Eat Local Challenge

ING_Banner1_Campagna-2017_MOBILEFrom 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.

11222533_10206735822617455_4756703595512500483_n

Fresh white asparagus in Vicenza

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.

11401240_10206915884318885_2617349615461884198_n

Daily market at Piazza della Frutta in Padova

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!

Store Comparison

#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…

IMG_3478

From one of my trips to Whole Foods, and the ingredients for the butternut squash soup recipe below!

#2 Eataly
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!

#3 Wegman’s
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.

Takeaways
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

IMG_3487

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.

Ingredients:

  • 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.

Applesauce

 

IMG_3587

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.

Ingredients:

  • 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.

Apple crisp

IMG_3563

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.

Ingredients:

  • 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 😋

Pumpkin biscuits

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 

IMG_3750

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.

Ingredients:

  • 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!

Advertisements

I Gusti dell’Estate

CIAO.  It’s been a while.  This summer has been so busy and yet the entire time I was thinking, “Man, I really want to write more on that thing I started a few months ago…”, but it just never happened.  I think I was waiting for a ‘theme’ to write about, and of course I think of something just as it’s coming to an end:  the flavors of summer, i gusti dell’estate.  So now that we’re here, at the end of summer and the beginning of fall, I figured it’s better late than never to write a summer-themed post.  ‘Cause I can’t let go, not yet!!

Summer is and always has been my favorite season.  When I was in school, this was a given because…no school.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think a kid has ever had another favorite season.  The competition is weak when paired against sleeping in and not doing homework for 3 months straight.  But even now that I’m out of school and working a regular job where I can’t just do whatever I want for the entirety of June, July, and August, summer still remains my favorite season for so many reasons.

Growing up in New England you learn to love little bits of all the seasons.  Yes, we may complain about it, but even winter is magical, especially in December when you get that first smell of snow in the air and twinkle lights appear on every corner.  But there’s just something about summer that makes me incredibly nostalgic and appreciative of nature, and the entire season I just want to be outside as much as possible.   To name a few of these “somethings”: the light and chirping of birds that wake me up too early in the morning but I can’t be mad because it’s beautiful out; how the air can be both hot and sticky and envelop you in a suffocating yet oddly comforting hug, or cool and fresh and smell like the sea or fresh cut grass; the feeling like I’m absorbing every bit of sunshine and warmth as I lay in the sand after floating in the waves off my favorite beach in Gloucester; and the way evening summer light makes everything look hazy and golden during my favorite time of the day throughout the entire year.  I could go on forever, and I’m sure you have your own list of feelings/smells associated with summer that bring a smile to your face just by thinking of them.

But by far, the tastes of summer are what make me cherish every second of this season that is far, far too short.  These are some of the tastes that have become inseparable with summer to me – flavors that, when they hit my taste buds, instantly bring me back to one of those long summer days.  So let’s all have a little crying-fest and reminisce about the foods we will miss the most as summer comes to an end.

Kimball’s ice cream

IMG_9120

People who know me knew this would be #1.  Kimball’s is ingrained into my summers like watermelon and corn on the cob are to the fourth of July.   Kimball Farm is (only) open from mid-April to Columbus Day weekend, and I feel like every time I’m there I’m thinking about how little time I have left.  I kid you not: on Columbus Day last year my family and I made our last Kimball’s pilgrimage (dogs in tow, this is a family affair after all), and after ordering and savoring every last bit of our ice cream, my dad proceeded to order $80.00 worth of half-gallon buckets of chocolate ice cream to hoard for the winter.  And the funny thing is that this doesn’t warrant strange looks from other people, because they get it.  They’re probably about to do the exact same thing.

Us New Englanders are ice cream people.  Funny story: my grandma moved from upstate New York to an assisted-living center nearby, and she’s continuously baffled by the amount of ice cream her fellow residents consume (“Every single night!!”).  But when you’re surrounded by farms like Kimball’s that make the creamiest, most heavenly ice cream known to man, it becomes a part of your culture.  When my friends from high school are home, it’s where we meet to catch up.  It’s also one of the first places I bring my friends from out of town, and so many of them have become as obsessed as I am (sometimes I think they’re visiting me just for Kimball’s, but hey, I can’t blame ‘em).  It’s one of the few things that my entire family enjoys: it can actually get my 19 year old brother to tag along with us.  That’s the power of Kimball’s.

