Ten iconic foods of summer, and where to find them

favorite summer foodsAah, summer. A time for the beach, pool parties, lazy days…and sheep cheese? While many foods are undeniably the essence of summer–watermelon, peaches, and anything grilled come to mind–there are plenty of edibles not identified as seasonal foods.

Most of my favorite things to eat just happen to peak in summer, so I decided to compile a list of both the obvious and not-so. Even the most dedicated city-dweller can find these foods with minimal effort. Farmers markets abound in major metropolitan areas, as do specialty food shops and local produce-focused grocery stores and food co-ops. Just look for the most local product where things like tomatoes or corn are concerned; they degrade quickly, and summer produce is all about freshness.

1. Cherries
I used to work for an organic peach and cherry farmer at several Bay Area farmers markets. Each year around this time, customers would start getting antsy, wanting to know when the first cherries of the season were coming in.

I understood. I also eagerly await their all-too brief appearance. Sweet cherries have a wide growing range, from the Pacific Northwest and Southwest to the Rockies. But Traverse City, Michigan, gets the title of Cherry Capital of the World. Their famous National Cherry Festival is July 2-9th, but should you miss out, there are U-picks pretty much everywhere cherries are grown. FYI: Most tart (“pie”) cherries are grown in Michigan.

[Photo credit: Flickr user dr_knox]favorite summer foods2. Copper River Salmon
The first shipment of this Alaskan treasure hit the tarmac at Seattle-Tacoma Airport on May 17th. While season and availability depend upon how stable the fishery is during a given year, May 15th to mid-June is when you can usually find this succulent, deeply-flavored species on menus and in the marketplace. If you’re feeling really motivated, take an Alaskan fishing expedition. However you procure it, treat it gently and prepare simply, so you can best enjoy this most fleeting and precious of wild ingredients.

3. Corn
“Knee-high by the Fourth of July.” The first time I heard that old-timey phrase, I was driving with a chef through the verdant farmland of Southern Wisconsin. As with cherries, people get really amped up over the imminent arrival of sweet corn. U-picks and farm stands are a way of life in Cape Cod and other parts of the Northeast (how can you have a clam bake without fresh corn?). And “fresh” is key. Corn starts to lose its delicate, milky sweetness the moment it’s picked; refrigeration converts the natural sugars into starch. Resist purchasing until the day you need it, and don’t shuck it prior (avoid purchasing pre-shucked ears, or those with dry, brown, or slimy tassels). For a real down-home corn hoe-down, check out the Olathe Corn Festival on Colorado’s Western Slope.
favorite summer foods
4. Blue crabs
A few years ago, I went crabbing for the first time in an estuary on the Florida Panhandle’s “Forgotten Coast.” Those blues tasted all the sweeter because I’d caught them myself (Equipment check list: string, bait, and a net. Go to this site to see what state permits are required, and double-check with local authorities). Alas, BP has utterly screwed the marine and estuary life and livelihood of the fishermen on parts of the Gulf Coast (word is the Apalachicola/Forgotten Coast was spared). An alternative are Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. While commercial harvests are in decline due to habitat loss, it’s still considered a “good alternative,” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Just don’t be greedy.

5. Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Spot prawns–actually a species of large shrimp– can be found throughout the North Pacific, but this fishery has a rep for being one of the most sustainable, due to it’s strict regulations, catch-method (traps), and the fact that the small fleet are all small, family-run vessels. Because the cold, deep waters of the nearby Channel Islands are so clean and nutrient-rich , SB spot prawns are revered for their sweet, lobster-like flesh. Supplies are limited, however, due to loss of habitat (if you need to purchase a large quantity, opt for British Columbia spot prawns). While technically available yearround if the fishery is stable, spot prawns are an iconic Santa Barbara summertime treat, especially grilled. You can purchase them from the fishermen at the farmer’s market; at the Santa Barbara Fish Market (live and frozen) or straight off the boat at the adjacent Saturday morning Fish Market at the Harbor (7-11am).
favorite summer foods
6. Wild mushrooms
The Rocky Mountains explode with edible fungi such as morels, chanterelles, and boletes (porcini) come early August, which is monsoon season. If you’re not an experienced forager, be sure to go with someone who is, or see if your local mycological society offers forages. Never eat a mushroom you’ve collected without having it identified by an expert, first. If you live in mushroom country, which also includes the Pacific Northwest, and parts of the South and Midwest, you’ll likely find foraged mushrooms at the farmers market. If you want to really geek-out, don’t miss the Telluride Mushroom Festival, August 18-21st. Seminars, forages, special dinners, and a truly, uh, trippy parade are the highlights.

