Planting Your Plate

 

AMANDA MORRISON / NNY LIVING
Boo Wells, owner Farmhouse Kitchen, holds a bunch of multi-colored carrots like the ones grown in their gardens.

BY: Nicole Caldwell

The waning ice and snow from north country shorelines is in perfect synchronicity with the unfurling of green shoots and stems throughout the landscape.

   “I like the whole idea that spring is this wonderful time of renewal,” said Catherine Moore, licensed dietician and agricultural program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Jefferson County. “It’s this opportunity to make some changes.” One of those changes might be to improve our diets, which can be easily done in our own backyards.

   Farmers and homesteaders can tell time by what food is in season. There’s that highly anticipated day in April when you see the first stalks of asparagus and garlic bulbs, or the morning you discover bright green shoots of spinach leaves. By late summer, this area is blessed with a bounty of colorful tomatoes, squash, peppers and green beans. With a little ingenuity and elbow grease, from now until November you can plan your meals around what’s just outside your back door.

            Whether you’re an experienced gardener, avid farmers’ market customer, or just trying to eat a little healthier, there are a number of ways to incorporate fresh, local, seasonal produce onto your plate this year.

Worship your body like the temple it is.

    Health benefits of eating whole foods instead of supplements and processed meals with hard-to-pronounce ingredients are well documented. “We know that the phytochemicals in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes go so far beyond our vitamin and mineral needs,” Moore said. “They have worked and evolved with our bodies over the millennia to protect us from all the stresses we face physically and emotionally. It’s really important to eat the whole food instead of a processed food or refined grain— especially eating a whole fruit or vegetable right after it’s been harvested.”

    When produce is picked, it continues to “breathe,” which breaks down carbohydrates, proteins and fats stored inside. A significant amount of nutrients are lost during this process. One study by the University of California found vegetables lose up to 55 percent of their vitamin C within a week of being harvested. Shipping fresh produce from far away compromises foods’ nutritional content, not to mention the flavor.

Start small and grow what’s easy.

    “A lot of people start gardening so enthusiastically,” said Sue Gwise, horticulture educator and master gardener coordinator at CCE. “They dig up a big patch and then find out it is way too much to take care of. For the average person, something 20 feet by 20 feet is perfect.” Your location may end up being something as simple as a pot of soil on your porch, or vertical garden on a kitchen wall. Even growing one herb like basil for summertime pesto is a step in the right direction.

    Don’t overwhelm yourself with challenging crops like broccoli and cauliflower, either. “I want people who are starting out to be successful immediately,” Gwise said. “Growing easier foods is going to make people feel good and they are going to want to try different things.” Gwise recommended beets, cucumbers, salad greens, peas, tomatoes, squashes and carrots for first-time gardeners. All of these can be directly planted outside in the first week of June and require very little maintenance.

    At Farm House Kitchen, a catering company in Sackets Harbor, ingredients for founder Boo Wells’ creations come from her own greenhouses, as well as from local farms and markets. “For us the whole point of having our business is feeding people the way we feed our family: with whole foods, and knowing where your food comes from,” she said. “When people wake up to the idea of growing their own food and feeding their families, they try to do too much. They suddenly try to grow 20 types of tomatoes and they overdo. It can get discouraging.” Wells combats this sense of overkill with cooking and growing classes designed to be practical. “We talk about growing what you know you love to eat and then maybe saving a little room for things that you’re not sure about, but would like to experiment with,” she said.

    Whether you’re planting seeds in a small plot or staking out a section of your yard for a garden, Gwise recommended amending the soil with organic matter. “Spread four inches of peat moss, compost, composted cow or horse manure, or any type of manure from a vegetarian animal on top of your plot,” she said.

    Greens and herbs can be grown on a sunny windowsill, as well as in pots on your porch alongside tomatoes, peppers and carrots. And if you really don’t have a green thumb at all but want to grow something edible, try sprouts in a jar. “Even just sprouts in a jar kind of ties you back into this idea of natural cycles,” Moore said.

    With organic matter on the ground, water retention shouldn’t be an issue. Still, checking to ensure your plants have plenty of water and limiting the weeds that can crowd incoming fruits and veggies can all be done with a time commitment of a few seconds for potted plants to less than 15 minutes a day for a small garden plot.

