March 10, 2010

Eating local foods first and foremost simply a matter of taste

— I was asked this week if eating locally, organically and/or seasonally (all interconnected but not quite the same) was more about the consciousness of the buying decisions or about taste for me.

And certainly the decision is easy, because we can have it all -- healthy choices for us, the environment and our local economy, and fabulous flavor.

But if I had to choose one, taste would win. The sensuous gift of flavor and texture savored and appreciated has to be first for anyone willing to stand over a stove in 100-degree heat day after day (wood stove or not); chop vegetables and meat until your arms are sore; lift 50-pound bags of flour and cases and cases of food up or down stairs (because the store room is never right next to where the delivery truck drops off); and sprint through the insanely busy times to have all of the dishes come out beautiful and synchronized every time.

This is also fortuitous, as the emotional pull of the seasons is a strong force in how I choose my menus. When the thermometer hits 70 degrees, I abruptly fall out of love with comforting root vegetables and silky, slow-cooked stews and suddenly long for the bright, snappy, crunchy tastes of cucumbers, warm, juicy tomatoes, pungent fresh herbs and summer fruits that burst with flavor in your mouth.

As the nights become cooler, I begin to think about the house filled with the smell of freshly baking bread, and I want to wrap it around myself as I might a cozy blanket. And while I may, in the middle of winter, have a craving for that amazing burst of tart, warm sweetness of a sun-kissed fraise du bois right off the vine, I know that the shiny strawberries beckoning me from the grocery store will not give me what I'm wanting. I have to wait.

But for now, the waiting is over. I've had my fill of asparagus, strawberries and greens, and now I'm excited about tomatoes, peppers and the squash to come.

MELTY CHEESE AND SPINACH APPS

These appetizers are a snap to make and perfect for those little bits of cheese or meat too small to actually make a meal out of. Serve with either crostinis or crackers.

GOUDA, SPINACH AND ARTICHOKE HEARTS:

2 ounces grated gouda cheese

2 cups lightly packed baby spinach, coarsely chopped

1 6-ounce can artichoke hearts, sliced thinly

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

HOT ITALIAN SAUSAGE, CHEDDAR AND SPINACH:

1 hot Italian sausage, finely chopped

4 ounces grated cheddar cheese

2 cups lightly packed baby spinach, coarsely chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

For either recipe, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and transfer to an oven-proof platter. Bake for 20 minutes or until the edges are bubbly and the center is melted all the way through. Both serve 4 to 6 as an appetizer.

CHILI RUM PAN-SEARED STEAK WITH CORN & SPINACH CREAM SAUCE

Dry roasting whole garlic cloves is yet another way to get that soft, mellow flavor that garlic can provide. Don't add any oil or butter to the pan, but simply continue to stir until the outside skins are flaking off and the cloves are soft and tender.

MARINADE:

1/4 cup dark rum

1/4 cup cider vinegar

3 tablespoons molasses

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 tablespoon cumin

STEAK:

4 sirloin steaks, 1 to 11/2 inches thick

6 cloves garlic, unpeeled

2 cups corn kernels, cooked and removed from the cob

2 cups lightly packed spinach, cut into thin strips

3/4 cup heavy cream

3 teaspoons lime juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine all marinade ingredients in a resealable plastic bag and add the steaks. Marinate for at least one hour and up to 24 hours. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the garlic cloves. Dry roast the garlic cloves until the skin begins to fall off the cloves and the garlic becomes soft and parts are darker than others. You may need to turn the heat down some to prevent burning.

Remove the garlic from the pan and peel the skin off. Wipe the pan with a cloth to remove any bits of skin. Increase the heat to medium-high and carefully add the steaks. Sear the steaks for 6 minutes on the first side and 6 on the other, or until a thermometer reads 125 degrees for medium rare.

Transfer the steaks to a platter, and in the same skillet add the marinade and then the garlic cloves. Mash the cloves into the sauce and reduce if necessary to thicken a little. Add the corn, spinach, cream, lime juice and salt. Bring to a boil and adjust for salt. Serve with the steaks immediately.

Serves 4.

Anne Mahle of Rockland is the author of ''At Home, At Sea,'' a recipe book about her experiences cooking aboard the family's windjammer. She can be reached at:

recipes@athomeatsea.com

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