They’re Baaaack!!!! Strawberries, that is!

Here in Flyover Country, the strawberries are back for their annual performance! For many of us, the ripening of strawberries in fields wild and commercial once heralded the beginning of summer. Today, though, strawberries are available year-round and, frankly, the “specialness” of them is somewhat muted. But those all-season berries—the softball-sized behemoths encased in their plastic clamshells of protection—often lack something. And that something is flavor. It’s no wonder, as they travel all the way from California or Florida. I rarely buy supermarket strawberries anymore (unless I need them for a garnish or they are an integral part of a recipe that’s been requested by a guest).

StrawberryComparison

Normal-sized orange on the left, supermarket strawberry on the right

To know me is to love me. Maybe. Or not. But to know me is to know that I do value eating seasonally—the autumn, for example, finds me eating apples with abandon (hey, the “weird” local varieties are finally at the farmers markets!), long-cooked and slow-braised dishes are a winter mainstay, and my grills get a heavy workout in the summer. Spring in Indiana can be fairly mercurial, so I might grill on Friday and braise on Sunday. Because of my seasonality bent, strawberries are truly a late spring/early summer delight. I’ll eat my fill of them plain, with crème fraiche, sliced into yogurt. I’ll break out the canner to make strawberry-vanilla jam. There may even be a strawberry tart or two in there somewhere. But in July, when the local berries are no more, my fickle heart will start paying attention to peaches.

Now, here’s an interesting fact: While California is the number one strawberry-producing state (by a wide margin), not one, not two, but THREE Flyover States place in the top ten! Michigan (#7), Wisconsin (#8), and Ohio (#10) apparently do grow a fair amount of commercial strawberries. While this is not unusual geographically—strawberries, depending on variety, can be grown in many different environments—one doesn’t think of FlyoverLand when one thinks of commercial strawberries.

FlyoverStrawberry

Now that fresh, local strawberries have returned to the Midwest and Plains, many people are incorporating them into recipes. I am no exception. Coming up in my next post is a recipe for Roasted Strawberry Ice Cream.

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Organic Valley—A Cooperative Founded (and Headquartered) in Wisconsin

First, let it be said that I do not follow a 100% organic diet. I do not follow a 100% local or regional diet. Organic foods do cost more (although for a very good reason), some foods may be difficult to source organically, and frankly, sometimes I just want a scoop of Baskin-Robbins Baseball Nut ice cream! That said (and I realize that I am very fortunate here) I do try to follow a largely organic and/or local or regional diet.

So where does Organic Valley come into play? It’s an organic cooperative—and a true cooperative. Founded in 1988 in La Farge, Wisconsin as the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (or CROPP), it was a way for a group of southwestern Wisconsin farmers to survive, it has grown into being the largest organic farmers’ cooperative in the world (as of 2013). Remember that the 1980s saw a continued decline in the number of smaller family farms going bust (recall that Farm Aid’s first concert was in 1985), a phenomenon that really gained momentum after World War II. By combining numbers in a cooperative, smaller organic farmers could hold on to their farms while providing chemical-free dairy, eggs, and produce to satisfied consumers. Today, over 1800 farmers and 400 employees comprise the Organic Valley family, although the original Flyover locus has expanded, as these farmers come from across the United States and Canada now.

An organic farmers cooperative can be a saving grace for small family farmers committed to producing healthy products free of chemical pesticides. The iconic Midwestern farmer is largely a relic of the past—today farming is increasingly monopolized by large conglomerates. The likes of Tyson (and Perdue in the east) contract farmers to raise chickens for them (and have detailed rules on exactly HOW to raise those birds). Other corporations (e.g. Monsanto) own patents and supply genetically modified seed for crops like corn and sugar beets. The thoughtful decisions a farmer used to make are being lost as corporate rules become the new farming. Sure, Big Ag may try to foster an image of wholesomeness and family, but make no mistake—farming is moving out of the hands of farmers and into the hands of bottom-line-only corporate executives. That’s part of the reason an organic cooperative like Organic Valley is so important.

Organic Valley

If I can’t purchase local dairy, I feel confident in buying Organic Valley1. I trust the products. Organic Valley’s mission, which you can read on their website, fosters diversity in agriculture and fair prices paid to farmers; these are worthy goals. And I feel a sort of pride that it all started here in Flyover Country!

1Their butters—both cultured (especially unsalted) and the lightly salted pasture butter are excellent and mainstays in my refrigerator or freezer. I’ve used their heavy cream for numerous recipes, including ice creams. One caveat—the cream is ultra-pasteurized, so I use Meijer’s store brand heavy cream when I make crème fraiche; crème fraiche is best made with plain pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized, cream.

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An All-Organic Grocery Store? In Muncie, Indiana?????

