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Six Months Later…

Although it seems like only yesterday it’s actually been six months since I ended my Year of Inconvenience. I continue to have people stop and ask me from time-to-time, how the “cooking from scratch” is going, or if I’ve continued with any of the routines I had grown accustomed to during that one very long year of my life. Sometimes I’m asked those questions while I’m shopping – my cart brimming with canned goods, chips, deli salads, frozen pizza, and boxed cereal. I’ve since learned to hide all of those items under the bulk rolled oats, flour, and fresh produce (just in case).

I guess the bright side is that some of the things I learned in that year have really stuck with me. While sitting down to write this post my house is bathed in the sweet aroma of maple syrup and toasted pecans, as a batch of fresh made granola bakes away while the granola bars I made earlier still cool down next to the stovetop. Those are two of the items I continue to make from scratch whenever needed, even though they are just as easy to buy as all of the other items that line our pantry shelves.

Speaking of the pantry, just one look and you can see how things have changed over the past six months compared to eighteen months ago. Canned beans and mushrooms balance nicely beside the jars of nuts, dried beans, and flour. Tucked safely behind the toaster is my “snack corner” – a plethora of salty choices I had to previously do without – and instead make a batch of popcorn whenever the munchie craving struck me. There really isn’t much room in the pantry for all of the jars of bulk foods, additional cookbooks I collected that year, and the newly added canned goods. But that’s the way it is now, the blending of two distinct ways of getting food on the table, either slowly from scratch or semi-conveniently.

While the pantry isn’t as organized as it was last year neither am I. Two necessary evils that cooking from scratch really forces one into are organization and planning.  In fact without the meal planning it’s just too easy to look at your significant other after a long day of work and say, “I’m so tired, let’s just pick up a frozen pizza.” Ah pizza, the dish I swore I would never return to in it’s frozen form. We’ve probably made a ratio of 2:1 frozen to fresh pizzas over the past six months. Without the planning and preparation of sauce in advance, let alone planning enough prep time for the dough to rise, that box of Connie’s Pizza is just too tempting of a backup plan. And so I give in.

The other thing I swore, I mean seriously promised to continue to make from scratch every week was bread. The first time we ran out of bread (which was probably in late May when the farmers markets opened up) I gave myself permission to buy a loaf from the market, since the bakery they were selling was obviously made them from scratch that morning. Lightening didn’t strike me as I handed over my money in exchange for that crusty loaf of multi-grain goodness, nobody judged me – I mean really – it was just too easy to get away with. We did that for several weeks at the market and by July the summer heat and my social calendar gave me even more reasons to make excuses to not bake bread. When the markets closed in late September I knew I either had to start baking bread again or make up a new excuse to buy it. Needless to say it’s November now and my bread pans remain as cold as my convenience-oriented heart.

I have had some other successes in sticking with the from-scratch routine, such as back in September when my Mom delivered a 5-gallon bucket filled with tomatoes from my brother’s garden. We cooked that down all day into some delicious sauce while the same day a neighborhood friend also brought over about 2 pounds of cherry tomatoes just gleaned from the remaining plants in her garden. Those sweet little things got roasted with garlic, olive oil, some fresh oregano and rosemary, and we packed them in small batches to freeze for use on our fresh pizza. The warm autumn weather in Wisconsin this year just kept on producing more and more tomatoes, and we processed one additional batch we received from a farmer-friend. Where was this abundance of free tomatoes when I really needed them back in August of 2010?

Well life does indeed go on and I’m recommitting to return to that path of real food love whenever possible. In fact I still have my list of things I never did try making during that year (nor have I ever made before) that still warrant discovery – like home brewed beer, layer cake, vinegar, mayonnaise…

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Eat Local Challenge

The Eat Local Challenge is a two week quest to source meals from the local foodshed. While anytime is a great time to eat local, the height of the September harvest brings to the table the greatest concentration and diversity of local fresh produce.

My co-op, Outpost Natural Foods, is challenging all of our shoppers to take the Eat Local Challenge. For two weeks, September 1 – 15, the challenge is to eat the highest percent of your food  from local sources. At our store, we consider anything from our state of Wisconsin as local. The closer to home and fewer miles traveled, the better.

Another great group, Eat Local Milwaukee, is also supporting that challenge, and you’re not going to find more local food or local businesses in any one place than today at the Made In Milwaukee festival. I’ll be there in a few hours setting up a booth for another great group of local businesses, Our Milwaukee.

Don’t live in Milwaukee?  Hopefully you have a co-op nearby where you too can join others in eating locally!

My first meal of the challenge was a fresh corn, potato, and tomato salad served alongside an organic marinated chicken breast from Angel Acres farm in Mason, WI. My local ingredients included fresh sweet corn, golden plum tomatoes,  red potatoes, spinach, and a yellow pepper. Even the dijon mustard in the salad dressing was made locally! The only ingredients that weren’t local were the shallots, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. That means along side the chicken, that 70-80% of the meal was sourced locally.

I have to say I was really excited that the salad turned out so well, and I got a bit of extra flavor by roasting the corn and pepper on my stovetop. Hope you enjoy!

Wisconsin Summer Salad

3 ears fresh sweet corn (about 2-3 cups)

2 cups small red potatoes

1 red, yellow, or orange pepper (roasted and diced with skin on)

3 cups fresh spinach leaves

2 cups assorted cherry tomatoes, halved

The Dressing:

1 tablespoon dijon mustard

3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Black pepper to taste

Cook potatoes in boiling water until tender. Drain, and cut into quarters. Meanwhile while the potatoes are cooking, peel the sweetcorn and cook each cob for one minute in the microwave (or 5 minutes on the stovetop in boiling water). If you have a gas range, roast the corn over an open flame until the kernels begin to brown and carmelize. You can do the same with the pepper over the open flame, roasting it until the skin begins to blister and char. If you don’t have a method of roasting, it’s okay to skip this step.

When your corn has roasted, slice the kernels from each cob, and mix with the potatoes, chopped pepper and fresh spinach. If the potatoes and corn are still a bit warm, they will wilt the spinach a bit, which I think brings out a bit more of the flavor. Refrigerate the salad as is, for about 30 minutes.

Mix up the dressing in a small bowl with a whisk by combining the vinegar, mustard, shallots, olive oil, salt and pepper.

When the salad has chilled down, add the tomatoes and the dressing.

Optional ingredients can include some fresh basil from your garden and/or goat cheese. Had I included those 2 ingredients they would have also been local.