Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Fool for Kale

Odd Toddler and I picked up our second weekly CSA share on Friday, and I practically swooned when I saw the size of the box and the generous quantities of greens we received. Again, we had one unrecognizable item that I had to email the guy at the farm about, clearly reminding me (yet again) of just how little I actually know. This week’s harvest: tiny arugula, spring shallots, green garlic, radicchio, juntar cilantro, red Russian kale, Swiss chard, romaine, and a leaf lettuce.

Two weeks into this little project, the radicchio is still kicking my butt. It’s a beautiful head of greens, but extremely bitter and therefore slightly difficult to work with. The first week, I followed the advice of Jason from the farm, and sautéed it lightly with a little bit of olive oil, and served it with lemon juice and sea salt. Still too bitter. This week I tried a Giada de Laurentiis recipe in which the radicchio was cooked with cannelini beans in a little bit of broth, and then topped with a pan-fried fillet of tilapia and drizzled with lemon vinaigrette. Not a good idea.

I had tried the Giada recipe previously, but since I’d been unable to find radicchio at the time, I had substituted spinach and The Carnivore and I loved the recipe. This time, since I actually had radicchio on hand, grown locally and organically, I was excited to try the recipe again, this time in its entirety. But a number of things went wrong with the whole plan. First, and I’m feeling a little ignorant for not realizing this sooner, but tilapia is brought in from WAY afar. This isn’t the kind of fish that is being caught off the coast of Georgia, or even Florida. Ecuador and Chile were the locations listed on the labels, thus seemingly negating the positive effects of my very fuel-efficient radicchio. And then of course, we can’t overlook the fact that neither the Carnivore nor I even enjoyed the final product (which I thought tasted a little like dirt).

Current score: radicchio 2, Sarah 0. I’m gonna really have to put some muscle into this next week if we get more of this mean green in our next share box.

With the notable exception of the evil, scheming radicchio, we’ve found it relatively easy to work our entire share box into our weekly meals. Nothing has turned bad in the crisper before we’ve had a chance to eat it, and we haven’t run out of greens before the next box was ready to be picked up. Truly, it’s the best possible scenario. And the surprise hit of the greens season has been the kale. Using the lettuces is easy – I eat salads nearly every day; if not for lunch, then as a side dish with dinner. Fresh herbs and aromatics are always easy to work into whatever we’re already having, and easy greens like Swiss chard can be lightly steamed or sautéed and go well with any entrée.

But the kale had me slightly stumped at first since I was striving hard to not serve different greens, each cooked the same way as the one before it, every night for the three weeks of this particular harvest. I wanted variety in our menu, while working within the constraints of what was in season at the time (and doing my best to also eat within some fairly arbitrary geographical limits that I’ve set upon myself). We enjoyed the Kale and White Bean Soup last week, but I certainly didn’t want to serve the same thing again this week with our new bag of kale. So I cocked my head just so and stared at my cookbook shelves for a few minutes, finally noticing my copy of Mollie Katzen’s Vegetable Heaven.

See, I have a LOT of cookbooks, although I’m of the mind that one can never have too many, and it can actually get a bit daunting to find just the right one when I’m trying to find just the right recipe for a given ingredient (in this case, kale). I’m not sure when or from where the Vegetable Heaven cookbook came into my life, but I think I’ve had it for at least a fair number of years, and I do know this was the first time I’d even used it. A little shameful, to be sure, and I can’t believe this was the first time I’d really spent some time reading it. It’s fascinating. And I’ve now marked a few recipes that I want to try as soon as some other vegetable seasons begin. For now though, after doing an index search for kale, I ran across a recipe for Bitter Greens with Sweet Onions and Tart Cheese.

That’s just singing my song. I love onions. I love greens. And pregnancy rules be scorned loudly, I love feta cheese and refuse to completely give it up. Since the feta would be heated in this recipe, it seemed logical that any errant scary bacteria would be killed anyhow. And besides, for pregnancy books to say its okay to have an alcoholic drink every now and then, but that you can NEVER have feta seems like a bit of sacrilege. That’s for another blog though. I have some rather vehement opinions on this. As a matter of fact, if you’ll pardon a tangent here, I have a lot of siblings, some of whom have obviously suffered from fetal alcohol effects. None of them are suffering from the overuse of feta by their birth mothers.