If you haven’t had it, I highly recommend it.  My favorite location is the one in Carlisle, MA because it’s still just a small farm stand on the side of the road (no hoopla like zip-lining or hot air balloon-riding like the soon-to-be amusement park in Westford).  My favorite flavor by far is mocha almond assault (coffee based w/ fudge swirls and chocolate covered almonds), but when I dare to venture off, vanilla blueberry crumble, coffee oreo, and pumpkin are close seconds.

There are only a few weeks left until Columbus Day, and I’m already thinking about how I’m going to savor every last bit of the hot apple crisp with a scoop of pumpkin ice cream that I’ll have to bid adieu until next year.

Anything from our CSA plot

If you haven’t heard of CSA before, it stands for “community-supported agriculture.”  There are many different forms of CSA: sometimes a local farm grows the vegetables for you and you pick up a weekly assortment, or alternatively members are given their own farm plot where they can grow whatever they please.  The latter is what my family (aka my mom, aunt, and I and the freeloaders who feed off our labor) has in our hometown.  Back in May we spent the whole day roto-tilling our little plot, pulling up the incredibly dense weeds and grasses that grew since last summer.  We planted rows and rows of squash, tomatoes, carrots, beets, swiss chard, kale, strawberries, watermelon, eggplant, and peppers, and it has been amazing seeing this little jungle grow.

This past July I moved to Jamaica Plain, and every time I visit our plot I am baffled by the amount of food I’m able to take home (and grateful that for the entire summer I don’t have to spend a penny on produce at the store).  Back when I was living at home, one of my favorite things to do after dinner was drive over to the farm and walk the pups on the bike path as the sun set, hearing the faint static of the power lines standing tall against the brilliant pink sky.  The mosquitos were out, the crickets chirping, and we would leave with the promise of at least 3 baskets full of goodies.

IMG_2460

Being a part of a CSA forces you to be creative in the kitchen.  My weekly challenge after visiting our garden is figuring out what the heck I’m going to do with all this kale (so. much. kale.) or whatever vegetable happens to have sprouted up like wildfire that week.  I often feel like I’m on an episode of “Chopped” as I stare at the bounty of bright, colorful veggies and think how I’m going to transform them before they spoil.  It’s made me even more appreciative of eating seasonally and learning how to take advantage of what you have, when you have it.

Often times I simply eat things the way they came out of the ground: I can’t bring myself to cook the bright, plump tomatoes and so I usually end up taking a bite out of them as if they were apples, or (my favorite way) tossing them with a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and leaves of basil pulled from the pot of herbs I keep on my back porch in JP.  This smell of basil with fresh tomatoes is another smell that I immediately associate with summer, and I wish I could bottle up that earthiness and have it year round.

Another way of utilizing all these veggies is simply throwing them on a baking sheet with olive oil, garlic, and some of your favorite herbs (I like thyme) and roasting them in the oven.  It’s my favorite thing to do with summer squash, eggplant, zucchini, or beets.  I like to roast up a big batch of them and throw them in salads for the week, or just eat them plain.

img_1080.jpg

My go-to for breakfast is whatever green I have an abundance of that week (usually kale…) with a fried (or hard-boiled) egg, and a piece of yummy toasted, buttered bread.

IMG_0933

Sometimes I feel like transforming these ingredients a little more and I’ll make things like kale pesto or zucchini bread.  If you think zucchini bread sounds weird, I highly recommend you give it a try because it doesn’t taste at ALL like zucchini and it’s incredibly moist.  I’ve included at the bottom of this post some of my favorite “recipes” (aka list of things I like thrown together without measurements) that are a step-up from eating these ingredients straight out of the ground but still highlight their natural flavors.

Fish & Chips

IMG_5339

From Mac’s in Wellfleet

I can’t eat this unless I am within 5 miles from the beach, it just doesn’t feel right!! I find it hard to order anything else whenever I am in Gloucester or the on the Cape especially.  It’s as if I’m one of Pavlov’s dogs and I’ve learned to associate the salty air with this basket of fried goodness: I automatically crave it.

