Can you follow a recipe and still be a locavore? My (blog editor, Rachel’s) answer? Yes. An even better answer? The right recipe can make your locavore experience better! Here are three ways I think recipes and locavorism go together.
A recipe is a guide, always, to creating an edible, flavorful food. Some of us follow that guide more strictly than others, for any number of reasons. Normally I take the approach of reading recipes and then totally doing whatever I want based on the ingredients I have at hand. This works really well for me because I have a pantry stocked to the hilt with local staples, plus keep a supply of specialties and exotics. I’ve been cooking for myself, family and friends for well over a decade, and shopping for ingredients is fun for me. If I happen upon something that I’ve read about being really great for a particular cuisine or style of dish, or a local version of something I don’t often see (such as apple cider molasses, a recent happy acquisition) I’ll usually bring some of that home with me. So, I’m already at an advantage (or several) because I make food into a hobby and a lifestyle. I can’t make that a tip for anyone, but I admit that it helps.
Tip/Technique 1: Start in the back of the cookbook/at the search function on the food blog. Search for the ingredient you know you’re about to get from your CSA, or that caught your attention at the farmers’ market, or that you over-bought at the roadside stand. The fresh foods I have on hand absolutely dictate what I make. Sometimes I use a recipe all the way through, sometimes not. If a recipe seems to rely too heavily on something out of season, I won’t make it, but I might see a cooking technique I like for the ingredient I do have. Over the years, I’ve gotten a sense for which foods swap in and out well. I’ve also found out what flavor combinations tend to show up together in certain cuisines, or even over all foods (cooking fat+onion+garlic seems to be part of human DNA). In other words, I’m not going to the grocery store to buy lots of out-of-season components just to make a recipe, but I’ve honed my ability, just by simple reading and research, to have a running list of options of cooking techniques and flavor combinations (so THAT’S what to do with all that oregano…add it to the zucchini!)
TIp/Technique 2: Baking recipes and fruit desserts can generally be done with local ingredients. Again, if you have been shopping with a local-foods radar, you may have started making local grain, flour, honey, maple, eggs, dairy and butter part of your pantry. If you have local cornmeal, you’ve expanded your options, and any seasonal local fruit means you can make a locavore dessert. I want to share a very local cornbread recipe (pictured a few weeks back). This is a recipe that’s not seasonal, just reliant on local pantry ingredients. I need a recipe to make it…the chemistry of baking isn’t improvised; the local ingredients may or may not enhance the flavor, but it’s important to me to use local ingredients because of the positive impact it has on my community and economy.
Evolved cornbread, based off a recipe in Moosewood Restaurant New Classics.
1/4 c/ 2oz/1/2 stick butter
1/4 c. honey
1c/245g plain yogurt or buttermilk
1 c/125g flour
1 c/145g cornmeal
2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1. Set the oven to 400 degrees, use a dab of butter (not from the amount above) to grease a 9×9″ or 7×11″ baking dish (or I’ve used my 10-inch cast iron numerous times, with a bottom layer of sauteed onions and peppers).
2. Beat together the butter and honey until uniform and lightly colored. Add in eggs and beat until uniform. Add in the yogurt and make it uniform again. If you’re so inclined, this would be the point to add in up to 3/4 cup of finely chopped or shredded vegetables (try shredded, salted and drained and dried zucchini or cooked onions and peppers or a little amount of finely minced jalapeno peppers).
3. Combine the dry ingredients together, whisk so they’re evenly mixed.
4. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet ones (the butter-honey-egg-yogurt mixture) and mix up until well combined (again, it should look uniform in texture, no flour streaks). Pour or scrape out into your baking dish and bake 25-35 minutes until golden brown. Cool a bit before cutting and serving.
Tip/Technique 3: The right recipe should be followed, when it focuses on a local and seasonal ingredient. The conditions of “the right recipe” are laid out above. Following a great recipe will make you a better cook, even if you only make the recipe exactly that way one time. Even though you might know how to combine the ingredients in the dish, even if you don’t think bringing out the measuring devices for such a simple list of ingredients would be necessary, this is your chance to really learn from someone, right off the pages of a cookbook. And this is how you will learn how to maximize in-season foods to their real, great potential. That particular ratio of ingredient x to spice y, cooked in that particular order, will make a flavor different. It’s the physics, chemistry and alchemy of recipes that naturally came into existence–these great recipes were born from co-availability of the best of ingredients, not some random combination of foods from far away places. A few enhancements make it in, a result of trade and awareness, but a really great recipe highlights that locally-available food in a special way.
This became clear to me a few weeks ago over something called salsa de dedo. I’d picked up some tomatillos. I had just a pint, and I knew I wanted to make a sauce. It just seemed right for the end of summer, and I recalled making a green sauce with pepitas and orange juice from a favorite cookbook. I really was hoping for something new to try out from my gigantic Latin America cookbook, and maybe not relying on those out-of-location ingredients. Since a lot of Latin cuisines (but not all, not by a long shot) were born out of a tropical climate, I was thinking I’d be following tip #1 above: just look for the technique to feature the tomatillos. Then I saw a curious listing under tomatillo, “salsa de dedo,” which translates to “finger sauce.” Knowing that more than one cuisine has a condiment or snack that is named because you have to lick your fingers after eating it, I thought this could be very interesting to read about. My curiosity was beyond rewarded when I realized salsa de dedo could be so very locavore. Tomatillos, dried chiles (I did substitute the type I had dried from last summer for what was called for in the recipe), white onion, garlic, vinegar, cilantro, dried oregano, and tomatoes. Just cumin and salt were non-local at this time of year. Going back to my previous point, I wouldn’t look at this recipe in february and think I should run to the grocery to buy all the produce (though it is that good). I’d hope I’d frozen or canned some, but that’s another story. I really really love this sauce. This is what tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and cilantro were supposed to do with each other. With all credit to cookbook author and chef Maricel E. Presilla (her tome Gran Cocina Latina is worth it, even to this vegetarian who must pick up techniques between pork and chicken recipes), here is the gist of her recipe for Salsa de Dedo:
Roast a little over a pound of plum tomatoes (like Romas or sauce-making tomatoes) in a hot, dry skillet, turning occasionally. I used my broiler because I needed the stovetop space. Roast until the skin is blistered and the tomatoes are cooked-about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, bring a pound of tomatillos in water to a boil, then simmer for 5 minutes. Also simmer a few dried hot peppers (she calls for up to 7 dried chile de arbol, but I used 1 dried serrano I knew to be fairly hot in a half recipe) for 10-12 minutes until softened. Drain the boiled veggies, cool everything while chopping a white onion and 3 cloves of garlic. Blend/process first until smooth and paste-like: the chiles, the white onion and garlic cloves; then add the roasted tomatoes and tomatillos, 1/4 cup vinegar (local cider vinegar works for me), 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano (or about 1 teaspoon roughly chopped fresh oregano leaves, which you’re likely to find in your garden, at market, or from a friend), 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Blend/process until the veggies are broken down but still chunky (this is why you did the onions and garlic separately, first). Taste, then lick your fingers. It’s great on cornbread.