Monday, June 04, 2007

Rethinking the Virtuous Shopping Cart

I’m having to undergo a complete brain flip to switch my ways of thinking about food. I’ve long been obsessed with having a Virtuous Shopping Cart, which for many years centered around shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. I would focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and dairy products, doing my best to completely avoid the middle aisles of the store, where all the over-processed foods lurk. Doing without canned soups, or boxed macaroni & cheese, or even cookies isn't that hard to do.

When we decided to start having children, I made the choice to step it up a little by buying organically as often as possible. This was a slight change over my previous shopping habits, but didn’t require all that much thought. If an item, such as milk, was available in conventional and organic, I would pick the organic and try not to obsess too much over the difference in cost (because of course, my background in finance had to go through its own little brain flip in order for me to justify paying more for these items). If conventional tomatoes were on the only ones on the shelf, I would still buy them. It was only when the choice was there, did I actually make the effort. I wouldn't give up an ingredient solely because it wasn't available organically.

Now, however, my new focus on buying locally-grown or produced food items is requiring a sea change in my ways of thinking. For so long, it didn’t occur to me to think twice about buying bell peppers in January, or apples in March, or spinach in October. Health was my only consideration, and so I mindlessly consumed any and all produce at any old time of the year. The environmental impact of my purchasing habits was the furthest thing from my mind. As a matter of fact, with the rampant growth of foodie culture and the obsession with international cuisine over the past 10 years or so, I can recall countless times when I would be proud that my shopping cart included Italian olive oil and vinegar, Greek olives, Jamaican coffee, Central American mangoes, and French cheeses. Though it appeared to make me a cosmopolitan consumer, somehow I was blind to the irony that I was driving one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles available (I had a Honda CRX at the time), yet I was contributing quite detrimentally to an oil-dependent economy in my grocery shopping habits.

So here I am now, after recently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (my vote for book of the year), and currently reading the less-accessible Coming Home to Eat by Gary Paul Nabhan, trying to set some new boundaries for myself without becoming an utter freak. I’ve always tried to refrain from being too strict on myself because martyrdom truly isn’t my strong suit. After all, when I first made the decision to avoid processed, packaged foods, I didn’t give up pasta. I mean, sure, I could have insisted that I make my own pasta by hand, but more likely than not, I would have starved to death. There were (and still are) only so many hours in the day, and spending six to seven hours on making dinner seemed a little excessive when balanced against my then work schedule, school schedule, and need for sleep.

And certainly I would have starved to death when I decided to eat organically four or five years ago. Only so many items were even available organically around here for a while, and I probably could not have lived on that handful of ingredients alone. Of course, I could have moved further south, joined a commune and given up all earthly pleasures in order to grow all my own foodstuffs, but I’m sure that would have been rife with its own set of problems.
For obvious and absurd reasons then, I will not subscribe too rigidly to a local foods-only diet at this point. After all, I would miss so many things (coffee, olive oil, tuna, flour, etc) and would end up shriveled and cranky, with a pounding headache, in my badly-managed martyrdom. But I am coming up with some rules that I will attempt (not force myself, mind you, but attempt) to adhere to.

Most important of these new, yet still-evolving rules, is that I will try to feed myself, where possible, within some newly-drawn political lines. I’m aiming East of the Mississippi and South of the Mason-Dixon line (you can surely see why I often amuse my mother and sometimes confound my husband). So, since I know good and darn well that strawberries grow within those boundaries, then I will refrain from buying packages marked California-grown. And since I’m also aiming to eat seasonally, when strawberries are available in Georgia in May and early-June, I will eat them to the point of gluttony. After all, I will miss them in August.

My CSA membership has made much of this possible for me right now, along with Saturday morning visits to the local farmer’s market, so that this whole exercise doesn’t yet seem futile. This summer will be mostly easy, even fun, but I’m a little wary of the coming fall and winter, especially with a newborn around the house to throw things completely out of whack. So I keep reminding myself: the point here is be mindful, to eat locally and seasonally as much as possible, but not to kill myself doing it to the point where all the challenge and the fun has been leached out.

And, in the interest of full disclosure, I have already fallen hard from my newly-established and still-precarious pedestal. Cherries are in season in California right now. After piously walking by the beautiful bags of plump, bright red cherries for a solid four days, I completely caved in last week (twice) and have now gone through around five pounds of these luscious fruits over the past week. And I might cave again. Cherry season is so painfully short. So sweet, so juicy, yet so very short.