The Cape holds a special place in my heart.  At the mention of it, I’m brought back to when I was a kid when we used to rent a house for a week and play in the mudflats, digging for clams and scooping up crabs (one time holding them hostage in a tank in our room for days before letting them free, sorry crabs).  The air in the Cape just feels different: it’s cool and fresh, and you can immediately sense the difference when you roll down your windows going over the Sagamore or the Bourne, your lungs and mind clear with a week of relaxation ahead of you.

Although we rarely get the chance to stay an entire week on the Cape anymore, I still crave at least one “Cape day” every summer, and so my mom and I have made this a tradition every year.  We pick one of the many small towns, explore the beaches and shops, and when our stomachs start to rumble we venture out to the local seafood “shack” along the road.  If all your self-destructing heart desires is fried seafood, these little places with the Cape Cod-style siding I love so much will never let you down.  The acidity of the lemon and the bite of the cole slaw lighten up the fried fish and french fries, creating one heavenly bite that you just can’t recreate away from the ocean.  After dinner we usually make it just in time for sunset at our favorite beach in Brewster where you can walk for miles and miles during low tide.  This plus an overflowing waffle cone of Campfire S’mores (my go-to flavor if I’m not at Kimball’s) is the perfect ending to the day.  Fewer things make me happier than a day like this.

IMG_5374

Homemade peach pie

IMG_1014

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned it’s that coarse sanding sugar makes ALL the difference on pies.

More specifically, peach pie made by my mom’s friend, Margie.  She happens to live across the road from previously-mentioned favorite beach in Gloucester (not a bad person to know, right?!).  This has become a summer tradition for the three of us; we’ve (I’ve) started calling it “peach and beach”, and it’s honestly the main thing I look forward to when summer rolls around.  I’ve started associating Gloucester with this peach pie, and we laugh at how poor Margie has to bake one up every time we visit (or else we won’t come…true friendship).

We arrive at her condo around lunchtime, greeted by my favorite purple and blue hydrangeas in bloom and the salty cool air.  Usually the pie has already been made, and it sits on the stove torturing me with its buttery, cinnamon-y smell.  She makes incredibly flaky pie crust from scratch, fills it to the brim with the juiciest and brightest fresh peaches, and folds the extra pie crust into a lattice that she covers with coarse sanding sugar.  It’s absolutely beautiful and I have to photograph it every time.  I could start a collage with the number of peach pie photographs I’ve acquired…hey, that’s not a bad idea.

But we can’t eat it yet: it’s best enjoyed after a day at the beach.  We set up camp in the sand and spend the day in and out of the frigid Atlantic.  That first dive under the waves is always bone-chilling, but you just have to do it: after that, I could float in those waves for hours.  This past summer we did just that and didn’t realize how far off shore we had drifted, almost getting caught in a rip-tide. WHOOPS.

Needless to say we earned the peach pie that day, our arms and legs pleasantly sore from treading water.  We returned to her condo tired and slightly burnt, ready for the much-anticipated treat.  All this build-up just makes it taste that much better.  Sitting cross-legged on her back deck, generous slice of pie and scoop of homemade (!) vanilla ice cream in a bowl in my lap, the cool air of the marsh giving my slightly-burnt skin a pleasant chill, I am at my utmost happiest.

IMG_2702

Man, why does summer have to end?!  I feel like I need one last beach day (preferably with peach pie) to say goodbye to the ocean.  The memories these foods evoke are some of the most powerful memories I have.  But part of what’s great about living in New England is that the next season has its own unique tastes, smells, and activities that I love (almost) equally as much.  It’s already started to get cooler here in Boston; the mornings have that crisp feel and smell, and it makes me crave apple crisp and walks with my dogs in the cranberry bogs surrounded by bright red and orange leaves.  I can no longer walk around Jamaica Pond until 8 or 9 PM, but the early setting-sun does give me that cozy feeling of hibernation and the desire to bake or use the crockpot, which also makes me very excited (I’m an old woman at heart and proud of it).  In the meantime I’ll soak up as much as is left of summer – the sun, the sea, and these flavors with such wonderful memories attached.   So ciao for now summer, ci vediamo in un anno!

