Tag Archives: produce

GUEST POST: My CSA Year, or, How I Learned to Tolerate Cabbage

The dead of winter may cause cravings for the fresh produce bounties of spring and summer.  Community Supported Agriculture farms know this, which is why the time is ripe (get it?!) to consider signing up for a CSA box.

Friend of Amateur Hour and all-around awesome person Lili Daniel details her experience with a CSA in a DINK (dual-income, no kids) household.

You can find more of Lili’s musing at http://ellegolightly.tumblr.com.

As I gear up for 2015 and reflect back on all the ups and downs of 2014, I realize that in the past twelve months, I crossed a massive to-do off my food related bucket list.  I got incredibly adventurous with my diet.  I ate local and supported small business and farms.  And I learned a lot about freezing food, preserving produce, and stretching leftovers into lunches and new meals.

How did I achieve all this?  By necessity – I bought a half-share of a CSA.

Now, all of the readers of this fine blog are inevitably foodies, but in case you live where this is not the cultural phenomenon it’s become in yuppie New Jersey, CSA stands for community supported (or shared) agriculture.  What it means, basically, is that a farm is offering shares like stock options to local people who want to support it.  The people who buy those shares are then called “members” of the CSA, and on a regular basis – usually once a week – the farm prepares a box of produce for each member.  The members of the CSA then go to a pickup place, often the farm, to get the box.

The biggest question mark with a CSA is that not only do you only get things that are in season and presently being grown by the farm, you do not get to choose what’s in your particular box in most cases.  (My CSA did offer an option of going to the farm and “choosing” your produce, but even that only involved a choice of two veggies and the rest of the box that the membership received that week.)  So if you don’t like a certain veggie, and your farm is having a boon of that crop this season, looks like you have to find a way to love it or sell it on the black market.

I’m kidding, unless there IS a black market for vegetables, in which case I’ll sell a kidney to get some heirloom tomatoes right now.

My journey being a CSA member began in April, when I got my tax refund check and frantically emailed a local farm (of which there are many – this is the Garden State, after all) to see if there were still shares available.  Note to all: if you want to join a CSA, believe it or not, the dead of winter is the time to buy a share.  People become loyal to certain farms and space becomes very limited.  Luckily, there were still a handful of slots available, and I bit the bullet and sent them over $399 of my hard-earned tax refund.

This is another big thing to keep in mind with a CSA – it’s not cheap!  Which makes sense, because you get months of produce that are prepaid, but don’t do this if you’re not going to eat all or most of the things you receive.  A full share of my farm was $750, and it was one of the cheaper ones in the area.  That was recommended for a family of 4-5 or two families to split, so I figured the half share, at $399 for the season, was more than enough for me and my veggie-loathing fiance.  When you broke down the price for what they anticipated to provide each week, it came to $15 a box, which was the amount I usually spend on produce in the grocery store anyway.  So I viewed it as an investment.  Especially considering that the farm anticipated its season going from May through October.  All those months of summer veggies PLUS the bounty of squash during the fall??  Sign me up.  Literally.

But the question I’m sure most of you ACTUALLY want to know: how was the produce?

IMG_0750The season started in late May with beautiful strawberries, fresh herbs, and greens.  Greens as far as the eye could see.  Unique greens that I never would have purchased – baby bok choy, lacinato kale, that lovely purple-tipped soft lettuce that comes in salad packs.  I am a fan of salad greens with a lot of taste but not a ton of crunch, so this was a good first week to pull me in and keep me hooked.  Summer continued with more strawberries, including a delightful pick-your-own session at the farm that yielded so many that I chopped and froze at least a quart.  I also got blueberries, tomatoes, carrots, and an absolute plethora of unique greens.  So many delicious fresh salads were consumed.

When the peak of summer hit, in late June or early July, the zucchini started coming – and continued coming.  I love zucchini, but I unfortunately did not find a way to prepare it that my fiance did not hate, so I had a lot of veggie stir-fry lunches at home.  A real lot.  An embarrassing amount.  Also included at this time were green beans, broccoli (although the crop had suffered from the harsh winter, so it was not a lot of broccoli), cauliflower, more salad greens and herbs, radicchio, leeks, radishes, cabbage, and spinach.  Turns out I don’t love radishes, but the fiance actually does, so at least they got eaten.

Late summer brought much more summer squash, along with gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, scallions, massive eggplants, more cabbage, the beginnings of beets and root vegetables, snap beans, and bell peppers that I could eat like an apple.  This was my favorite time of the whole season.  My box every week was overflowing with vibrant, tasty things, and I felt slightly overwhelmed just unpacking it each week.

