Dark Days Drunken Chuck Roast

Just this year, my favorite natural foods grocery store (previously 100% locally owned and operated) sold out to a larger, nationwide natural grocery chain.  Mixed feelings have been expressed, though mostly resentment has shown through (a la Asheville’s (in)famous activism).  We LIKED our hometown’s natural foods grocer just fine, thank you.  This isn’t to say that I haven’t wholeheartedly appreciated the other nationwide-brand’s stores as I’ve travelled in areas that otherwise wouldn’t have organic and natural food offerings; but in the South’s own “Parisian” mecca, hubbub of all things organic, sustainable, permacultured, local and community-supported, it is popular opinion (and my own) that the store we had was meeting our needs and then some, without having to bow to larger corporate agendas – however ‘natural’ they may be.

And so, to retire my soapbox and explain what this has to do with the actual meal I cooked yesterday, let me say that there isn’t near the selection of local foods there once was, and I’ve had to settle for *regional* sources for my 4th Dark Days meal; Drunken Chuck Roast.

I had in mind that I wanted to make something in the slow cooker, and a local cut of meat from Hickory Nut Gap Farm, just east of town, set the stage.  Supporting roles were filled a la *regional* carte and ended up being: SC sweet potatoes, SC green cabbage, SC leeks, thyme from the garden of a local herb vendor and a 22oz. bottle of Asheville Brewing Company’s Auld Asheville Ale – their seasonal sensation.

Loosely following a recipe from Joy of Cooking, I cut the 1 1/2 lb. chuck roast into 2″ cubes, generously rubbed them down with salt, pepper and thyme before throwing them into a hot skillet with a pat of local lard (also Hickory Nut Gap’s) and browned them on all sides.  Into the slow cooker they went as I flash crisped the chopped cabbage and leeks.  The sweet potatoes I cubed and tossed right into the cooker along with the green veggies and followed all this with the whole bottle of ale.  A few dashes more of salt, pepper and thyme and I left it to heat and simmer for about 5 hours.

No exaggeration, the most succulent, tender, falling-apart and flavorful stew I have ever had the privilege of having in my mouth.  That’s loc..*regional* flavor.  I would (and will) do this again in a heartbeat!  Just another meal to add to your winter recipes.

Dark Days Island Soup

My family is normally one that sticks to its holiday traditions.  Every year we’re known to watch ‘Scrooge’, the British musical version of Charles Dickens’ classic; eat navel oranges and tangelos (that my mother always bought from some friend of the family’s highschool band fundraising student) along with port wine cheese and crackers and wash it all down with my mom’s zesty spiced Russian tea; end a night together decorating the house and tree with our storage-room-load of ornaments and festivities while listening to Nat King Cole’s Christmas CD to ring in the season; throw an assortment of (usually 3) themed Christmas parties, and; attend our church’s Christmas Eve candlelight service.

This year marked the year to end all traditions. (Or at least break or shift them slightly.)

For a few years now, my family has cruised down to the Outer Banks the week between Christmas and New Year’s with another family and an assortment of friends and cousins to spend a holiday week at the beach.  Well this year, with my younger sister being off at college and me living on the complete opposite side of the country, as well as my dad’s long-planned, leap-of-faith called retirement from his career of 26 years, my family felt zero binds on the normal Christmas plans and decided to spend Christmas at the beach.  So my sister and I arrived home within a few hours of each other, arrangements were made to have extended family get-togethers a week early, we threw one, smaller Christmas party and packed our bags and the dog the next day for the 10-hour drive to Ocracoke Island (with a close friend of mine in tow who was also in tradition-breaking mode and decided to spend Christmas with our family.)

One locally-crafted ‘crab pot Christmas tree,’ 3 tins of cookies and one Liberian handmade nativity scene later, and we’re at Christmas Eve on the island.  No Nat King Cole, no tangelos and no church service.  How did we make festive use of the eve of Christ’s celebrated birth?  Local fish and squash soup at the family supper table – oh, and 2 candy-cane Christmas candles, to set the mood.

On the way to the island my parents had stopped at a local fishery and picked up an assortment of scallops, shrimp and some big filets of mahi-mahi. I had a delicata squash from some friends who own a farm just east of Asheville and some collards I had picked up at the market the day before we left.  The mahi we smoked until flaky and just pink, it was sauteed with an onion (from South Carolina – so at least regional) and the baked squash flesh was scraped from the skin and stirred in with some Celtic sea salt (packaged by a local company in Asheville), adding water to reach the desired thickness.  This made for a fantastic-smelling kitchen and a dash of nutmeg did just the trick of tying together the salty and earthy sweet of the rest of the ingredients.

Meanwhile, in the oven I had flash-roasted some collard leaves and the reserved seeds of the squash and once dry and crisp I crumbled them up in a small food processor along with a pinch of Celtic sea salt.  A nice, crunchy and colorful sprinkling for the soup.