Favorite recipes from CSA ingredients: 

Kale pesto

Use a food processor or blender to grind a bunch of kale.  Add in a handful of nuts (pine nuts, walnuts, or almonds) and small hunks of parmigiano reggiano or grana padano.  Continue to blend, pouring in olive oil until smooth.  Add a pinch of salt to taste.  I made a ton of this and poured it into an ice cube tray.  Now I can pop one out whenever I have a craving for pesto…which is pretty much every day.  It’s especially great for breakfast on toast with a fried egg. Yum.

Kale chips

Preheat oven to 375 F.  Tear kale into smaller pieces and place on a baking sheet with olive oil, garlic powder, salt, and pepper (or whatever spices you like).  Cook, turning occasionally, until kale is crisp.  This stuff is ADDICTING.

Kale salad

As you can tell I have an extreme abundance of kale in the summer! This is one of my favorite salad combos: kale, apples, almonds, goat cheese, and dried cherries.  Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Broccolini with figs and almonds 

IMG_1076

I used dried figs but fresh figs would be even better.  You can also use any other type of dried fruit or nut for that matter!  Roast broccoli in an oven at 375 F with olive oil and garlic.  Add in sliced dried figs and chopped almonds.  Perfect combo of sweet, salty, and crunchy.

Balsamic Swiss chard 

Super easy and my favorite way to eat Swiss chard (also works great with spinach, kale, or beet greens).  Heat olive oil and minced garlic in a skillet, add greens and sauté until wilted.  Remove from heat and add a splash of balsamic vinegar (the good stuff like Ina Garten would approve of).  Throw in some chopped almonds.

Spring rolls with peanut sauce

IMG_1539

These are fun to make and are perfect for throwing in a BUNCH of vegetables.  Chop up desired veggies into long slices (cucumbers, squash, spinach, kale, carrots, etc all work great).  Pour an inch of warm water into a sauce pan and place rice paper wrapper in, letting soak for a few seconds until soft.  Transfer to a plate and add in veggies.  This is the hard part:  roll it up like a burrito as best as you can (mine are always a mess, but they taste good so I don’t care!).  Dip into peanut sauce (whisk together some peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, minced garlic, and chopped peanuts).  My friend and I once made these and brought them on a hike, which proves you can and should eat them ANYWHERE.

Pasta salad with roasted corn and cherry tomatoes (adapted from a magazine that I can’t remember the name of, whoops!)

Boil a pot of water for your favorite pasta (I love this with farfalle) and prepare the vinaigrette and veggies as it cooks.

Mustard vinaigrette: Whisk together…

  • 1/4 C white wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp dijon mustard
  • pinch of salt and pepper
  • 2/3 C extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small shallot, diced
  • zest of 1 lemon

Roasted corn: Place fresh corn on the cob under the broiler.  Watch and turn as it browns on each side.  Let cool and use a knife to slice off kernels.

Slice 2 handfuls of cherry tomatoes in half.

Once the pasta is al dente and drained, add in the vinaigrette, corn, and tomatoes.  Add a handful of basil leaves, or a little goat cheese to bring it all together.

Blueberry zucchini bread

Recipe here.  I just remembered I have a loaf of this in the freezer and immediately put it in the fridge to thaw.  Guess I know what I’m having for breakfast tomorrow 😉

Chocolate zucchini muffins

IMG_1494

Recipe here.  Last but not least, some chocolate!  These not only got my coworkers seal of approval, but my DAD’s as well.  That’s a big deal considering the man only eats red meat and potatoes!  I may have failed to tell him they contain zucchini until after he took a bite, but he had to admit they were delicious, despite his perplexed look (he may not trust me with food ever again). They’re ooey gooey and chocolatey and a great way to get rid of those giant zucchini.

Thanks for reading!  Comment below with your favorite summer foods, I’d love to hear your feedback 🙂

La Frittata

IMG_0165

The frittata, or as I like to call it, eggs with all the random stuff in my fridge that I need to get rid of!  Roasted in a skillet and mixed with eggs, cheese, and a few spices, and you would never know that that broccoli had been sitting in your fridge for almost a week.  Sneaky sneakyyyy.  A frittata looks impressive with its golden-brown glow and artful display of vegetables, but is incredibly easy to make and also light on the wallet.

