The local food movement is becoming such a trendy thing these days that, I’ll admit, recently I’ve been getting a bit sick of hearing about it.  It seems every new restaurant that pops up in Pittsburgh has some sort of commitment to using local meat or produce.  Not that this is a bad thing, it’s just that most people who talk about eating local seem to have a holier-than-thou air about themselves.  Like how can I even think about eating an orange that traveled all that distance to get to me? Gasp!

But in the past few weeks, my attitude toward local eating has taken a complete 180.  It started with a sign that I saw driving through my neighborhood for Isidore Foods.  Curious, I googled it and found that it’s a company that partners with regional farmers to deliver local produce, meats, pantry items, and dairy products, with many products being organic.  I perused their website for quite some time, intrigued by all the different types of food subscriptions they offered.

Now, let me say that I already subscribed to a CSA for fruits and vegetables, but didn’t consider myself a complete local food freak.  I subscribed to a CSA simply because local fruits and vegetables taste better than store-bought produce, not because I had lofty goals of saving the planet.

But after reading about Isidore Foods, I became more and more interested in the concept of local eating that I eventually rented a book from the library on the subject, The Locavore’s Handbook, by Leda Meredith.  I’ll admit that even when I started reading it I was still fairly cynical about the whole thing, and was pretty sure the book was going to make me feel guilty for not already eating locally and shame me into doing so.

However, what I found was the complete opposite.  Meredith addresses the history of our food production and food culture and explains many of the problems with it.  She also addresses many of the questions cynics like me usually ask, such as “isn’t eating local more expensive?” and “how can I possibly have time to cook local food?”  As I kept reading, I began to realize that eating local isn’t simply a hot trend, it’s a way of life that requires changing your entire way of thinking about food.  For example, we have gotten so used to being able to eat whatever we want, whenever we want.  Eating local has an entirely different attitude about it that starts with eating seasonally- looking to see what is in season and then deciding what we can cook with it, rather than the other way around.

Although Meredith made a pretty drastic lifestyle change by deciding to eat only things that were produced within 250 miles of her home, she includes a section in each chapter titled “If you do just one thing,” which makes the whole book much more accessible.  My fiance and I (ok, maybe it’s mostly me- but I think I’m winning him over) have decided that we’re going to take this ‘if you do just one thing’ approach.  We’re going to start doing one thing bit by bit, and build up to what we’re comfortable with.  This is much less overwhelming than going cold turkey from non-local food, and doing it step by step will probably mean we’ll stick with eating local rather than giving up along the way.

So, what are we doing to start eating more local food?

1) Subscribing to a CSA: Ok, so we already do subscribe to a CSA (Dillner Family Farm), but we plan on continuing our subscription next year.  Honestly, this is probably one of the easiest and most satisfying ways to eat locally.  The fruit and vegetables we’ve gotten have been a million times tastier than things we’ve gotten from the grocery store.

2) Eating as much local meat as possible: We just started a subscription through Isidore Foods that will provide us with 2-3 different types of meat per week out of the following: ground beef, ground pork, pork chops, bacon, and beef tips.  The beef is grass-fed and is from McElhaney Farm, whereas the pork is pastured and is from New Creation Farm.  Isidore Foods also has pretty much any other type of meat cut you could want.  The chickens are whole, so I need to learn how to cut one up before we get one of those!

3) Introducing local dairy into our diets: We also just started a subscription through Isidore Foods for half a dozen free range eggs, half a gallon of organic milk, and half a pound of grass-fed cheese every other week.  Weekly options also exist, but for now we’re going to ease into it to see if we can use everything.

These are the things we’ve committed to so far, but there are many other things that I’m interested in, including canning and drying food, gardening, and local grains.

Stay tuned to read more about our journey into local eating, and to see what new things we attempt!

Baking is a completely different animal from cooking.  It requires special techniques and tools, a preciseness generally not required in general cooking, and extreme patience.  This has led to me being slightly overwhelmed and scared of it, as I’m sure many of you have felt, too.  It has also led to me making hockey puck-esque breads and dry as the Sahara brownies.  So, when I saw that my college offered a student-taught baking class this semester, I jumped at the chance to improve my baking skills.

Baking encompasses many different types of foods including yeast breads, laminates (layered doughs), cakes, mousses, custards, pies, tarts, cookies, chocolates, and more.  In my Baking 101 Series, I’ll walk you through each of these categories by giving you tips and recipes that I’ve learned through my baking class and personal experiences.  Today’s post is on digital scales, and the next post will focus on yeast breads.  Along the way I’ll also do my standard cost analysis on homemade vs. storebought baked goods.

Buy a digital scale

The first thing that you’ll need to do if you want to get serious about baking is to purchase a digital scale.  Although many recipes give volumetric measurements for ingredients, you really want to find and use recipes that give you weight measurements.  This is because one “cup” of flour will have a different weight depending on how you scoop the flour in (stick the cup in the bag and level is vs. using a spoon to scoop it in the measuring cup).  Also, different measuring cups are not precisely the same volume.  So, what should you look for when purchasing a digital scale?

1)      Make sure the scale can hold at least eleven pounds.  You want it to be able to hold your biggest mixing bowl and several pounds of dough.

2)      What’s the smallest weight increment the scale can measure?  It should be able to measure down to one gram or 0.1 ounces.

3)      Battery type: I made sure to buy a scale that takes regular AA batteries instead of the button type batteries just because I generally have AA batteries around the house.

4)      Tare button: this will allow you to place your mixing bowl on the scale and then zero it to weigh ingredients directly into the bowl.

