How does your garden grow? My herbs have been loving this year's weird weather, as have the weeds. The rest of the garden keeps reaching for the sky, hoping for sun. But it wouldn't have mattered if all my seedlings stayed low, because this year, vegetables magically appear on my doorstep.
This all started in late winter, when I read an article that spurred me to check out the latest on CSAs, or community-supported agriculture. The CSA concept appeals to my inner farmer: At the beginning of the growing season, subscribers "buy a share" in a farm, paying the farmer up front for the produce they'll receive all summer (and, often, spring and fall). I wrote a food story about CSAs years ago, when they were just starting around here; at the time, it seemed like way too much produce for the two of us to eat.
But the CSA I joined this year--Timberwood Organics--offers a half-subscription, perfect for us. Better yet, they deliver; many CSAs offer just a central pick-up point for their customers. With two small children, I knew that would never work for me. Now, though, we have scheduled excitement every Thursday, listening for the thump that tells us our box has landed in the cooler.
Especially with all the rain and cool days, this season's deliveries have been decidedly green: salad mix, arugula, spinach, kale, collards, sugar snaps and chard, with a few radishes or beets brightening things up. I have to admit that I'm looking forward to the rest of the season (deliveries come for 30 weeks), which will also include cut flowers.
But even though I prefer the vegetables of summer--red peppers, eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers--to an abundance of greens, I know how good this has been for me. Good for our health, of course, but it's also stretched my cooking, which was growing increasingly complacent since the birth of our son. This struck me more clearly than ever when, in my first week's delivery, I received a bundle of leaves wrapped in a twist tie that read "green leaf lettuce." It was darker than any leaf lettuce I'd ever seen, but I was willing to believe, until I broke off a corner and tasted it. Whatever it was, it wasn't lettuce... as was confirmed by the CSA e-mail I read later, which listed the veggies in the box. That mystery green turned out to be small collard leaves! No wonder they tasted so nasty in the raw. Clearly, it had been too long since I'd attempted to cook anything beyond the most standard of produce.
Since then, I've been able to identify everything my son gleefully pulls out of the box, which has been packed ever more tightly in the past few weeks. But what to do with all those vegetables--or with the armloads you, like I, might haul home after being seduced by a farmers' market display?
For starters, I turn to two sources more than any other: epicurious.com, which has recipes from Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines, and Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. This is a book that truly lives up to its title. I'm no vegetarian, but I find so much in her simple recipes that appeals.
Beyond that, think "cook down." Even the biggest armload of greens can turn into something manageable with a little shimmy in a skillet. For other vegetables, it's hard to beat roasting; simply cut into slightly thick slices or cubes, slick with olive oil, and roast at about 425 degrees until softened and caramelized (if your oven has a convection option, use it, but lower the heat to 400 degrees). You'll still have a lot of food left, but it won't look as intimidating as when you started. Finish with a dash of balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and more oil if needed, and eat hot, warm or cold. These keep well, too.
If you didn't plan ahead enough to roast the veggies, try shredding them, and turning them into a version of potato pancakes. This works with summer squashes if you toss them with a little flour and a beaten egg, plus whatever herbs appeal to you; try thyme, savory, rosemary, or oregano, or sprinkle with basil after taking them out of the skillet. Just saute flattened spoonfuls of the mixture in a little oil or butter over medium heat until golden on both sides, turning carefully.
Better yet, try this with beets (the idea for this comes from food writer Mark Bittman, with whom I interned years ago). Shred the peeled beets, toss with a little flour and minced rosemary, and saute small pancakes in a half-and-half mixture of melted butter and olive oil. (You can also make this as one big pancake; slide it out onto a plate after the bottom is cooked, top with another plate, flip, and slide back into the skillet to finish cooking). My heart beats fast for beets, but even beet-haters could be converted with this. This was my son's first taste of them, and he pronounced, "I love them!"
Pureed vegetables also make fabulous soup, and seem less daunting that way. I'm not a big broccoli lover (one of the few times I felt true sympathy for a president was when Bush the elder proclaimed his distaste for broccoli, and caught heck for saying so). For me, it's the texture, not the taste, that makes my toes curl, so I turn it into either cream of broccoli or curried broccoli soup. If your main experience with cream soups is Campbell's, try Julia Child's cream soups in The Way to Cook to understand how grand they can be.
About the only CSA vegetable we've received that consistently sits in the back of the fridge until it wilts is bok choy. I wasted much time searching for recipes that would transform this into something I'd really like to eat, but so far, nothing doing. That, of course, is the downside to a CSA; while it may force you to eat some foods you otherwise pass by, it also means you've paid for produce you may simply continue to pass by.
For me, this is not a big deal. If I get more than we can eat, I pass it along when possible to my parents. If it goes to waste, I console myself with the fact that we're helping a local, organic farm stay in business. And maybe by next spring, I'll finally find a way even to enjoy bok choy.
Cook's notes: We got several deliveries of radishes this year. Fresh, young ones that aren't too pungent are divine with good butter and a little salt. But for something different, try a quick braise; they'll taste somewhat like turnips and make a great side dish. This is adapted from a Deborah Madison recipe. I strongly prefer fresh thyme here. For the greens, use any mix you like, such as collard, mustard or turnip; kale works too, but won't need as long to cook.
20 plump radishes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 shallot, diced
1 teaspoon chopped thyme (or several pinches dried)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Trim the leaves from the radishes, leaving a bit of the green stems, and scrub them. If the leaves are tender and in good condition, wash them and set aside. Leave smaller radishes whole and halve or quarter larger ones.
Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small saute pan. Add the shallot and thyme and cook for 1 minute over medium heat. Add the radishes, a little salt and pepper, and water just to cover. Simmer until the radishes are tender, at least 5 minutes. Add the leaves if using and cook until they're wilted and tender, 1 minute more. Removes radishes with a slotted spoon to a serving dish. Boil the liquid, adding some or all of the remaining butter (I prefer all), until about only 1/4 cup remains. Pour it over the radishes and serve.
Basic Southern Greens
4 to 6 servings
1 8-ounce (about) ham hock
1 onion, chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons canola oil (optional)
4 cups water (more if needed)
Pinch sugar (optional)
2 teaspoons salt
2 pounds greens, chopped (stalks trimmed first) In a large, heavy stockpot, brown the ham hock and onion in the oil, if using. Add the water and bring to a boil. Add the sugar and salt; add the greens by handfuls and return to a boil. Stir, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 45 to 90 minutes, until tender, adding a little water if needed. Remove ham hock and chop meat, if desired, to add back to the greens. Serve hot.