Frittata translates to “fried” in Italian.  If you’ve never had a frittata before, it’s like a crustless egg “pie” or quiche.  Think of how you would make an omelette but skip the step of folding it over, and boom you’ve got a frittata!  We typically think of eating these for breakfast or brunch, but in Italy they are traditionally eaten with lunch or dinner.  This is because eggs are rarely eaten in the morning in Italian culture.  You’d be hard-pressed to find eggs being served at an Italian cafe for breakfast; instead, the Italian-way consists of some biscotti, a pastry (like un cornetto, the Italian-verison of a croissant), and an espresso or cappuccino.

When I arrived in Italy, one of the first questions my host mom, Nicoletta, asked me was what I ate for breakfast.  Although I did enjoy having eggs pretty frequently back in the US, I wanted to fully embrace the typical Italian breakfast.  Every morning I would come up the stairs from my room to their small but cozy kitchen, an Italian talk-show playing on the radio, to find my breakfast arranged on a placemat, which my host father, Antonio, lovingly insisted on preparing himself every morning: a yogurt, some biscotti, a piece of fruit, and sometimes (to my pleasant surprise) a piece of a pastry or cake that my host sister had made.  Let’s just say I didn’t miss eggs at all.

When I did have eggs in Italy, my host mom would usually make them in the form of a frittata as an accompaniment for dinner – Vuoi anche una frittata?  Hers were a simple fried egg with salt and pepper; however, if they were the main course of the meal  veggies, meats, and cheeses were added.

It’s up to you (or your fridge!) to decide what you’d like to add to a frittata.  I’m convinced you can put anything in these and they will taste good.  I’ve made them caprese-style (mozzarella, tomato, and fresh basil), southwestern style (avocado, red onion, tomato, cheddar cheese), or simply just peppers and onions.  You could also throw in chopped-up meats like bacon or prosciutto, or add some boiled potatoes if you want something heartier.  I recently made one with spinach, onions, and cubes of parmigiano reggiano (aka my favorite cheese and something you will be seeing a LOT of on this blog), and it was GOOD.

I used to only make these on special occasions like Mother’s Day (great for breakfast in bed!), but now that I’ve realized how easy they are to make, they’re one of my go-to recipes for those slow, weekend mornings when I want to take my time and make something different.  (Because anything is better than my typical breakfast, a lovely yogurt al commuter rail).   Something about taking the time to chop the vegetables, whisk the eggs, and watch it all come together is very relaxing to me.   My favorite thing about these is the golden edges and peaks in the middle as the eggs and cheeses brown under the broiler, and the bright, mosaic display of veggies on the top.  The most satisfying thing is to cut into the piping hot frittata and remove a triangular piece of savory, golden-brown deliciousness.  And if you add cheese you get that heavenly, ooey-gooey cheese pull.  Yum.  This is one of the simplest, most budget-friendly dishes I know, and the end-product is pretty dang beautiful!

IMG_0171

You can also lay the vegetables on top for a more dramatic display.  Just think of what some roasted asparagus would look like…I think I know what I’m doin’ next. 

I’ve found that the best way to make frittate is to use a cast-iron skillet.  If you don’t have one of these, you can use a sauce pan – just make sure you don’t put it in the oven if they have a plastic handle!  That’s what makes a cast-iron such a great tool – being able to cook something on the stove and finish it in the oven opens up so many possibilities.  Random note: I recently came across this really helpful video (click here!) on how to use and take care of a cast-iron skillet (which made me realize everything I’ve been doing wrong, WHOOPS).

This is the first “recipe” I’m posting.  I put recipe in quotes because it’s really more of a suggested list of ingredients and steps that you can choose to follow, or not!  I personally kind of hate following recipes, and tend to use them more for getting the technical aspect down (like what temperature to set the oven at, or visual queues for when things are done cooking).  Unless I’m baking something, I don’t use conventional measurements – just keep pourin’ that olive oil or grating that cheese until it looks right.  I’m a big believer in crossing your fingers and hoping for the best!! That’s how you learn, and in my opinion it gives everything you cook a more personal touch.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons of olive oil (for the skillet)
Chopped vegetables and/or meats
Pinch of salt and pepper (plus whatever spices you feel like)
Cheese (if desired)
2 eggs per person
Splash of milk