How’d ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? I’ll wager a lot more if you could have tasted this SOLE-ful soup!

SOLE Food Meets Soul Food: Hashbrowns

Growing up, hashbrowns equated to tater tots for me.  Specifically that bag out of the freezer from which we’d spill a good layer onto a cookie sheet and warm in the oven til they acquired a decent tan at which point they would accompany such meals as sloppy-joes, breakfast-for-supper or fish.  I don’t think I even had a hashbrown proper until some time in my teens – that is, if McDonald’s serves a ‘proper’ anything.  In fact, it may be that hash browns are a by-product of the popular French-fry; when the potatoes go through the fry-slicer, the little shredded bits and odds and ends need somewhere to go to.  We always just had our potatoes mashed (well ok, and as flakes out of a box for the most part), in fact, I don’t particularly love potatoes. 

I think potatoes are a great and reliable crop to plant and cultivate, it’s fascinating that there are over 4,000 different varities from all around the world, and one of the best dishes I’ve had as a dinner guest was a pan of olive oil and rosemary new potatoes.  Other than that, I could pretty much take them or leave them (sweet potatoes are an entirely different story – both for flavor reasons and the fact that they aren’t even remotely related.)

So where did this craving for hashbrowns come from?  Actually, from the fact that I had both a rutabaga (from Red Dog Farm – 4 miles away) and some Jerusalem artichokes (Nash’s Organic Produce – 30 miles away) waiting for me in the fridge.  Jerusalem artichokes (aka sunchokes) are usually compared to potatoes when being explained to people unfamiliar with this indigenous food, but that really doesn’t do justice to the ‘choke; they’re much more like a water chestnut when raw, crunchy and thin-skinned, and when cooked gain a sweetness and intensity of flavor that comes forward in a meal, rather than play a creamy but supporting role like potatoes do.  Not overpowering, but not demure either. Plus, because they’re a native food to our country, they are adapted to the climates nationwide and are one of the best foods to rely on during the winter – they can last all winter underground and are usually one of the only remaining fresh foods in the early spring when crops are being sown and last year’s food stock is becoming depleted.

Rutabagas, being in the brassica family, have a taste similar to cabbage and a texture similar to sauerkraut when shredded. They’re in season right now and are a good root vegetable to last you the winter, either in the ground covered with mulch, or root-cellared. Why not shred both together and create a neo-hashbrown? 

This was so quick to make – the longest part being grating by hand the two veggies.  They browned nicely and still maintained a pleasant crispy-ness while the flavor of the rutabaga really melded well with the eggs.  After offering a taste to my housemates, our minds immediately went to omelettes (of course made with the local eggs we get every week from Spring Rain Farm – 4 miles away); beside, or even in which they’d be wonderful.

Sounds a bit odd ball, but try it – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Neo Hash Browns
1 medium rutabaga
2 small or 1 medium Jerusalem artichoke
2 eggs
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter

Grate/shred the veggies, beat 2 eggs and mix in along with salt and pepper for flavor.  Melt half the butter in a cast iron skillet.  When hot enough to sizzle a dash of water, scoop in half the mix and press into a pancake form to cover the bottom of the skillet.  Let cook for a good 5 minutes on one side before flipping in pieces to brown the other side, which will need about 2-3 minutes of cooking.  Fold onto a plate and melt the remaining butter and cook the rest of the hash browns.

Though the butter wasn’t local, it was organic and from a co-oped organization of farmers; with the eggs being from chickens I’ve helped raise, water, feed and house and the veggies coming from the farmer’s market, soul food can (and by definition should!) be SOLE food.

The Green Idol

At this point in my life (and travels) I’ve shifted into the realm of community gardens.  Learning about ways to offer land and food to people who live either urban or sub-urban lives yet want the opportunity to grow their own or have access to good, organic food is something I’ve taken on.

Though my dream life was once to be a neo-homesteader, complete with self-sufficient gardening and animal management, doing for myself what Western consumerism tells you that you can’t (make your own clothes from fiber to yarn to garment, for example, or provide your own meat by safely butchering an animal), living off the grid and watching my babes run around the yard all naked and natural while I hang laundry in the whispery breeze.  To have work and family and learning and recreation be a cohesive package, a self-supporting cycle.

Enter the reality that land is hard to come by, money even harder, and the realization that good stewardship as a Christian involves more than just watching my resource consumption and living a frugal life, but is inherently about fostering relationships with people and valuing their worth.  I’ve let my pursuit of a green and organic lifestyle get in the way of my friendships and fellowship with others in the past, spent the majority of my time and money on it, obsessing with health and living lightly.  In essence, I created an idol. These pursuits are not very fruitful, to say the least.  (This is another description of what I’m trying to convey.)

