Monday, May 14, 2012

Letter From a CSA Member

The first year I bought a CSA share I thought I knew what to expect, but I soon learned that the vegetable world was far more varied than I had experienced growing up on a central Kentucky farm.  I relished picking up my share each week, but I struggled with finding ways to use all the lettuce I received early in the season, with unfamiliar vegetables (kohlrabi? green garlic? - I didn't even have experience with arugula!) and with not knowing what items I would receive each week. Despite these challenges, I found the overall experience to be very rewarding.  There truly is nothing like freshly harvested produce and I am committed to supporting local farmers.

I prepared for the early weeks of my second CSA season by reviewing the newsletters of the previous year and planning menus around the items I had previously received. Surprise!  Weather variances meant that I wasn't necessarily receiving the same vegetables.  I don't recall the specifics, but the fickleness of central Kentucky weather combined with Elmwood's responsiveness to customer surveys resulted in more differences in weekly offerings than I had anticipated.  Nonetheless, I continued to relish the unrivaled taste of fresh produce and to enjoy the variety of meals that is the natural outgrowth of eating whatever happens to be ready for harvest at any point in time, not to mention the convenience of having a box of produce picked and delivered practically to my door...  There were still challenges, but I was hooked.  I signed up again and anxiously awaited another season.

By the third season I was hitting my stride and I knew that I could not count on anticipating what would be in my box each week.  I learned that even if I knew what someone had received earlier in the week, it didn't necessarily mean that I would get the same items in my share, so I stocked my kitchen with staples and anticipated each week's box like Christmas morning.  I simply could not wait to see what was in store for me each week.  I became more adventuresome in combining ingredients and earned a reputation at work for eating strange concoctions.  Shaved Asparagus Pizza?  Sweet Potato and Black Bean Burritos?  If I liked the basic ingredients, I wasn't afraid to try any combination.
Since my initial partnership with Elmwood, I have not only discovered vegetables that I hadn't known existed, I have also found ways to use some that I previously claimed to dislike. A lifelong hater of onions, I have discovered that they offer incomparable enhancement to certain dishes, provided that they are prepared correctly.  I have also learned to consider ingredients in non-traditional ways; cooked kale is good, but raw kale salads are awesome; lettuce can be used in soups and pastas - who knew?!?

For those new to CSA, I offer the following tips:
  • Begin the season by cleaning out your refrigerator; those early lettuces and other greens take up a lot of space
  • Refrigerate everything as soon as possible after picking up your share
  • Although everything is best when freshest, shelf life can be extended with proper storage; you will be surprised how long lettuce and other greens will last if wrapped in a paper or cloth towel to absorb excess moisture and stored loosely wrapped in a plastic bag such as a grocery bag
  • Stock your kitchen with a variety of spices, oils, and vinegars; have your favorites on hand, but splurge on some exotics to the extent that your budget allows; balsamic vinegar is heavenly (a little goes a long way) and a good olive oil is nearly priceless
  • Good staples to keep on hand include pasta, eggs (Elmwood eggs are fabulous!), tortillas, stocks, and a variety of cheeses; don't be afraid to swap one cheese for another, substitutions make a dish your own
  • Keep your weekly newsletters, you will refer back to them; if you are new to CSA, check out previous newsletters in online archives
  • The Internet can be your friend...and your enemy; I routinely search for recipes by ingredient or season, but recommend reading associated comments and setting a minimum "star rating" threshold (I rarely try anything with less then 4 stars)
  • Salads offer infinite ways to combine ingredients, think "vegetable, cheese, crunchy item, dressing" (greens, cheddar, croutons, ranch; beets, goat cheese, walnuts, vinaigrette; etc.)
  • It is a given that you will receive a lot of greens in the early days; learn how to make some basic salad dressings (oil, acid such as vinegar or citrus juice, flavorings such as garlic, emulsifier such as Dijon mustard - shake or whisk it all together with salt, pepper, seasonings of your choice) or keep your favorite bottled varieties on hand
  • Nearly anything can be combined with pasta to make a tasty dish; I use the basic formula of pasta + sautéed or roasted veggie + cheese + sauce (such as marinara, alfredo or meat) or oil (typically olive)
  • You can make breakfast, lunch or dinner with veggies and eggs: sauté veggies, cover with beaten eggs and cook until eggs are set for a frittata; stuff omelets with a variety of roasted or sautéed veggies; scramble eggs with cooked veggies and roll all together into a tortilla (expand the possibilities of any of these by adding your favorite cheese)
  • Make it pizza!  Top any pizza dough (or sub French bread, English muffins, pita bread, etc. for dough) with sauce, cheese, and veggies
  • When all else fails, pickle it; all my life I claimed to dislike okra until I tasted it pickled
  • If you find that you cannot use all your produce before the next week, nearly everything can be preserved: place peeled garlic cloves in small jars, cover with olive oil and refrigerate; blanch and freeze items such as greens, beans, corn; chop onions, peppers, etc. and freeze raw; dehydrate tomatoes, bag and store in freezers; share with neighbors and be sure to tell them it's Elmwood produce!

