It's midwinter in Maryland, and as is our custom when the sun retires earlier than we do, Norm and I spend our evenings reading and listening to music.
This week I am reading Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a description of the year she and her family of four spent in rural Virginia, eating only food that they grew themselves or which had been produced within the boundaries of the county in which they lived.
It's an interesting complement to the two other food-related books I finished earlier this month, Travel Channel show host chef Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, which describes his professional career from his studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie, New York, to his eventual employment as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York City, and the posthumously-published autobiography, My Life in France, by Julia Child, which describes her own growing interest in learning how to cook, her initiation into French cuisine and long career as a cookbook author and one of the very first televised cooking instructors.
Shopping Locally in Carroll County
What all three authors have in common, unsurprisingly, is a deep appreciation for locally grown ingredients, which are, in their proper season, the freshest, most nutritious and the best tasting.
It's not difficult to find local food here in Carroll County. We frequent the farm stands, farmer's markets and orchards. There are a number of foods not on our shopping list when we visit the supermarket. I check produce labels: where was it grown? How far did it travel to get here?
It is not unusual to see out-of-season fruits from south of the equator, but the cost in energy to bring them to our table is enormous. Kingsolver writes, "Transporting a single calorie of perishable fruit from California to New York takes about 87 calories worth of fuel. That is as efficient as driving from Philadelphia to Annapolis, and back, in order to walk three miles on a treadmill in a Maryland gym."
Another consideration is food safety. U.S. standards are stringent, those of other countries might be less so. For a number of years, Norm and I have bought all of our orange juice from a company that advertises containing only the juice of Florida-grown oranges. Most other frozen and refrigerated orange juices use large quantities of imported concentrate. A banned fungicide was recently discovered by the FDA in batches of this concentrate from Brazil, from which we get over half of our imported supply.
We would rather keep our food purchasing dollars in the local economy, too. We not only buy much of our produce from Maryland farmers, we get our meat and eggs from local producers, as well.
There are no fresher or more local ingredients than those that come from your own garden, of course.
A Dream Garden Comes True in Sykesville
I had become frustrated trying to grow vegetables on a tiny patch of dug-up lawn next to the flower bed by our back door. Last spring I requested, as a 40th wedding anniversary gift, rather than jewelry or a trip, my husband instead give me a thing I really wanted: a fenced vegetable garden with wide, mulched paths running between raised beds, similar to those we had long admired in horticultural magazines.
With enthusiasm, he set about making my wish come true. He completed it in early May. We planted crops in succession and the garden was productive all summer long and well into the fall.
Although our Sykesville garden is less than a quarter of the size of our former vegetable garden in Hamilton, the six four-by-four cedar-edged beds yielded impressively: over half a bushel of kale, more than 40 zucchini, 70 or so red and green sweet peppers, a couple of gallons of green beans, and enough extra tomatoes to allow me to process a canner load of filled jars.
We also grew onions, okra, peas, sweet potatoes, eggplant, garlic, pumpkins and so many cucumbers that I gave them away freely to friends and family, while also making a half gallon jar full of refrigerator dill pickles with my home grown garlic, fresh dill and hot chili peppers. Even better, this garden is footsteps from our back door, instead of far up the path behind the barn. At mealtimes, all we need to do is step outside with a sharp knife and a bowl, to find what looks good for supper.
After we bought our old farmhouse on nearly eight acres, it took decades of experimentation and many errors until we gained the gardening and food preservation skills we might have learned from our older relatives. I taught myself how to can fruits and vegetables in a water bath and in a pressure canner and how to make jams and jellies, fruit pies, cobblers and sauce from the apples, pears and berries that flourished on our own property. We purchased a large upright freezer and raised chickens and ducks, rabbits, goats and pigs for our own eggs, milk and meat. Each January, when the seed catalogs would arrive, we sat by the woodstove and discussed which varieties sounded most worthy of our investment in money, effort and hope.
A Dream of Self-Sufficiency
Our son and his wife now dream of being self-sufficient, or nearly so, on their own land, as Norm and I once did. They are vegetarians with a large and productive garden, who regularly make their own pasta and even cheese. We, on the other hand, have moved into a town, with a steep bank for a yard instead of rolling acres of open land.
We have found that it is still possible to grow much of our own food. Our new garden, which occupies what was the only level spot of lawn on the entire property, lies mostly dormant and waiting for the next season. I am filling out forms online, requesting that my old friends, the seed companies, kindly send me copies of their 2012 garden catalogs. It's time to start making future dinner preparations.
Real Men Eat Quiche
Two weeks ago inches of snow fell from the sky. Amazingly enough, Norm and I are still able to eat a few fresh vegetables and green herbs from our backyard vegetable garden.
A couple of nights ago, I rolled out a pie crust, sautéed a cup of matchstick ham slivers cut from the last two frozen slices of the Christmas ham from the Hahn's outlet store in Westminster, along with a quartered, thinly sliced onion. I then added to the frying pan two cups of the last of our garden-grown Swiss rainbow chard, stacked and chopped into strips, plus a half cup of sliced mushrooms, a tablespoon of my own dried thyme leaves and a bit of ground black pepper.
Into a bowl, I broke four eggs from my niece's flock of Speckled Sussex chickens into a bowl, brushed a bit of the egg white over the bottom of the pie crust, then whisked the eggs with a cup and a half of milk and a generous grating of nutmeg. I covered the crust with a large handful of shredded leftover Jarlsberg cheese, spread the chard and onion mixture over that and carefully poured in the milk and eggs.
Bake 40 minutes or so in a preheated 350 degree oven, remove when custard is set and allow to rest before cutting. Contrary to the humorist's claim, real men do eat quiche.