Yes, you read that right. Muncie, in east-central Indiana, is probably better known for its past—Ball™ canning jars from a company that moved to Colorado, shuttered auto manufacturing plants, a history of racism—which may invite the raised eyebrows and muttered comments that have surely accompanied the reading of this post’s title. But folks, it is true. Muncie is indeed home to a downtown grocery store that sells ONLYorganic goods. That makes Muncie home to a more forward-looking population than many other communities. And this store just celebrated its 8th anniversary, a real milestone for small businesses. People, perhaps it’s time to rethink your stereotypes and old perceptions of Muncie—there truly is a customer base that has not only permitted The Downtown Farm Stand to remain in business, but to actually GROW and THRIVE!

MuncieFlyover

Since opening, they’ve added a deli and a home delivery service (convenient for those who want to eat well, but have time commitments that preclude them from shopping there as often as they would like).

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The Downtown Farm Stand logo

Please note that this is an all organic grocery store. Not a natural grocery. You see, as of this post, there is no definition of “natural”. Goods labeled “Organic”, on the other hand, have to meet certain criteria. That is, the word has a higher bar. “Natural” really doesn’t mean anything; in fact, it’s a pretty misleading term. One could argue that, at the molecular level, everything is natural. Your Cheesy Jalapeno Ketchup Flavored Potato Poufs, made from dehydrated, freeze-dried, overly genetically modified ingredients with a questionable provenance that likely stems from a chemistry lab could, theoretically, be labeled “natural”. So, an all-organic store is a Pretty. Big. Deal. If you shop at Whole Foods or Earth Fare, those bastions of organic shopping, you’ll find that they sell conventional foods along with organic foods. Actually, they sell a LOT of conventionally grown produce and the like. I’m sure that, for them, it’s a business decision. But for Dave and Sara Ring, owners of The Downtown Farm Stand, the decision to sell only organic goods (much of it locally sourced) is one based on values. For them, it was an ethical decision, one that has paid off for them, in terms of establishing a loyal customer base. People KNOW that if you got it at The Farm Stand, it’s truly free of industrial pesticides and herbicides.

But the Rings’ decision has also paid off for the local community. Dave and Sara have made locally produced, organic foods accessible to all of Delaware (IN) County. No need to ponder the limited variety at the supermarket or make the trek to Indianapolis. No wonder their customers are so loyal to them! Dave and Sara also support local growers and producers, assuming that they’ve passed the Rings’ standards. Eggs come from Pinehurst Farm, for example, milk and yogurt from Traders Point Creamery, etc. For a local food system to develop and grow, local producers need access to markets. Farmers markets are one avenue, but they often operate only on weekends, which may make it difficult for those who have outside commitments to attend. So, having a store like The Downtown Farm Stand is a way of connecting farmers to customers (as well as ensuring that growers receive a fair price, something that a traditional supermarket won’t commit to). And when the goods aren’t necessarily locally sourced (we do have some tough winters here), the Rings make sure that their values aren’t compromised. That’s why you’ll see Organic Valley half-and-half here, but not Horizon.

DTFS_Front

Front of the store (image copied from The Downtown Farm Stand Facebook page)

So, you might expect to find an all-organic grocery store in New York. Or Los Angeles. Or San Francisco. Or Seattle. Or Chicago. But Muncie? Muncie, Indiana??? Yet there it is—The Downtown Farm Stand, truly a Flyover Find!

The Downtown Farm Stand is located at 125 E. Main St. in downtown Muncie, Indiana.

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Pickling Spice

I use this when I make the pickled beets and onions from Robin Mather’s The Feast Nearby

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 Tbsp whole allspice berries
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1/2 tsp whole cloves
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 bay leaf, crumbled
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • Mix together and store in a small jar.

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Canned Pickled Beets a la Robin Mather

I’ve slightly modified Robin Mather’s recipe for pickled beets. If you don’t (or would rather not) can, you can refrigerate these for several months. Additionally, I’m including a recipe for pickling spice in another post. Feel free to use a purchased blend.

Makes about 3-4 pints

What You’ll Need

  • YOU’LL NEED TO READ THE RECIPE FIRST
  • large saucepan for cooking the beets
  • very large pot for canning
  • pint-sized canning jars such as Ball, plus lids and bands
  • jar tongs (for lifting jars into/out of boiling water), lid magnet, jar rack (or cooling rack), and canning funnel
  • GLOVES—beets stain everything magenta and therefore I’ve capitalized this item
  • knife for slicing beets and onions
  • cutting board
  • ladle or large spoon to scoop the beet mixture into the jars via the funnel
  • damp but clean rag or paper towel
  • plastic knife or chopstick

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds beets; don’t worry if you have a little more
  • 3 Tbsp pickling spice
  • 1 Tbsp black peppercorns; do not substitute ground pepper!
  • 8-10 whole cloves; do not substitute ground cloves! Also, cloves are strong, so feel free to omit if you don’t like them or you have plenty of cloves in your pickling spice
  • 2.5 cups white vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups sliced onions; I’ve used sweet onions (such as Vidalia) and plain yellow ones