    Hate weeding? No problem. Weed mats from garden centers, mulch, hay, and even shredded paper can act as weed cover so you never have to get your hands dirty. Ultimately weed barriers become compost, which means more microbial activity and stronger, healthier, better-hydrated plants.

Shop local.

    No matter how convenient gardening can be, you don’t have to grow your own food in order to plan delicious, healthy, local meals. The north country is bursting with restaurants, caterers, farmers’ markets, co-ops and farm stands where you can source your food locally—or just have it made for you.

    “With the catering business, it’s that we eat with our eyes,” Wells said. “We want food to be beautiful because then people are more likely to try new things and enjoy whole foods. That’s where the fresh herbs and homegrown tomatoes come in.” Wells also co-owns a casserole and entrée business that sells meals by the tray—her way, she says, of taking her mission statement of real food to people’s doorsteps.

    Throughout Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties are weekly farmers’ markets and farm stands you can drop in on most days of the week to pick up robust servings of just-picked produce (check localharvest.org or CCE’s website for updated listings of farmers’ markets and farm stands throughout the area). And an increasing number of farms around here offer shares of CSAs—community-supported agriculture programs that provide customers with weekly shares of fresh fruits and vegetables and recipes to inspire meals out of what you get.

    And don’t buy into the notion that eating local or in-season is somehow more expensive than shopping at a supermarket. “Food at farm stands and farmers’ markets is actually quite cheap,” said Amanda Root, nutrition, health and parenting issue leader for CCE, “[At CCE] we talk to families about being able to use their SNAP benefits and coupons at farmers’ markets and farm stands. We also produce a local food guide every year and make it a point to highlight resources for families.” Many of our local farm stands and farmers’ markets feature food for sale without the overhead of brick-and-mortar grocery stores. That keeps the middlemen out so you can affordably buy direct from the source.

Make it a family affair.

    “Family meals are so important,” said Root. “These meals don’t have to be dinner, either; they can be breakfasts, or picnics. They’re a way to connect.”

    Root emphasized the importance of involving children with food choices. “Have them help you pick out the food, and help to prep the food. The more involved they are, the more likely it is they’re going to eat it. The farmers’ market is perfect for that. Let the kids really be involved.”

     “I grew up with a mom who was into Diet for a Small Planet, designed herb gardens for a living and taught herb classes,” Wells said, echoing Root’s sentiment. “And look at me.”

    “It’s the children’s job to decide whether or not to eat and how much to eat,” Root said. “We want children to be healthy and have a balanced diet, so we end up trying to coerce them into eating healthier foods. I talk to parents about giving up some of that control. Babies are born knowing how to eat and how much. They will eat a balanced diet if those foods are available to them. It might not look balanced every day, but we ask parents to think about a larger time frame than just a day.”

Plan accordingly.

    Gwise likes to go out in the summertime when things in her backyard are ripe, see what’s ready, pick it, bring it into the house and just make something out of it. “Whether it’s a stir fry or adding it to the salad,” she said, “I like to just bring it into the kitchen.”

    Wells works a bit more strategically, combining her own greenhouses with what she finds at farmers’ markets for her clients. “My favorite events to work are the ones when I’m told to do whatever I want,” she said. “Then I can really go farm to farm and come up with a fun menu.”

    If you’re planning meals for a week, stop in your own garden plot and at a farmers’ market to see what’s fresh. Then, head over to a site like myfridgefood.com, supercook.com, or conduct an ingredients search on allrecipes.com. Each of these sites will work with what you have at home to walk you through simple, delicious meals.

    Adventurous eaters might try to grow artichokes this season or sign up for an area CSA that comes with recipes to experiment with. Other readers might simply consider growing lettuce or other greens for garden-to-table dinner salad. Another easy suggestion? Swap out store-bought tomato sauce for your very own: Just cut your tomatoes in half, sauté them on low heat with a little garlic and olive oil until reduced to a thick liquid, and spice as you like before pouring over pasta.

                “Part of eating locally and seasonally has to do with a sense of eating in the moment, and slowing down enough to enjoy your food,” Moore said. “It’s so much more than consuming the food. It’s just as much about how we eat as what we eat. It’s important to be really mindful in how we eat. Then, it will start to come naturally; you will start to enjoy those fresh spring foods and tie them into how they make you feel. You’ll look for food at your closest neighbor’s farm.” And when food becomes an experience, it can become something your whole family can be involved in.”