Appreciating locally grown produce

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By Jacquelyn Stoess Hack

Attack of the killer tomatoes, cilantro and jalapenos under siege and a handful of other salmonella scares are reminding me to appreciate locally grown produce at its peak.

And to avoid salsa. Yikes.

This time of year, there’s nothing tastier than herbs and vegetables fresh from local soil.

Last week I snacked on cherry tomatoes, red onion and fresh basil tossed with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, black pepper and balsamic vinegar. When I say snacking, I probably looked like a 7-year-old devouring Halloween candy in secret, but that’s the allure of fresh summer vegetables.

I ate so much I had to wash, chop, mince and mix a brand-new batch to serve with dinner. And the almost-ripe yellow bell pepper on a plant behind our home has prompted a debate: do I search for a Mexican recipe featuring yellow peppers (my husband’s idea) or can I just bite into it like an apple?

My love of fresh summer vegetables is nothing new. But as the seasons change, my taste buds and my goal to eat healthily do, too. One stop at a national store selling tires, mass-produced cinnamon rolls and meat from someone else’s hometown seems easier (and more fuel efficient) than making several stops in my community when I’m greeted by frost on my windshield.

And excuses to fill the fridge with the unhealthiest of unhealthy seem to write themselves.

Hmmmm ... butternut squash could be next on the list of produce to watch for salmonella; let’s make buttered alfredo noodles with heavy cream and Parmesan instead.

That’s exactly what happens as the weather turns cold and Americans are forced to rely on imported produce to fill the refrigerator. It’s too bad double chocolate-chip cookie dough, Fritos and rich, creamy pasta dishes are rarely (if ever) threatened by a food-borne illness. Supermarket shelves empty of Little Debbies, double-dipped hot wings and fried macaroni and cheese bites could benefit plenty of us.

When I go to the grocery alone during the cold weather months, I’m guaranteed to exit with a cart full of comfort food.

The weekend Mother Nature dumped a foot of snow on Pewee Valley, I drove 20 mph to three grocery stores as the flakes started to fall. Rather than fighting for Wonder bread and skim milk, I needed bread flour, chunks of dark chocolate, real butter, pounds of penne pasta, sausage, sour cream, mozzarella cheese, honey and a host of other ingredients to prepare the abundance of cookies, casseroles and cakes dancing in my head.

Something about cold weather can turn the healthiest eater into the Pillsbury doughboy – literally.

This year, I’m planning to delay my transition from healthy and fresh to cheesy, comfort foods as long as possible. From now until then, I’ll take the scenic route home on Ky. 146, where fresh fruits and vegetables are sold along the way, and I plan to make more frequent stops at the meat market, too.

Maybe I’ll spend a Saturday afternoon assembling a few vegetable lasagnas for the freezer so I’m prepared when Old Man Winter arrives. The longer I keep fresh foods on my mind, the longer I’ll schedule their appearance on my plate.

E-mail us about this column at jstoess@oldhamera.com.