Eating locally, sustainably and seasonally can often seem daunting, especially in winter. By January, having eaten through all the Hubbard squash and home-canned tomatoes in storage, you're kind of tired of potatoes, and you inexplicably find yourself craving bell peppers and cucumbers—both months out of season.
Want to know the local secrets to fighting mid-winter's food doldrums? With a little planning and some new skills, all the flavors of the Portland area foodshed can be yours—for a lot less money than you'd think. With the generous help of Lost Arts Kitchen, here's our guide to jumping the hunger gap this season, one delicious bite at a time.
The Lost Art of Meal-Planning
Chris Musser doesn't like grocery-shopping. She'd much rather be home with her kids, whipping up a batch of homemade mayonnaise together, than chalking up another hour in line to buy the processed version. The average American family spends 3-4 hours per week in the grocery store, Musser tells me. Since turning to local sources and homemade methods, she now estimates that she spends fewer hours than that each month.
"Honestly, I've found that with practice—and there's definitely a learning curve—this saves me time and money," Musser says. "You have to feed yourself and your family somehow, in a way that works for you. It just depends on how you want to do it. We all have to make decisions about how and where we want to spend our time."
Musser runs Lost Arts Kitchen out of her home in east Portland's Russell neighborhood. She hosts weekend courses in just about everything: from the basics like bread-baking, canning and preserving, and homemade soup stock, to the more advanced, like making your own lacto-fermented vegetables (think sauerkraut and kimchi) and cultured milk products.
The courses are suitable for anyone looking to cut costs, time, and processed or exotic foods from their eating habits. There's something for every kind of cook and lifestyle, with one caveat: you have to be willing to do some planning. The courses include tips on meal-planning, creating and keeping a pantry, bulk-buying, and "cooking once to eat twice."
How to Pay Attention
Take your first steps toward getting to know Portland's harvest season by chatting up the farmers at your local market, scouting around online, or picking up a seasonal cookbook. (See Resources at the bottom of this article.) Make it a habit to stock up at the Wednesday night farmers' market at People's Co-op, open year-round, or ask around about local produce sources closer to you. Consider growing your own—even if it's just a potted tomato plant. And be prepared for your palate to change.
"You start to really notice the difference between your home-grown or home-preserved foods and what's available at the supermarket," Musser says. "I'm ever more satisfied with simply prepared meals most of the time. I like preparing big complicated meals occasionally, but when I have a few stellar ingredients, I prefer not to do much more than steam them or roast them and serve them with the sparest vinaigrette or just some butter and salt."
What to Eat Now
For winter, Musser suggests a braise like boeuf bourguignon or slow-cooked pork shoulder prepared for carnitas. "I make a slaw with cabbage and carrots seasoned with lime juice and cumin and we can have tacos for days."
Makes about 1 quart
1 cup water
2 1/2 tablespoons sea salt, divided (not iodized salt!)
2 pounds fresh raw beets, peeled
1 tablespoon horseradish, grated
1/2 teaspoon caraway seed
1/2 teaspoon allspice or juniper berry, crushed or ground
2-3 sprigs fresh dill, chopped
Boil water with 1 tablespoon salt until salt is dissolved, then remove from heat to cool (set in a sink of cold water to cool quickly). Grate beets by hand or julienne in a food processor. Mix with remaining ingredients, then pack into a 2 quart jar, pressing down with your fist or the end of a wooden rolling pin to express juice from the beets. Leave 2 inches of head space for expansion—beets ferment heavily and will overflow without sufficient head space. Add enough of the salted water to cover the beets. Cover the jar, place it in a tray to capture any overflow, and leave at room temperature for 3-5 days, depending on the temperature (less time during warm weather, more when it's cold.) Any bubbling and frothing is normal and a sign that fermentation is happening. Refrigerate.
Note: The beets will continue to develop flavor and be best after about two weeks. They keep for months. Sometimes a bit of harmless white kahm yeast develops on the beet flesh that emerges from the brine. Scrape it off and discard, then push the beets back into the brine.
She also makes an abundance of soup every week for her family of four, pressure-canning soup stocks and broths to use later. "Chicken-corn chowder has been getting a lot of play this winter, with corn I froze last summer and just a teaspoon of the sauce from chipotles en adobo that I canned last winter."
