Why CSA?

Eight years ago, if you’d started talking to me about “your CSA,” I wouldn’t have had a clue what you were talking about. Regardless of growing up out in farm country (such a thing does exist in New Jersey, I swear!), or perhaps because I grew up in farm country, I’d never been exposed to this concept. Farm stands, yes. Farmers markets, yes. But a CSA? No.

This all changed in my adult life, out here in the suburbs of New York City. I was spending a lot of time with some good friends – actually, the household of my meditation teacher – who had signed up for a local farm share. I was often eating meals at this house, and I really appreciated the large variety of really high-quality produce. I’ve always been a vegetable fan; I was vegetarian for a decade, not driven by morals, but by personal taste. That year of hanging around Heather’s kitchen introduced me to new ways of preparing the bounty, like making homemade kale chips. (They seem ubiquitous now, but they were novel at the time!) It also introduced me to new and strange offerings, like ground cherries.

By the end of the season, I was sold. I needed to jump on this bandwagon, and I signed up for the CSA that her household used: the Bloomfield-Montclair CSA. There are several different styles of CSAs, I know that now, but I dove headfirst into the way this one was (and is) run. We sign up in late winter – late February or early March (though often you can grab a spot even this late. Hint, hint – if you’re in the area and considering it, check to see if there are still openings).  We pay for the entire season up front, and from June through November, we bring grocery bags to a pickup site and take our share of vegetables from bins that are set out. A fruit share can likewise be purchased, as well as eggs and poultry. It’s always a glorious feeling to gather up the abundance all summer with no further cost and to watch my regular grocery bills bottom out.

Now, years later, I’ve discovered that there are variations on this theme. Some CSA models do a pre-packed box of vegetables. Many of these offer different “sizes” of shares. A friend of mine participated in a farm share in South Orange that works this way. Coeur et Sol – the source for my second CSA share – is similar. Some offer delivery. Some offer more customization. So, like many things, if you know where to look, you can find farm shares that fit your needs and lifestyle.

Below are links to some of the options around here. It’s by no means exhaustive. I’m partial to both Bloomfield-Montclair and Coeur et Sol, but if you’re interested in signing up, I encourage you to explore your options.

Bloomfield-Montclair CSA

Coeur et Sol

Montclair Food Co-Op and CSA

Boxed Organics

There are many, many upsides to joining a CSA. I’ve already mentioned the financial aspect. (Really, the value ends up being incredible. Organic vegetables that are higher quality than those in the grocery store for less than I’d be paying  there.) The second consideration is the direct impact that a CSA has on the individual farmer. There’s no middle man; with your share price, you’re directly supporting a person’s livelihood. The farmer for Bloomfield-Montclair actually is located very near to my childhood home, which makes me doubly sentimental about keeping it local. Thirdly, we can get the high quality produce that I was used to out in the country, despite living in dense suburbs. Fourth, I’ve made incredible friendships with like-minded people through our interactions at pickup. In fact, I wrote a guest blog post about this for Coeur et Sol last year. Additionally, my horizons have been expanded thanks to creative farmers; I’ve learned about all sorts of produce I never knew existed. This novelty directly led to the existence of this blog, as I explore all of the ways to use this variety and abundance of produce.

One last pitch for keeping it local before I wrap this up. If you’re not in the market for a CSA share, try to patronize a local farmers market. Some local, regularly occurring ones are:

Montclair – Walnut St. train station on Saturday mornings

West Orange – Starting May 18th – 80 Main St. on Saturday mornings

Crane Park (Montclair) – Corner of Glendridge Ave and Greenwood Ave, across from the Geyer Y – Sunday mornings

Please feel free to comment with any others that I’ve missed!

Testing, 1-2-3…

… it’s spring, I’m counting the days until CSA season, and it’s TIME TO GET THIS PARTY (re)STARTED.

I have big ideas, big motivation, and a bigger and better kitchen. Plus, hey, no morning sickness this year.

Leading up to the start of the season, you can expect some cookbook reviews, recipe previews, some chatting about my life in the past 6 months or so that I’ve been on hiatus, and some more chatting about my ongoing organizational process.

Good to be back, and I hope you’ll be  along for the ride!

Butternut-Pear Salad

I’m not one for making salads from cookbooks. I know the basics of which flavors match, and I know how to make my own dressings. I don’t often bother to follow someone else’s directions. However, last night, I made a salad from a new cookbook I picked up this week: Fresh From the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories. (PS, the link says one price… go into the store if you want this book and can. The hardcover is on the bargain rack for $8 right now. They must have released a paperback version.)

