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Friday, December 23, 2011

Spiced Apples

About a year ago, on the last day of the farmers' market, I picked up 40 pounds of apples. Got a pretty good deal (36 bucks), but still not good enough to make cider that wouldn't have a hint of regret on my cheapskate palate. Most of them are just my winter supply of fresh fruit.

Fresh-ish, anyway. They're winesaps, so they age well.

I'm aging OK myself, I think, and part of the process has been a nostalgia. In this case, for a flavor, for those spiced apple rings that used to be served in steak houses. So a dozen pounds underwent the knife, guinea pigs in my attempt to retrieve a flavor that I may not even remember correctly.

Turns out, you can buy spiced apples, and they look like what I recall, but where's the fun in that?

Nowhere. The fun is in the ridiculous frivolous project. A couple of hours surfing, searching, sorting until deciding on a recipe that matches none of the listed ones exactly. Slicing and coring, trying to find enough containers to keep the growing pile of rings soaked in limey water to keep them from oxidizing. Stirring syrup and steeping the apples. Ladling and canning the results, trusting that a bath in boiling water would absolve the jars of my earthy earthly sins.

Research showed two paths to becoming lord of the spiced apple rings. Normally, I'd go for the more natural, but this being nostalgia for a time before I'd ever heard of granola, when space-age syntheticality ruled, and when I was a wee candy-loving kid, I went for the other, in which a key ingredient is red hots. Yep, those little cinnamony hearts. Anyway, a lot of people taking the 'natural route' advised using red food color, and I'd rather just go whole spam and avail myself of modern convenience in the form of red hots, combining the best in fake color and flavor.

I still used real cloves, because they are redolent of exotic islands. I was a big National Geographic fan back then. (Post-modernists popped the bubble of that particular joy, and I am down to a small collection of issues that are either very old or feature Polynesia. Oh, and a box o maps, just so I can prove that NG once knew about latitude and longitude.)

But I digress (to resort to what must be one of the most common blog phrases). You just wanna know if it worked.

Color-wise, not so much. Ergo the wildly exaggerated colors in these photos (thanks Mac). That's OK, since I am pretty sure the 'real' color depends on carcinogenic dye, and true nostalgia does not demand authenticity, maybe cannot even survive too much fidelity to reality. So I have pink rings. I sampled the not-worth-using-another-jar few, and the texture seems right (somewhere in that limbo between raw crunch and cooked mush). The flavor snapped a synapse back to life (causing the dust to flare briefly), and I think the red hots did the trick in that regard. But this being a quest for something I tasted so long ago, the wait must be prolonged a bit more. Let them soak, stand, and wait for my bite. I'll report back later. (Right. More likely, I'll forget I ever wrote this.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My Grain Headaches

Locavore carb porn.

Lately, I've had more headaches. But there's nothing duller than a blog-drone about ailments--except maybe symptom tweets--so rest assured that this entry is not about actual headaches, but the figurative ones that come from searching out locally produced grains.

These turn out to be mild, lately. In her book on a year of locavoraciousness, Barbara Kingsolver reported that finding local grains was one of the hardest things to do, down there in the Virginia-Kentucky border highlands. Local corn is widely available, if you are willing to take it in flammable liquid form. But here, in the last month, I've found oats from an Oregon mill and wheat flour from a Bellingham mill. 

Not from my county, but then again, grain in southwest Washington is just substrate for fungus, and we don't want any ergotine madness breaking out, now do we? So we send geoducks out and ship in grain in return. Most of it is in innocuous bags that don't really say where it cam from, but what can you expect from a commodity distributed by a national grocery chain? They buy the commodity where it is cheapest, and pour it in the same bag everywhere. 

Local mills used to exist nearly everywhere before trains, and now trucks make it all the easier to fan out from a few mega-mills to the rest of the country. If there is any logic, the flour I buy at the Tumwater Safeway came from eastern Washington, but there's no telling; it may have crossed the Continental Divide to get here. The "local" mills a couple or three hours south and north of where I live are the closest source I know of, and Fairhaven even says only that they try to obtain northwest grain, which presumably means that sometimes it may come from somewhere further afield.

As with many items in the locavore pantry, there is an issue of expense, and as usual, the effect depends on your focal length. Close up, the flour is expensive, maybe twice what the generic store brand costs. But back away, and home-made bread or pizza dough, even with that precious local flour, earns back that money in a jiffy compared to buying a loaf of bread or a frozen pizza. Local organic products may be more expensive than the grocery commodity version shipped in from who knows where, but they cannot begin to approach the cost of processed foods. Sweat equity is not a term you hear much in the culinary realm, but it applies here. 

And the oatmeal? I think it was actually cheaper than the generic mystery-source brands. 

If these local grains are available right beside the usual stuff in Safeway and Top supermarkets, if locavore consumers don't have to go to the expensive artisan-food section or a specailty organic market to find it, then there is hope that local farmers and mills can make a decent profit. 

I'm not a huge believer in the Free Market, if such a thing actually exists, but I have to think that the easier availability of local grain means that the marketers have recognized a niche with potential. If more people buy it, there may be room for more farmers and producers. The more this happens, the less our money flows out of the region. When the farmers are more secure, so are a range of things from our food supply to the flow of lease money to the School Trust. 

It's a good deal.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Canned for Dried

Ripeberry Jam, not quite done.

Recently, I arranged for a serious breach of locavorism. Fortunately, I am no more orthodox in that movement than I am in anything else. 

But there's enough distance involved that I feel a need to rationalize a little. What's happening is that a friend of mine and I are trading local foods. I'm packing up some Northwest treats, and she's packing things from her farm in Honaunau. Sure, each package will travel about 2800 miles, but the contents were gathered locally. All the processing was done at home: I canned and she dried. (OK, if I'm lucky, there will be some coffee that was roasted down the road from her farm, adding a few miles.)

There are no middle men. No money. No corporate tentacles. Just some taste treats we cannot grow ourselves, could not obtain otherwise without great expense. Two medium flat-rate boxes stuffed with onolicious food, taking up a tiny space in jets that were headed that way anyway. Chewing on a dried banana, I'll travel by tastebud to a place I have not been in years, and I won't feel guilty at all.