With all the folderol around eating local, very few of us know what eating local really entails, or tastes like, for that matter. I'm at McKenzie River Organic Farm to find out.
Gallons of ink have been spilled in the debate on the politics of buying local and/or organic. At the moment, I'm more interested in the practical mechanics of eating local. How far out of my way will I have to go to cook an entirely local meal? How will using all local ingredients inhibit or enhance my cooking experience? Will it taste better?
Figuring out how to cook with locally/seasonally available food has been part of the human experience since the dawn of time -- it's only in the last 60 years or so that sourcing your dinner ingredients from your immediate vicinity has taken on the patina of the unusual. But one person's exotic is another's bread and butter.
"We've been eating from the farm every night for 15 years," Carol Rupp says. Carol, the diminutive matriarch of the family-owned biodynamic farm, does not mess around. The family grows and mills triticale [a hybrid of wheat and rye] for flour. They also raise all their own fruit and vegetables, which they can and freeze for winter. A spacious, timbered barn is home to cows, sheep and pigs -- the family's bacon is famous. Naturally, they hand-churn butter in old-fashioned glass churns.
Located in the foothills of Oregon's Cascade Mountains, the farm is primarily devoted to blueberries. You can pick your own or buy fresh in summer, and dried blueberries and juice are available year-round at their onsite store, a curious example of hay bale architecture that looks like it was built by enterprising hobbits. Carol's sons Jack and Sam, who are in their 20s, have devoted their lives to making the farm work. Her eldest, Annie, also participates, though these days she spends more time raising her 3-year-old daughter Zoie and hand-crafting her sustainable fashion line. The entire family looks ridiculously healthy: Sam and Jack are handsome, with a ruddy farm-fed glow, and Annie has the unearthly blonde beauty of an avenging angel. They are the type of people who think nothing of working 14-hour days. You can see it in their eyes.
If this is all starting to sound unbearably wholesome and virtuous, keep in mind that the family has a sense of humor: The farm's T-shirts are emblazoned with the logo "organic redneck," accompanied by the tagline, "I make dirt look good."
I've never been entirely comfortable with the price difference between my local supermarket's organic food aisle and its pesticide-saturated alternative: I understand that small organic farms can't always compete pricewise with their subsidized mainstream competitors, but it's always struck me as a bit elitist to sing the praises of your organic diet when so many people don't even have the option to make that choice. I know from personal experience that it's difficult to choose organic when you only have $15 to spend on groceries. That said, for me, it's worth the time and effort to find good sources of food. To that end my husband, Rich, and I recently moved from the city back to my home valley in rural Oregon, which allows us to forage, garden on a large scale and source food directly from farms like this one.
It's not just a matter of politics or budget, I realize as I watch Annie mill grain -- the experience and adventure of procuring and making good food is worthwhile. I have a lot of respect for people, like the Rupp/Richardson family, who have gone several steps further than me and made the experience of producing exemplary food a way of life. They work hard to be able to eat local -- I just waltz around and reap the rewards. On that note, I must mention that my first delightful experience with milling flour involves me forgetting to connect the hose between the electric mill and the receptacle -- a minute later, the cluttered farmhouse kitchen is dusted white.
Annie is my guide around the farm. We haven't planned for this experiment, so we're working with the ingredients the farm has on hand. She grabs a package of last harvest's strawberries from a cavernous freezer, ladles this morning's milk out of a metal can, and suggests that I consider cooking pork chops. I agree.
In keeping with the local ecosystem and my scavenger nature, I figure our 100 percent local meal should feature at least one edible invasive plant. As Annie and I ramble, basking in the rare warmth of a sunny spring afternoon, we consider various in-season options: dandelions, borage, nettles. But then I spot it: clusters of Japanese knotweed sprouting from the muddy banks of the pond.
"Japanese knotweed!" I shriek, sounding way too excited. "Yes," Annie says dourly. I'm excited because Japanese knotweed is edible. Annie is dour because Japanese knotweed is a harmful invasive species; it's nearly impossible to eradicate and it grows in leaps and bounds. She looks at me like I'm crazy. "It's supposed to taste like rhubarb!" I say, by way of explanation. Annie perks up, no doubt contemplating the poetic justice of consuming her enemy. She brandishes the frozen strawberries. "Pie," we say simultaneously. Sweet revenge, indeed. I harvest a couple of handfuls of the smallest shoots, which are the size and shape of asparagus, though tinged with red, like rhubarb.