The salad jumped out at me, because it had roasted butternut squash and pears – both of which I had in abundance – and a lime-ginger vinaigrette, which sounded (and was) delicious. It turns out that the cookbook author has a blog, and the recipe I tried is mentioned in this post, though the recipe in that post is for a different salad. (Of course she wants you to get the book… and this is why I try to respect cooks & authors by not reposting their recipes if they have not made them readily available on the internet, themselves.)

One massive pear
Ready to roast
The finished product

It was a good use for many ingredients that I already had lying around. When Susie suggested using frissee in the salad mix, it shook me out of my habits. We got frissee this week, and typically, my response is to make white bean & escarole soup and shove it in the freezer. Hooray for expanding my range! This only took half of the buttnernut squash that I purchased at the farmers market last Saturday (in a burst of motivation that then fizzled), so I roasted the other half in the skin so I’d have some squash puree. I’ll likely turn that into squash & apple soup later. Pears turn really quickly, and this was the first week we got really whomped with pears in our fruit share, so I was glad to have an excuse to get at least some of them consumed immediately.

Be prepared, this salad makes a huge amount of food. We had two containers of leftovers after this meal (which included salmon and rice), though the fact that Little Chef is resolutely against salad at the moment doesn’t help that situation.

A brief note on the sparse summer

I began this season with high hopes of cooking adventurously and posting often. I’ve, instead, managed to cook passably and post sporadically. I’ve mentioned my mother’s illness in passing, but there have been a couple of factors at play, and I just want to give a quick nod to why things have been sparse around here. (Hopefully it will also be reassuring for future improvement!)

I don’t want to dwell on talking about my mother’s illness, partly because it’s very personal and partly because I don’t know that any of us need more sad or distressing news, with the state of things right now. In short, my mother was hospitalized at the beginning of July. Two weeks in the hospital and three in sub-acute rehab later, I found myself needing to place her in assisted living. This was not a decision that was easy, nor was it taken lightly. She’s 59.  But, in short, it was the best decision for her. “Settling in” has taken this long, and is not even really complete. At 34 years old, I’ve found myself steering this ship, practically and legally. To say it’s been “a lot” is staggeringly understated.

Summer 2018 has proven to be a summer of both drastic highs and lows, however, as there has been happy news on the home front. We’re adding a Littler Chef (name subject to change) in February!

Our announcement photo

This is happy, welcome news. We actually knew for several weeks before my mom got ill, so timing has all been very strange. Why has this affected my blog? My first trimester – which, this time, included morning sickness and pretty severe exhaustion – lined up perfectly with the height of summer. It’s really, really hard to be enthusiastic about food when all of it makes you turn a little green.

Thankfully, we’re past that! I’m about halfway through this pregnancy, and food has regained its appeal. I’d forgotten what a sweet spot the second trimester is, and I’ve been enjoying it. Hopefully, this will mean an uptick in posts as we coast into the true fall part of the season. Look out, squash and root vegetables, I’m coming for you!

In a blessing/curse scenario, many of you probably know that our area has had a soggy, gross summer. So, this summer’s shares would not have been representative of typical years, anyway. Many crops – including some of my favorites, like tomatoes and beans – have really suffered from the soggy weather. I’m hopeful (as is my farmer) that the season will finish out fairly strongly, and then we can all pray for better weather next year.

This is CSA life. Real life, all tangled up with what we eat.

Peach Season in Review

So, peach season came and went without me getting myself together enough to post the delicious things happening in my kitchen. So, let’s do a quick recap now before the onslaught of apple & squash season, ok?

Of course, my first stop on the peach train was this Peach-Bourbon Barbecue Sauce that I thought I mentioned last year… upon looking for a link, it seems I never finished & published that post, oops! This time, whoops, I realized partway through that I was out of bourbon. (These days, I really only use it to cook – not much hard drinking going on with small children in the house.) There was, however, the remainder of a bottle of rum hiding in my cabinet, and I took a chance. Sure enough, it was sweet & smoky enough to do the job. I’d recommend it as a substitute in a pinch.

I’ve mentioned before that my family has a tradition of “pickins” (known to the rest of the world as “apps” or “tapas”) while watching a movie, usually on Friday nights. One week, it featured Thug Kitchen‘s Grilled Peach Salsa. Yummmmm. It was worth the rush to grill the peaches before the rain resumed; I won’t even begin my rant about this summer basically being monsoon season.

Grilled peaches, yum!
The finished product

I took a chance on a new recipe with some of the peaches. I’ve yet to actually cook it up, but I’ll let you all know how it is when we finally do enjoy it. I found this recipe for  make-ahead Slow Cooker Asian Peach Chicken Thighs, and I set up a couple of future dinners.

“Nature’s candy in my hand or can…. or pie…”
Dinner assembly
Blurry, but ready to freeze
Reminders to myself that the remaining steps are saved on my computer. God help anyone else who tries to decipher this gibberish.

