Cooking cheap local meals: green is good

Food.

That was the word with which I started my previous column. It is also the word I chose to begin this installment. Why the redundancy? The explanation is that food — the healthy kind of food that energizes rather than weighs you down — can have a remarkable effect on your mental state. Well, on my mental state at least. The experience post meal is only remotely comparable to the endorphin rush after a multi-hour Ultimate Frisbee practice.

This past Sunday was a rough one for me. In typical college fashion, I had procrastinated on all of my homework due for Monday until Sunday. I went to bed around 4:45 a.m., still buzzing from the cup of coffee I had consumed approximately four hours previously. After my last class on Monday, I was feeling that I desperately needed something to counter my less than healthy order of pizza the previous night. Well aware that I had a column to write this week, I decided to try to cook a meal that could feed four people for only $20 using only local food.

At this point, I feel the need to provide some definitions and asterisks to my mission. First of all, it is worth discussing exactly what constitutes “local food”. There term is not a catch all and there are degrees of local. Food grown in the Tri-State area counts in my opinion. However, what about food products produced in the Tri-State area? For instance, does pasta made in New Jersey, using non-local flour, count as local? For the purposes of my meal, I went with yes. The Swarthmore Co-Op has two categories on its website when you click on the “Buy Local” section – “Local Farms” and “Local Vendors.” All the food I cooked in the meal fit into one of those two categories, but that does not mean that it was all as local as it could have been.

Furthermore, when making the meal, I used some local butter my friend already had, some of his bread, some salt, as well as jams and relishes, my preference being the blackberry, he had made from scratch. I also bought a sharp cheddar cheese at Martindale’s (a grocery store that will be the next subject of this column) to compliment the meal and ate a chocolate and peanut butter cookie at the end. I mention all of these facts so that when I go on to describe the meal and its costs, you will know that not everything we ate is included in the description. Personally, I think that the meal could suffice without these additions, but I provide this information so that you can make your own decisions. Also, the meal cooked was eaten by three people, but I would estimate that we had enough leftovers to serve a fourth if everyone in the group ate lightly. If you eat a lot, perhaps the meal would only feed three, meaning it would cost more.

Okay, enough journalistic caveats. Here is the fabulous five-dollar locavore meal.

It is currently winter meaning there is a limited amount of fresh produce, despite the unseasonably warm temperature of 51 degrees present when I went shopping. Local produce on the shelf of the Co-Op that I saw included a variety of types of mushrooms, apples and different kinds of herbs. Despite these limitations, I was able to cook a meal with all local products (assuming the same loose definition of local that I gave earlier). For my meal, I settled on microgreens, sage, “Sharp 2 Chèvre” goat cheese and two packets of cheese tortellini. The sage came from Mr McGregor’s Greens and Herbs farmed in ARC Greenhouses in Shiloh, NJ and the cheese tortellini was made by Severino Homemade Pasta in Westmont, NJ. The microgreens, a type of food whose name reflects its properties, came from OH Produce!, located in Kempton, PA. The goat cheese, which I think was my favorite isolated ingredient of the pasta, was made by ShellBark Hollow Farm in West Chester, PA.

I sautéed the sage in butter as I boiled the pasta, which only required a few minutes in the pot because it had been precooked. I then combined the pasta with some sage, goat cheese, and microgreens in a bowl. I left the extra sage, microgreens and cheese on the table so people could add it as a garnish to their pasta if they so desired.

Part of the reason I am such an advocate of local food is that I am not much of a cook, a fact you may or may not have deduced from the description of my meal. I have little talent, but talent matters little when all that is required is throwing tasty ingredients together in a bowl. That is the beauty of local food — the ingredients stand on their own.

The total cost for the pasta dish, after factoring in the student discount the Co-Op provides, amounted to slightly under $20. Assuming that this food would be enough to serve four, and that the kitchen in which you are cooking in already has some basics, such as salt and butter, this means that the meal costs five dollars per person. Meal equivalency at Essie’s from Sharples costs $4.60 per meal, and for a guest to go to Sharples it costs $10.00. Oftentimes, eating locally can be more expensive than otherwise. However, there are circumstances where it is just as frugal as ordering a pizza.

Next column: Reading Terminal Market.

Microgreens: OH Produce!, Village of Wannakers, Kempton, PA (for more information see: http://ohproduce.net/)

Sage: “Mr. McGregor’s” ARC Greenhouses, Shiloh, NJ (for more information see: http://arcgreenhouses.com/)

Goat Cheese “Sharp 2 Chèvre”: ShellBark Hollow Farm, West Chester, PA (for more information see: http://www.shellbarkhollow.com/)

Cheese Tortellini: Severino Homemade Pasta, Westmont, NJ (for more information see: http://severinopasta.com/)

Amelia is a first-year. You can reach her at adornb1@swarthmore.edu.

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