Find your town’s hidden gems at the food swap

Have I mentioned how much I love swapping?

The idea of bartering items with your neighbors has always been an appealing one to me. I love barter fairs, swap meets, flea markets and potlucks, I even went to a CD burning party back when we used to burn CDs.  This rolls all of the best things about potlucks —  trying someone else’s special dish, learning about new recipes, techniques or ingredients — and all of the best things about bartering — like meeting new people, getting to go home with some of those delicious food items, and the overall satisfaction you get from knowing you got a great deal — into one incredibly rewarding afternoon.

It’s really simple.

Step 1: Decide what to make and make it. Nothing is off-limits. We’ve had breads, jams, sauces, chutneys, salts, dressings, desserts, cookies, empenadas, chile rellenos, several variations of pulled pork and BBQ pork or other meat, homemade beer, ice cream, roasted tomatoes, salsas and more. Many people also bring vegetables from their gardens or fruit from their trees. There are no rules.

Personally, I used some oldies but goodies to swap, my smoky plum BBQ sauce, apple cider jelly and spicy pickled veggies, as well as an extra jar of roasted berry/pepper jam.  It was a lot of work, but I walked away with at least one of everything. Score.

The idea is to walk away with one of everything. It feels so good to come home with all of this!

Step 2: Separate the food  — about 2-3 servings. Say, a jar of jam, a loaf of bread, a tupperware container of meat, a ziplock baggie with a few pastries or cookies — you get the idea. Again, there are no rules.

Step 3: Show up and swap it! I cannot really emphasize enough the extent to which There Really Are No Rules, except that everything is swapped. No money changes hands. Sometimes people have run out of a particular item, in which case they might trade someone an item for an IOU, or negotiate a co-swap with another participant. This is also why we recommend that if you bring something that may be prohibitive, that you also bring an alternative — for example, one swapper makes a simply phenomenal empenada recipe handed down from her father who is Argentinian. The Argentinian style is to stuff the delicious hand-sized pies with ground beef, green olives and hardboiled eggs with a ton of delicious spices, but since some people don’t eat beef or are vegetarians, she also made a second batch of empenadas with pepper jack cheese, jalepenos and roasted corn. Of course, you don’t have to bring a vegetarian alternative, but in the event that you want to swap with a vegetarian, the issue might come up.

These empenadas will knock your socks off.

Which brings me to the next best thing about a food swap: it’s a community event. It’s not a competition for the best item or the most sales, nor is it a money-making endeavor where you want to sell your wares and make sure you don’t get swindled.  Everyone seems to feel the good vibes and so far, I have done four of these events in San Diego and have never seen anyone leave unhappy. I’ve blogged about how great food swaps are before here and here, but honestly, I can’t say enough about how great they are. It’s hard to put into words the spirit of community and the feelings of good food that run rampant at each event. 

The feeling started before the swap even began. A woman contacted me and told me she couldn’t make it to the swap because she was volunteering somewhere else at the time, but had a veritible orchard in her backyard, consisting of wine grapes, fig trees, apple trees and countless other greens, herbs and vegetables. She brought me shopping two bags bursting with fresh fruits before the swap and insisted she didn’t want anything for it, and that she was just frustrated that she didn’t have enough recipes, especially for the figs.

As I was giving away the fruits on her behalf, I asked the swappers that took some fruits to email me the recipes they used. (If you also have a great recipe for figs, please post it as a comment and I will pass it along. She needs more.) Here’s my favorite so far:

Fig/Vanilla Jam

This is courtesty of swapper and baker extraordinare Peggy Spitz (she made an insanely tasty Kona Banana Bread for the August San Diego Food Swap, which I could eat for three meals a day).

  • About 14 figs, cut into into quarters
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • juice of 1/4 of one lemon
  • 1 tsp. vanilla or one vanilla bean

Simmer until the figs are tender, and puree the chunks through a food processor or blender and reheat, or use an immersion blender while cooking. Add a teaspoon of vanilla place them into mason jars (makes about 10 small jars).

Some of the food swap fixings don’t need mason jars or canning time. Swapper Elena Romero made a delicious post-swap pizza pie with her own homemade pizza dough (which she also swapped), my plum BBQ sauce, pulled pork from swapper Sandy D’Onofrio, and a few homegrown chile peppers.

Isn't that lovely?

The bottom line is, you can’t afford to NOT go to the food swap in your town. Check here for a list of the organized towns with food swaps I know of. If you don’t have one, start one like I did. The reward is so worth it!

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Food swaps and the best open-faced sandwich of all time

A fun, informal setting. A party with fellow foodies, lovely people from your own community who want to share their knowledge, their recipes, their food, their lives — with you. You walk away (if you’re like me, you’re skipping and dancing happily), with delicious homemade and homegrown food, and you don’t need to have a dollar in your pocket. How, you ask?  Food swaps.

They’s springing up all over the place. If you don’t have one in your town, start one. It’s an amazing community event. It encourages sharing, cooking, talking and eating. The ingredients are more likely to be healthful and organic. In addition to the one I started in San Diego, if you’re in California, I know of swaps in the East Bay, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica, Ventura County, in Colorado there are swaps in Denver, Pike’s Peak and Manitau Springs, and others in Seattle, Austin, DallasPortland OR, Columbus OHBrooklyn NY, Queens NYAlbany/Saratoga Springs NY, Minneapolis, Royal Oak MI, Ann Arbor MIBoston, Trenton IL, Fort Lauderdale FL, Coventry CT, and even in London.

