Why making good food a priority is a necessity

DOWNEY - April is arguably the best month for organic farmers market produce. March may have boasted the first official day of spring, but the storms that pounded the Southland caused many of us to continue eating the hearty, stick-to-your-ribs fare that's characteristic of winter. With April comes an explosion of delicious produce, including beets, asparagus, leeks, radishes, peas, carrots, and strawberries- just to name a few.As the days get longer and the sun shines brighter, you'll find that there's nothing more satisfying than sharing a seasonal and affordable meal with your family. There are many misconceptions surrounding organic produce and perhaps the biggest is that it's too expensive for a family to even consider. True, price comparisons at your local grocery store may support that argument, but spending just a few minutes at the Downey Farmers Market will lead to some amazing deals. Understandably, it's impossible for many of us to eat all organic all the time, especially when it comes to protein and pantry staples. When on a budget it's crucial to pick and choose your battles and buying farmers market produce is one of the best ways to eat organically. Not only that, but taking your child to a farmers market provides an unprecedented opportunity to give them a real and meaningfully connection to their food. Even as adults it's easy to forget that fruits and vegetables are not supposed to be available year-round. In a world where super market produce is tasteless and shipped from thousands of miles away, giving your child the opportunity to not only meet the person growing their food, but to taste seasonal, just picked, locally grown fruits and vegetables is a true and increasingly rare gift. Another problem surrounding farm fresh food is that many associate it with pretentious foodies who have the time and money to spend the day slaving away in the kitchen. This is perhaps the most damaging misconception of them all. As more and more families opt for convenience foods laced with massive amounts of sodium, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, and "ingredients" a majority of us can't even pronounce or identify, the health of the nation's children is rapidly declining. There's a reason why First Lady Michelle Obama created the Let's Move initiative to combat childhood obesity. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2-19 years are obese. In just one year (2007-2008), obesity increased from 6.5 to 19.6 percent among 6-11 year-olds and from 5 to 18.1 percent among adolescents aged 12-19. Obese children are more likely to have risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes. What's so shocking is that these serious health conditions are completely preventable. Yes, parents are busier than ever. Yes, families are more pressed for time than ever before, but not having the time is no longer a legitimate excuse for feeding children food that is hurting them. It's easy to turn food into a political issue or something that divides, but why not use food as a tool to bring us together, families included? In a perfect world eating organically would be possible for everyone, but when it's not, the next best thing a family can do is take the time to cook together and incorporate more fruits and vegetables - organic or not- into their daily meals. Thankfully, the month of April offers a lot in the way of inspiration. A recent visit the Downey Farmers Market made it incredibly easy to dispel the myth that organic food is too expensive and that cooking at home is too time-consuming. Here are some cheap and incredibly quick seasonal side dishes utilizing two of spring's most coveted vegetables: Radishes Peppery, crunchy, high in Vitamin C and a very good source of dietary fiber, radishes often play the part of a thoughtless garnish thinly sliced into a salad or julienned atop a carne asada taco. It's a shame because radishes actually have a lot to offer, especially when they're in season and different varieties are readily available. Many don't think to cook radishes, but like other root vegetables such as onions and carrots, roasting brings out their natural sweetness and in the case of radishes, it mellows out their peppery bite. Also, there's no waste involved because a radish's leafy top can be eaten raw after a thorough washing. The next time you're in need of a new side dish pick up some radishes at the Downey Farmers Market for just $1.50 a bunch. To cook them, just preheat your oven to 450 degrees and after washing a large bunch of (about 20) radishes, remove their green tops, saving about a fourth of their leaves. Cut the radishes into halves, toss them with a tablespoon of olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste. While the radishes cook for about 20 minutes, roughly chop the green radish tops. Once the radishes are crisp-tender, transfer them to a serving dish, add the leafy greens, and toss to combine. If you like the crispness and spicy flavor of a raw radish, opt for a classic French open-faced sandwich that only requires three ingredients: Unsalted butter, fresh radishes, and bread. A French baguette is traditionally used and large baguettes can be purchased at the Downey Farmer's market for $4. Simply slice two pieces of bread and about four radishes and then generously butter the bread and layer on the radishes for a simple and delicate Parisian-style lunch. Sometimes we forget how delicious simple things can be and this will be a welcomed reminder. Asparagus For many, asparagus is a sign of spring. These beautiful green spears are an excellent source of protein and iron. They can be pencil-thin or very thick; they can be boiled, steamed, or fried, but one of the fastest ways to develop flavor is to roast them. It's important to note that over-cooking vegetables kills many of their nutrients, which is why you should always aim to serve crisp-tender vegetables, meaning they still have a slight snap when you bite into them. At the Downey Farmers Market three large bundles of asparagus can be purchased for $5. For a tasty asparagus side dish, preheat your oven to 400 degrees and line the asparagus up on a baking sheet. Drizzle them lightly with olive oil and season them with salt and pepper. Roast them until they're crisp-tender, about 20 minutes. When you lift one up, it shouldn't bend over. To complete the dish, sprinkle over some freshly grated parmesan cheese, which adds a salty contrast to the asparagus' grassy, earthy flavor. Asparagus is always a healthy side dish at dinner, but it also pairs well with breakfast. A dozen farm-fresh eggs will run you $3 at the Downey Farmers Market and provide a family of four with three-egg omelettes for breakfast. For every three eggs, beat in 1 tablespoon of milk or cream, salt and pepper to taste, and about a tablespoon of freshly minced dill ($1 at the farmers' market). Cook the egg mixture in about a tablespoon of butter and when the whites are nearly set, sprinkle in some cheese of your choosing, fold the omelette over, and transfer it to a plate with a side of roasted asparagus. With a few pantry items of your own, this farm-fresh breakfast will serve your family for about $10. One of the best ways to freshen up any meal is by using fresh herbs. There's something about an herbaceous note in an otherwise heavy dish that lends a real lightness, not to mention a pop of color. Like the dill used in the omelettes, fresh herbs can be purchased from farmers' markets in large bouquets for a third of the price you'll find in local grocery stores. For example, it's incredibly difficult to improve upon the starchy goodness that is a potato, but the next time you're looking to lighten up this otherwise heavy root vegetable, try using small, tender fingerling potatoes that can be purchased at the Downey Farmers Market for $2.50 a pound. Just preheat your oven to 400 degrees and then slice each potato in half length-wise. Spray a large baking sheet with non-stick spray and then place the potatoes on the tray in a single layer. Make sure not to over crowd them because they'll steam instead of roast. Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil over the potatoes and season them with salt and pepper to taste. Let the potatoes roast for about 25 minutes and in the meantime finely mince about three tablespoons of fresh dill. When you remove the potatoes from the oven, sprinkle the dill over the potatoes while they're still on the hot tray. The dill will sizzle and wilt slightly while you toss everything to combine. As you can see, fresh food can be affordable and easy. Even more importantly, cooking with your family and feeding them healthy, homemade food is something that will bring you closer and make you healthier and there's no putting a price on that.

********** Published: April 7, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 51