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A measured approach.

Byline: Jessica MacMurray Blaine For The Register-Guard

For The Register-Guard

Tomatoes mystify me. Not the fat, deep red ones that ripen on the vine, or the bulging heirloom tomatoes in shades of deep bruise-purple to sunflower yellow and green. The ones I don't understand are perfectly round, red in an understated sort of way, and piled in great pyramids in every grocery store, at every time of the year.

Here, in one of the world's great agricultural valleys, we're blessed with a richness of produce that allows us to celebrate each season with gorgeous, fresh, delicious food that is not only part of our local economy, but a statement of place, a preservation of landscape and an expression of our community in multiple hues and flavors.

So why, in the peak of tomato season, are our grocery shelves still stocked with flavorless tomatoes from Chile?

Authors and restaurateurs, philosophers and economists lately have been exploring the idea of measuring food miles. The term, coined by British food policy professor Tim Lang in 2006, simply refers to the distance a morsel of food travels between its genesis and its final resting place on a plate.

International trade in food has quadrupled in the past 40 years, and the results are many-layered. We've got berries in January, thick-skinned tomatoes year-round, grapes and avocados and peaches and corn all the time no matter what. And that's not necessarily a good thing.

In this country, average food-mile estimates range from 1,500 to 2,000 miles. In the United Kingdom, it's even higher, in the 1,500- to 3,000-mile range.

The implications are complex, from the fossil fuel impact of trucking and shipping to the genetic gyrations our food has experienced in order to be shipping-friendly. The produce we see on the shelves has often traveled thousands and thousands of miles in its short lifetime. Add to that issues of security - what do we do if we can't trace the bag of tainted spinach back to its origins? - and the questions get even harder to answer.

Labels are complicated, from a practical and a philosophical standpoint. Eating organic isn't the panacea many sometimes think it to be - how do you choose between organic peas, raised without pesticides but frozen and flown here from China, or conventional ones grown right here in Oregon? Avoid chemicals or support local business?

Resources for thinking these ideas through are plentiful. Michael Pollan addresses these issues and more with narrative grace and wry humor in his award-winning book `The Omnivore's Dilemma.' Philosopher Peter Singer gets gritty and specific in `The Way We Eat; Why our Food Choices Matter.'

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver takes a more personal approach in her latest book, `Animal, Vegetable, Miracle' which describes a year in which she and her family grew their own food and relied solely on local products.

Gary Paul Nabhan, a food scientist and writer, wrote `Coming Home to Eat,' which chronicled a similar effort in a wildly different ecosystem and cultural landscape: the desert outside of Tucson, Ariz. Both Kingsolver and Nabhan learned a great deal about how our food system has become what it is - but more importantly, they both found themselves almost accidentally in tune with the landscape and the weather, and the possibilities of nature and culture in their particular corners of the world.

More and more, labels and store signage helps to identify local products, but even without obsessively scouring the aisles for signs and labels or assigning ourselves strict limits, there are ways to think about food miles as a filter. And maybe, like Kingsolver and Pollan and Nabhan, we'll learn something about the place where we live.

Eating local, especially here, and especially in the summer, doesn't have to be about politics, and statistics, and labels. Instead, it can be about an encounter with the person who grows your food, no matter how brief, at the market, as you trade a few dollars for a couple of perfectly ripe tomatoes, their skin taut with sun and sugar.

It can be about stopping at a parking lot on your way home from work to buy a pint of berries from an impromptu farm stand. It can simply be about choosing an Oregon melon that fills your kitchen with sweet fragrance the moment you crack it open, or the local salad greens in bulk, instead of the Fresh Express in a bag.

If you're not quite ready to throw down the 100-mile-radius limit and call yourself a `locavore,' there are other ways to address food miles. The simplest way to lower your food mile quotient is attention to season. If you simply shift your focus to food that's in season, the possibilities of low-food-mile products open up, even without a trip to the farmers' market. In the spring, you'll see local asparagus in grocery stores, salad greens and corn in the summer, squashes and pears and wild mushrooms in the fall and winter.

At no time is this concept more obvious than now, in the height of summer, when the fruit at the farmers' market stacks up in towers, leafy greens flank a rainbow of heirloom tomatoes at a roadside stand, and sweet yellow corn is for sale right from the back of the truck.