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That is the box from one week, taking up the vast majority of my counter.  On the side there, partially in frame, is a whole watermelon that was sitting outside the box for every single member.  This happened multiple times during the summer.  An entire watermelon.  The mighty struggle to get to my car with my half share box and a watermelon precariously balanced on top was, probably, the stuff of which YouTube celebrity is made.

As fall settled in, the watermelon and peppers were ushered out in favor of sweet potatoes, shallots, beets, cherry tomatoes, and heartier greens like collards and the return of kale.  I knew it had actually become fall when I got the email that outside my box would be a pumpkin.  Then a spaghetti squash (far and away the best squash!)  Then acorn squash – and I was implored to take two of them.  It was a Squash 101 seminar, in the best of ways.  I was still, inexplicably, receiving cabbage, which I was direly sick of at this point, but I was also receiving bagged spring mix and arugula which were insanely delicious.  I had no idea arugula was a fall harvest but I was incredibly glad for it.  It’s by far my favorite salad green and it was worth the wait.

The season didn’t tail off until the week before Thanksgiving, thanks to the relatively mild fall.  By November, the tomatoes had finally ended (they continued far later into the season than I had anticipated), but sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts had made an appearance, as well as the return of a lot of early season crops like carrots and cauliflower and leeks.  I was legitimately sad picking up my last box, except when I opened it and saw one final head of cabbage.  I wanted to yell, Austin Powers-style at it, “WHY WON’T YOU DIE?”

So what did I learn from my CSA season?  Well, first off, it was definitely worth the monetary investment.  According to my calculation, my $399 investment bought me 26 weeks of CSA boxes, or a solid half of the year.  That breaks down to $15.35 a box, which was absolutely worth it.  It gave me a glowing do-gooder feeling to have spent a chunk of my money on a local farm.  My grocery bill was reduced significantly over the course of the season, mainly because I wouldn’t buy veggies for sides with dinner or for my lunches – I’d use what the box had provided that week.

That brings me to my biggest lesson: I learned SO much about vegetables. I was well-versed in arugula salads and roasted Brussels sprouts and sauteed green beans, but I’d never cooked a collard green or a leek in my life before I got this box.  Now, I still think fondly about the roasted leek soup I made on a whim back in September, and I miss my easy lunches of braised collards with turkey sausage and a fried egg on top.  By necessity, I found a billion ways to make cabbage, including as the cups on lettuce wrap-style fajitas, cut into steaks and grilled (don’t knock it until you try it, it’s surprisingly good), and shredded fine into a thousand different slaws.  And it wasn’t until the end of the year, on what was probably my 670th head of cabbage, that I got sick of it.  That’s impressive.  I learned about garlic scapes, and swiss chard, and so many other vegetables that I don’t even remember them all.  I made so much new delicious food.

I also got the hang of prepping veggies ahead of time, also by necessity.  Beets and root veggies?  Chop ‘em, toss with oil, throw on pan, roast!  Ready for lunches.  Carrots and peppers?  Wash ahead of time, peel carrots, chop and throw into containers for snacks!  I ended up making time on the Saturdays after I got the box (or Sunday, if things were busy) to deal in some way with all the veggies I’d just received.

In the interest of presenting the full spectrum of CSA emotions, however, there were a few drawbacks.  The prepwork for my box took up a lot of time, and I frequently would spend 2-3 hours on a Saturday chopping and roasting and washing (there’s a LOT of washing to do with organic farm produce) and then subsequently washing the knives and salad spinner and cutting boards.  I could have amortized this over the week, but I found that the less work I have to do on a Tuesday night to make my Wednesday lunch, the better.  Along those lines, the half share was still a lot for two people, and we threw out more than I’d care to admit.  Especially in the winter, when a potato can go from “fine” to “dear God get it away from me it’s developing a brain” seemly in ten minutes.  And that was with sharing our unwanted veggies and giving away two of our weekly boxes – and altogether forgetting a late-season box on a Saturday morning, which was maddening.  Fresh organic stuff just goes bad more quickly.  Better for your body, worse for your fridge.

Furthermore, while I liked the variety and the mystery, it was at times annoying that I would just feel like some roasted green beans but instead I had salad greens for the eighth week straight.  Or tomatoes.  I never thought I’d get sick of tomatoes, but after the summer of receiving about three pounds of tomatoes a week, and being the only person in my household that eats them… I needed a breather.  There were definitely times where I said to myself, “I know for a fact that ____ is in season and I really wish I had some of that right now instead of MORE CABBAGE.”  You are at the mercy of your farm, and their luck in growing crops this year, so you take what you get and like it and don’t complain.

