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Eating Closer to Home

Posted May 14 2009 5:01pm
This post is long overdue, but perhaps a little more dramatic for its delay. It's been a great summer season so far of super fresh, local produce from Parker Farms and I've been making good use of it. We've been with Steve who runs the Parker Farms Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for almost as long as we've lived in the Boston area and it's been a positive experience every year, but this might just be the best so far. The variety and quantity seem just about perfect. Between the CSA, the farmer's market, my container garden and my friend's community garden plot, trips to the grocery store are infrequent and produce purchased there is pretty much just a representation of my weakness for things like figs and fresh water chestnuts, oh and the necessity of garlic.

fresh pea tendrils with their manic little curls, tender leaves and crisp stems become a wonderfully sweet, green and garlicy stirfry with tofu over lemon garlic couscous

It makes a difference to be eating this way, to be so aware and invested in all of my ingredients, I feel inspired and challenged every time I get in the kitchen. Where I'm more measured in my baking, I'm imprecise in my cooking--a little of this, a little of that, oh this looks good, I wonder if--and that's why I love having a wild fridge full of produce that is all just possibility and potential, things that can just become a meal as if by magic, perfected primarily by virtue of the vegetable's own fresh flavor. I've consolidated pictures of the food I've been making with my CSA produce to save on space, but you can click through the descriptions beneath the mosaics to larger versions on Flickr, where I've also recently posted a lot of food pictures that I have never gotten around to blogging, including a variety of cupcakes and cakes, obsession-worthy concoctions, salt and chocolate, tarts, cobblers, pizzelle ice cream cones, San Francisco eats, craziness and some savories too.

left: baby greens and fresh herb salad with figs, berries and apricot
top to bottom: red leaf lettuce salad with spicy marinated tofu, berries and sweet yellow pepper, butter lettuce and spinach under toasted barley and kidney bean salad with balsamic reduction and strawberries, herbs from my garden

The variety and quality of greens that peak at the beginning of summer locally is amazing and while salads might not be the most creative use for these lettuces, baby Asian greens, tender beet leaves, herbs and chard, they might be the best showcase: pure, simple, fresh. It's changing, but I think many people still consider lettuces and salad greens to be fairly neutral and interchangeable when in fact there is great variation in flavor and texture. The supremely tender baby greens and herbs of the salad with figs and fruit are a lightly flavored complement to the stronger herbs used along with them, while sweet and substantial butter lettuce and spinach pair nicely with a toasted barley salad and the strong flavors of marinated tofu go well with the light watery crunch of a red leaf lettuce. Since contrary to logical inference I actually don't take pictures of everything I make, I can't show you the caramelized shallot and orange segment salad I made with peppery arugula, but the strong dark green of those leaves are matched by an intense flavor that few other greens could bring to the table. A salad can be memorable like that, balanced flavors, unique textures, just the right ingredients. Fragile greens like these are among those foods that most benefit from being picked at their peak and eaten right away, without waiting to be shipped or packaged or stocked on a shelf.

top row, left to right: brown rice vermicelli with baby bok choy, mizuna, swiss chard, hot peppers and fresh water chestnuts in a mellow garlic broth, braised garlic mizuna with tofu dengaku and rose matta rice
bottom row, left to right: sesame soba noodles with stirfried bok choy and yellow pepper, udon soup with napa cabbage, mizuna and tofu two ways

We actually get a lot of Asian greens in our CSA, which makes me extremely happy. Mizuna, a usually mild Japanese mustard green, seems to grow particularly well here and it is a great green to braise and serve with tofu and rice, it's got lots of flavor and becomes meltingly tender when cooked, though it can add a nice little crunch to salads raw too. The mizuna and tofu dengaku pictured above was served with rose matta rice, a red rice that has been polished, which makes it a little less healthy because the milling process removes layers of the grain, refining it and removing nutrients. But like white rice, rose matta cooks up lighter and softer than its unpolished counterpart, a texture which sometimes I just crave, whether its the healthiest or not. I also crave soups. Even though it's been extremely hot here I still make soups for dinner. It sounds wrong, but sometimes a warm broth with lots of veggies and noodles is just the thing, even on a hot day, sometimes even especially on a hot day. A nicely salty broth can be perfect for replacing fluids lost through sweating on your bike ride home and with lots of fresh greens and quick cooking rice noodles, a soup can come together quickly on the stove. Brown rice vermicelli is one of my favorite new things and it sort of makes up for eating all the rose matta! They're a healthier choice than traditional rice noodles made with white rice though they have a very similar texture, they cook in just minutes and are delicious in soups.

