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DECEMBER 2008 / Links updated 2010
'TIS THE SEASON FOR LOCAL FOODS
Better taste, lower environmental cost


The quest for foods from far-off places that could never be grown at home has a long history. Just think of Marco Polo. So, too, the desire for fresh foods out of season. Thus, our current way of distributing food through a global food market is like the fulfillment of an old dream.

World-traveling mango As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

Today's produce is bred for long-distance shipping and the lowest common denominator of taste. That's why heirloom varieties are suddenly in. People want tomatoes and corn that taste the way they used to. Bland and sweet don't cut it anymore.

Even the miracle of tropical fruits up north has dulled. Mangoes again? We just had them yesterday. Familiarity has bred, if not contempt, then ennui.

Worst of all, global foods contribute to global warming. The farther our food travels, the more fossil fuels consumed in transportation, and the more greenhouse gases emitted on the way.

Let's get concrete. To get to my Manhattan supermarket, the apples from Washington traveled some 2,900 miles more than the ones from upstate. The first might be Braeburns, a favorite of mine, while the others are probably Empires and Macs, which I've frankly had my fill of by this point in the year. Down the aisle are peaches. Mmmm, I love peaches and haven't had one for months. But the peaches traveled even farther than the Washington apples—5,000 miles from Chile.

These "food miles" are part of the environmental cost of the apples. (The energy and chemicals used to grow them are others.) We don't pay it at the check-out, but in the health of our environment and quality of our lives.

Do I sometimes get the Washington apples anyway? Sure I do. I just try not to do it too often. Peaches in winter? Not anymore—I find the environmental cost exorbitant and don't think the peaches taste the way they should. It's just not a fruit that holds up to the early picking and long storage that global distribution requires. I'd sooner wait for the peachy peaches I can get from New York orchards come July.

There's another option. I can go to the farmers' market and have my choice of ten varieties of local apples.

What is true for fruits also goes for vegetables. Each carries an environmental cost based in part on how far it has traveled. The cost of asparagus in Manhattan at this time of year, for instance, is a 3,500-mile trip from Peru. And like imported peaches, the asparagus won't compare in taste to the super-fresh local version available in season.

Sure, sure, I hear you saying, but what's the alternative in December? Plenty, even up north.

At my farmers' market last week, I found carrots, fennel, broccoli, mushrooms, beets, winter greens, winter squash, turnips, leeks, onions and potatoes, among other things. These are also all available at the supermarket, but the ones in the supermarket may or may not be local (and will not come in as many or as interesting varieties). The broccoli, for instance, usually comes from California. You need to check the labels to be sure.

Perhaps you're not used to cooking with winter vegetables. Don't let that deter you. Find out what's seasonal in your area, then consult your cookbooks for recipes made with those ingredients.

To get you started, I asked Mary Cleaver, my favorite green caterer, for a homey seasonal recipe for December in the Northeast. Since it's also important for the environment to eat less meat, I asked that the recipe be vegetarian. She came up with Green Gumbo (below), a Cajun-style stew, based on a traditional peanut-colored roux, prepared with your choice of winter greens.

I made the gumbo earlier this week and served it with rice. It was rich, earthy, spicy, healthy and an eye-opener—the perfect thing to brighten you up on a cold winter's day.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

The Cleaver Company's
GREEN GUMBO

(Also available in a print-friendly version)

Serves 12

8 T Grapeseed or olive oil
6 T Flour
2 Medium onions, chopped
1/2 bunch Celery, chopped
2 Green bell peppers, chopped
1 T Garlic, minced
1 cup Scallions, chopped (plus 1/2 cup for garnish)
1 tsp Ground white pepper
1 tsp Aleppo pepper
1/4 tsp Cayenne pepper
3 Medium turnips, diced
8 cups Three or more of the following winter greens, chopped: turnip greens, mustard greens, collard greens, spinach, kale, or chard
2 T Fresh thyme leaves
2 quarts   Vegetable broth
1 Bouquet garni (parsley stems, bay leaf & thyme)
To taste Salt, pepper & Tabasco sauce
4 T Chopped Italian parsley

  1. In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and whisk in the flour. Whisk over medium-high heat until the roux is the color of peanut butter.

  2. Add the onion, bell pepper, celery, turnips, scallions, garlic, white pepper, Aleppo and Cayenne. Stir to coat with the roux. Cover and sweat over medium low heat for 5 minutes or until beginning to soften.

  3. Add the greens, stir and cook for about 10 minutes or until wilted. Add the thyme. Stir in the vegetable broth, 2 cups at a time, bringing the mixture to a boil after each addition.

  4. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the bouquet garni and simmer gently for about an hour. Cool and refrigerate. Remove bouquet garni and reheat gently when ready to serve.

  5. Garnish with chopped parsley and scallions.
Family photos
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.

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EASY FIRST STEPS:
1) Start reading labels to see where your produce comes from.
2) Find a farmers' market.
3) Find out what's in season.
4) Look for seasonal recipes.


Gorzynski's farmstand sign
John Gorzynski
Tatsoi spinach
Hakurei turnips
Making gumbo
Gumbo with rice
From farm to meal. My preparations for Green Gumbo (recipe at left) began with a trip to the farmers' market. I bought most of the fixings at Gorzynski's, an old-style stand that sells vegetables with the dirt still on. As the sign says, Mr. Gorzynski farms with only "sun, seed, soil, water!"—i.e., organically, though he hasn't bothered with certification. (He says his standards are stricter than the government's.)

Back home, I made the roux, stirred in the vegetables, simmered them in stock, and served up the gumbo with rice in the center and hot sauce on the side.




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Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. In between issues of This Green Life, she muses aloud on green issues at thisgreenblog.com.