Steps

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
  2. Add the olive oil to skillet, and heat on medium-low.
  3. Once the skillet feels warm to the palm, it’s mix-in time!  If using raw meat, add that first and sauté in the olive oil.  Once cooked, remove and set aside for later.  Then sauté any vegetables.  Whatever you decide to add, make sure to season it – throw in some salt, pepper, and whatever other seasonings you feel like.
  4. While the mix-ins are cooking, whisk the eggs and milk in a bowl.  Also add any cheeses and pre-cooked meats to the eggs at this point.
  5. Add the egg mixture to the skillet, and stir to distribute the vegetables, meats, and cheeses.
  6. Leave it alone! As the frittata cooks, bubbles will start to come to the surface.  When the sides begin to solidify but the top is still runny, place the entire skillet in the oven. If you’re using a sauce pan that has any sort of plastic on it, do not put it in the oven – flip the frittata onto a plate, and then place it back in the pan to cook the other side for 4-5 minutes.
  7. Cook in the oven for around 8 minutes, or until the eggs are set.  You can test this by using a knife to cut a small slit in the middle – if there is still liquid, it needs more time.
  8. In the last minute or so, turn on the broiler and watch like a hawk.  One minute it’s yellow, the next it’s burnt! Keep checking in and remove when it gets nice and golden brown.

This is best served hot, but you can keep leftovers in the fridge for a few days. Reheating eggs might seem weird, but I promise they still taste good!

And there ya go!  This whole process takes under 30 minutes, and this is a great way to highlight seasonal vegetables and test out combinations.  My favorite way to eat frittate is with a slice of toasted bread and some fruit.  The perfect breakfast for a day off 🙂 Enjoy!

Welcome e Benvenuto!

Orto translates to “orchard” in Italian.  “So the name of your blog is Orchard and…Orchard? Seems a little repetitive, huh?” Yes, it’s repetitive, but there are reasons behind it! Let me explain.

For one, my last name is Orchard.  We all know what orchards are – those big open fields where things are grown, and where New Englanders in flannel shirts flock to in the fall to pick apples.  The relevance of my last name was never really something I thought about until it was recently brought to my attention by a career counselor.  After sensing my obviously profound confusion, he said, “When people come to me unsure about what they want to do, I often suggest taking a look at their last name.”  I couldn’t help but laugh when he said this, and at how remarkably true this statement turns out to be. Who knew that I could have avoided all of this confusion if I had just looked at my birth certificate! Haaaaa…

It does seem that the path that I’m on now has been staring me in the face for quite some time but, for many reasons that seem stupid now, I’d been ignoring it or pushing it aside.  I went through college and this past year since graduation convincing myself that I wanted to become a doctor.  And I’d pretty much had everything in place!  I got my biology degree, I registered for the MCAT and was taking a prep-class, and I started training to become an EMT.  Yet the entire time, I had a horrible feeling that I was headed towards something I didn’t really want.  Romantic thoughts would constantly bubble up about pursuing a career involving food (or anything else, really) but I pushed them aside, convincing myself that these were interests that would be better off as hobbies.  Doubts would come to me daily, but in the end I always told myself that it was natural to be unsure.  After all, medicine is a big thing to commit to, but I would be helping people, challenging myself, and I’d probably be pretty good at it.  I’d learn to deal with the lifestyle if I was making a difference.

Unfortunately this shoveling-away of doubt blew up in a pretty dramatic way.  I started my job as an EMT and barely finished two weeks before I had a complete mental breakdown.  Yay! It took being exposed to the medical field in arguably the most extreme way possible to show me that I didn’t want to do this.  A lot of the nature of the job struck me as futile – sure, we’d patch someone up and be on our merry way, but chances are this person was in such poor health overall that they’d need an ambulance again sometime pretty soon.  I would sit in the back of the truck thinking about everywhere else I’d rather be, and I felt like I was wasting my time.  Why was I forcing myself to do something that I was clearly so unhappy doing?  I couldn’t find a good answer to that, so I quit.

I was freeeee! I no longer felt stuck, and I can’t describe how amazing that felt. Admittedly I was also a little terrified – what on earth was I going to do now?  I did know what I was going to do that day though, which was eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (still the most comforting thing I know) and binge-watch “Chef’s Table” on Netflix.  I watched wide-eyed as these chefs talked animatedly about their work with such joy and passion, and I decided that I was done trying to pursue a career in medicine that, although prestigious and rewarding, I constantly needed to convince myself was worthwhile.  I took a step back and thought about what I’m truly passionate about, and the answer was always the same: food, food, food.