top to bottom:spinach and tomato soup with roman beans and homemade herbed croutons,purple kale with zinfandel tomato sauce, basil polenta and toasted walnuts,shallots and sauteed spinach and peppers on white bean puree crostini with caponata and grilled seitan
right:kale, collard and beet greens in spiced coconut broth

There are lots of other greens in our share as well: several kinds of kale, collard greens, beet greens, chard, and some of the sweetest spinach ever. I could probably just eat these greens sauteed in garlic and olive oil everyday and be happy, but it is good to do something different every once in a while. I just recently came across a used copy of The Ethnic Vegetarian and thought there must be an interesting suggestion for cooking collards in it and indeed there was. I'd been warned that there were some serious seasoning issues with this book, so in addition to veganizing the recipe for Kenyan-style mixed greens, I adjusted the seasoning to my preferences, but the basic idea of cooking hearty dark greens in a spicy coconut broth is amazing. I made this for a big 4th of July spread and it was without a doubt one of the favorite dishes.

left, top to bottom:spiced carrot and golden raisin salad,yellow and orange carrots with beet greens,chickpea orzo in carrot broth with swiss chard and lemon aioli, watercress and red leaf lettuce salad with vanilla pepper peaches
right:spiced carrot and golden raisin salad sandwich with hummus

When we're not in CSA season, I'll usually have a carrot or two laying around for soup stocks, but during season, my bottom crisper drawer is often full of the yellow and orange roots and when something takes up that much fridge real estate it gets elevated to a main event vegetable. A simple shredded carrot salad with Moroccan spices and golden raisins gently fried with olive oil makes major use of carrots and is a great thing to have around to eat as a snack or side or to tuck into sandwhiches, particular if hummus is also involved. Taking a tip from Spice, the Oleana cookbook, I have discovered an amazing method for cooking pasta like the orzo with chard and chickpeas above that uses lots of carrot. Boiling carrots in water and spices, then pureeing the tender mixture and straining out the fibrous material yeilds an incredibly flavorful thick broth that can replace plain water for boiling pasta. The orzo took on a gorgeous sunset rust color and picked up the carrot's sweet earthy flavor which was set off by a vegan lemon aioli made with olive oil, lemon zest and a little veganase. Hidden on that plate with the orzo is also a great salad of peppery watercress and red leaf lettuce with pan-fried vanilla pepper peaches, tiny and super sweet ones, the first of the season here in Massachusetts.

top, left to right:mâche and mixed greens salad with kohlrabi, cucumber, dill flowers and ciabatta croutons, one giant kohlrabi
bottom, left to right:raw kohlrabi, muhammara, spicy hummus and homemade whole wheat zatar pita chips,silken tofu stirfry with kohlrabi, squash blossoms, snap peas, celery, zucchini, green onion and carrot

Here's a new one for me: kohlrabi. I've got some more ideas for working with this mellow turnip-ish vegetable (good thing because there's another very large one sitting in the fridge), and my first impression is that there are many possibilities. It's crisp and clean tasting and is actually great raw, a cooling snack in the summer heat or a crunchy addition to salads. It was the similarity it had to celery that led me to grab it along with the great variety of CSA veggies and fresh garden picks (including my favorite squash blossoms) to make a simple stirfry loaded with such variety of texture and taste it demanded attention I don't usually give this standby dinner dish.

