Up the Ante This Holiday Season: Improvising With Local Foods

Food traditions make the holidays. Hosting a big family gathering has been my pleasure for many years. Whether it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, the event is pretty much a collective effort, with each family member bringing a favorite appetizer, side dish or dessert – or two or three. The host is it for turkey, dressing and potatoes. In addition, my contributions typically include a large citrus salad and cranberry relish. 

I was it for Turkey Day and had every intention of coming up with my old stand-bys, when I realized, too late, that the grocery shopping trip (which I planned to do while fetching our daughters from the airport) was cancelled. They’d rented a car to drive down, leaving me in the foothills of Lanesboro where the conventional grocer in town folded 3 years ago instead of a stone’s throw from a store in the burbs of Minneapolis.

I know that I could have made a special trip but due to my growing loyalty to local foods, it seemed inconvenient and irresponsible. While I’ve been busy learning to garden and raise chickens and bees, the way I think about what’s good to eat has slipped sideways. Driving 20 or 30 miles to buy a grocery item or two, just doesn’t seem right anymore. So I began to imagine how I might make do, using local foods.

LOCAL TURKEY, FREE-RANGE, HARDWOOD-SMOKED – The turkey was no worry. We discovered our source three years ago, when we met a Lanesboro family whose daughter raised turkeys for a 4-H project. The parents so enjoyed the personality of the big birds, they’ve continued to raise them, though the daughter is long since off to college. Our first local turkey was a whopping 38-pounder. After that one, we’ve asked that our birds be cut in half. This year’s flock got a later start, so topped out only in the middle 20-pound range. I bought two and arranged with Lanesboro’s newly opened Smoky River BBQ to have three of the half birds smoked (at just 40-cents a pound for the nothing-artificial smoky flavor, it’s a worthy enhancement to the superior flavor of the naturally raised turkey).  

LOCAL SPUDS, A GOLDEN FIND – I asked my friend Frank Wright, who grows tubers in his large Oz Garden on the edge of town about his potato supply. His spud yield was spoken for, but he was on his way to Rushford, home of the famous Featherstone Farm CSA. Frank returned with a box of gorgeous butter-yellow Yukons that turned out tasty and attractive, cooked and mashed in their golden skins. Thank you, Frank, wooden spoon artist, retired zoo veterinarian and gardener extraordinaire of Lanesboro.

SIGNATURE SALADS, OLD & NEW TRADITIONS – For years, my holiday salad consisted of hand-sectioned grapefruit, oranges and pomegranates on a bed of slivered fresh spinach, dressed with poppy seed & clove vinaigrette. Impressively Christmasy, practically medicinal, and best of all, delicious.

But with no citrus but a lone lemon in the house, I was forced to rethink what salads I most appreciate. The ones I prefer these days, hands-down, are made with sturdy greens grown in a winter greenhouse that my sister, Liz Belina built. Her version of a stored solar hothouse design developed by Chuck Waibel in Milan, MN produces greens that are better than what I can find in any store (except Lanesboro Local Marketplace, where they are sold October to May). Lucky are the locals who get their hands on them, including Peterson-Rushford schools who receive donations of these healthy greens every week! 31 kinds of leafy greens, including a few distinctively spicy ones like arugula and lacey mustards. Fresh, local greens like these outlast any available in grocery stores as well — never half spoiled just when I’m counting on them.

So, my new holiday signature salad begins with these perky greens, scissored to distribute the spicy varieties, topped with my own refrigerator beet pickle slices, blue cheese crumbles and toasted black walnuts, drizzled with the vinaigrette I’ve learned to prefer on just about every salad I make: 2:1 olive oil to balsamic (or in this case homemade wild grape-infused) vinegar, a big tablespoon of limeade concentrate or honey, a pinch of ground cloves, plus fresh milled coarse pepper. The contrast of beets and greens offer just the color, the flare and the unique flavors the holidays call for.

THE CRANBERRIES! OLD RELISH & NEW RELISH – Like the citrus salad, fresh cranberry relish, my other food tradition, was also seasonally appropriate for its anti-viral effects. Typically, I make it with the zest of oranges pulverized into dry cane sugar using the food processor. Then I mix in raw, finely processed cranberries, incorporate a little frozen lemonade concentrate, and a pinch of ground cloves. Stick it in the refrigerator and allow the flavors to merge and colors deepen.

Many a host has forgotten the cranberries in the frig, but mine were still at the store! Without those little ruby gems, I needed to redefine my take on relish. I got to thinking about that new freezer of ours and all the fruits and berries I’ve packed away – that I needed to use in timely fashion: jars of frozen gooseberry sauce with seeds much like those in cranberries, bags of colorful, flavorful local raspberries, and frozen elderberries which could add interest and texture to trump that of any old cranberry dish. But berries need backup, some bulk and body. So out of cold storage came the bag of Harrelson apples gifted by our forester neighbor down the hill. Unpeeled apples and wild berries filled the bill for a healthy, tasty and medicinal relish. Nutrients under an apple’s skin are said to have a breast cancer-resistant effect, a health concern in our family. I cored the apples, the food processor grated them, then a scoop of frozen lemonade prevented browning. I mixed in the berries, got out my trusty zester and infused the relish with essence of organic lemon peel. A pinch of cloves, the sweetness of cane sugar and the prairie flower essence of honey from my bees finished off the effort. It was a conversation piece as well as a tasty, healthy new tradition.

Using up special items already on hand, a great new holiday tradition – Who knew that thinking about locally available ingredients could introduce tasty improvements, while encouraging a cook to be more flexible, creative and practical. It also worked as a reminder that I should whittle away at the stash in my big deep freeze, while the approach of our first annual defrosting day (July 2012) ticks ever closer. Holidays can certainly be the mother of invention. Let us know what you come up with!


Kitty Baker grew up on a mixed ag farm, then in a small town, near Rochester, MN. She and husband Keith raised two daughters, living in Kansas City and Minneapolis. A professional writer, Kitty enjoys topics of lifestyle and food, especially since 1999, when they bought a farm, Root River Wilds, just north of Lanesboro, MN. The farm’s spectacularly varied acreage -- bluffs and woods, pastures and restored prairies cut with trails and wrapped in the oxbow of the North Branch of the Root River -- is rich with opportunities to discover and share ways to live abundantly. Her last article for SGT was, In search of a fool proof deep freeze.