Talking to the Experts: Sherri Brooks Vinton

by in Ask the Experts, June 17, 2010

sherri brooks vinton

We’re talking with localvore and real food expert Sherri Brooks Vinton about why she fights for local foods, farmers’ market treasures and her brand-spanking new book about preserving foods at the peak of freshness.

Q. In your books and workshops, you talk a lot about “real food.” What is your definition of real food, and what led to your interest in local food systems?

Real Food is raised the way it should and, for the most part, used to be. That means that crops are grown without a lot of chemical inputs and with great sensitivity to preserving natural resources and animals are raised humanely.  Modern techniques, which rely on chemically-dependent and genetically-modified crops and confine animals to pestilent feedlots, really didn’t come into play until just after World War II when farming became more about speed and efficiency than about quality. Since then, corporations — mainly chemical and pharmaceutical companies — have pretty much taken over, centralizing and consolidating operations and pushing family farmers out of business.

I came face to face with industrialized agriculture in the summer of 2000 when my husband and I were on a cross-country motorcycle trip.  We expected to see the iconic imagery that you see in TV commercials — you know, farmers on tractors tending their fields, red barns, 4-H clubs. Instead we found very few farmers and were shocked to see that many of the small towns that they used to inhabit and support were boarded-up ghost towns.

The disappearance of family-owned and operated farms and thriving small towns isn’t just a sad turn for us culturally, it’s at best a weak and at worst a dangerous model.  It requires food to be grown in monoculture — one crop over a large area of land — that has to be propped up with chemicals to grow. Heavy consolidation means that our food is shipped thousands of miles (most produce spends a minimum of six days traveling from the field to the grocery store shelf), wracking up fuel costs and losing flavor and freshness all the way.  It also leaves us vulnerable to widespread food borne illness, should one of our limited number of suppliers incur accidental or intentional contamination.

As dire as this all sounds, there is good news.  There is an alternative, local food system that is gaining more ground every year. Farmers markets, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs, backyard gardens are popping up everywhere and we are all enjoying a more delicious and sustainable future because of it.

Q. We love the title of your new book, Put ‘em Up!: A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook, from Drying and Freezing to Canning and Pickling. Where did you come up with it?

Well thanks!  I have family from the South and they often describe canning and preserving as “putting food up.” My Granny Toni would put up peaches, tomatoes, cucumber pickles and her own relishes and sauces.  So that’s where the phrase comes from.  But I also like that it’s an action phrase, because being an eater is anything but passive.  Every time you buy food you are making a choice that has deep ramifications for our environment, our community and your tastebuds, too!  As Wendell Berry says, “Eating is an agricultural act.”  Putting up food is another opportunity to support local agriculture with our food choices.

Q. The book discusses all kinds of ways to preserve foods. What preserved foods do you always try to keep in your pantry, and what dishes do you like to create with your preserved goodies?

When the tomatoes are plentiful, I love to put up jars of whole canned tomatoes.  They are useful to have on hand all year round. I also love to create chutneys and jams that have a good amount of savory edge to their sweetness. Plus, when I make these things myself, I know what’s in them so I can avoid ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, which I don’t care to have in my diet. These not-so-sweet condiments add a little blast of summer flavor to low-slow winter dishes.

One of my favorite jams to whip up is Chili Tomato Jam.  It’s sweet enough to be right at home on a toasted bagel with cream cheese, but it’s also terrific with roast meats.

Chili Tomato Jam

2 pounds tomatoes
1/2 pound red chili peppers
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon calcium water (included in
the Pomona box)
1 teaspoon Pomona’s Universal Pectin

1. Peel, core, and chop the tomatoes. Wearing gloves, remove the stems, seeds, and ribs from the chilies, and dice fine. Combine the tomatoes, chilies, 1 cup of the sugar, and the vinegar in a medium saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are tender and the water cooks off, about 20 minutes. Add the calcium water.

2. In a small bowl, stir together the pectin and the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and then stir into the jam. Return to a boil and stir to dissolve the sugar.

3. Remove from the heat and let rest for 5 minutes,stirring occasionally to release air bubbles from the mixture. Scoop off any foam.

Refrigerate: Ladle into bowls or jars. Cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.
Can: Use the boiling-water method. Ladle into clean, hot 4-ounce canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Release trapped air. Wipe the rims clean; center lids on the jars and screw on jar bands. Process for 10 minutes. Turn off heat, remove canner lid, and let jars rest in the water for 5 minutes. Remove jars and set aside for 24 hours. Check seals, then store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.

Q. What projects would you recommend to someone totally new to food preserving?

New preservers will often pick up a jam or jelly as their first foray into the process.  I understand that — jams and jellies are gorgeous, sweet and fun to share.  But they can be tricky, too.  It can take some time to get the hang of reaching the gel stage — the point where your concoction takes on just the right gelled consistency —and even old pros have a miss now and again.  If this is the first time you are going to put something up, I recommend vinegar pickles.  They have great flavor, are versatile—you can pickle most anything—and if you follow the directions, they’re pretty foolproof, too. If you don’t want to go all the way with the process, most of the pickle recipes in “Put ‘em Up!” offer alternatives for simply refrigerating your pickles — a bonus if this is your first time out of the gate.

Q. In our Market Watch series, we feature some of the unique items I come across in my CSA box or at the local markets. What are some of your favorite farmers’ market finds?

There are lots of gorgeous, flavorful foods at farmers’ markets that you can’t find in the grocery store. Garlic scapes, pea shoots, heirloom tomatoes that have been picked ripe and never refrigerated, and hours-old corn-on-the-cob, are some of my favorites. I have also come to love kohlrabi, tatsoi, and celery root —a few vegetables that I may have never known if it weren’t for shopping at the market.

For more from Sherri, visit her Web site.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana’s full bio »

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