top, left to right:
fresh fava beans with lemon and mint,pan-fried summer and patty pan squash in garlicy soy yogurt sauce
bottom, left to right:beet green and tofu tomato curry with fruited rice,farm-fresh pasta primavera

Like I said, the stirfry is a standard standby dish, something that can take on a lot of different vegetables, but it's not alone in its flexibility. Quick curries like this beet green and carrot curry in a tomato and coconut based sauce with tofu are a good fast fix with anything that happens to be laying around, as is a simple but satisfying pasta primavera with broccoli, snap peas, peppers, arugula and chicken-style seitan. On the other side of the coin, a labor-intensive sack of fava beans demands its own staring role with a light lemon and mint dressing and a good hunk of crusty bread. This room temperature dish of cute pan-fried patty pan squash and just a sampling of more summer squash than I can manage is also great on its own with the garlicy soy yogurt sauce getting mopped up with whole wheat pita.

top row, left to right: homemade gnocchi in beet carrot sauce, roasted beet side saladwith pumpkin kibby, carrot sandwich and local melon, black raspberries and mint
bottom row, left to right: balsamic beet sunflower sprout salad in creamy toasted orange zest dressing with toasted pinenuts and fresh oregano, chioggia beets and walnuts with cashew cheese on endive spears

Without farmer Steve I would never have come into my own as an eater of beets. Reportedly, I had a childhood obsession with canned beets, but in the time between my last salad bar canned beet and my first season with Parker Farms it's unlikely that I ever even touched one. That's one of the enjoyable quirks of having a CSA, getting vegetables, sometimes in quantity, that you are not familiar with eating. It's been many years now and I feel like I know my way around a beet. What's more, I actually appreciate them greatly. On cooler days I take advantage of being about to turn the oven on and roast up bunches of beets with olive oil and balsamic to have on reserve for salads or sides. Roasting them brings out all sorts of dark sweet flavors that aren't as present when they're boiled, but I do love to boil the very pretty chioggia beets to preserve their stripes. My favorite way to serve them is on an endive spear with toasted walnuts and tangy cashew cheese that looks great piped onto the endive. Beets add beautiful color to the plate, so if you are at all a visual eater, it's worth cozying up to this bright root. The delicious beet and carrot sauce on gnocchi (also made with the first of this season's CSA potatoes) is probably the brightest pink thing I've ever eaten and one of the best on the fly sauces I've ever made.

left: vanilla bean panna cotta and caramel tuile with mango sauce and strawberries
right, top to bottom: fresh strawberries, strawberry vanilla bean ice cream, strawberry rhubarb crisp

Steve doesn't grow fruit at Parker Farms himself, but he does often trade with other farmers to score us things like strawberries, peaches and apples. The strawberries this year were particularly good and I was glad to have them considering how quickly I tore through the 10 pounds I'd picked myself. Expect more strawberry desserts here soon and more versions of this panna cotta, a dessert that is so light and creamy cold, so perfect for summer, as is the strawberry vanilla ice cream and of course, a classic strawberry rhubarb crisp, oven warm and ready to load up with vegan whipped cream.

Someday that parsley you brought her?

Sherman poses...she's pretty, now give her parsley

Lest you think that humans are the only ones benefiting from having a CSA, here are the happy faces of Someday and Sherman, who appreciate having such a bounty of veggies to delicately select from for their breakfasts, second breakfasts, snacks, suppers and dinners. Don't let the cute little faces deceive you, these are some ravenous guinea eating monsters who would walk over your dead body for some Parker Farms parsley.

River lounging on pillows
River's tail tuft takes the foreground while she sniffs Oslo, the lazy sunbather

Oh, look, whoops, I broke the cute and fuzzy seal and now must also post pictures of new kitty, River. She's part monkey, part river otter, part feline, and yes, she has a lion cut (out of necessity, not cat fashion)'ll grow back...someday. She's a whole lot of crazy love. The word here friends is, SMITTEN. Oslo is not totally sure about her yet, but in time there will be big piles of fluffy gray cat happiness happening, I can feel it.
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