5)      Anything else is just bells and whistles and you’ll likely be paying way too much for it!

I’m back!  I returned last week from an amazing two-week adventure in Singapore and Thailand.  Over the next few posts I hope to highlight some of the amazing food that we had there, as well as recreate some of the dishes at home with a full cost analysis.  From Singapore’s famous chili crab, to Thai curries, to street food, we ate it all!  Here are just a few of the major things that stood out from my culinary adventures:

1) Cheap eats In Thailand we routinely ate full dinners with fruit shakes, appetizers, and two entrees for around $10.  Street food was also extremely cheap and not once made me sick.  Pineapple for sixty-seven cents?  Yes, please!  Mystery meat on a stick for $1? OK!  Coconut donuts for $1 each?  Sure, I’ll have two!  It’s no wonder my weight loss efforts prior to the trip were quickly undone.

2) Roti Where have you been all my life??  These heavenly crepe-like pancakes are sold by street vendors everywhere, with a multitude of filling options both sweet and savory.  And of course, they’re cheap too (~$1-2).  My favorites were banana and chocolate topped with sweetened condensed milk, and egg/onion/tomato topped with chili sauce and mayo.  It still amazes me that something this simple can be so good.  I think the secret is the pound of ghee that the roti are cooked in :-O

3) Can you take the heat? Ask for ‘a little spicy’ and you’re likely to be wiping sweat off your face for hours afterwards.  My palate was just getting adjusted to the more intense heat by the end of the trip.  I distinctly remember not ordering water with my red snapper curry at one of the last meals I had in Thailand and thinking I was going to die.  But I actually ate the whole thing without a drop of water!  Woohoo!

4) The world needs more hawker centers Perhaps the thing I was looking forward to most on the trip was going to a hawker center in Singapore.  Boy, did it live up to my expectations!  If you’re not familiar with these, they’re somewhat like American food courts in malls on steroids and with much tastier food.  Row upon row of vendors served all kinds of ethnic food- Indian, Chinese, Malay- this is the melting pot of Asia, after all!  I was extremely lucky that my fiancé had scoped out the hawker center he took me to prior to my arrival.  Navigating the rows of stalls can be confusing and the number of options of food dizzying.  But just pick something and eat it; odds are it will be amazing.

Look for more posts on this trip in the future.  If you just can’t wait, check out the blog that my fiancé and I co-author: The International Food Project.  It details much of the food he has had on his trip all over southeast Asia and will focus on recreating it at home!

Do you ever have days or weeks where you just don’t feel like cooking?  That has been the theme of my past few weeks.  Work stress and personal life stress have left me with zero motivation to cook anything that requires more effort than opening a can/box/carton and dumping/microwaving.  I know it’s terrible, but it’s what has happened.  When I get in these moods, I eventually have to force myself to get back to cooking, even if my heart is not really in it.  My theory is that my heart will follow.  This is exactly what I did tonight, forcing myself to make something not too daunting.  And you know what?  I think I’m actually emerging from my funk.  Of course, I think Thai food will bring anyone out of any kind of funk, no matter how deep. (more…)

I’ve been cooking for several years now, but there’s something I still struggle with.  It’s not that I can’t follow a recipe and make a dish come out well, but rather the opposite: I follow instructions too closely, hardly ever veering from recipes for fear that the results will be disastrous.  You see, I’m a grad student working in a research lab, and following ‘recipes’ for experiments is part of my daily life.  One pipetting mistake and days of work can be ruined.  My exceedingly careful nature has transferred over to other aspects of my life, particularly cooking.  Recipes are good but, let’s face it, real chefs don’t use recipes or painstakingly measure out ingredients.  Heck, Rachael Ray doesn’t even measure most of the time.

So, I’m on a new mission to decrease my dependence on recipes and increase my reliance on creativity.  This isn’t something that will happen overnight, but in the long run I think it will serve me well- instead of going to the store to buy lots of ingredients that a recipe ‘needs’, I can look at what I have and build a dish from there. (more…)

Every time I take a road trip somewhere and visit the city’s public market, I think, ‘gee, Pittsburgh really needs something like this!’ Well, now we’ve got it!  There are so many reasons to be excited about the opening of the Pittsburgh Public Market, but here are my top three:

  1. Convenience: There are twenty-seven vendors listed as being there every day, and an additional five on Friday, nine on Saturdays, and three on Sundays.  All this shopping under one roof is fantastic (or dangerous if you are an impulsive buyer like me!).
  2. Unique vendors: Although there are some familiar ones to the Strip (La Prima; Fudgie Wudgie) and the Pittsburgh area in general (East End Brewing Company; Spice by Tamarind), there are also vendors that are just getting their start in the area (Tupelo Honey Teas; Crested Duck Charcuterie).
  3. When winter comes, you can shop in an enclosed area and not freeze your tookus off! (more…)

I confess that I’ve never made pesto.  I know, I know, that makes me a bad person or at least a bad foodie, but I have a somewhat good excuse: I’m allergic to nuts.  I’ve always felt pesto just wasn’t pesto without pine nuts and figured I’d never be able to eat it, until I saw a thread on Serious Eats about pine nut substitutions in pestos.  There were many suggestions ranging from good-sounding (sunflower seeds, pepitas) to the bizarre (cooked quinoa- really?).  I kept these ideas in the back of my head, and recently there was a recipe posted on Serious Eats for a corn pesto that consisted of corn, cheese, olive oil, and pine nuts.  The recipe sounded like a good opportunity to use up some end-of-the season corn, as well as to try out a pine nut substitution.  Plus, there’s bacon in the sauce!  Cha-ching!

(more…)

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