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Eating locally grown food this time of year takes creativity

Eating local after harvest is possible Prairie Grass Cafe proves with Heirloom Squash with GoCheese.  |  Richard A.

Eating local after harvest is possible, Prairie Grass Cafe proves with Heirloom Squash with Goat Cheese. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 16, 2012 4:02PM



Each year, Lincoln Park’s Green City Market sponsors its “Locavore Challenge.” Participants try to eat only foods grown within 300 miles. The thing is, though, the two-week challenge takes place in September, when area produce is at its freshest and brightest.

Try it in January.

“Potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips, celery root, sunchokes,” recites chef Carol Wallack of Sola restaurant, 3868 N. Lincoln. “You get a little bit bored because there’s not a lot available,” she says. “It becomes a test of creativity.”

“You get sick and tired of the same earth-toned, ivory-hued vegetables,” says chef Bruce Sherman of North Pond, 2610 N. Cannon Drive.

“It’s much easier than it used to be,” notes chef Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, who points out that Green City Market will open Saturdays nearly all winter, and more nearby farmers are extending the season under glass, so pea shoots, sunflower sprouts, arugula and micro greens stay available, along with Midwest-grown dried fruit, beans, grains, cheese, eggs, meat and fish.

Why eat local?

Why not partake of the bounty of imported foods? “A lot of it tastes like crap,” Wallack says. “Have you ever tasted a tomato out of South America in the winter?”

Flavor is chief of the reasons locavores avoid long-traveled comestibles. “What is in season in your area is what tastes best,” says Stegner. She also likes knowing the growers. “I want to know what’s been done to my food along the way.”

Others cite desires to support the family farmers and sustainable agriculture, to eschew big agribusiness and to reduce consumption of natural resources used by excess “food miles.”

“It just feels like a more honest way to cook,” says chef David Dworshak of Carnivale, 702 W. Fulton Market.

“There’s something intrinsically satisfying about eating seasonally,” says Robert Gardner of Oak Park. Gardner, a founder of thelocalbeet.com, a website for Chicago locavores, has been eating local for six years. His family so loved the food from their nearby farmers market that they wanted similarly good-tasting fare all year-round. “Local food is the means, not the end,” he says.

“We don’t hold to some ultra-strict regime,” says Gardner, who still consumes nonlocal products like olive oil and citrus.

Dana Cox of Pullman, a culinary instructor at Kendall College, went local after a field trip to some factory farms. “I had a really visceral reaction,” she recalls.

It led her to spend a year on “The Honest Meal Project,” in which she avoided most industrially produced foodstuffs and ate “98 percent local,” she says, even to making sure that the Morton’s Salt she used was mined in Ohio. The 42-year-old Cox and new husband Dylan Lipe, executive corporate chef for Sweet Baby Ray’s restaurants in Wood Dale and Elk Grove Village, are embarking on another year of local eating they’ll chronicle at farmtotablecouple.com.

How to eat local

Cox found local squashes, apples, onions, mushrooms and greens were pretty much available all winter. “I got really creative with winter squash. I used squash in place of fruit.”

She relied on farmers markets and two community-supported agriculture subscriptions for farm produce.

“I had some fantastic meals,” she says, such as a cassoulet, “but distinctly American: black beans from Three Sisters Farm, smoked turkey legs from TJ’s Free Range, dried chiles and herbs from Wind Ridge Farm, mirepoix (carrot, onion, celery) from my Genesis Growers CSA box, tomatoes I’d canned from my own tiny city plot, and garlic from Nichols Farm.”

Eating local takes extra time for shopping and cooking, yet Cox says she spent only about an hour daily on sourcing and prepping her meals.

“You have to be willing to cook,” says Stegner.

“Most of the winter foods are not so easy to cook,” Gardner acknowledges, noting that while a summertime salad takes minutes to throw greens together, a wintertime counterpart might require time to roast root vegetables. You also have to be open to eating veggies such as kohlrabi, Cox says.

Dedicated locavores can and freeze fruit and vegetables in season and root-cellar long-keeping items such as apples, squash, cabbage and turnips.

“Lots of pickling and preserving,” says Dworshak, who insists that locally grown produce, even stored, preserved or frozen, has more flavor than off-season, trucked-in goods. “Sometimes when you pickle things, it actually tastes better,” he says.

“Nine times out of 10, it’s still going to taste better than the industrial product someone’s going to buy at the grocery store,” agrees Sherman.

“When you go to Whole Foods or Dominicks in March,” Gardner points out, “you’re buying stored foods anyway.”

Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.



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