Overall, I’m still on the fence about whether or not I’ll become a member of my farm again this year.  I felt great about making an investment in local agriculture and eating fresh Jersey vegetables all year, but I felt guilty and weird about eventually coming to hate swiss chard and throwing out entire bags of vegetables that we just didn’t have time to eat.  It might be better, for my household with two people (one of whom is an incredibly picky eater), to just make a habit of going to the farmer’s market every Saturday and getting a couple of seasonal items instead of getting a cornucopia delivered once a week.

My 2014, though, was definitely enhanced by my CSA.  And until I decide about 2015, you can find me here, wrapped in a blanket scarf at my desk and waiting patiently for collard greens to come back into season.  My sincere thanks to Bonnie for letting me share my story, and for having a fabulous blog that has inspired many a veggie-laden dinner for my CSA bounty!

You can find more of Lili’s musing at http://ellegolightly.tumblr.com.

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Summertime! Roasted Herbes de Provence Tomatoes

Y’all, it’s officially summer and with that comes so many beauteous realities: warm weather, summer vacations, holidays galore, and as much sunlight as you could ever possibly want.  But, probably most importantly, it means summer produce.20140629_185400

For me, my absolute favorite summer jewel at the farmer’s market is the tomato.  Coming at you in all different sizes, varieties and colors, your possibilities are truly endless.

The tomato season varies by region, of course, but here in Washington, DC the tomato season starts in July and stretches until the end of September.  Of course, you can get tomatoes all year round, but I’ve found that once I tasted a tomato that was truly in season, it was hard to go back.  It’s not that they’re bad in autumn, winter or spring, just… bland.  They don’t really add anything to the party.  Smaller varieties like cherry tomatoes still have great flavor in the cooler months and are a great alternative.  (Bonus: explode your brain with this genius way to cut cherry tomatoes all at one time!)20140629_195220

But today I’m talking about big, beefy beauties in all their glory.  The tomatoes featured in this post are not necessarily at peak perfection: you can find bright-red lovelies in the store or at your farmers market just slightly later in the season, but I couldn’t help myself.  Farmers markets are a GREAT place to find tomato variety – grocery stores often feature the smaller kinds and vine-ripened tomatoes, but the markets will have heirlooms, which vary in color and size and shape.  These can be really fun to play with and add unexpected colors to your favorite tomato recipes.

I’m obsessed with summer tomatoes and eat them as often as possible in this delectable season.  And raw is wonderful, but I love them best roasted.  Even the slightest bit of heat will bring out the complexities of a tomato’s flavor.  During the summer, I buy 10-12 tomatoes at the beginning of the week and roast two every single night I’m home.  And gobble them up all by myself – James hates tomatoes.  I don’t understand how that’s possible, but frankly, more tomatoes for me.20140629_194734

As I prepared to write this post, I realized that roasting tomatoes is incredibly easy, but there are a number of tips to keep in mind so that you can enjoy true tomato nirvana.

Head Amateur Tips for Roasting Tomatoes

Use the right tools:

When I cut tomatoes, it requires two knives: the paring and the serrated.  I know, as soon as I did it last night I thought to myself: UGH this will turn people off!  But I hope you don’t let it.  When you think about it, cleaning tomato juice off two knives takes about 60 seconds total. And it is worth it.

Use your paring knife to cut the core out of the tomato.  Just stab in by the core, about 2/3 of the way down, and work in a circular motion around the stem, tilting your knife into the center so that the removed core is a conical shape.  I usually need to remove the knife and then insert again to slice the bottom off the cone so it can be lifted from rest of the tomato.20140629_18545620140629_185410

Then use your serrated knife to cut the rest of the tomato.  The tomato’s skin is unique – it’s just tough enough to be difficult for a chef’s knife unless you have a super-quality, super-sharp chef’s knife.  I do not.  Cut your slices THICK – a regular-sized tomato yields about 4 thick slices.20140629_18550420140629_185536

Season well:

My preferred seasonings, the ones I use every single night, follow:

  • Herbes de provence
  • Coarse sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Roasted garlic olive oil

Herbes de provence is a mix of a hella ton of different dried herbs that are indigenous to the Provence region of France.  The mix is exquisite and will transport you right to the Mediterranean coast, elevating every dish it touches.  The key, I think, is that the blend includes lavender, which lends the most distinct flavor.  It’s perfect mixed into breading for chicken, seasoning on steak, sprinkled on popcorn and, of course, melding with the glory of tomatoes for a heavenly dish.  20140701_175213

The mix is a bit more expensive than other herbs at the grocery store (by $1 or $2) but it’s so versatile, it is absolutely worth it.  I buy mine in bulk at Penzey’s Spices and it lasts me for months.20140701_175001

Herbes de provence loves garlic and will show off its peak flavors when “blossomed” in a little fat.  For instance, when adding to popcorn, heat up your butter or olive oil on the stove and add the herbes de provence for 2-3 minutes.  The flavors will sing!  When adding to the tomatoes, I rub the herbs between my fingers as I sprinkle.  The rubbing can release oils in the dried herbs and makes them more flavorful.

