Welcome to Green Boot Camp

Welcome to Green Boot Camp blog, a 52-week program to help you become a greener you in 2008. This is the companion blog to The Lean Green Family (formerly Suddenly Frugal).

Friday, May 23, 2008

Week Nineteen--Shop Locally for Memorial Day Weekend

Now that the unofficial start of summer is here, chances are you're going to be attending or hosting a backyard barbecue or some other kind of food-centric celebration. Since Green Boot Camp is all about making small changes to adopt a greener lifestyle, this weekend I want you to figure out how you can shop locally for your Memorial Day celebration fare. This is your Week 19 task.

I know that my CSA is opening up shop next week (too late for Memorial Day cooking) and that our town's farmers' market is open for the season. Chances are there's a farmers' market or farm stand near to you where you can at least get the fixings for your burgers--you know, lettuce and tomato.

With this notion of shopping locally in mind, here are eight tips on how to make the most of your locavore, local-shopping and farmers' market experiences, courtesy of FruitandVeggieGuru.com, a website with tips and recipes on all kinds of fruits and vegetables, ranging from apples to zucchini.

1. Ask before you buy.
Some farmers' markets have stalls where vendors can offload their overstocked, distressed or supermarket-rejected produce, which they've purchased from local wholesalers who unload it cheaply to sellers for fruit and vegetable stands. While you can get good deals from these sellers, they are not a source for fresh local produce. You want to ask first if this person actually grew the produce he or she is selling, or if that person is just a reseller. When in doubt, stick with the farmers only.

2. Shop early in the day for selection.
When the first-of-season blueberries or peaches or honey crisp apples (yum, my favorite!) arrive, they often disappear from market tables before noon. Even less time-sensitive foods like pickling cucumbers might be gone if you wait until late in the day to pick them up. Remember: just like the early bird and the worm, the early shopper gets the best choice on farm-fresh produce.

3. Let the produce
du jour guide your meal planning.
Since farmers' market selections come from just 100 or 200 miles away, the local climate dictates what you'll find on any given day. That means you'll get leafy greens, herbs and sprouts early in the season, and you'll have to wait for items like corn, berries and tomatoes. Build your menus around produce availability to take full advantage of the season's bounty. That's one of the reasons I love my new CSA: each week they post recipes on the farm's website, and these recipes specifically include the produce that was picked--and we picked up--that week.

4. Buy for value.
At a farm stand, foods like corn, green beans, herbs, squashes, cucumbers and fresh peas may be less expensive than their store-bought cousins. Tomatoes are also a good value. However, many other items may be pricier than your neighborhood grocer because small farmers lack economies of scale, use more expensive heirloom seeds, and care for their crops by hand rather than machine. The reward: you'll get peak-of-season taste that is hard to find at your neighborhood grocer.

5. Understand the history of heirloom produce.
Local farmers typically use heirloom seed stock passed down through generations without human engineering. Often, fruits and vegetables grown from these seed varieties have more flavor than grocery store produce bred from seeds developed for their high yield, ability to withstand long-distance travel, and/or tolerance to drought and frost.

6. Look for organic growers.
You'll usually find a few organic farmers that offer foods that are grown and processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, germ-killing irradiation, and most pesticides and fertilizers. But don't expect to find "certified organic" goods. Many smaller producers are not big enough to justify the expense of getting inspected and certified under the National Organic Program. So when you're at a farmer's stall at the market, question him or her about the farm's use of chemicals and pesticides, and then make your purchasing decision accordingly.

7. Ask when produce was picked.

The sugars in foods like peas and corn turn to starch quickly after picking, so be sure you know when they came out of the fields. Some vendors pick fresh in the morning, while others pick the night before because they have to drive two or three hours to set up for a 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. market. A 12-hour pick-to-market difference is no big deal, but tell the farmer "no deal" if it turns out that produce was picked a few days ago.

8. Befriend the farmers.

Remember, the people you're buying from are most likely the people who grow the food. They can steer you to the best buys of the day, teach you about foods you might not be familiar with (how often do you buy fennel or celeriac?), and perhaps reserve something special for you the following week. Besides, part of the enjoyment of farmers market shopping is that it's personal.

To find a farmers' market nearest you, visit the Local Harvest website, which has a directory of not only farmers' markets but also food co-ops and CSAs.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Week Eighteen--Leftovers and Storage

When I was a kid, my mom had the knack for turning any container into something that could hold leftovers. In my mind it was normal to reuse the plastic tubs that yogurt or margarine came in, or even Chinese food containers, for storing the remnants of that night's dinner. More often than not, one of my parents would bring those leftovers to work the next day for lunch.

Of course, any Pyrex dish in which she'd cooked something--and which had a cover--was fair game for leftovers, too. I don't think my mother ever spent a penny to purchase a Tupperware, yet we always had plenty of places to put our leftovers.

In addition, my mom was a big Velveeta cheese fan, and any drawer organizers we had in the house were those rectangular Velveeta boxes--without the cheese, of course. She also turned jelly jars into glasses, and reused baby jars for storing thumbtacks and other objects.

As I wrote on The Lean Green Family in "Neat and Tidy and Green," it's fine to find receptacles that you already own for storing household items. Heck, even professional organizers do it.

So this week as you think about green ways to store leftovers or to reuse food containers, I'd like you to think about creative storage uses for everything from coffee cans to those Velveeta boxes.

Please note: while my mother liked to reuse plastic tubs for storage, I don't believe that this is safe in the long run--especially if you clean those items in the dishwasher. Sooner or later the plastic is going to start breaking down, and who knows what kinds of chemicals might leech into your food. These plastic tubs were made for single-use only, so err on the side of caution and recycle them.

In the meantime you might want to check out these nifty plastic food storage containers from Recycline that are made out of recycled plastic.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Week Seventeen--Greening Your Cooking

Now that it's gotten warm outside, one of my favorite ways to cook dinner is to use our gas grill. It's so easy to marinate chicken breasts during the day and then throw them on the grill around dinner time for a quick-and-easy dinner. But I've always wondered if grilling was a green cooking option?

According to the Sierra Club, it is. In fact, your best grilling option is a propane-powered outdoor grill. It is supposedly the cleanest-burning grill type out there. Electric grills are a fine green option, too. What's not a great green grilling idea is a grill or barbecue that uses charcoal. Not only is the charcoal a culprit in increasing your carbon footprint, but so is the lighter fluid that you inevitably have to squirt on the coals to get them to become red hot and ripe for cooking.

Let's say that you're not interested in cooking outdoors or it's not an option based on where you live. Then if you want to cook in the most energy-efficient and eco-friendly manner, I would recommend turning to your microwave.

Believe it or not, your microwave uses the least amount of cooking energy in your kitchen. (Plus, vegetables steamed in a microwave lose fewer nutrients than those steamed on the stovetop. Why? This New York Times article says that it's because microwave ovens use less heat and shorter cooking times than stovetops. Interesting.)

Your next best cooking option, as far as energy is concerned, is your Crock-Pot or slow cooker. I don't know about you, but I sort of have a mental block about using the slow cooker in warm weather. I associate it with winter comfort foods, not summer dishes. Nonetheless, if you're looking to cut your energy use, maybe you shouldn't moth-ball your slow cooker once winter is over.

For a rundown on how much energy each kitchen appliance uses, check out this chart on the Mr. Electricity website. You'll see that, overall, cooking doesn't use a ton of energy in the big picture, but if you really want to green how you cook your meals, every little change you can make can help.