“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?”  Matt. 6:27

But as I’m growing in my faith, I’m learning to balance my convictions with God’s purpose and the community He’s placed me in.  To offer the knowledge of sustainable and organic gardening to others who might not have access to good food is something I feel is important not only to those immediately around me, but greater society as well.  Not everyone can have 20 acres and a draft horse, but with community-involvement, everyone can have access to some land and a way to cultivate it. 

There are lots of community gardens in Port Townsend, ranging from neighborhood collaborations and communal chicken coops, to food bank designated sites run by Ameri-Corp interns and other affiliates, and even to a local farm-based ‘dry-land project’; an initiative to bring draught-tolerant grains/staple foods into production.

All of these and more research down the road will be added to the compiling of paper mounds that are the makings of an intended book on methods and models of community gardening.  And though homesteading may still be in it for this young, aspiring farmer, reaching the urban and sub-urban specters of our society is where the real need is for health and getting back to living naturally – a little bit closer to the world God designed in the first place.

“All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:
You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.
The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock – the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
Your basket and kneading trough will be blessed.
You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.”  Deut. 28:2-6

Winter SOLE Food, take 1

As part of an international challenge this year among the blogosphere (meaning mostly Americans and one Australian, that I know of) I will be posting about once a week focusing on a meal constructed nearly 100% of local food; meaning within a 100 mile radius of where I live.  Nearly 100% local meaning that things like salt, spices, chocolate, sugar and some beverages like coffee and tea are exempt, but are still expected to be housed under the SOLE acronym of Sustainably produced, Organically raised/grown, Local within 100 miles (some grant locality to 150-mile radius, especially in the winter) and Ethically raised and handled.

The purpose of this challenge is to raise awareness through personal experience and second-hand online reading of how to eat seasonally even through the doldrums of winter when the days are representative of doldrums, darkness and dormancy.  Though this time is seen as a seeming antithesis to the harvest and bounty days of the splashing, sticky and sunny days of summer, there is, in fact, quite a lot to be eaten and enjoyed as the days are growing ever shorter (and then hey! they start to get longer again!)  Some crops even benefit from the freeze-thaw cycles, growing sweeter, crisper or more tender.  Kale, Brussel’s sprouts and arugula are just 3  crops that are known for their hardiness, texture and outstanding taste – and each of these characteristics becomes more pronounced after a freeze or snow.

So without further ado here is meal number one, which is fittingly, a scrumptious breakfast:

Backyard-herb Frittata and Pumpkin Pie Smoothie

Despite the heavy, 6-inch snow and sub-20 degree nights we had last week on the Olympic Peninsula, the herb garden in the back yard is unfazed, bearing dark green and lush oregano, purplish-hazed sage plants, some minty-cool rosemary and vibrant green thyme.  These I picked and diced before adding to 2 local eggs from the farm down the street where I’ve been volunteering (the eggs came from one of the farm’s breeds of brown-egg layers: Black Australorps, Buff Orpingtons, Red Stars, Barred Rocks and Black Stars.)

Heat up a non-stick fry pan over med-high heat and add 2 well-beaten eggs with a smattering of crushed, chopped fresh herbs.  Let settle into shape and cook up until it holds well (about 4 minutes) then flip quickly to the other side for about 20 seconds before cutting off the heat.  Fold or lay flat onto a plate and enjoy with another topping of herbs (alternately, you could sprinkle some shredded local cheese or a pat of butter on top.)

The idea for the pumpkin smoothie came from a friend who’s always browsing recipes both online and in her collection of cooking magazines and books.  And being a pumpkin from the same aforementioned farm, it was local, organically grown, and as fresh as the shelf life inherent in winter squash (they can keep from 2 months to 8 months and beyond).  I had baked the pumpkin whole in the oven the day before and scraped out the pith and seeds while saving the flesh in a container in the fridge, so it was ready to go for anything from soup to pie to smoothie.

Take about 1 1/2 cups baked pumpkin and place with a couple of ice cubes in a blender.  Pour in about 1/2 cup of milk (*admittedly, I used boxed almond milk, because I’m dairy-sensitive, but local milk would be the prime choice for most – and I intend to find some local grain or seeds to make milk with at some point in this challenge).  Add a dollop of nut butter (I know that hazelnuts and chestnuts are grown in my region, I haven’t seen any nut butter products made using them, but again, this is something I can hopefully tackle before the challenge ends in April.)  And season with spices to your taste: cinnamon and ginger are nice, and instead of cloves or nutmeg, I opted for allspice since it is indigenous to the Western World, a native of Central America and Mexico, and therefore comes much closer to being local than something grown in the East.  Add a dash of local honey, in this case, also from up-the-road-farm, and blend to your heart’s desire. 

This smoothie is so simple and straightforward, yet so creamy and tasty it could easily sub for a milk-shake fix (no, really!)

Start your day off right with SOLE food!