Little Chef insisted that we make a Peach Cake. He did this on the same day I was making barbecue sauce, so his perception of what ingredients we needed was a little… off.

Peaches, eggs, butter, brown sugar… lemon juice? Orange juice? Ketchup?? Lime juice???

Never fear, we found a credible recipe. We used this one, and I substituted brown sugar, since Little Chef was insistent that that was what he wanted. It turned out delicious.

The finished cake, sans barbecue ingredients

Feeling Saucy

Here I am, produce aficionado, CSA blogger, and all-around foodie, and until last night, I could say that I’d never used my crop of fresh tomatoes to make traditional marinara sauce.

Honestly, I’d attempted once, and I got frustrated when the peeling & seeding process was not as easy as I was promised. I don’t know what I did differently then; the instructions were the same: slice an “X” into one end of the tomato, submerge in boiling water for ten seconds, then drop into an ice bath. the skin starts to peel away from the “X” and is easy to slough off.

Between my two shares, I had a ton of tomatoes this week – more than even this tomato fiend could handle. So, I got brave and made my own sauce. I used this recipe as a basic guide. The sauce came out looking lighter simply because there were yellow tomatoes in the batch that I used; it’s funny to me that it came out looking like vodka sauce, yet not tasting that way.

I packaged the sauce last night and left it in my refrigerator, with plans to amend it this morning. As a stand-alone sauce, it’s wonderful! I just like variety.

I kept one pint of sauce plain.

Into one quart of sauce, I added the beautiful chard I got in my Coeur et Sol share this week. I sauteed the chard just enough to make it start to wilt, then I mixed it in to the sauce. (I reserved the stems for later. They could go into my stock bag, but I will likely throw them in my food processor when I make carrot green pesto later.)

For the remaining quart, I sauteed cremini mushrooms until they were browned and tender, then mixed them into the sauce.

All three containers are now in my freezer, awaiting their chance to be part of some satisfying autumn or winter dinners.

Dinner successes

Two nights in a row, Little Chef has informed me that I’ve cooked “the best dinner ever.” High praise from a preschooler!

Last night was nothing groundbreaking in terms of creativity, but I do have to agree that it was delicious. I sauteed chicken apple sausage with a bunch of leftover vegetables – a summer squash, a few tomatoes, garlic, spinach – and served it mixed up with bow tie pasta. The end result had a sweet-and-smoky thing going on, unsurprising because of both the apples in the sausage and the small sprinkle of maple sugar I added in during cooking. Adding sugar to this concoction seems so counter-intuitive, but I was thinking in terms of cutting the acidity of the tomatoes, the way you would when making marinara sauce.

Tonight, we had homemade vegan Sloppy Joes, with corn on the cob (from Farmer John) and cherry tomatoes (from Chelsa).

For the sandwiches, I sauteed onions in some grapeseed oil, cumin, and chili powder. I then added garlic and bell pepper. When they started to soften, I added a package of chorizo seitan. Meanwhile, I made the sauce.

Growing up, I definitely remember Mom making Sloppy Joes with pre-packaged sauce. It’s ridiculously easy to make your own sauce, though, and it honestly tastes better. I used 3/4 cup ketchup, to which I added a healthy glug of Worcestershire (you can adjust based on how smoky you like your food), dried mustard (I would have used dijon if I had it, but we’re out of mustard currently), a heavy-handed dash of pepper (again, optional) and some water to thin it out – about half a cup.

I added the sauce to the seitan and veggie mix, and I let it cook down until the sauce thickened. Somewhere along the way, I decided that I was concerned that it wouldn’t be enough food – because that’s what I do – so I added a can of kidney beans. It would have been exactly enough without the beans, but they tasted good! And now we have leftovers!

Plum Torte

I have a confession to make. If you know me well, it may be a shocker.

… I’m finally tired of plums.

Normally, I’m a plum fiend. I feel like this year has been super abundant on the plum front, though, and I’m really just done when it comes to eating them straight. So, I searched for other things to do with this beautiful bowl of fruit I had…

And I found this legendary recipe from the New York Times for Plum Torte. People are crazy enough about this darn recipe that I figured it had to be worth my time. Little Chef helped me out. We ended up having (and needing) fewer plums than the recipe suggests – it really depends on the size of your pan and the size of your plums. I somehow also still don’t have a springform pan (Dear Santa, if you’re listening…), so I lined a cake pan with parchment paper. It turned out just fine.

This was ridiculously easy to make, and when it comes to taste, I think this last picture speaks for itself. A piece disappeared before I could even get a picture! I’ll definitely be making this again. Apparently, it freezes well, so if I get plums again this week, I’ll make a second torte and stick it in the freezer.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

It’s not often that I pick a dud for dinner. I have startlingly good luck with the recipes I choose, which I’ve always chalked up to understanding my family’s tastes and preferences. Tonight, though? Total let-down.

