add the water, apples, and salt. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil, then reduce to medium-low and let simmer, covered, for 20 minutes, or until squash can be pierced with a fork. Let cool for 5 minutes, then use an emulsifier or glass blender to blend the soup. (Funny story: I have neither of these, so I used a handheld mixer and hot soup spattered EVERYWHERE 🙂 But it worked!) Add a pinch of salt and pepper, and top with crispy kale (roast w/ olive oil in the oven) and pumpkin seeds.
There are 3 apple trees that line the side of the house I grew up in Chelmsford, and this year was the first time we could actually eat their apples. They’re small with rough, spotted skin, but they’re also tart and delicious, and the most local product possible! I kid you not, our black lab Ronny is visibly fatter now because he can’t stop eating these apples. He will eat 5 in a row, laying in the driveway and munching away contently. With the apples he didn’t happen to scarf away, my mom made cinnamony, apple sauce that quite literally tastes like home.
- 10 medium-sized apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1/2 C water
- Lots and lots of cinnamon
To make: Combine all ingredients (excluding 1 C or so of the chopped apples) in a large pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let simmer until desired thickness. At the very end, add in the rest of the chopped apples to add some crunchy texture.
One of my favorite ways to bake with apples in the fall, my mom always seems to make this for me when I come home for the weekend. I immediately associate this smell with home and remember all the times I used to steal the crisp from the rest of the dish.
- 7-10 medium-sized apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
- 3/4 C brown sugar
- 1 stick melted butter
- 1 tbsp cinnamon
- 3/4 C flour
To make: Lay sliced apples in a flat baking dish. In a separate bowl, mix together brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, and flour. Crumble mixture over the apples and cook at 350 for 45 minutes, or until crisp is “crisp”. A scoop of vanilla ice cream is a necessity 😋
I made a big batch of these the other day and ate them for breakfast for at least a week. Fluffy, savory, and buttery, these are amazing with honey and sea salt on top. Although I cheated and used canned pumpkin, I’m including this because you can totally make this from scratch using a local pumpkin. Next time 😉
Ingredients: (adapted from Better Homes & Gardens)
- 2 1/4 C white whole wheat flour
- 2 tbsp packed brown sugar
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 stick unsalted butter, cubed
- 1 C canned pumpkin puree
- 3/4 C buttermilk
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
- Sea salt
To make: Preheat oven to 450 F. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add cubed butter and use a pastry cutter or fingers to mix into flour until evenly distributed. In another bowl, whisk together pumpkin and buttermilk. Add into dry ingredients just until incorporated. Place dough on a lightly floured surface and pat into a 1-inch thick round. Using a circular cookie cutter (or a mug/cup), stamp out biscuits and place on an ungreased baking sheet. Brush tops with melted butter and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake for 12-15 minutes. Best served warm, cut in half with honey and a little more sea salt. These also make delicious vehicles for breakfast sandwiches – fried egg and bacon? Mmm.
I smothered my new Best Bees honey from MA on these, and I’m hooked. Honey is one of the best local products you can use – it’s not only good for your neighborhood bees, but also strengthens your immune system and helps to fight allergies. And I love how their label tells you exactly which flowers the honey came from!
Pumpkin risotto with mushrooms and sage
Making risotto is something I save for nights when I want to relax and invest some time in the kitchen. I made this on a cold, rainy Sunday evening and this cozy atmosphere coupled with the smell of sautéed onions, wine, and sage made me veryyy happy. Again, this would be another opportunity to make your own pumpkin puree.
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 2 C Arborio or Carnaroli rice
- 4 C chicken broth (usually 1 box)
- 2 C mushrooms, chopped
- 1 bunch sage leaves
- 1/2 can of pumpkin puree
- 1/2 C grated parmigiano reggiano, grana padano, or similar-type local cheese (+ extra to top)
- Balsamic vinegar to top
To make: In a large sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the onion, cooking until translucent (5 mins). Add the rice, toasting for a few minutes. Reduce heat to low and add 1 C of chicken broth. Once rice has absorbed majority of liquid, add another cup and repeat until all 4 cups have been added. While rice is absorbing liquid, in another pan sauté the mushrooms and sage with olive oil. To the finished risotto, add pumpkin and cheese, mix until incorporated. Serve risotto topped with mushrooms and sage, sprinkle with cheese and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. For leftovers, make arancini (rice balls) by coating with egg, bread crumbs, and frying in olive oil.
Grazie per leggere, a presto!