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Food grown nearby is good for you, the environment and the local economy

There's a great scene in Barbara Kingsolver's 2007 book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, where the acclaimed novelist attends a dinner party in New York City and is served an exquisite dessert topped with seven perfect-looking raspberries—in the dead of winter.

A dedicated "locavore" (one who eats fresh, seasonal food grown near where it's consumed), Kingsolver wonders to herself about the farming and transportation practices it took for those berries—grown somewhere in the Southern hemisphere and shipped at perfect ripeness without a bruise—to garnish her plate. Her hostess assures her that in New York City, "We can get anything we want, any day of the year."

That's true for most American shoppers, thanks to the multinational corporations that operate our grocery supply chain, with large profit margins. But just because we can doesn't mean we have to. Food produced and then consumed without leaving its home county, or even state, is better for the land and health-smart—and it tastes better and usually costs less.

Kingsolver's family dedicated a year to eating only food produced near their southwestern Virginia home, and chronicled their adventures in the book, which was co-authored by her husband and one of her daughters. Their experiment helped draw attention to the costs of industrial farming, mass-market shipping and other unhealthy and planet-unfriendly practices that form the backbone of our conventional food systems. The solution, Kingsolver and other students of global food issues argue, is to become a locavore—a new term the New Oxford American Dictionary selected as its 2007 word of the year—by eating local food as much as possible.

By "eating local food," we mean consuming on a regular basis ordinary meals consisting of vegetables, dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, grains and even beer and wine that didn't have to travel very far from their soil or stable to get to your table. We can also define locavore by what we don't eat. For North Carolinians, that means no bananas, Alaskan king crab legs or out-of-season tomatoes. We exclude all foods grown far away (not necessarily in foreign countries—we also mean Texas and California), even though they may be "fair trade" and "organic."

This week, the Indy introduces a new column on locavore cooking, with the goal of incorporating into our community conversation an awareness of what's available from local sources, including in farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture (CSAs), where shoppers subscribe to a particular farm's harvest weekly. We'll feature can-do, how-to recipes and knowledge gleaned from Triangle farmers, chefs and home cooks. Using the diverse agricultural bounty available to us here in central North Carolina (within a 150-mile radius of RDU), we'll create main dishes, sides and desserts from local ingredients that are in season, easy to find nearby and generally inexpensive.

We're not preaching perfectionism. For example, trying to cook fresh veggies without olive oil or turn lamb into curry without non-local spices is a setup for disappointment. So, we're proceeding with a reasonably stocked pantry of flavor staples: oils, vinegars, spices, leavenings, etc. Look for Locavore Cooking twice a month, starting this week with Garlicky Sautéed Kale.

Garlicky Sautéed Kale

In-season, local produce is available through the winter at the Durham and Carrboro farmers' markets, as well as the State Farmer's Market in Raleigh. One very cold Saturday recently, I went to the Carrboro market, eager to see what was available. As gardeners familiar with the possibilities of a 12-month harvest in our mild climate know, kale—a cousin to collards and cabbage—is a best friend during cold months when most fresh vegetables are out of season. Planted in August or September after the heat of summer, once established, kale can be harvested young for cut-and-come-again greens, and as it matures for cooking. Kale winters over until it's time to plant a spring crop, making it available three-quarters of the year.

Loaded with beta-carotene, vitamin C and antioxidants, kale can be tossed in salads, or steamed, sautéed or blanched and served as a side dish. At our house, we have even used it as a bed for pasta sauces. Some home cooks I know toss the leaves in salted boiling water for five minutes or so, as you would angel hair or fettuccini. Drain, roll in a cotton towel, and use at room temperature for salad greens.

  • 1 ½ pounds (two market bundles) kale, washed (see note below), shaken dry, and torn from stalks into salad-sized pieces
  • One clove garlic, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Sea salt and pepper to taste
  • Balsamic vinegar for dressing if desired

In a heavy skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high to the point of fragrance. Turn heat down to medium low, add garlic and cook until softened (not crisp). Add kale, sauté 5 minutes, or until tender and color intensifies. Serve warm, passing vinegar at the table. Serves four.

A note about washing greens: In a society that has come to think of salad as clean and ready to eat out of a bag, washing leafy ingredients that come straight from the farm or garden might seem more difficult that it actually is. Rinse individual leaves under running water. Swish them in a bowl of very cold water and allow them to float to the top. Soak for 10 minutes, while grit and dirt sink to the bottom. Lift leaves out without disturbing what's settled and shake or spin dry.

Where to buy

As winter wanes and the growing season gears up, Triangle farmers' markets are beginning to open, including new ones at University Mall in Chapel Hill and North Hills in Raleigh. Our Locavore Cooking column will rely on ingredients found at local markets, delivered by community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs), which are subscriptions to local farms' harvests, as well as farm tours, roadside produce stands and other outlets for central North Carolina's products. Check out our complete and up-to-date list of Triangle farmers' markets.

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