Coarse sea salt – I don’t know why, but I think that coarse sea salt has a different flavor than fine sea salt.  It’s a little brinier, more akin to the sea.  The coarseness also adds a tiny crunch.20140701_174920

Freshly ground pepper: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: pre-ground pepper is great, I’ve used it for years and I still use it occasionally, but the fresh ground pepper opens up the oils in the peppercorn for an entirely different flavor.  I can’t live without it now.20140701_174851

Garlic-flavored olive oil pro tip – don’t get botulism:

For years, I was making my garlic oil at home.  You take a head of garlic, de-skin the cloves and cook them very slowly (starting with cold extra-virgin olive oil on low heat) for about 20-30 minutes or until the cloves are the loveliest golden-brown.  I’d eat the garlic cloves with a little salt and pepper – exquisite.  Then I’d store the oil in a plastic container at room temperature.

I stopped this practice when I didn’t have my own kitchen for a few years (it does make your house smell like garlic, which I love, but apparently not everyone does), and about a year ago I tried it again.  For whatever reason, I decided to store it in the refrigerator.  When I looked at it next, the oil had thick white growths in it, which looked rather threatening.  I looked it up and, lo and behold, the bacteria spores that cause botulism can occur and thrive in garlic oil – the less oxygen, the better for them.  Geez – who knew something as simple and delightful as garlic oil could be that dangerous?  I mean honestly – BOTULISM?  I had been afraid my oil had spoiled, I was never expecting that!

(Apparently the chances of actually harboring botulinum spores in your oil are quite rare, but it freaked me out enough never to try it again.  Here’s a pretty helpful article that shows ways to make oil at home with the proper precautions.)

So, I buy my flavored oils now, if I’m not going to use my homemade garlic oil at once.  I like to buy flavored oils and vinegars in a small store called Olio and asked them why I got the weird growths in my oil – and why it doesn’t happen with their oils.  They said their oils are flavored with a complex centrifuge process, so that no pieces of the garlic are actually in the oil when it’s bottled for you to buy in the store.  You can also buy garlic oil in grocery stores pretty readily, but I’ve found the oils at this specialty store more delicious.  There are lots of these Olive Oil Tasting Stores near urban areas – Alexandria, VA has two!

With tomatoes in mind, you can also use garlic powder or garlic pieces, but garlic burns easily and I don’t like to risk it: garlic-flavored oil for me, all the way.

Slow and steady wins the race:

Roasted tomatoes take a surprisingly long time.  That’s why when it’s tomato season, I start my tomatoes as soon as I come in the door: shoes off, oven on.  Preheat the oven to 400ºF, cut and season your tomatoes and get them in the oven.  The tomatoes take about 45-55 minutes to roast to perfection.20140701_18025920140701_18542620140701_185431

I know – it’s a long time.  But the taste – OH THE TASTE – makes all your waiting worth it.  I recommend trying this recipe when you have a day off and can accomplish other things while the tomatoes roast.

I usually end up eating my tomatoes after I’ve eaten the rest of my dinner and it’s the perfect ending.  You’ll notice that parts of the tomatoes have been become black – the black part is actually caramelization and may be the most delicious part.20140629_195751

I like to roast the tomatoes in a non-stick pan with a very good coating (not covered in aluminum foil) to savor all the juices and each blackened bit, which can often get caught in the ridges of the foil.  The very good coating is for ease of cleaning – just a quick wipe with a soapy sponge is all it takes.

The uglier, the better:

We, as humans, are drawn to beautiful things and tend to shrink away from produce that looks wrinkled or with unfamiliar blemishes.  With tomatoes, however, embrace the ugly.  Vine-ripened tomatoes will not necessarily be beautiful, shiny spheres, but can have strange lumps and hardened beige scales.  Heirloom tomatoes can take on 3 colors in one fruit and be so lumpy they look alien.  Fear not!  The stranger they look, the riper and more flavorful within.

Ugly tomatoes courtesy of cc-calendula.blogspot.com
Ugly tomatoes courtesy of cc-calendula.blogspot.com
SANTA SWEETS UGLY TOMATO
Courtesy of yumsugar.com

 

Piled high on a plate, the tomatoes will release delectable juices as they cool.  Sop these up with a piece of foccacia or sourdough – or lick them right off the plate.  No judgement coming from here.20140629_19515320140629_201815

At the very least, I encourage you to go enjoy tomatoes in any way this glorious season.  It’s almost like discovering these versatile little fruits all over again.  Bon appéit, mes chéris!20140629_195200