But you don't have to wait until next winter to enjoy the preserved fruits of the current harvest. Vegetarians can savor the tang of lacto-fermented root vegetables such as beets or carrots. With some simple care and feeding (see recipe and instructions), this quick and simple condiment or side dish will last for months.
In addition to fresh root vegetables, leeks, and hardy greens like kale, you can find storage onions, winter squash, and potatoes at markets and through individual farmers.
Many farmers also have chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys in frozen storage. Flying Fish, a mobile purveyor of local and sustainable seafood, is filling the missing link in the local foodshed. Weekdays, you can find the truck parked on SE Hawthorne or Division streets. Owner Lyf Gildersleeve tells me you just can't get fish like this at the grocery store, because he deals directly with small fishermen and farmers. When I ducked into his truck, the freezer held cod at $5.99/lb, mahi at $10/lb, and dry-packed east coast scallops: chemical-free. In the refrigerator, there was fresh crab, local grass-fed beef, lamb, and buffalo, and local eggs. Think of it as local, sustainable protein on wheels.
What to Prepare for Later
While the soup's simmering and the beets are getting funky on the counter, it's a great time to flip through seed catalogs and gardening books and begin planning for the planting season ahead. If the soil's dry enough, you can start preparing garden beds. President's Day is the traditional time for planting peas and poppies, though there's still plenty of time to get the peas in the ground. If you're thinking about keeping chickens, sign up for a class and start making your plans for a coop and run.
It's never too early to begin contacting farms about their CSA programs. Some sell out months before the season starts. Get together with a group of friends and neighbors and purchase a sustainably-raised animal directly from a local farmer. Musser's buying club, the Portland Eastside Buying Club, gets meat from Taylor-Made Farms and PD Farms, and the Deck Family Farm has a meat buying club with a drop in northeast Portland. There are many other farmers offering meat by the cut, box, quarter or whole animal.
Educate yourself now about food preservation. Though canning gets a lot of attention, there are many ways to preserve foods—from cold storage and fermentation to drying and freezing. Using a variety of methods gives you more options in the winter, so you don't end up with 52 jars of strawberry preserves and little desire to consume a jar a week. You can also look into locally-made preserved goods, particularly for more labor-intensive crops.
"I used to dry my own cherries," says Musser, "but when I discovered I could buy dried organic Washington-grown Bing cherries in bulk for less than it cost me to buy them fresh and dry them myself, I happily took that task off my to-do list."
Frog Meadow Farm in Canby offers a "canner's CSA," with bulk boxes of fruits and vegetables for preserving throughout the growing season. One share ($200) gets you a variety of options: two flats of berries (choose from a wide range, from strawberries and blackberries to Logan and Marionberries); 25 pounds of pickling cucumbers and dill; 15 pounds of green or wax beans; 50 pounds of tomatoes; and the salsa box, with tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro. Availability varies depending on the season, but will most likely fall around June 15th-September 31st. Contact the farm to order and pre-pay before May 15.
What's Coming Up
Nettles are an abundant, locally-available source of vitamins A and C, iron and calcium. There are as many ways to prepare and enjoy nettles as there are nettle patches to be found within city limits. If you're interested in wild-harvested foods, consider a Wild Food Adventures class or an edible and medicinal hike with Trackers Northwest.
Spring will soon herald an abundance of eggs from backyard flocks—yours and your neighbors—so think about picking up some new skills in preparing and enjoying this protein-rich staple. Lost Arts Kitchen offers a fun course in egg preparation (Musser's favorite).
"While we do it most everyday, it's still a thrill to sit down to a meal full of foods that we grew ourselves or came from farmers we know personally," Musser says. "It's very empowering."
Pick Your Own
Oregon Tilth Planting and Harvest calendar
Lost Arts Kitchen
PDX Backyard Chix (email list)
Wild Food Adventures
Portland Fruit Tree Project
Azure Standard (bulk-buying)
The Vegetarian Hearth: Recipes and Reflections for the Cold Season, Darra Goldstein
Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, Jessica Prentice
A Well-Seasoned Appetite: Recipes for Eating with The Seasons, The Senses, and The Soul, Molly O'Neill
Stores and Markets
Hillsdale Farmers' Market
People's Co-op Farmers' Market
Frog Meadow Farm
Deck Family Farm