7. Tomatoes
Sun-ripened. Just picked and still warm–preferably from your own garden or container planter. Or just check local farmers markets, farm stands, specialty food stores, and co-ops for local, sustainably-grown heirlooms or hybrids such as Early Girl. Tomato-lovers understand that there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

8. Watermelon
Few can resist a slice or three of icy-cold watermelon, followed by a long nap on a sweltering summer afternoon. Cordele, Georgia, declares itself the Watermelon Capital of the World (Watermelon Days Festival ion June 3rd!), but Arizona, Florida, and California’s Imperial and Riverside Counties are the other major growing regions. My personal favorites come from Northern California’s pastoral Capay Valley, located between Davis and Sacramento. The Valley’s dry, intense heat produces melons with a syrupy sweetness and perfume balanced by fine-textured flesh. Bonus: most of the farms in the area are small, organic or sustainable family operations; look for Capay or North Valley/Sacramento Delta melons at Bay Area farmers markets.

9. Honey
Most folks don’t realize honey is a seasonal food. But during the chilly, wet winter months, bees hunker down in the hive, feeding on honey. Come mid-to-late spring, they again venture out in search of pollen. Seasonal harvests depend upon location, climate, and food source (pollens) but on average, a beekeeper can expect two to four hauls between late spring and late summer/early fall.
favorite summer foods
If you’ve never tried local, raw (unheated; pasteurizing or heating destroys flavor compounds as well as health benefits), unfiltered honey, you’re in a for a big treat. Honey has proven anti-microbial properties, and studies show consuming local honey helps prevent seasonal allergies (by ingesting it, you’ll build up a tolerance to the allergens). The flavor complexities and textures in local honey are specific to microclimate, and what the bees are eating. Where I live, in Seattle, blackberry honey is treasured. But you can find great local honey anywhere: whenever I’m in New Mexico, for example, I’ll puchase a jar from a roadside stand.

10. Fresh goat and sheep’s milk cheeses
As with honey, our urban-dwelling culture has mostly lost touch with the concept of seasonality, especially as it pertains to certain crops and food products. Cheese is of an entirely seasonal nature, especially at the “artisan” level. A small-scale cheesemaker creates product as the milk supply waxes and wanes throughout the season(s). The flavor and chemical composition of the milk also changes, depending upon how lush the pasture, if the animal’s feed is supplemented by hay or grain, and what plants are indigenous to the region.

While cows produce milk for about 10 months of the year, sheep and goats lactate only during the spring, summer, and sometimes early fall months. That makes cheeses produced from sheep and goat’s milk a seasonal specialty, especially when they’re fresh varieties such as tangy chevre or fromage blanc, or sweet, milky ricotta. I know summer has arrived when the first deliveries of cloud-like sheep’s curd arrive at the cheese shop I work at.

We live in a time when we can get whatever ingredient or food product we want, when we want it (usually at the expense of massive fossil fuel consumption, environmental degradation, and pesticide use that affects the health of both consumer and farmworker). Some things are just worth waiting for.

What’s your favorite seasonal food of summer? We’d like to hear from you!

[Photo credits: corn, Flickr user agrilifetoday; all remaining photos, Laurel Miller]

How to Grow Tomatoes on Your Patio

Top ten simple ways to lower your travel carbon footprint in 2011

carbon footprintIt’s almost a new decade, and the earth ain’t getting any younger, cooler, or less crowded. As travel enthusiasts (even if it’s via an armchair), there are plenty of small changes we can make that cumulatively have a significant positive impact upon the planet. When you consider the amount of fossil fuels required to fly or even take a weekend roadtrip, it makes even more sense to try and offset that footprint by traveling (and living) mindfully. Notice I don’t suggest actually giving up travel: I’m eco-conscious, not delusional.