I first heard about food swaps from Kate Payne’s blog, and I was surprised they didn’t have one in a food-centric town like San Diego, so I organized one myself. The first two events were sparsely attended, but an article in the local newspaper packed the lists for our third get-together, and my score from the July 16 San Diego Food Swap was stellar.

Fresh-baked bread. Homemade ice cream in three flavors. Homemade and authentic empenadas. Salsa, pickled onions, cochinita pibil (spicy pulled pork slow-cooked in banana leaves). Pomodori al forno (fresh tomatoes and basil in olive oil, to be served on crusty bread with a nice goat cheese), habanero pepper jelly, and zucchini chutney. Homegrown and organic zucchini squash, kale, swiss chard and radishes. Homemade lemon bars and coconut macaroons. Caramel corn and lavender cookies. Fresh, soft pretzels. My contribution to the party was granola, spicy pickled carrots, carmelized onion chutney and cherry/orange/vanilla jam.

The delicious possibilities are endless. The first was made right on the spot … some fresh, hot, crusty bread, with some salsa, cochinita pibil, and a couple of pickled onions. Greatest open-faced sandwich of all time. Deal with it.

La Familia Aguilar’s Cochinita Pibil

My dear friend Belinda’s dad made these for a birthday party a couple of years ago, and I have been bugging her ever since to make them again. It is a time-consuming process, but totally worth it!

  • 15 lbs of pork, cut into large chunks ( it is recommended you get bone-in pork and cook the bones with the meat for added flavor)
  • 2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp. oregano
  • 2 habenero chiles
  • 1 packet of banana leaves *
  • 1 tbsp achiotte seasoning *

(*The banana leaves and achiotte seasoning are available at your local hispanic foods market.) Blend together in a food processor the garlic, chiles, juices, vinegar, achiotte, oregano and salt and pepper, and pour over the chunks of pork in a large bowl. Cover and let it marinate for 2-4 hours. Add the bay leaves. Line a large baking pan with banana leaves, laid horizontally and vertically, and add the pork mixture (including the bones), tucking the leaves over the pork (this was described to me as “like you’re tucking a piggy baby into bed,” haha) and bake at 350 degrees for 4-6 hours. Feel free to periodically check for moisture and spiciness; and it may be necessary to add another cup of orange juice (and possibly more spices if you like) at about the third hour of cooking. When it’s ready, you will know because your entire home will smell like mouth-watering pork and the meat will be tender enough to shred with a fork. Remove the bones and serve warm. This freezes beautifully if you have any left over.

Pickled Onions

These are a perfect compliment to the cochinita pibil.

  • 1 whole red onions, sliced into rings
  • 1 cup vinegar (any kind)
  • 1 cup water
  • Pinch of oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Simmer gently in a medium pot until onions are soft. Serve immediately or put into hot jars and seal in a pressure canner.

But there’s more. Ever since I saw the RSVP for the food swap when a participant signed up with “pomodori al forno” and I had to look it up, I was dying to try it. I am normally not a huge fan of fresh tomatoes — I love them cooked, in sauces and whatnot, but I prefer to leave them off of a sandwich or a salad — but these were delicious and juicy and bursting with all of the flavors of fresh herbs and olive oil. Then at the actual swap, a stranger came walking by with fresh (and huge!) zucchini squashes. We were all out on the lawn, under a big shady tree, and we were chatting, laughing, and generally enjoying ourselves when this gentleman was clearly jealous and wanted in on the fun. Score!

I decided to use the zucchini and the pomodori al forno together, with some spicy italian sausage, fresh basil, goat cheese, panko bread crumbs, sauteed with onion, bell pepper and mushroom and then baked at high heat in the oven.

Food Swap Vegetable Casserole

Most, if not all, of these ingredients can be substituted for other ingredients depending on your tastes. This was just my creation based on the fresh vegetables I got at the swap, including the pomodori al forno, which was made by someone else. Essentially pomodori al forno is ripe, sliced tomato cooked in the oven on high heat with good olive oil, fresh basil and various spices. This jar of pomodori al forno was definitely made with love.

  • 1 large zucchini squash, chopped
  • 1 jar of pomodori al forno
  • 2 links of italian sausage
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon nutmeg*
  • 4-6 ounces of your favorite goat cheese or other creamy cheese
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place the sausages in a large pot and add water until the sausages are covered; sprinkle olive oil on top. Cook on high, turning occasionally, until water evaporates and sausage is cooked and slightly browned. Remove sausage from pot, add chopped zucchini, onion, bell pepper and mushroom. Cut the sausage into chunks and add to pot, season everything with salt and pepper. (*Often, homegrown squash and zucchini, particularly the larger ones, can be very bitter. Taste a piece of the squash when it starts to soften and if you find it is too bitter, sprinkle a small amount of sugar and/ or ground nutmeg to balance out the bitterness of the huge gourds.) Remove from heat when vegetables are soft. Mix in the goat cheese and panko crumbs, and transfer to baking dish. Layer the pomodori al forno tomato slices on top (and sprinkle the herb-y olive oil from the jar on top of the casserole). Delicious!