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m slightly obsessed with the culinary world. Let me give you some examples to show how true this statement is:

  • My family avoids giving me the clicker because they know I’m going to force them to watch episode after episode of “Chopped”.
  • While I was studying abroad, my friends and I planned our weekend in Paris entirely around where we were going to eat instead of the, I don’t know, “sights”, I guess you could call them. “Oh, yeah the Mona Lisa was cool.  But remember that falafel place?  Best I’ve had in my life.”
  • If we’re hanging out, chances are it’s going to involve food; either I’m hijacking your kitchen, or we’re crossing another restaurant off the massive list I’ve compiled on my phone over the years.  You’re going to eat, cook, or watch someone cook, and you’re going to like it!

Food is my favorite way to learn about another culture.  It’s my favorite way to bring people together, and it’s my favorite way to destress. So, needless to say, I really like food. It seems pretty obvious that this would be something I’d want to pursue further, but it was only when I escaped the “pre-med bubble” and finally had time to think about where my interests truly lie that I seriously began to consider something involving food as a possible career option.

Now’s probably a good time to explain the Italian part of this blog: the orto.

Italian culture plays a huge role in my life, but that wasn’t until a few years ago.  Like many Americans, I can tell you the rough percentage of Italian blood that runs through my veins (around 25%).  My father’s mother’s parents, the Peressini’s, arrived at Ellis Island from a tiny province in northeastern Italy named Majano.   Unfortunately this part of my heritage has been lost throughout the years; I didn’t grow up speaking Italian or making homemade red sauce on Sundays.  My immersion into Italian culture didn’t begin until I got to college when I decided to take introductory Italian.  I almost took Spanish, but (and this is embarrassing) after reading Eat, Pray, Love, I decided Italian was where my heart was really at.  Plus, I am Italian!  (Sidenote: I’ve since realized that my life is reflecting the events of this book more than I’d like to admit, as I also traveled to India this past January…does this mean I’m going to Bali next??)

Eventually this led me to Padova, Italy where I studied abroad during my junior year.  I lived the life of an Italian every day for 6 months, and like most study abroad students, I loved every single minute.  My host family and I would share stories over dinner (in Italian), I took classes of culture, history, and language (in Italian), and watched movies with my friends (also in Italian).  I fell in love with the culture and, of course, the food.  To this day there is nothing I find more relaxing than sitting in an Italian piazza sipping spritz, munching on salty chips, and playing cards as the sun sets.  I love that the Italian language has such specific, memory-evoking phrases to describe food – my favorite being “fare la scarpetta” which describes that incredibly satisfying way to end a meal by using a piece of bread to mop up all the juices.  To me it seems that Italians share the same love as I do for good food and the powerful memories that surround it, and this shared appreciation is what continually draws me to Italian recipes and culinary traditions.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep Italian culture alive in my every day life.  I started working at Eataly thinking it would be a temporary job between EMT training and my internship in India, but 6 months later and I’m still here!  I’m not sure where this will lead, but I know that I love working with people who love food as much as I do, and for a company that is dedicated to the things I hold most important.

Eataly is a part of the “slow food” movement which began in Rome when locals protested the building of a McDonald’s. If only that would happen in the US!  Slow food is all about providing food that is “good, clean, and fair for all.”  So, quite literally the opposite of fast food.  This means taking the time to know where and whom our food comes from (the farmers, animals, and land), and eating foods when they’re meant to be eaten (like giant, misshapen tomatoes in the summer when they’re brightest and juiciest).  The Italians even have a word to describe this attention to seasonality – scorpacciata – which literally translates to “big feed”, but actually represents the idea of eating as much as possible of whatever is in season before it disappears. At work I’m exposed daily to slow food in-action.  Just yesterday I got to meet a representative from one of our coffee producers in Western Massachusetts and learned about how they are dedicated to sustainable, fair bean production with their farms in Africa and South America.  I also get to taste cheeses from all over New England and learn how to make bread!  This job honestly doesn’t feel like work at all, but instead like some kind of endless Italian food tour where I get to learn new things every day, and I love it.

