Springtime is in full swing in Tennessee. The dogwoods, irises and tulips are blooming, and last week I was privy to an early edition of my CSA share: parsnips, watercress, chickweed and kale. I’m still trying to decide what to make with the parsnips (besides drying them for soup this fall), but the greens made their way into salads and stir-frys.
The freshness of the greens got me thinking about what I have in easy garden access: parsley, mint, spinach, arugula and chard. The last of these was the most inspiring, and I’d love to share some of that, and a great dish with you!
I am incredibly spoiled to have a wonderful produce store just a few miles away, with a delectable array of organic fruits and veggies all year long. I always return home with much more produce than we’ll be able to eat, because I can’t resist their visual beauty and fragrances. Having access to so much fresh and organic produce has meant that we put off becoming a CSA member, that is, until a local CSA rep knocked on our door. Her earnest pitch and the sense of joining a larger community encouraged us to try it out.
Now, before I even drink my first cup of coffee, I leap out of bed eagerly on Thursday mornings to peek inside the box and behold what nature’s bounty awaits me. I always thought that I ate a varied and balanced diet (being originally trained as a public health nutritionist), until our CSA box began appearing at our doorstep. Almost every box brings something I’ve never cooked before, which sends me off in excitement looking for the perfect new recipe. A package of endive turned into a delicious hors d’œuvre stuffed with parmesan cheese, chopped walnuts and herbs. The shishito peppers (from Japan!) became an enticing side dish, simply cooked in hot oil until the skin began to blacken.
One of our recent boxes revealed a treasure of peaches and pluots. It’s been a great summer for stone fruit in California; last year’s crop, especially plums and pluots, was sparse due to strange spring weather. So, we’ve been gorging on juicy fruits the past month or so. When this box arrived, the fruit was still slightly firm, not quite ripe. I was intrigued to explore other alternatives. I have to admit that in addition to our many shelves of cookbooks I am a devotee of epicurious.com, and I turned there first. Who would have imagined that I’d find a recipe for Stone Fruit Slaw?
There I was, like a character out of a Nora Ephron film, standing in the middle of Zabar’s, asking anyone within earshot the difference between their two beet soups. The bustling Manhattan store’s two versions of borscht boast the same color, almost the same ingredients. Scrutinizing the two containers, I hold them up to the sage pastrami-slicer behind the deli counter, asking him how the two vary. Can I eat either cold? He shrugs, smiles and nods.
A few days later, shopping at my favorite Eastern European food emporium, M & I International in Brighton Beach, I spy a big pot of ruby-red borcsht labeled red borscht. But when I say want to eat it cold, the woman immediately turns her back and strides over to the fridge, pointing to another pot covered with plastic wrap. As I pay $6 for the tall tub of pink soup, the friendly Russian explains with great urgency that the cold version boasts sour cream and yogurt and should never ever be heated. If you enjoy pairing cold borscht with bread, buy or bake dark, old-world, farmer’s rye.
The pleasant dilemma is that there are as many versions of cold borscht as there are countries in the Olympics. Even the name and spelling changes with its place of origin depending on whether you’re concocting Latvian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian or Belarusian borscht.
Like many other CSA members, I have a love/hate relationship with lettuce. Oh it starts off innocent enough — the first tender bunches of arugula in early June herald a summer of fresh green things to come, blissful after a winter of squash and canned tomatoes and covert glances at California produce. Arugula and salad mix give way to the glory of the lettuce family, full heads of bib, romaine, oak leaf. Fractal symmetry amazes, salad possibilities tantalize.
But the magic fades quickly. Lettuce, again? Where are the tomatoes? The bushy purple-green heads languish at the back of the refrigerator, emerging a week later with frostbitten edges, only to be composted in order to make room for this week’s share…of more lettuce.
It’s mid-July and farmer’s markets and gardens are brimming with gorgeous produce. You don’t have to look far to find interesting ingredients for a summer meal — some of them are already a part of your everyday veggies. Instead of throwing away veggie leaves or discarding what are typically thought of as weeds (like dandelions and purslane), a slight change in perspective will reveal an even wider array of summer produce right in front of your eyes.