Fortunately, the eco-travel industry is exploding (be sure to do your research, to make sure companies aren’t just using the term as a buzzword). If you’re a business traveler who doesn’t have a choice on where you go or stay, there are still a number of things you can do to minimize your footprint. And FYI, there’s a growing choice of eco-gear and luggage available for all types of travelers these days.

While it’s simply not realistic to devote every waking moment to living a greener, cleaner life (I confess I love my car, and I certainly can’t afford to buy green or organic products all of the time), doing the best you can does make a difference.

Below, my suggestions for painlessly lowering a travel carbon footprint, no treehugging required.

1. BYO water bottle
It takes over a million of barrels of oil to fulfill our lust for bottled water in the U.S. alone, and those empty bottles have to go somewhere (hint: a landfill). Buying bottled is also just a waste of money, unless there’s a legitimate reason to drink purified water. Get a BPA-free bottle, and carry it to work, on the road, and in the air. You can even go one further and bring your own filter or iodine tablets, so you don’t need to purchase water at all in areas where the supply is untreated.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Brave Heart]

carbon footprint2. Bring a reusable shopping sack/use Ziplocs
These amazingly convenient little guys convert into stuff sacks and are the size of a deck of cards. Many have clips so you can hook them on your belt loop or day pack. Try ChicoBags or Foldable Bags for fun, practical, affordable options.

Ziplocs have dozens of uses, but one of their big bonuses (especially if you buy the heavy-duty freezer ones; if you can find industrial-strength bio-bags, even better) is that you can repeatedly use them to store snacks and leftovers; just wash, turn inside out, and dry. Now you have a place to put those juicy blackberries you found while hiking, or stash that crottin from the farmers market.

3. Use refillable bottles for toiletries
Who doesn’t love saving money? Whole Foods and other stores of that ilk have bulk body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and soap (often biodegradable/paraben-free) so not only can you top off for under a dollar, but get an earth-friendly product, to boot.

4. Conserve electricity
This is as simple as turning off the light, heat, A/C, or ceiling fan when you leave (you’ll survive the slight increase or decrease in temperature upon your return, I promise). If you’re staying somewhere long-term, unplug devices or appliances when not in use, since they continue to draw energy.
carbon footprint
5. Walk, rent or borrow a bike, or take the bus
Think of it as getting some exercise so you can eat more of the local food. It’s also an eye-opening, and often enlightening experience to travel with locals, or explore a place by foot.

6. Pack collapsible flatware and utensils
I realize not everyone travels with a bowl and spoon when they’re not camping, but travel writers don’t earn the big bucks. I usually end up buying a bag of granola and picking up yogurt or individual cartons of soy milk (which don’t require refrigeration if unopened), so I can cut down on food costs when I’m traveling. I even reuse and carry compostable utensils I acquire from dining out, and stash them in my car and backpack. There are all different makes and materials for collapsible dinnerware; REI has a great selection. As long as I don’t turn into my mother and start slipping half-gnawed dinner rolls into my purse, I think my little habit is harmless.

7. Shorten your showers/turn off taps while brushing teeth and shaving
Water shortage is a life-and-death issue in much of the developing world. At home, practicing water conservation is also important, even if you don’t live in a drought-stricken region. But when you’re traveling? It’s not just courteous, but critical.

8. Pick it up!
Your trash, as well as trash you find during hikes or other outings. At the beach (or lake or river), collect discarded bottles, plastic bags, and other flotsam that can kill or injure aquatic life or pollute delicate marine ecosystems (which ultimately affects human health). I always make a point of doing a beach clean-up during my sunset stroll when I’m on a coastal trip. I keep a couple of trash bags stashed in my car and backpack. If you can afford it, get
composcarbon footprinttable bags, which can now be found at just about any decent-size grocery store, but be aware most are pretty flimsy.

This beach clean-up behavior has garnered me baffled looks and even finger-pointing and snickers in Southeast Asia and Latin America, and of course these items aren’t going to get recycled. But if getting them off the ground and out of sight can temporarily tidy up and preserve the natural beauty of a place, I feel like I’ve done something positive for the planet and the local people.