But it's not just about produce - fish and meats have a season, too. Spring lambs and chickens are done for the year, but Oregon albacore tuna is in glorious abundance. We've moved from early spring run salmon to a variety of wild-caught salmon species that will fill our tables through October. Come winter, we eagerly await delicate flavors of Dungeness crab.

There are limits - sadly, no olives grow in Oregon for oil, no black pepper, no lemons. But it's an interesting exercise, even there, to see where it's possible to edit and adjust to keep it local: Oregon Tillamook butter instead of olive oil, locally made vinegars in place of lemon.

It's a fascinating exercise; to look around, see what's in season and put together beautiful meals from local products. You might never look at a tomato the same way again.

Corn Souffle

Don't be intimidated by the title, a souffle is actually a very simple thing to make and a wonderful way to enjoy sweet summer corn. Use local dairy products - Noris milk, Tillamook butter and Willamette Valley Cheese Co. jack or havarti - local farm eggs, and you've got an almost completely local meal.

6 large ears of corn

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1 cup milk

Salt and pepper

8 eggs, separated, plus 2 egg whites

1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese

Shuck the corn and cut the kernels off the cob, scrape as much of the juicy milk along with it, while picking out any stray strands of silk.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook over low heat for a few minutes, stirring the flour-butter paste until it turns a little bit golden. Stir in the milk and cook over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens. Season with salt and cracked black pepper.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks until smooth and combine with the corn and cheese. Add the warm sauce, and combine. Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, and fold them gently in with the other ingredients. Pour the whole mixture into a buttered deep baking dish or souffle dish (allowing space for the souffle to rise), and bake in a 350-degree oven until the top is golden brown and a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean, about 45 minutes.

Chilled Melon Soup With Mint

There are gorgeous melons in the market right now - from bright red classic watermelons to petite orange cantaloupes and lovely heirloom varieties such as Charentais. If you're not up for making soup, just serve some melon wrapped in a slice of cured local prosciutto. This soup couldn't be simpler - use the honey only as an emergency measure, if your melon isn't as sweet as you'd like it. A little salt and pepper to taste at the end helps round out the flavor, so don't be put off by the combination of sweet and savory.

2 pounds of fresh melon (preferably a muskmelon of some kind), cut in chunks, seeds removed and peeled

1 tablespoon local honey (only if the melon isn't as sweet as you'd like it)

1 cup dry white Oregon wine

Mint leaves for garnish

In batches, puree the melon until smooth, adding the honey if you think it's necessary. Combine in a large mixing bowl with the wine and cut with water until you've achieved the consistency you'd like. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Bruise the mint with your fingers, mince, and sprinkle on each bowl before serving.

Grilled Oregon Albacore

With Cherry Tomatoes

and Sweet Onions

Oregon Albacore starts appearing in our local fish markets in June, and is truly one of the stars of great summer food. I love it super-rare, and served with some simple, acidic, Mediterranean accents such as olives and, in this case, tomatoes. Go easy on the vinaigrette, and let the flavors of fruity tomatoes and sweet onions come through.

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cloves locally grown garlic, minced

Salt and pepper

1 or 2 whole tuna loins, about 3 pounds total

1 tablespoon local butter

1 whole sweet yellow onion, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 pints local cherry tomatoes

1 handful fresh basil leaves, minced

Fruity vinegar (optional)

In a baking dish, combine the olive oil, minced garlic, salt and pepper. Roll the tuna loin in the mixture until covered and set aside for half an hour or so while you work on the other elements.

Melt the butter in a saucepan and saute the onions over medium low heat until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Be careful not to brown them. Mix the olive oil and vinegar, and toss the tomatoes with the vinaigrette, season with salt and pepper. Skewer them on wooden or metal skewers.

Heat the grill to as hot a temperature as you can - be sure to let it really heat up before you put anything on it. Grill the tuna loins for 3 to 5 minutes per side, depending on your taste, being careful not to overcook.

When they're done, take them off the grill and let them rest for a few minutes while you grill the tomatoes. Grill the tomatoes until they blister and soften, then take them off the skewers and smash them up a little bit with the onions. Toss in the fresh basil and maybe a few shakes of fruity vinegar.

Cut the fish into medallions and serve with the tomato-onion mixture on top.

Serves 6.

Jessica MacMurray Blaine is a free-lance writer from Eugene.
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Title Annotation:Food; Count the miles from the source of your food to your table
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 22, 2007
Previous Article:BRIEFLY.
Next Article:ENTREE NOTES.

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