This week’s featured CSA veggie is beets. Often the leafy beet greens are discarded in favor of the rich root which is commonly baked, boiled, or made into soup. But beet greens are also a delicious and versatile summer veggie, and by putting the greens in a pan, rather than in the bin, you will gain a delicious and nutritious addition on your plate. Beet greens are actually so tasty that whole varieties have been cultivated so that the plants produce copious amounts of tender, sweet leaves and only the suggestion of a red beet.
Last fall, as my CSA was winding down, one of the farmers, Mark, gave me a LOT of garlic cloves from his planting stash. They were 2 inch cloves, huge by any standard, and I was loathe to relegate them to the dirt for replanting, when all I wanted to do was devour them.
I took several to the garden I tend at my synagogue, and planted the rest at home. After planting each bulb at a depth of about 2 inches, I covered them with soil, watered them, and at home I mulched them with about 4 inches of straw. The cloves grew slowly over the winter, and this spring I had 45 gorgeous garlic plants growing at home.
I wasn’t introduced to artichokes until I was ten and I’m not sure how I survived those ten years without them. Scary looking on the outside, but delicate, meaty, and a fun appetizer activity on the inside. Artichoke quickly became a staple at our family Shabbat dinner table, kids scrambling to drag the leaves through their teeth and reach the flavorful heart.
Native to the Mediterranean, Jews and artichokes have a long history together, dating back to the Talmud where Jews were given explicit permission to go through the extensive process of preparing an artichoke on festival days (BT Beitzah 34a). As the cultivation of artichokes spread throughout the Mediterranean, Sephardic Jews became infatuated with the vegetable, using it in countless recipes. According to Jewish food scholar Gil Marks, in Italy artichokes became known as “the Jewish vegetable,” partly because they were available and cheap in the Roman ghettos. While this nickname was originally derisive, fried Carciofi alla Giudia, Jewish Artichokes, is now a source of pride in Italy, especially in Rome where it is sold in restaurants that line the streets of the old ghetto.
“¿Que es eso, el blanco?” (What is this, the white [thing]?) I asked, jabbing with my fork at the white, slimy thing on my plate. The waitress looked at me and laughed. I had been in Spain all of 5 hours and I was tired, hungry, confused by the language and the food, and missing home terribly. Apparently whatever was on my plate was so commonplace that even to ask was seen as nothing short of idiotic. I asked again, trying to sound like I had something of a Spanish accent, instead of my Midwestern drawl, “¿Que es eso?” (What is this?) The waitress came back, and rattled off a sentence so fast that I must have looked like I had gotten hit with a truck. I sat there blinking for a few seconds and she said one word, slowly, so my jet-lagged brain could process, “espárrago.” (Asparagus)
True, it’s just the end of January. But farmers are already planning their crops for 2012, and you want them to plan with you in mind!
If you’re already a member of a Community-Supported Agriculture project, you know that you have a special relationship with your personal vegetable grower. In exchange for a payment up front, now or sometime soon, your farmer will bring you all the bounty of the harvest, once a week throughout the entire growing season, starting June (in the Northeast, at least).
If you haven’t already joined a CSA, maybe you’ve heard a thing or two about them. For instance, your friends might have brought a kohlrabi salad to your potluck. It’s a two-for-one vegetable that grows well in colder weather, they tell you, perfect to get an early start on the season. You can eat the stems and the bulbous stalk that, once peeled, is sweet like broccoli. Who knew it was so easy to become an expert on season extension, local crops, and exotic brassicas?! But this is just one benefit of being part of a CSA. As one member from Ansche Chesed CSA in Manhattan explained, “Being part of a CSA means I eat a greater variety of vegetables, and I try to think about cooking with what’s fresh and available rather than choosing a recipe and then buying ingredients.”