Regardless of where I stand on the liquor versus cheese issue, the recipe seemed like a winner. Vidalia onions are obviously local enough for me (same state) and are in season right now, along with the kale. So I threw all caution to the wind on Saturday night and served the Bitter Greens with Sweet Onions and Tart Cheese for dinner, atop brown rice cooked in vegetable broth, with a wee bit of butter and a little bit of salt. Let’s face it, brown rice doesn’t have a lot of taste to begin with, and could use the added boost. I planned the greens dish for my entrée, but was a little concerned about the meal being too, um, vegetarian for The Carnivore (and I wanted to hedge my bets in case the recipe was disappointing in any way) so I surreptitiously suggested it would be a good night for him to fix a small piece of meat to go with his dinner. Just in case, you know.

As it turned out, the recipe, along with the rice, was filling enough to be the main dish for two, and was incredibly, wonderfully delicious. As a matter of fact, even the leftovers were fabulous for lunch for the next day. And The Carnivore, from whom I had hidden the title of the cookbook I was using, loved the dish as much as I did. I think kale will be supplanting collards as our favorite green.


BITTER GREENS WITH SWEET ONIONS AND TART CHEESE (from Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Heaven, serves two as a main dish or four to six as a side dish)
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 4 cups sliced Vidalia onion (or other sweet onion)
  • Salt to taste
  • 12 cups (approx. 12 oz.) fresh greens, coarsely chopped, large stems removed (this sounds like a lot, but it cooks down considerably)
  • 1/2 lb feta cheese, crumbled
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  1. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the onion and salt lightly. Saute over high heat for about 5 minutes, then turn the heat to medium, cover, and let the onion cook until tender and caramelized (about 10 more minutes).
  2. Add the greens in batches, sprinkling lightly with salt after each addition. If the pan fills up before all the greens have been used, cover the pot and allow the greens to wilt for a minute or two before adding more.
  3. When all the greens have wilted, stir in the feta, and cook for another couple of minutes. Add pepper and additional salt to taste.
  4. Serve over brown rice cooked in vegetable broth.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Great Resistance

You would think any resistance to a week of greens recipes would come from the The Carnivorous Husband, but instead it is Odd Toddler who is giving me the most grief. I'm beginning to miss the earlier days when he would happily eat anything I put in front of him. These days, he tries to live solely on a diet of yogurt and Nutella. If he sees ANY form of greens on his plate (whether it be a chiffonade of fresh basil on bruschetta, lettuce in a salad, or a nice pile of steamed kale), he makes a gutteral sound and croaks out, "But mom, I don't like the nasty stuff." I console myself through his dinnertime pouts by hoping this is just a phase. And by quietly handing him a small carton of Yobaby.

I picked up our first bag of CSA produce on Friday, and was even more pleased than I had hoped to be. So pleased, in fact, that I happily stuffed leaves of fresh-picked lettuce into my mouth at every red light (hey, I'm 18 weeks pregnant - if I want to eat plain lettuce in my car, I have every right). The first bag included swiss chard, kale, radicchio, green garlic, and a leaf lettuce that I can't identify but which I have used in salads every day since.

This was my first encounter with green garlic and I was completely stumped by it at first. When I pawed through my bag on Friday, I thought at first glance that the garlic was a type of green onion. The stalks looked exactly like scallions, but the bulbous root end left me scratching my head. Instead of doing any research though, I (wrongly) assumed it was just a green onion that I was unfamiliar with and so I popped it into the fridge without another thought.

It was at the Oconee Farmer's Market on Saturday that I got the first inkling that I was wrong. I went by a table that advertised garlic and I quickly back-tracked to pick some up. It was one of those forehead-slapping moments when I saw the only items on the table bore a strong resemblance to my chubby-bottomed scallions. I picked up some local strawberries (the only strawberries I've seen anywhere lately that didn't come from Watsonville, California) because Odd Toddler had instructed me not to come home without some, and raced back to the house to pull the questionable green things out of the crisper drawer for some emergency surgery. Once I had the concept that they might be garlic in my mind, it only took a sniff for me to recognize the unmistakable scent of garlic, and a little cutting into the chubby part yielded some white flesh surrounding a couple of tender "cloves" of garlic. I fired up the computer and went online to see what I could find out with a little Googling, and I stumbled upon Gourmet Sleuth, a REALLY cool website in which you can search not only for recipes using specific ingredients, but where you can also get pictures and information of the ingredients themselves along with planting and storing instructions. Handy for amateurs like myself.