In my diet and lifestyle makeover that began a couple of years ago, I invested in several “lightened up” slow-cooker cookbooks, one of which is Healthy Slow Cooker Revolution.  I’ve made several meals from here that I enjoyed, and the pictures for Thai Eggplant Curry looked enticing. I love Thai food. I love curry and lime. I love eggplant.

… I didn’t love dinner tonight.

The texture was all wrong. The sauce was too thin, and the eggplant was too chewy. The curry taste was not strong enough – I think I’d have to double the amount of curry paste to get in the ballpark of what I like. I added fresh basil leaves in an attempt to perk it up, and even that didn’t do it for me. I wasn’t alone in my assessment; my spouse graciously ate his serving, though with the same lack of relish I was experiencing, and Little Chef picked out his rice, peppers, and beans and left the rest. (I used green beans instead of snow peas, because it’s what’s in season and was in my share.)

I’m going to take the leftovers (boy oh boy, there were a lot of leftovers) and add them into a basic Pad See Ew tomorrow. I’ve got noodles and a big head of napa cabbage, so hopefully I can salvage the bulk of the eggplant that way.

I’ll share pictures from the cooking process, when everything smelled so hopeful. Don’t bother making the effort to make this, though. It was disappointing.

High Summer, Part 1

I took this ridiculous picture today.

What you’re seeing here is the sum total of both my Coeur et Sol share and my Bloomfield-Montclair share, along with some backyard harvest, though minus whatever we ate from Chelsa’s share last night.

It’s high summer. Tomatoes. Summer squash. Eggplant. Ground cherries (which I’m shamelessly popping as I type this up). Basil, canteloupe, beets, peaches…

Getting this treasure trove really helped my outlook on life today, and it’s been therapeutic to process this evening. Late afternoon, I had an unfortunate patch of bad news, so my cooking reporting is not quite as varied as I’d hoped it’d be by this point, but there is always tomorrow.

I had hoped to make ratatouille tonight, but with the interruption, we had sandwiches, instead. I did make a killer salad for a side: Coeur et Sol salad mix, purple radish, yellow cucumber, and Montclair-Bloomfield ground cherries and green bell pepper. Yum.

I’ve been itching to try out Thug Kitchen’s Peach-Mint Sun Tea. It lives up to every bit of the hype. Peaches came from my share. Mint was the orange mint I have growing in my yard. I did find I needed to strain the tea after blending, which they don’t mention in the recipe.

I broke out the CSA cookbook for the first time this season, and I used some of the parsley that’s thriving in my yard to try making Chimichurri. It’s currently steeping. I could have used the next-size-down jar (I made a half-recipe), but I didn’t realize that until too late. Live and learn.

Eggplant. There is eggplant everywhere. Tonight, I made an eggplant parm that will likely go in the freezer tomorrow. I breaded and baked the slices of eggplant in the same manner that I did for the eggplant sandwiches from last week. I sauteed portobello mushrooms and basil (from my share) and mixed that into the (jarred) sauce to make things more interesting. I used the leftover eggs from the breading process to thicken the ricotta; my mom used to do that for calzone filling.

I found myself with an abundance of thyme from my yard, as I often do. Thyme is really easy to grow, and I’m grateful for it, because it’s one of my favorite herbs. It’s really easy to dry, and I documented the steps tonight for you to follow. This drying method works well for any non-oily herb. I’ve had great success with thyme, dill, rosemary, savory, oregano, and marjoram with this method. Herbs like basil are better dried in an oven or a dehydrator because they have so much moisture that they risk molding before they’ve successfully dried.

First, you’ll need your herbs, kitchen string or yarn, scissors, and a brown paper bag. I save the lunch-style bags I get from things like bagels for this purpose. Tonight, the bags came from my fruit share, actually.

Tie a bundle of the herbs together, leaving a long  tail of string. Place them inside the bag, with the string coming out of the top. Pinch the top of the bag and tie it shut, like a drawstring, but leave a nice long tail. Label your bag with the herb and the date, and cut ventilation holes in the bag. use both string tails to tie the bag up in a cool, well-ventilated, dry space. I use a closet in my kitchen that otherwise holds a recycling bin, broom, mop, etc. It has a bar across, as though one would hang coats in there,  so it’s really convenient for hanging. You can see the graveyard of old strings in the photograph – this has been my drying place for years, and I’m a little lazy about cutting down the bags.

On average, your herbs should be dry in a couple of weeks. This will vary due to temperature and humidity. I usually err on the side of leaving them hanging longer – there’s little damage that can be done. Store the dried herbs in glass jars or repurposed empty spice jars and revel in the feeling of not paying an arm and a leg for the store-bought stuff.

Clearly we’re not through the pile of veggies yet. See you in installment #2.