Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ultimate locavore club - CSA's

Have you ever wanted to support your local agriculture, but don't know how?  Have you wanted to get your fruits and vegetables at the peak of freshness?  Maybe you want to reduce your ecological footprint in obtaining your food?  Or maybe you just want to find more interesting varieties of produce and meat?  Well, then you should look into Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA's.

What is a CSA, you might ask?  Well, I'm not going to say there are hard and fast rules, to be sure, but normally, a CSA is a family farm, or small group of farms.   You purchase a membership, or share, in the CSA, usually paid for in an upfront fee.  In return, you are guaranteed a regular share of whatever that farm is producing.  Most CSA's supply produce, although there are ones that sell eggs, milk, free range chickens, and even beef, pork, etc.  Produce CSA's typically have a weekly pickup, and members will receive whatever is at its peak that week.  Many CSA's raise their produce sustainably and organically, though often, they are not certified due to the increasing governmental fees and regulations for organic certifications that benefit corporations at the expense of family farms.  

How can I join a CSA, you might ask, and how can I find one in the first place?  Well, finding CSA's is a reasonably easy task.  One of the quickest ways is to visit Local Harvest, a website dedicated to promoting local agriculture in the form of CSA's, farmers' markets, etc.  Many, many CSA's use the site to promote themselves.

Joining a CSA can be a little trickier.  There is, after all, only so much that any farm can produce, and many CSA farms are geared towards quality, not quantity.  Because of this, CSA membership is limited, and more popular ones can have long waiting lists.  I have been on a waiting list for a fruit CSA for over a year, and I can only hope that I will have a chance to get in next year.  The good news is that new CSA's are springing up all the time.  Additionally, many CSA's also sell at some farmers' markets, so you can have an opportunity to sample the produce from different farms before making your decision as to which CSA to try to join.   Most CSA memberships fill up before the growing season starts, so it is probably too late to join one this year (though it never hurts to ask).  However, if you find one that you like, you can definitely get on the list for next year.

There are also CSA's that will sell to the general public from their farms, and though you aren't guaranteed specific items, and will perhaps pay more than you would if you were a member, it is still a good way to explore whether you would like to join later.

CSA's are a wonderful way to get the best of what is fresh now, to find produce and other products that are rare in commercial markets, and to obtain high quality food for incredible prices.  I highly urge you to check out what's in your area!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Wonder bacteria...

You probably don't like to think about bacteria and food.  After all, if you've ever opened up a container of food and smelled an unpleasant aroma emanating from it, you've experienced bacterial growth in action.  However, bacteria are responsible for giving us some of our most delicious foods - among them,chocolate, cheese, yogurt, bread, and alcoholic beverages.  

The main type of bacteria that you can thank for this wonder is lactobacillus.  We have a fairly symbiotic relationship with lactobacillus.  There's some living in your gut right now.  This is why pro-biotics can help with digestion.  Lactobacillus breaks down sugars that we are unable to digest - sugars like lactose, from which its name is derived.  

Of course, lactobacillus is inherently tied to dairy.  One species or another is responsible for most most fermented dairy products - cheese, sour cream, creme fraiche, and yogurt are all different varieties of lactobacilli.  Lactobacillus is also present in sourdough, where it exists in symbiosis with yeast.  Lactobacillus works so well because it produces lactic acid as a byproduct.  Most bacteria don't survive well in an acidic environment, and so they are unable to form colonies.  Yeast is a rare bacteria that does fare well, which is how it is able to co-exist so happily with lactobacillus.

If you have a mother culture, it is pretty easy to keep it going.  In the case of commercial strains of lactobacillus, these strains are easily obtainable.  In the case of creme fraiche, simply add a splash of buttermilk to heavy cream, leave it in a warm place until thickened, and pour off the liquid that has separated out.

Yogurt is also ridiculously simple to make.  Scald some milk, let it cool to the point where it is hot, but not burning you, and whisk in some yogurt.  

Let it sit in a warm place (if you have a warming drawer in your oven, this works great; there are also commercial yogurt makers) until it thickens, then pour off the liquid that has separated.  Now you have yogurt that costs about half or less what you would have paid for it at the grocery store.

Furthermore, if you then take that yogurt, put it in cheesecloth, and hang it for an hour or two, you'll be left with yogurt cheese, a thick, creamy spreadable substance, that, when mixed with herbs and drizzled with olive oil, yields a wonderful spread for sandwiches, or just plain enjoying on pita.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Focus on producers - Crump Family Gardens

For my first focus on a local food producer, I conducted a brief interview with Bob and Joanne Crump, who run the Crump Family Gardens stand at the Metro Centre farmer's market.  The Crumps show up on the first of May and stay for pretty much the entire run at Metro Centre.  

The Crump family farm, which they run along with their son Bryan, is located near Carlock, IL.  They have been farming the same land for the last 21 years. Bob uses organic and sustainable practices to produce their vegetables, but as the neighbors do not, they are not able to gain certification of any sort at present.  They are a focus farm, with a few crops that they specialize in.  At present, many of those crops are not ready, so you will find a fair amount of things that are trucked in from more southern locales, but they do have some excellent early crops, in the form of asparagus, rhubarb, and greens (both lettuce and spinach).  They are also a supplier of southern Illinois strawberries.  

Later on in the season, you will be able to find an excellent selection of their focus crops.  The Crumps grow several tomato varieties, although most are conventional hybrid tomatoes.  They supply several area businesses with summer tomatoes, such as The Firehouse and The Butcher Block.   

The Crumps also put a heavy focus on peppers.  Although Bob couldn't give me the number of varieties that they grow, he did say that they put in 2700 pepper plants this year.  They grow both mild and hot varieties.  

You will also find a few varieties of potato, such as Yukon Golds and Reds, as well as summer and fall squashes, cucumbers, and a variety of herbs, all grown on the Crump farm.

I asked Bob what it was about farming that he enjoyed most, and he told me "I love being out in the field, it's quiet, and I can work at my own pace."  However, he also loves coming to the farmer's markets and interacting with his customers, which explains why the Crumps also maintain stands at the Normal, Lincoln, DeKalb, and Sycamore farmer's markets.  

Overall, the Crumps have a commitment to producing quality local food because they love working the land.  They may not have the flashiest varieties of produce, or subscribe to a particular philosophy of food that is currently trendy, but they want to sell consumers good produce at a good price.  I highly recommend checking out their stand the next time you are at the Metro Centre market.