As it turns out, in case I'm not the only foolish one who had never used green garlic before, this is a milder-tasting version of the regular dried heads of garlic you can pick up at the grocery store, and, like leeks, you can use both the white end and the light green part of the stalk. Interestingly, one stalk of green garlic equals one or two cloves of regular garlic. I've had fun using these in all manner of recipes this week. To me, they taste like a cross between scallions and garlic; very fresh, with less bite than regular garlic, but still with a little assertive oomph. I've found green garlic and regular garlic to be virtually interchangeable in saute and soup recipes, and the green variety to be incredibly good in simple vinaigrettes (which I made a lot of this week to drizzle over the lettuces I had also received).

I tried new recipes every day this week, delighting in finding ways to use the chard and the kale, neither of which I had cooked before. My mother raised me on steamed greens, which we would dress with vinegar and salt and eat daily in the early spring when I was kid. I loved greens then, and I love them possibly even more now. So many years had passed in the interim however, that I had forgotten what a beautiful, buttery taste chard has.

The winning recipe of the week though, was a quick and uber-easy Kale and White Bean Soup that I adapted from the March issue of Cooking Light magazine (the original recipe called for collards, but it didn't seem like much of a stretch to substitute kale instead; and of course I tinkered around to make it a vegetarian dish).

As much as I may love simple, steamed greens, I have The Carnivore to think about, and I do my best to not make it so glaringly obvious to him that he married the child of a reformed hippie. The soup recipe was a standout because it truly let the kale shine through as the star of the dish, without trying to mask the delicate flavor of the green or turning the texture into mush. My favorite thing about kale is the great curly, crunchy bite to it, and only a quick wilting was required by this recipe.

I can't wait to see what's in next week's bag of greens...

KALE & WHITE BEAN SOUP (serves four - great served alongside a goat cheese & roasted red pepper sandwich)
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 cup finely chopped yellow onion - I used a vidalia
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced - I used three whole stalks of green garlic
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper - as coarsely ground as possible
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 6 oz shredded or chopped kale
  • 2 tsps minced fresh thyme (or 3/4 tsp dried thyme)
  • 28 oz vegetable broth
  • 1 (15.5-oz) can Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed
  1. Heat oil in a dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; saute until onion is tender - about 5 minutes.
  2. Add wine, pepper and salt. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes or until liquid has almost evaporated.
  3. Add greens, thyme and broth. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, or until greens are wilted but still slightly crunchy to the taste (sort of an al dente texture). Take care not to overcook the greens.
  4. Add beans; simmer 5 minutes or until thoroughly heated.

And, um, sleep in separate rooms if you're easily offended by particularly plentiful and odiferous gas.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

I have been fascinated by CSAs for some time now, and have longed to join one. I first read about them a number of years ago, and then, around the time Odd Toddler was born, I found out that at least one of these Community Sponsored Agriculture farms existed here in my area. The concept is great. A specified number of members pay an up-front fee to essentially sponsor a farm. The farmers plant sustainable crops, often organic, and then prepare weekly bags of produce for the members during the growing season. The benefits for everyone are great. The farmers get some financing and have guaranteed “buyers” for their crops. The members receive local, seasonal vegetables, fruit, herbs and other treats (depending on the farm) that has been grown in a manner in which they approve.

The idea is extraordinarily appealing to me on a number of levels. Organic produce is usually prohibitively expensive in the grocery stores, and is rarely locally-grown. Most fruits in my local grocery store come from Central and South America, wasting enormous amounts of resources (such as gas) in their world-travels before they make it to me. Not to mention the US governmental oversight on these items appears to be lax, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern the amount of chemicals used in the growing and “preserving” process. And I’m loathe to eat a grape that frankly must have been picked at least a week or two before it gets into my hands.

Last week, while shopping at Publix with a painful hankering for some fresh fruit, I was stymied on all fronts. The strawberries were from California, the grapes were from Chile, something else – now forgotten - was from Ecuador, and the cantaloupes were from Honduras. Have we maybe gone too far in our desire to have what we want RIGHT WHEN WE WANT IT? Was it really so bad in the good old days (say only 10, 20 years ago) when you just couldn’t find blueberries in your grocery store except during the summer harvesting months? Were we such deprived consumers that it would kill us to go a couple of months without red bell peppers?

We’ve now gotten to the point that seemingly anything we want can be obtained not only any month out of the year, but at exceedingly low prices, at any grocery store in town. Of course, most of the produce is completely tasteless (come on – I know you’ve noticed that tomatoes no longer taste like, well, tomatoes), and surely it hasn’t escaped our notice that it just isn’t possible for fresh strawberries to STAY fresh for an entire week while they truck themselves cross-country to our table.