In Your Share

Greens Bunch - organic
Kale, Collard, Mustard and Turnip mix together for a sensational seasonal sauté!  You can steam or stir fry for full flavor and highest nutritional value, or try a braising method to soften the pungency of the spicy mustard and turnip.  For quick cooking methods, fold the leaf in half, and strip away the thick center stems, as they don’t cook as fast as the leaves.  Add to smoothies, pasta, quiche, or soup.
Kohlrabi – organic
The alien-looking, round, ball-like item is your kohlrabi.  It’s in the same family as broccoli, has a lot of fiber, and is high in Vits. A and C.  You do want to peel the outer tough skin, then enjoy raw or cook.  Kids like the raw, sweet kohlrabi sticks – but you can also add to fresh green salads.  Sauté in a little butter or olive oil, then eat as a side dish topped with black pepper.  Kohlrabi has an unexpected sweetness that you really have to try to appreciate!  It has a short season, only available in KY in the spring and fall, but refrigerated, it will store well for two weeks!
Onions – organic
Onions seem so easy to grow: purchase some sets from the local garden center, throw them in the ground in March, and never worry until ready to harvest . . . unless you want them organic!  We start with organic onion seed in the Fall in the greenhouse, transplant to the field, mulch well for winter, uncover in Spring, and weed until sized up for summer and fall harvests.  But, we need onions for cooking before the summer harvest, so find a few this week from our stored fall crop.  As they want to sprout when exposed to daylight, use them soon, store in the dark (refrigerated) if possible, and if they do sprout a little, use that part too!


Lettuce - organic

handful of Strawberries - organic 
Raspberries from the last harvest - organic
maybe next week instead, as the berry harvest is less each day due to such an warm, early spring

Spinach - organic 

Purple Top White Globe Turnips - organic

Recipes to Enjoy

Field Greens with Spiced Pecans, Goat Cheese and Balsamic Vinaigrette, from Ezra Poundcake

½ C pecan halves
3 T unsalted butter
½ tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
¼ tsp salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp Dijon-type mustard
1 T honey
½ C balsamic vinegar
¼ C red wine vinegar
1 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp salt
½ C to 2 ¼ C extra-virgin olive oil (Experiment to decide how much works for you.)
1 (6-ounce) goat cheese round, at room temperature
3 C assorted greens, washed and dried
1 small bunch arugula, washed and dried
1 pint cherry tomatoes, preferably organic, quartered

For the Spiced Pecans: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the pecans in a medium bowl. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the cumin, cayenne and salt. Pour the butter mixture over the pecans, and toss to coat. Spread the pecans in a single layer on a baking sheet, and toast for 7 to 9 minutes, until golden brown and aromatic. Set aside to cool at least 15 minutes.

For the Vinaigrette: In a blender or food processor, blend the garlic, mustard, honey, both vinegars, lemon juice and salt for about 20 seconds. Pour ½ C olive oil through the feed tube in a slow stream, and blend until the mixture emulsifies (this won’t take much longer than it takes to pour in the oil). Taste and add more oil as desired.

For the Goat Cheese Rounds: Coarsely grind ½ C of the spiced pecans in a food processor, and pour the ground pecans into a medium bowl. Then divide the goat cheese into four equal parts, and gently form each quarter into a disk. Roll the goat cheese rounds in the ground pecans to cover completely.

To Assemble the Salad: Toss the baby greens, arugula, the remaining 1C of spiced pecans and some of the balsamic vinaigrette to taste in a large salad bowl. (Leftover dressing will keep in the refrigerator up to 3 days.) Serve salads on individual plates, and top each salad with some of the cherry tomatoes and a disk of pecan-coated goat cheese.

Pasta with Roasted Asparagus and Balsamic Butter, thanks to a CSA member for sharing this recipe that she describes as “particularly good!” Can also use broccoli rather than asparagus.

1 lb asparagus
1T olive oil
2 tsp salt
½ tsp fresh-ground black pepper
½ C plus 2 T balsamic vinegar
½ tsp brown sugar
1 lb penne or pasta of your choice
¼ lb butter, cut into pieces
1/3 C grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Heat the oven to 400°. Snap off the tough ends of asparagus and discard. Cut into 1-inch pieces, put on a baking sheet and toss with the oil and 1/4 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper. Roast until tender, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the vinegar in a small saucepan. Simmer until 3 T remain, being careful not to scorch. Stir in the brown sugar and the remaining ¼ tsp pepper. Remove from the heat.

Cook the penne in a large pot of boiling, salted water until just done, about 13 minutes. Drain the pasta and toss with the butter, vinegar, asparagus, Parmesan, and the remaining 1 ¾ tsp teaspoons salt. Serve with additional Parmesan.