Preparing the jars for canning; skip if you plan to refrigerate these

  1. Fill up your large canning pot. I have an 11.5 quart Graniteware pot with a dented lid, but any pot large enough to hold the jars with an inch of water on top will do.
  2. Place your jar rack in the pot. If you don’t have a jar rack (and I don’t use one for pint-sized jars), place a small circular cake-cooling rack in the bottom of your pot. The idea is to keep the bottoms of your jars from being in contact with the bottom of the pot. The cake rack allows water to flow beneath the jars.
  3. Bring your pot of water to an almost boil (think 190°F/90°C); use a thermometer if you have one. The hot water will sterilize the jars. While the water in the pot is heating, wash your jars, bands, funnel, and ladle in hot, soapy water. Rinse the jars and tools to get rid of any soap.
  4. Once your water is hot enough, place the jars in the pot, making sure that the open end is up and the jars are filled with water. Make sure that the water is returned to the same temperature—190°F. Cover the pot with the lid and keep the jars immersed for at least 10 minutes.

Preparing the Beets

  1. Wash and scrub the beets. Cut off the attached beet greens1, leaving no more than an inch on the bulb.
  2. Place the beets in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil.
  3. Cook until a wooden skewer easily pierces through the beet. This can take 25-30 minutes, depending upon the size of the beets.
  4. Drain the beets, rinse with cold water, and let them cool until you can handle them with your (GLOVE-COVERED!) hands.
  5. With your hands and a paring knife, remove the skins from the beets. They should come off fairly easily. Discard the skins (or put them in your compost pile).
  6. Slice the beets into ½-inch pieces.

Making Pickled Beets

  1. Prepare the brine. Put the pickling spice, peppercorns, and cloves into a spice bag and tie it with kitchen twine; you can make a spice bag with a square piece of cheesecloth.
  2. Add the vinegar, water, sugar, and spice bag into a large saucepan (nonreactive, such as stainless steel, please!) Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a boil. Stir the mixture in order to completely dissolve the sugar. Lower the heat to reach a slow, gentle boil, and cook for 15 minutes.
  3. Place the canning lids into a clean bowl and cover with boiling water. The lids have a rubbery seal, which needs to soften in hot water. The rubber is what will adhere to your glass jars.
  4. Remove the spice bag from the mixture. Add the beets, then add the onions to the liquid brine. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat.
  5. Using a jar lifter, remove the canning jars from the canning pot. Place them on a clean towel or rag. Place the funnel on the first jar and using your ladle, fill with beets and onions. Do the same with the other jars.
  6. Using your ladle, add the brine to the jars. Fill the jars so that there is a ½-inch (1.25 cm) space between the top of beets/onion/brine mixture and the top of the glass jar. That is the “headspace” and it’s necessary for the expansion of the jar’s contents. Too little headspace and you run a greater chance of having the contents interfere with the lid sealing process.
  7. Using a plastic knife or a chopstick, remove any air bubbles in your jars. Simply place the plastic knife into the jar and move it around or press on the contents a couple of times.
  8. With your damp towel, wipe the rims of the jars. This is to remove any residue that may interfere with the lid sealing process.
  9. Using your jar magnet, remove a lid from the hot water. Place the lid on top of the jar’s rim. Then select a band and carefully screw the band onto the jar; you should feel some resistance, but you don’t want to over-tighten the band. The band should hold the lid in place during the canning process. Repeat for all jars.
  10. Place the jars in your canning pot, making sure that they are covered with water by at least one inch (2.5 cm). Bring the pot to a boil, cover, and (maintaining a boil) process for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, turn off the heat, remove the cover, and let sit in the hot water for 5 minutes.
  11. Using your jar lifter, remove the jars and place on a clean towel away from drafts. Let them cool for 24 hours (don’t touch them!) You may hear the lids pop or ping, indicating that they have sealed. Don’t worry if you don’t hear this—sometimes it takes a long time and sometimes the pop is barely audible.
  12. After cooling, test the seals. Lift up the jar by the lid; it should be fixed to the jar. Also, press down on the center of the lid—if the lid can be popped up and down, the seal has failed.
  13. If any seal has failed, simply store your beets in the refrigerator for a few months.
  14. Store out of heat and light for up to a year (although, to be honest, I ate a jar after 2 years and lived to tell the tale).
  15. Pickled Beets

    A jar of pickled beets is a welcome sight in one’s pantry,

Do not eat these right away—you want the spices to be infused into the beets, which can take a few weeks (regardless of whether you canned or refrigerated them).

1No need to throw away the beet greens. I cook them (washed and sliced) in some chicken or vegetable broth until tender, add salt and pepper, and then top with a poached egg for a very nutritious meal.

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