9. Learn what not to purchase
Ivory, sea turtle products, rhinoceros horn, tiger penis, endangered animal pelts or pets, certain species of plants: just say no. The same goes for shady tour operators. Do a bit of research and talk to fellow travelers to get feedback on what trips or companies to avoid.

I’ve been seduced by slick promotional materials and operators in the past. This would explain how I’ve variously ended up at a squalid Burmese refugee camp (not a “Thai Hilltribe village”) full of downtrodden people who most definitely did not want a bunch of gawking backpackers in their faces; ridden some horses that were little more than walking skeletons; floated on a raft made from endangered wood; seen my tripmates buy drugs off of our guide, and literally had to make a run for it after a clueless guide had us set up camp in a flash flood zone. I realize I’m deviating a bit from the eco-theme here, but my point is, be careful.

For more information on what animal and plant products to avoid overseas, click here.

10. Give back
If I’m headed to a developing nation, especially if I’m doing a trek or other outdoor trip with guides, I pack old clothes and shoes, and donate them when it’s over. Sometimes operators will ask clients for donations if they have anything they’d like to part with. This isn’t greedy, tacky, or sketchy; when you consider what the average Quechua porter on the Inca Trail makes in a year, you can see why your gift of a pair of child’s mittens is important. Bonus: Packing light and donating articles reduces the weight of your luggage, which burns less fossil fuels on the drive or flight home.

I do still feel uncomfortable making unsolicited donations, but one of my favorite travel memories is from a culinary tour I took in Morocco a few years ago. On our final morning, a couple of us collected a bag of clothes, shoes, and toiletries to donate to the poverty-stricken community we’d passed each day on the way back to our accommodation. After seeking out an old woman who was clearly the village matriarch, we used sign language to explain our motive. With a huge, toothless grin, she began passing out items to the crowd that had suddenly gathered around her. They thanked us profusely, and we went on our way.

That afternoon, on our way to the airport, I spied an ancient, wizened Berber man scuffing down the dusty road. He was clad in skull cap and jellaba, and a pair of size 11 running shoes that had belonged to a 5’11 woman in our group. He kept pausing to hold up one foot, then the other, staring at them with wonderment. I have very mixed feelings about spreading Western culture when I travel to developing nations, but if those Air Nikes found a second life and enabled an old man to walk more comfortably, then so be it. And you know, he looked pretty damn fly.

[Photo credits: bags, Flickr user foldablebags.com; bike, Flickr user Pörrö; sign, Flickr user Beau B]

The hard truth of green luxury travel

Green” has become yet another upscale offer for hotels and resorts around the world. The concept allows a premium to be charged – and justifiably so, given the increased expenses that come with minimizing environmental impact. Guests get to feel good when they indulge, and the hotel makes a few extra bucks. Everyone wins, right?

Well, it isn’t that simple. Any environmentally friendly measures publicized by a resort may be inherently “green.” A bag made from recycled material, for example, may result in a lower carbon footprint. However, this probably won’t compensate for wasteful behavior elsewhere on the property. Luxury is wasteful by design, and travelers seeking green resorts need to think past the trappings of conscience publicized by the resort.

Think about any hotel room – from mid-range through the absurdly upscale. The toilet paper is replaced when only a third of the roll has been used. Soap used once or twice is swapped for a fresh bar. You can opt to use the same towel two days in a row – likewise sheets – but it isn’t the norm. It’s a choice you get to make. So, who gives a shit if the lettuce is grown locally?

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Well, that’s a tad unfair. Every measure does count. So, a hotel that only buys produce from local growers or fish from sustainable sources is making a difference. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to reconcile these behaviors with what you see when you walk into your guestroom for the first time.

The lights are on.

The air conditioner is running.

The television is turned to the hotel’s proprietary station.

The radio next to the bed is playing slow, carefully selected music.

And so on.

When it comes to the confluence of luxury and green, the priority will always be given to the former. Any measure that detracts from the guest experience will not be adopted – which becomes increasingly true as the standards of the hotel or resort increase. And, this is probably what you want. After all, when you choose a destination based on service, comfort and style, you’re looking for service, comfort and style. You elected not to sleep in a tent in the middle of the desert for a reason!