The three-week Spring Greens session of the CSA is now over, though I still found some vibrant and tender bunches of kale and chard in my first share box of the summer session. Even though I was thrilled to death by the appearance of broccoli and zucchini in last week’s box as well as the aforementioned chard & kale, I focused most of my recipe-sleuthing efforts on the end of the greens harvest so that I wouldn’t miss out on one of my last opportunities to cook with these wonderful greens this year (unless the farm continues to plant and harvest them all summer).

So far, I’ve been stingy with the chard, and have mostly used it in sautees, with crushed red pepper flakes, olive oil and garlic, but I was ready to do something different this week, and I lucked into a recipe for Swiss chard calzones (never would have thought of it myself, even though I've made spinach calzones for years) in Vegetarian Planet. Calzones are easy to make, either with homemade pizza dough, or even with (shudder to think) the convenient little refrigerated packages of pizza dough from the grocery store. I prefer to grill mine, but they can be baked in the oven with similar, though somewhat slightly soggier, results.

This particular recipe called for tomatoes, which would have been delicious, but I substituted some mushrooms and bell peppers that were already waiting patiently in my crisper drawer. The ricotta was fabulous – I usually use mozzarella or feta in my calzones and this was a welcome change.


SWISS CHARD AND RICOTTA CALZONES (serves 2 as an entree, or 4 as a side dish; adapted from Vegetarian Planet)
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 2 cups sliced red onions
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups chopped vegetables (such as tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms)
  • 1 bunch Swiss chard, leaves chopped, stems diced
  • 3/4 cup Ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • fresh-ground black pepper
  • crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 batch pizza dough (or, in times of utter desperation, when you don't have two hours to make dough, one refrigerated package of pre-made pizza dough)
  • 1-2 more Tbs olive oil, if grilling
  • 2 Tbs cornmeal, if baking
  1. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and the other vegetables, and cook for 5 minutes more, stirring frequently. Add the chard and cook for another 5 minutes or so (until tender, but not mushy), stirring often. Drain remaining liquid.
  2. Add ricotta cheese, and season well with salt and pepper and red pepper flakes.
  3. Roll dough out flat, and cut into either 2 large equal-sized pieces, or 4 smaller equal pieces.
  4. Divide mixture between portions of dough, but only cover half of each piece. Fold empty side of dough over to make a pocket around the filling and crimp the edges with a fork to seal.
  5. If grilling, brush both sides of the calzones with olive oil, and cook on grill or grill pan over medium heat for about 3-5 minutes per side. If baking, skip the oil and sprinkle a baking sheet with the cornmeal. Top with the calzones and bake at 450 degrees for about 15 minutes.
  6. Serve hot with marinara sauce for dipping, if desired.


Fostermama said...

I'm also trying to eat more local foods this season and while reading "The Real Food Revival" it mentioned produce availability charts. While researching where to find one for my state I found this guide online:
It's been a nice resource for me to start planning meals and u-pick field trips.

Holly said...

hey. absolutely love your blog!. quick question though. my boyfriend and i are fairly new to the athens area. where is the farmer's market? you said it was on saturdays, but i have no idea where it is or what hours it's open. please let me know.


Sarah Beam said...

Hi Holly, I go to the Oconee Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. They are in downtown Watkinsville on Main Street (across from the courthouse) from 7:30am until about noon. There are a few others a little farther from here, but still in the area. Go to and you can do a search by zip code (pretty cool). The Oconee Farmers Market sends out an email on Fridays to let you know what will be available on Saturdays, which is really helpful. To get on their mailing list, go to

Just in case we're there at the same time, I'll be the pregnant one with the three-year-old little boy shouting that he wants strawberries.

Anonymous said...

yummy sounding recepies. We just signed up for something similar in our neighborhood, but I am really not a cook... hope this will help expand my horizons! One of the things that we will get next week is collard greens. are these similar to swiss chard? would you recommend trying the calzone recepie with them? or the bitter greens with vidalia onions and feta cheese you posted before? Thanks! Tal

Sarah Beam said...

Hi Tal, collards are real easy to work with. They have a little more of a strong taste than Swiss chard, but are much easier to handle than bitter kale. The calzone recipe would work well, and the vidalia & feta recipe would work even better for sure. Also, I have a great Mediterranean Collard Greens recipe that you might like at the following address from an older blog entry here (cut & paste - this is a long one):

Anonymous said...

Sarah, thanks so much, I am looking forward to trying it next week! (my own carnivore claims to like no dark greens except for spinach, but I am going to try and prove him wrong...) And thanks for taking the time to post helpful responses, much appreciated. Tal

Me said...


I just wanted to let you know that I made your calzones this week and they were wonderful. I liked them so much, I blogged about them and thought I'd share the link.

Thanks, again! I love reading your stuff.