If you live in a rural area, you probably get pissed when you see gourmet food blogs posting recipes with pea tendrils, watermelon radishes, exotic citrus, and heirloom arugula.
How in the world can you eat clean when you don’t have access to that stuff?
Maybe the nearest Whole Foods is a 2 hour drive (or a 2 hour flight).
Maybe farmers’ markets aren’t yet a “thing” in your town.
Maybe all you have is a basic big box grocery store.
I get it… ‘cause I faced the same dilemma when I moved to Alaska.
It’s been a while since I shared Alaskan adventures with you all. Many of you new to my site probably aren’t aware that currently I’m outside of the “lower 48.” (Thank you internet Gods for allowing me to have a location-independent business!)
I am up in The Last Frontier and I’m able to eat really good food!
In some ways, I eat better up here than I did in LA (certainly lack of restaurants forcibly eliminates that source of less-than-top-quality food from my diet).
So in today’s post I’ll share some intel about eating well in the far North that you can probably apply to wherever you live.
I really, truly believe it’s a choice to eat well or not. And with a little know-how, research, and ingenuity, you might actually eat better in your teeny tiny town than those fresh-pressed-juice-addicted hipsters in Loz Feliz could ever dream of.
Without further ado, let me present:
How to Eat Clean When You Live in a Rural Area
Hunt, Fish, Gather
Although I specifically avoid the use of this loaded word most of the time, living off the land is about as “paleo” as you can get. I try to get as much of my food from the wild as possible. If you live outside of a city, perhaps you’re already into this.
Hunting is definitely not something I grew up with in LA, but up in Alaska, subsistence living is a way of life and therefore hunting is a mainstay. I’ve not hunted “big game” yet, but friends have shared some meat with us (and I’ve made it well-known among my hunter friends to give me the bones for making stock – deer soup anyone?). Ptarmigan, however, has been on the menu a few times. They’re about the size of a small chicken with very gamey, dark meat that makes a great stew.
Fishing is basically what you do in the summer up here. Many types of salmon return to the rivers to spawn throughout the summer and into the fall (and some are way better eating than others, but that’s for another post. I’ll just say, I will never refer to salmon as simply “wild Alaskan salmon” again. That’s way too broad a description.) There’s also halibut, cod, rockfish, and many, many more fish (I’m certainly no expert in this area).
Perhaps my favorite thing of all is the massive quantity of wild berries that blanket mountain tops and hide in the forest from midsummer to early fall (which I shared about in this post). You can leave me on a mountain top for hours gathering berries (though I have to be careful not to get too lost in “berry-picking world”, as we call it, so I don’t get a surprise visitor [read: 1200 lb bear] saying hello).
I highly suggest checking out some wild edibles books from your local library (and even taking classes on plant ID if you’re new to this) before nibbling on random, potentially poisonous plants. I’m a plant nerd wherever I live and studied wild Alaskan plant books before arriving, so I was well-prepared for what I could eat (this book is my fave).
Buy Local (when possible)
The growing season in Alaska is about as short as it gets. That means we have a farmers’ market maybe from late June through the beginning of September. In my area there are no big farms, just local residents with a garden plot in their backyard who sell whatever they can’t eat at the market (and you’d better arrive early before it sells out). It’s nothing like what the big farmers’ markets in cities or farm country. Luckily, what is available is fantastic quality – way better than whatever has been shipped 4,000 miles from California – because not only is it freshly picked, but most growers amend their soil with compost, seaweed, and fish meal (from the local fish processing plant). I can count on a steady supply of kale and lettuce all summer and the occasional cauliflower, cabbage, zucchini, rutabaga, fennel and carrots (and I really mean occasional).
In addition to good veggies, I sought out a source of pasture-raised meat. I can get some at the local grocery store, but when I read of a family-managed cattle herd – on a remote island, no less – I decided to purchase a cow this year. Of course, we have a deep freeze to accommodate said cow, which arrived nicely packaged into individual 1-3# packages ready to braise in the slow cooker. These cows literally spend their entire lives on this pristine island grazing on lush greens. No need to worry about “grain-finishing” up here because for these folks, shipping grains is an added expense! The cows are even slaughtered on the island, so they don’t have the usual stress of being shipped to a processing plant. This beef is hands down the best beef I have ever had in my life. And since animal foods concentrate nutrients (and toxins) from what they eat, I’m pretty sure this is the most nutrient-dense, toxin-free beef available in the US. (Read: 7 reasons grass-fed beef is worth the money.)
Many rural areas are home to awesome small farms. I’m lucky enough to have connected with some passionate folks who raise chicken, ducks, and geese. They go out of their way to provide spacious coops, comfy nesting spots, and plenty of time to free-range, peck and take dirt baths. They also supplement with only certified organic, GMO-free feed. And the eggs are some of the most delicious I’ve ever eaten. (Read: why pastured eggs are so nutritious.)
In addition to eggs, search for local dairies in your area. It may take time to find these producers, but you might be surprised to find a delicious source of clean, raw dairy right down the road. I’m now part of a “goat share” program where I pay a fee to be partial owner in a herd of goats and in return get a regular supply of goat milk. These happy, spoiled goats are fed GMO-free alfalfa and sprouted organic grains and legumes. Their milk is de-licious, easy on my tummy, and I feel good supporting the farm.
See, you’re already jealous! (Not so fast – be sure to read all the way through this.)