For dinner, I stuff pork chops with Annie's home grown garlic and heat a cast iron frying pan. Because I'm cooking with butter instead of olive oil, I can't get the pan as hot as I normally would, but I manage to brown the chops anyway. Meanwhile, I make biscuits with hand-ground flour, fresh cream and fresh butter. My only nonlocal ingredients: salt and baking powder. (If I'd thought of it, I could have replaced these ingredients with sourdough starter and local sea salt, but I didn't know what I'd be cooking when I left home.)
When the chops are brown, I cover them with homemade applesauce, more garlic and a tablespoon of fresh rosemary, and I put then in the oven, which is heated to 325. Easy.
The pie is a bit more challenging and worrisome. Even rabid foraging enthusiast "Wildman" Steve Brill notes that knotweed should be cooked thoroughly and used sparingly, and I'm worried of a repeat of my bitter fern fiasco. Baking pie is a perilous choice for experimentation: I won't be able to tweak the flavor as the knotweed cooks. I go heavy on the honey in order to drown out any potential bitterness, and I stick to a relatively low knotweed to strawberry ratio: 1½ cups of knotweed to 3½ cups of frozen strawberries. (Apart from the bitterness factor, moderation is wise. Although knotweed is rich in Vitamin A, potassium, magnesium and resveratrol, "Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast" warns that the plant's close relative, giant knotweed, contains oxalic acid, which is not healthy in large quantities. I don't know if oxalic acid is present in Japanese knotweed, and even if it is, it's not a big deal. Oxalic acid is not toxic -- it's also found in other common edible plants such as sorrel, spinach and rhubarb.) When it comes to wild plants, it's generally best to err on the side of caution.
To prepare the knotweed I wash the shoots, snap off the tips, and remove all unfurling leaves. I also peel the larger shoots, though I'm not sure it's necessary. I chop the knotweed and throw it into a pot with a tablespoon of butter, the frozen strawberries and 1 1/3 cups of honey. As this mixture simmers down to syrup, I turn my attention to my other problem.
My other problem is the crust. My sister-in-law Nikki recently told me the secret to making a proper flaky pie crust (freeze the butter and use ice water or frozen vodka) and I'm loath to go back to the leathery hippie crusts of my youth. But turning grainy hand-ground flour into a thin, flaky pie crust is easier said than done. To make matters slightly more perilous, Annie's kitchen is also the domain of Zoie, a precocious child with the mind of a lawyer, who naturally insists on helping. Eventually we come up with some semblance of a crust, though it's not exactly beautiful. I dump the filling over it and shove the pie in the oven, hoping it'll be edible.
The simplest element of the meal, sautéed greens, most acutely illustrates the limitations and pleasures of cooking with limited ingredients. None of my normal crutches for greens are available -- I can't use olive oil, soy sauce, white wine, lime juice, ginger or even vinegar. Instead I sauté the spinach and chard in butter and a few tablespoons of water.
"Do you guys grow anything spicy?" I ask Annie, without much hope. To my surprise and delight, she produces a large bag of dried Thai chiles. I dice a few to sprinkle on the greens and the pork chops. I would not naturally think to combine butter and Thai chiles, but the greens taste good -- the sweetness of the fresh butter enhances the fresh earthiness of the spinach, and the chile provides a keen counterpoint.
As I eat dinner, I am reminded that reining myself in is a good thing -- the limited number of ingredients clearly work in this meal's flavor. Because the biscuits are the only starch, I give them my undivided attention -- the coarse, home-ground flour creates a satisfying consistency, reminiscent of corn bread. And the pie -- the pie is good. Though the crust is grainy and, as I suspected, not at all flaky, the honey-tinged filling delivers a tangy, summery flavor. It tastes like home.
Knotwood strawberry pie
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- 1 ½ cups of knotweed (chopped)
- 3 ½ cups of strawberries
- 1 1/3 cups of honey
- 2 cups of flour
- ¾ cup of butter (frozen)
- 6 tablespoons of water (iced)
- ¼ teaspoon of salt (optional)
- Heat a saucepan at low and melt butter.
- Add remaining filling ingredients. Simmer for 5 minutes or so, until syrup forms. (If necessary, add a little water or flour to modify consistency.)
- Mix and roll dough ingredients. Line 9" pie pan with ½ of the dough.
- Put knotweed strawberry filling in pie pan, cover with remaining rolled dough, and bake at 350 for 45 minutes.