Since a luxury property won’t cut back on some of the basics, there are a few things you can do to trim your carbon footprint when you check into an upscale establishment. First, use only the lights that you need, open the curtains and turn off the devices that don’t matter to you (e.g., the television tuned to the hotel’s ads). Turn the lights off when you leave the room. Do the basics … the stuff you would do back home.

Since you can’t erase your impact completely, buy your way out of it. You can purchase carbon offsets (from Terapass, for example). These are financial devices that basically compensate for the carbon emissions for which you’re responsible. Let’s say you drive your car 10 miles. You’ve created some emissions, and there’s nothing you can do about that. But, you can buy energy that’s created through sustainable sources (via the offset). That means that green power has been created and sent to the grid … and eventually is consumed. You used fossil fuels but balanced it out by supplying someone else with energy from an eco-friendly source.

Consider making a positive impact. “Voluntourism” is gaining momentum. You don’t have to take a vacation strictly to volunteer somewhere. Instead, set aside part of your trip to make a difference. The Ritz-Carlton’s “Giveback Getaway” program, for example, allows you to set aside as little as a few hours to help an organization near the resort (for me, it was helping on a panther refuge at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Florida).

The eco-friendly lingo may deceive you at some resorts, but you can overcome the marketing hype and take control of your carbon footprint. From the small to the profound, there are steps you can take while traveling to make a difference. If you don’t care – hey, that’s your choice. Just be realistic about the green offering and the impact it has.

Road tripping to be easier this summer with lower gas prices

Fill your tank, cut down a redwood and kick a polar bear in the ‘nads … gas is likely to stay cheap this summer! So, let the environment be damned, load up the Hummer and take the longest road trip of your life.

The Energy Information Administration has great news for motorists: gas is expected to hang around an average of $2.23 a gallon this summer (more if you live in New York or California, I imagine). Peak driving season – late in the summer – could see a rise to more than $2.30, but it’s still a far cry from last summer’s insanity … when the average gallon would set you back $3.81.

What’s behind this embarrassment of fossil fuel riches? A barrel of crude is likely to cost about a third of what it did last summer ($53 versus $147), and U.S. crude oil production is supposed to come back up – by 440,000 barrels a day.

But, it pays to have a backup plan. Howard Gruenspecht, acting administrator of the EIA, concedes that an early broader economic recovery could lead to more pain at the pump, though you’d probably be able to afford it.

An EIA spokesman was on hand to confirm, “We’re not in the crystal ball business.” If they were, they probably wouldn’t be talking about fuel prices anyway.

Jalousie Plantation resort brings solar golf carts to St Lucia

Okay, it’s not exactly a cure for cancer, but any initiative that does cut down on fossil fuel reliance still resonates with me. So, I was pretty excited to see that the Jalousie Plantation has adopted a hybrid solar-powered golf cart to move guests around on its 192-acre property … with no carbon emissions! This is among the first of these environmentally-friendly golf carts in the Caribbean, and the goal is for this quirky little vehicle to replace the oil-dependent carts and minibuses that currently carry passengers around Jalousie.

This measure is reflective of Jalousie parent company Kor Hotel Group’s “Second Nature” program, which consists of several eco-friendly measures across its holdings. Kor’s properties are encouraged to source local produce, arts and other supplies to cut down on food-miles (or other “product-miles”) in an effort to reduce carbon emissions while contributing to economic growth in the community.

“We want to play our part at The Jalousie Plantation in supporting the environmentally-conscious initiatives of Kor and the new hybrid solar-powered golf cart is seen as a first step in helping us to do this,” Jalousie’s General Manager, Rodrigo Caldeira said.

The golf cart has a photovoltaic cell on its roof, which takes St Lucia sunshine and turns it into the electricity that makes the cart move. In the event of rain, the cart can be plugged into an electrical outlet to have its battery charged.

“Eventually all of the vehicles we use at Jalousie will be gasoline-free and this will help us to lessen our emissions of greenhouse gases which are having a tremendous impact on eco-systems around the world and contributing to climatic change and global warming,” Caldeira said. “The new cart also significantly reduces noise pollution and makes a great contribution in our efforts to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and in ensuring our operations are environmentally sustainable.”