Grow Your Own
If quality produce is hard to come by, grown your own! Growing kale and chard takes virtually no garden skills and survives in almost any climate.
If you have warm summer weather, grow tomatoes or bell peppers (and if the summers are cool, you can grow these indoors like I did).
[Factoid: Those heirloom cherry tomatoes on the cover of Real Food for Gestational Diabetes were grown in my Alaskan living room, believe it or not.]
Zucchini, sugar snap peas, radishes, green beans, beets, and cucumbers are all relatively easy to grow. At the very least, grow some fresh herbs in tiny pots on a window sill.
For fresh greens when you have no green thumb, try my trick for growing beet greens at home. It works surprisingly well! You can have never-ending green onions via a similar method. Simply place the root end in a cup of water and you’ll have fresh green onions all the time!
Buy in Bulk/Join a Co-op
Another option for rural dwellers is to purchase food in bulk and “stock up” for the winter. Many towns have a local co-op or ordering club where you can split the cost of big orders (case of raw apple cider vinegar anyone?).
Azure Standard is a great resource that I use for additive-free coconut milk, grass-fed butter, and other items unavailable to me locally.
Amazon Prime surprisingly ships to parts of Alaska for free, so the yearly fee is well worth it. Search for items like quality cocoa powder, nuts and seeds, organic teas, and other dry goods.
Preserve the Summer Harvest
Before the advent of refrigeration, preserving food was common in all climates. When the harvest season is short, food preservation becomes even more crucial.
Meat and fish can be frozen, smoked, or made into jerky.
Berries can be made into jam and canned or be frozen/dried for later use.
Fresh greens and herbs can be dehydrated for use in recipes, like soup, or turned into pesto and frozen (pesto ice cubes anyone?).
And don’t forget to ferment! Homemade sauerkraut is the perfect use for giant Alaskan cabbages. My recipe for Fermented Carrots with Ginger and Jalapeno make a crunchy side dish to winter meals when grocery store vegetables are just not. worth. eating.
Suck it Up
Listen. I’m the biggest proponent of organic, biodynamic, and locally-grown produce. But sometimes it’s just not possible to eat that way all the time. When you live in an area that has the freshest heirloom produce, please take full advantage.
And if you don’t, make the best of it.
I simply cannot buy most vegetables organic in Alaska. Hell, my priorities are often to find the least bruised, least wilted, and least rotten produce.
It’s simply a fact of life.
Non-organic produce is better than no produce.
And sometimes, frozen produce is the only decent option.
So do I sit around and sulk all day worrying about the pesticide residues on my food or how uninspiring the taste is of my non-organic, non-lacinato kale? (Okay, maybe that’s happened a few times.)
But, at the end of the day we all have to eat.
Do I just give up and make blue box Mac & Cheese? No. I still cook. I buy the non-organic kale when it’s not wilted. I buy frozen spinach when the kale is inedible or when the shipment didn’t make it in that week.
Do the best with what you have available and stop stressing. We don’t all live in utopia. That’s life. There are likely some really awesome local foodstuffs in your area. Appreciate those. (King Crab, how I love you…)
Here in Alaska, I buy more “rugged” produce than usual, making things like onions, carrots, and root vegetables a bigger part of my diet. I buy whatever looks freshest. When local produce is available, I buy more and preserve it. Simply make do with what you’ve got.
The winter produce might suck, but my dinner of “red” salmon, roasted purple cabbage, and berry reduction will beat any 5-star restaurant. It’s all about perspective.
When ingredients aren’t available, simply substitute the next best thing. Make some adjustments and embrace experimenting in the kitchen a bit.
If fresh citrus is not available (or of horrific quality), use vinegar. (Yes, I’ve done this with many of my recipes and they’re still super yummy).
If you have an overabundance of halibut (just me, huh?), use halibut in place of chicken.
If fresh greens are half-rotten, let go of your salad fixation. Forage for local greens or grow your own in the summer. Use frozen greens to make homemade spinach dip or add to lasagne. And if all of that fails, buy an organic greens powder and make green drinks and green soups.
Beg Friends to Send You Trader Joe’s Care Packages
Last, but most certainly not least, guilt your friends and family to send you care packages (preferably filled with Trader Joe’s goodies). There’s simply no comparison to the amazingness that is Trader Joe’s. Sadly, the nearest location is thousands of miles away. So when I’m tired of salmon and cabbage, I get my family to send a box of goodies.
Life is just better with the occasional Dark Chocolate Honey Mint and Roasted Coconut Chips. And if I’m really lucky, they pack some home-grown citrus into the box.
Obviously, I’m still eating pretty damn well despite living hundreds of miles from a big city.
And I’d bet that with a few of the strategies above, you can also eat clean even if you live in a rural area. I’ve made it work wherever I’ve lived and I’m positive you can do the same.
Below, I’d love to hear how you do it!
Whether you live year-round off the beaten road, or just escape into the back country for part of the year, share your tips for eating healthy in the comments below.
What new foods have you embraced?
What old favorites do you miss?
Until next week,
PS – Obsessed with all-things Alaska? Want to here more about what I eat up here? Listen to this podcast interview with Heather from Fresh Eats Radio where we talk about my book, Real Food for Gestational Diabetes, for the first half + all-things Alaska for the second half (published Feb 17, 2015 if you search on iTunes).