Local. Seasonal. They're the current buzzwords of the food industry. Repeated so often that we might want to turn them off.
Anyone who needs to keep up a daily schedule of work, errands and driving kids to doctor's appointments and baseball practice can feel overwhelmed by these well-meaning messages of wholesomeness. Just keeping up with the latest news without actually putting anything into practice can be a full-time job. In fact, it's the full-time occupation of the experts dispensing the advice. Despite, their good intentions, they get paid for making us feel guilty.
No wonder so many people wish they would turn down the volume.
Recently I made a list of all the suggestions from the last few months. Then I honed it down to five, only five, that I felt I could follow steadily, but easily. So listed here, with a short explanation of how I fine-tuned each to fit my own life.
PLANT A GARDEN. It can't get more local than right outside the back door. But my garden space is a 6-foot-wide strip of scrubby grass between luxurious swaths of dandelions. Even hardy wild mint is afraid to grow there. Instead, I planted some large pots with herbs on my deck. They need a lot of watering, but mostly, they encourage the tomato plant in the center of each pot.
My best advice on planting a garden: Start small. Resist the urge to go "Old MacDonald" on the first venture. Be realistic. A 5-foot-square space is a good enough first garden. Get the whole family involved in a whole weekend of planting. (Keep in mind that teens rarely see gardening as a cool occupation.) On Saturday, head to the garden center for supplies and seedlings (not seeds which will try your patience). On Sunday, turn the soil and plant. Then, it's a matter of weeding and watering.
RESEARCH AND KEEP UP ON WHAT IS IN SEASON. Check out websites for your state's agriculture department. Usually these sites post a weekly list of what's in season. It only takes a few minutes to click on it. Some offer a signup for weekly email updates, saving you the clicking process. Now you can easily find the best buys and the freshest produce.
VISIT FARMERS MARKETS OR PICK-YOUR-OWN FARMS. Weekly assemblies of farmers displaying truckloads of produce picked that morning provide more than just fresh produce. You can also find freshly baked bread, muffins and pies, farmhouse cheeses and eggs.
Although outdoor markets may seem more expensive, I find less waste through spoilage, because the fresher foods last longer. Also tastes better.
Picking your own fruits or vegetables makes a fun family outing, especially with young school-age children. Granted, this will likely be a once or twice summer trip. But you can bring home enough strawberries to put on breakfast cereal, on shortcake, skewer with mozzarella and basil on toothpicks, or dip in chocolate. If the kids are young enough, you can dub them "candy" and stave off buying the sugary stuff at the supermarket checkout.
RESEARCH YOUR FAVORITE RESTAURANTS. Farm-to-table cooking is one of the hottest restaurant trends. A lot of chefs include the origin of their product on their menus. Some city chefs order from farms for the entire season, so produce is essentially custom grown. I even know of one chef who fell in love with and married the farmer. How's that for happily ever after?
FREEZE, CAN AND PRESERVE. "During the bountiful summers, abundant fruits and vegetables can be frozen, canned and preserved for fresh, local produce later in the year."
See the quotation marks? I didn't write that sentence; I got it from some idealistic website. I don't have time to can and/or preserve food, whatever that means. But freezing is another matter entire. Freezing is easy.
Take blueberries. Picked too many? Rinse well, dry, put them on a sheet pan in a single layer; put the sheet pan in the freezer for a few hours. Remove and roll the frozen berries into freezer bags. They keep for three months to use on cereal, in muffins, whatever else you can dream up.
Same trick for tomatoes — of all sizes. When thawed, use them in sauces or stews. They don't hold their shape for salads.
Oh, and frozen grapes make the best hot weather treat. Just pop them into your mouth still frozen.
AMISH-STYLE TOMATO KETCHUP
Makes 1-1/2 pints
I find preserving tomatoes as ketchup practical. Once you taste homemade ketchup, you won't want to go back to the supermarket variety. I make it just at the point that the tomatoes go soft, so you can't slice them for a salad or sandwich. Treat the seasonings in this recipe as a suggestion, adding more, or subtracting ones you don't like as you make new batches. This one keeps in the refrigerator for 2 months.
6 ribs celery, trimmed, coarsely diced
2 medium onions, peeled, diced
1/4 cup water
3 pounds Roma or other meaty tomatoes, stemmed and quartered
5 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3/4 to 1 cup dark brown sugar, to taste
1/4 tablespoon ground allspice
1/2 tablespoon ground cloves
1/2 tablespoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon ground mace
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cinnamon sticks
1. Place celery, onions, and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat; cover, bring to a boil until the vegetables start to soften, about 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, cook the tomatoes in a large non-aluminum saucepan on medium heat, partly covered, until very soft, about 25 minutes. Add cooked celery and onions; continue cooking until all the vegetables are completely softened, 15 minutes.
3. Strain the mixture through a sieve into another non-aluminum saucepan, pressing down firmly to get out all the liquid. Stir in vinegar, brown sugar, and spices. On medium-high heat, bring pan to a boil. Continue cooking, stirring, to be sure ketchup does not stick to the bottom of pan, 15-20 minutes. Remove and discard cinnamon sticks. Allow to cool; ladle into jars.
Linda Bassett is the author of "From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston." Reach her by email at KitchenCall@aol.com. Read Linda's blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.