This exposure to slow food, accompanied with my recent obsession with Michael Pollan’s work, have me thinking a lot about our food system.  I started The Omnivore’s Dilemma with a pencil in hand, underlining what seemed to be every other sentence.  Who knew the corn industry could be so interesting?! Reading about the unnecessarily complex path from farm to table in our culture has left me frustrated and confused.  Why does the US have such a weird relationship with food?  Why is it so hard for us to know where our food comes from?

Based on my travels in other countries, this problem seems to be uniquely American.  In Italy, I took cooking classes where we walked out to the market and bought the asparagus and rabbit for our fresh ravioli.  We chose those ingredients not because we had a specific menu in mind, but simply because that’s what was available that particular day.  I saw the extreme of local-eating when I WWOOF’ed on a vineyard in Tuscany and our host prepared a meal consisting of vegetables and wine produced entirely on their own property.  This introduced me to the concept of “terroir” which reflects how the land, wind, water, and sun impact the vegetation produced in a particular area, and I’ve yet to have a more earthy glass of red or vibrantly herbaceous olive oil.  In India, it was as easy as walking down the road – I watched as a family worked to cut and clean the chicken (blood, guts, and all) that we had for dinner that same night.  These meals remain to be the best I’ve had in my life, and I think this is largely due not only to the freshness and simplicity of the ingredients, but also to the consciousness of knowing exactly where each item came from.

In the US it seems that we’ve moved away from this close relationship with our food, sadly mostly due to economic interests.  To briefly summarize a hugely complex system: the government subsidizes corn and soy, so we grow a lot of corn and soy.  We then have to do something with all of it, so we feed it to our animals (which we then eat, indirectly eating more corn and soy) and create a bunch of processed foods.  This is great for the farmer (whom can now make a better living), and great for supply and demand, but devestating for pretty much every other party involved.  Not to mention the effect this has on our soil and the various plant and animal species involved (I could go on for days, but I’ll restrain myself), but in terms of human health, we’re eating a whole lot of two ingredients that provide virtually no benefits; yet somehow, they make up almost every single item that lines our supermarket shelves.  We’re known as a nation of overeaters but paradoxically, we’re undernourished.

Although there has been a lot of progress in moving back to farm-to-table and promoting the food justice movement, the majority of America relies on these cheap alternatives, simply for that reason: they’re cheap, and they also happen to taste good. The strain on the healthcare system created by a diet high in processed foods (obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, to name a few) is enormous, and will only continue to grow if our culture doesn’t adopt a more transparent, sustainable method of acquiring food.  For the sake of our health and the health of our environment, something needs to change in our unnecessarily muddled food system.

And that’s what I’m realizing I’d like to get more involved with.  Rather than treating people clinically, I’d like to prevent people from getting sick in the first place.  And when I think about what has the biggest impact on our health, the answer here is undeniably (again): food, food food.

There is a sign across from my desk at Eataly whose gravity and relevance didn’t hit me until recently: “Eating is an agricultural act” (Wendell Berry).  We can’t think about the food we eat without adressing where it comes from, and this has profound effects on our health.  In other words, it’s all linked – our health, what we eat, how we obtain our food, and how we treat the environment that provides us with it.  As I’ve said, this has all been (quite literally) staring me in the face this whole time!

Basically, I’m slowly discovering a way to combine all of the things I’m most passionate about – food, health, environment, and culture – and this blog is a way for me to explore this further.  I’ll mostly be sharing some of the Italian-inspired recipes I’ve come to love, along with the stories that transport me back to the people and places that have had such an impact on my journey with food.  These recipes usually have a few steps involving simple ingredients, partially because I’m a little lazy, but also because things with few ingredients and steps tend to taste better.  My belief is that, contrary to what it may seem in our country, food doesn’t have to be complicated!  There’s a reason why nature works the way it does, and my hope is that our culture can move back towards that.

So, hopefully “Orchard e Orto” makes a little more sense now?!  I hope you guys enjoy what I decide to post here, and get a better idea of the power of food and the importance of paying more attention to its source.  I’d love to hear from any of you whether it’s feedback, your own journeys with food, or just to say hi.

Grazie mille, e mangiamo!

Rachel