Flash in the Pan 

Slow boat shopping

Locavore fundamentalists might call it blasphemy, but there's no reason why a meal made with local foods can't also contain ingredients from the other side of the world. Homegrown vegetables like broccoli and garlic stir-fried with oyster sauce, locally raised lamb curry with homegrown potatoes, deer steak with salt and pepper, chocolate beet cake.

In the above meals, local staples are combined with what I call "slow boat" ingredients—low-maintenance foods that can be transported slowly, un-refrigerated, without burning much carbon. The fact that curry powder, black peppercorns, powdered chocolate or a can of oyster sauce were shipped from afar doesn't diminish the localness, and awesomeness, of the meal.

Many locavores get hung up on this issue, clinging to the letter of eating local while forgetting about the spirit of it. In spirit, eating local reduces transport-related carbon emissions, supports your local economy and helps you become better tied to a place. As you learn the traditions, landscape and seasonal rhythms of your home ground, you'll see the plum blossoms in spring and think about the chutney you'll make in fall. And the fact that your chutney contains ginger won't diminish its localness. You'll look forward to strawberry harvest in summer and pray for a good rain after you've picked your fill. And it won't rain on your breakfast parade when you eat that jam spread on local bread while drinking a cup of Ethiopian coffee.

If the eggs in that breakfast are from the backyard, and the bacon is from a local farm, and the salsa is homemade, then the meal is local in spirit, despite the coffee in your cup, the black pepper on the eggs, or the fact that the tomato in your salsa originated, centuries ago, from a Central American progenitor.

Countless culinary developments of great import have resulted from imported food. Italian pasta would not have been invented were it not for Chinese noodles. South American peppers and potatoes have gone global. Mayonnaise, of course, came all the way from heaven. There's nothing inherently wrong with shipping exotic ingredients from the other side of the world. How something is transported is usually much more significant than how far.

Shipping something 100 miles by truck can burn more fuel than shipping something 1,000 miles by train, or 100,000 miles by sailboat. Indeed, shipping by sailboat is as close to carbon-neutral as it gets. That's why sailboats are the namesake of the slow boat school of shopping.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Slow boat shopping is based on the fact that when Marco Polo brought back noodles and spices from China, he did so in his carbon-neutral sailboat, which wasn't equipped with a refrigerator. Thus, he was limited to foods that wouldn't spoil.

To determine if a certain food import qualifies as slow boat, I ask myself two simple questions: Could this food have been produced at home? Could it have been shipped slowly, un-refrigerated?

If the food can be produced close to home, then I make every effort to get as much of it as necessary in-season, and preserve it appropriately so I can eat it year round. But if the food is exotic to my area—such as coconut or avocado—I focus on the method of transport rather than mileage when deciding if I should buy it.

Today, beyond a few shipments of boutique wines that cross the pond each year by sailboat, very little food is transported by wind power. And even if more food were blown here on a slow boat, the method of transport isn't usually on the label, so it would be impossible to know it. But if you stick to food imports that aren't refrigerated, then at least you are creating a diet based on foods that could have been shipped by slow boat—or the terrestrial equivalent: the un-refrigerated train car.

The items that are shipped from afar should be used to enhance a local diet, not replace it. Adding coconut milk to a pot of New Mexico red chile, for example, creates a delicious variation on a proud regional dish. Here's how to make it:

Remove the seeds from eight dried New Mexico or Anaheim red chile pods, and soak the pods in hot chicken or veggie stock. Meanwhile, peel one head of garlic.

Add the garlic cloves, a teaspoon of salt, and a tablespoon of dried oregano to a blender, with enough of the stock from the soaking chiles so it blends. Then add the soaked chile pods to the blender, along with enough of the soaking liquid that it blends into what looks like red paint. Steam some potatoes, cut into chunks and then fry the potatoes in oil until crispy on all sides. Add a chopped onion to the pan and sauté until it turns translucent. Then add the chile sauce. Cook on medium heat, tasting frequently, for about 10 minutes—until the flavor of the garlic in the chile mellows. Then add a can of coconut milk, and cook for another 2 minutes. Serve with rice and steamed vegetables—ideally veggies you blanched and froze last summer. You could also add the veggies earlier and let them cook in the curry.

It's a meal that thinks globally, acts locally and tastes great.

Ask Ari: Grassroots garden

Q: Dear Flash,

We want to turn part of our lawn into a vegetable garden. What's the best way to do that?


A: There are several ways of doing this. Assuming you have a nicely manicured lawn with only one type of grass (say, Kentucky Bluegrass), then you can simply cut chunks of sod out, pick them up or roll them up, and replace them with topsoil, amended as necessary with compost, manure and peat moss. The sod that you remove can be composted. I've also heard of people cutting sod blocks and simply flipping them over, grass-side down. Then they cut little holes in the sod and plant directly into it. Supposedly the grass gets smothered and composts in place.

If you have a half-feral lawn, with a diversity of grasses, dandelions and other weeds, the sod won't likely cut and roll easily, because all of those plants will have roots of different depths. In that case, your best option is to cover the area you want to convert to garden with black plastic, making sure to weight down all the edges so the wind doesn't get under it. After six weeks of spring/summertime heat, everything underneath the plastic will be dead, and the soil will turn over like butter. This method also works on the picture perfect lawns with uniform sod. The only downside to this method is that if you don't wait long enough, the grass won't be completely killed and will come back to haunt your garden.

Another angle of attack is to build raised beds directly on your lawn. First, lay down a layer of plastic or a thick layer of newspaper, then build the raised bed frames, fill them with topsoil, and get planting.

If you use any of the above methods other than the raised bed method, you'll probably want to think about edging your new garden so that the grass doesn't spread into it. I like using cedar 1x4 boards, which won't rot and will effectively block the spreading grass.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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