Though I hadn’t joined a CSA before now, I have tried to be more mindful about my produce purchases for the past year. While I haven’t completely denied myself every out-of-season item, I’ve been more careful to read the teeny-weeny little stickers to see where everything comes from, and when I plan our menus for the week, I have tried to include vegetables that are more or less in season locally (even though it has proved virtually impossible to FIND these items locally unless I were willing to do my shopping only during the summer months at the local farmers market). But this is no longer enough for me. I’m blessedly pregnant now, and am militantly hyper-vigilant about eating organically when pregnant or breastfeeding - caring for a miniature person is an awesome responsibility.
I’ve also been looking for a new cooking challenge.

The biggest complaint that I’ve read about CSAs is that, of course, you don’t get to give the farmer your grocery list and have them pick the items that you are craving at the moment. You get, obviously, what is growing at the moment, essentially only what is local and seasonal. To me, this is a minutely minor sacrifice. And a beautiful challenge for a cook. Look, if collards are all that’s growing for a month, I’m more than up to the challenge of searching far and wide for imaginative recipes in which to stave off any boredom after eating the same vegetable every day for weeks. And if I don’t find asparagus in my weekly pack from the farm, well, I doubt I’ll die of roasted-asparagus-deprivation.

So, over dinner last week, I broached the subject with The Carnivore that I married. I explained the CSA concept; I briefly enumerated the benefits to the environment, to the local economy, and to our health; and I, at length, detailed the creative cooking challenge that I craved. And of course I mentioned that everything was going to taste WAY better than the produce I’ve been buying at the supermarket. The Carnivore listened carefully, and then asked about the cost. I took a deep breath – I was prepared for this; I’m an accountant – and said, “Well, that’s the only drawback.” The up-front fee was a little disconcerting to him. After all, who wants to pre-pay their grocery bill for the next three or four months?

He asked for a few days to think it over, and I, well-versed in negotiation tactics, thanked him for his open-mindedness about the idea and especially expressed my appreciation that he didn’t just laugh and dismiss the whole thing as a little too hippie for his taste. He grinned at me over his plate and replied, “Well, you are a hippie, but I love you.” Hey, he’s voted Republican in more elections than I’ve even been eligible to vote in. I was proud of him for humoring me. And I also knew he was aware of the benefits. I love to cook; it wasn’t lost on him that any cooking challenge that I looked forward to this much was going to serve him well come dinnertime. But, for the record here, I am most assuredly NOT a hippie.

For the next two days, I bit my tongue often in my barely-successful attempts to refrain from nagging The Carnivore about joining a CSA. I knew the deadline for membership had to be getting close, and I also knew that the local CSAs, especially the one I was most interested in, filled up quickly. Then, on Thursday, The Carnivore opened up the Atlanta newspaper and went to hand me the food section. He did a double-take when he saw the cover story, and then he scratched his goatee, sighing a little. “This is probably like singing to the choir,” he said, “but here’s a story on that thing you were talking about.”

Very cool. I hereby express my thanks to the entire feature-writing team at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

I grabbed for the paper, eager to read more, especially since this would be the first relatively-local article that I had seen on Community Sponsored Agriculture, but then I hesitated. “Wait,” I said, “would you like to read this first so you can maybe better understand what I’m saying about the whole thing?”

“No,” replied The Carnivore,” it’s not that important what it says. The only thing that matters to me is that this is something you want.”

I love this man.
But still he said nothing about being willing to make the financial commitment. And since I only contribute about 20% of the total household income, I felt pretty strongly that this wasn’t a decision I could just make on my own. And I’m not stupid. I needed total buy-in from him on this if it was going to work on an ongoing basis for our family.

A few more days passed, and I got more anxious with each passing hour. Then, yesterday, I got an email from the Full Moon Cooperative announcing the spring and summer CSA program along with the details and the costs. Ecstatic, I called The Carnivore. The price was only a little more than HALF what I had told him earlier, and the season was beginning this week. And, most importantly, there was no time to waste. The shares were limited to 15 for the spring 3-week program, and to 40 for the summer 10-or-so-week program. “I know what I want for Mother’s Day,” I practically shouted into the phone. I quickly explained the two seasonal options to him, sure he would at least agree to the short season, and giggled while I told him the lower-than-expected price.

“Sure,” he said easily, “go ahead and join.”

“Just the short spring option?” I asked nervously, “or can we afford the commitment to doing both spring and summer?”
"Both," he answered. And I swear I could hear the smile in his voice; he knew he was scoring major points with me. I would, without a doubt, marry this man again.

Our first weekly pickup is this Friday. I’m practically vibrating with anticipation. I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE WHAT IS IN OUR FIRST BAG.