As the Jewish holiday season progresses from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur toward Sukkot, each holiday has a special relationship to food that builds on the preceding holiday. Rosh Hashanah is a time of feasting: succulent apples and honey and round raisin challah, a table of sweetened abundance. Yom Kippur, in contrast, is a day of fasting, and even though we are only hungry for a day, the holiday encourages empathy for those who face hunger every day, including 1.4 million New York City residents (according to the NYC Coalition Against Hunger) and millions of people world-wide. Finally, during the harvest festival of Sukkot, we combine feasting with our obligation to feed the hungry.
Leviticus 23:22 describes the harvest commandment of peah, according to which we must leave the four corners of our field to be gleaned by the poor and the stranger. In the system of peah, leaving the corners of one’s field unharvested provides for the hungry in a way that addresses their needs while simultaneously preserving their dignity: the hungry can take produce as needed without the embarrassment or shame that could accompany receiving charity. For those of us living in an urban area, where the majority of the residents are not farmers, we can use the tradition of peah as guidance for the way we address local food insecurity.
This Sukkot, a program called Care to Share is doing just that.
We know that farmers “make hay while the sun shines,” but what do they do when it rains…and rains…and rains…? The devastation caused by Hurricane Irene, and Tropical Storm Lee that followed on its heels, highlight the precariousness of farming and the painful, tragic effects of extreme weather events. In the wake of these storms, farmers across the Northeast are assessing damages and picking up pieces. For many, waterlogged fields have caused total crop failures; incessantly wet weather is causing storage crops to rot rather than cure; and what should have been three more months of salable produce can now only be plowed under. No matter how skilled the farmers are, the tragedy is that it’s not their fault; they did nothing wrong — it’s just what happens.
Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) attempts to mitigate some of the risk of extreme weather to farmers. Customers buy a share of the entire season, and in the contract they sign before the first snap pea is even a tendril on the vine, they agree that “being a member of the CSA involves sharing the rewards and risks (eg. poor weather, early winter, etc.) with our farmer.” But in practice, this can be a tough truth to swallow when customers find out, as did the members of the Hazon CSA at the 14th St. Y last week, that their five months of produce deliveries were cut down to three. It’s not their fault either — it’s just what happens.
I usually avoid a fight in which you’re bound to lose (because it is really hard to change a person’s opinion with your own opinion). However, I do get riled up when people make uneducated claims about farmers’ markets, and CSAs. I’ve heard plenty in my three years as a CSA host. Then a few weeks ago, I was a guest at a luncheon in which people disparaged the prices at our local farmers’ market, including the statement, “The prices at my daughter’s farmers’ market are cheaper.”
On my way to the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market in Philadelphia on Sunday morning, I was still fuming about the conversation, so I decided to seek some knowledgeable answers.
August 18, 2011 marked the first day of Hazon’s annual Food Conference. The four day gathering at UC-Davis, a global leader in sustainability projects, united people from Colorado to Japan under open blue skies and amongst beautiful trees, flowers, creeks, and even a dairy farm and winery. Food, fun, and activities aside, the 311 person gathering had an intense agenda including seven program tracks like Food Systems and Policy and Jewish Agriculture.
The Food Justice and Tikkun Olam track provided an opportunity for community activists, teachers, students and foodies alike to learn from one another about our complex food system and a broader movement to address hunger, poverty, workers rights, and food access both locally and abroad. Pursue, a project of American Jewish World Service and AVODAH, hosted a session called “Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA): A Vehicle for Collective Action and World-Changing!” The workshop provided a platform for learning, idea sharing, and, ideally, continued conversation and collaboration. All three presenters were recipients of the Pursue Food Justice Scholarship, a pilot initiative to strengthen the food justice programming at this year’s conference.
Like a number of young American Jews involved in the “food movement,” a group of about 10 people will gather this summer at an organic farm. They’ll harvest the farm’s bounty, participate in cooking classes, study Jewish texts and form an intentional community. But this group will do it all in Yiddish.
The program called Yiddish Farm, started by Naftali Ejdelman and Yisroel Bass, will launch its pilot summer program in late July at Kayam Farm outside Baltimore. Next year they will move the operation to a farm they have rented outside of New York City, where they hope to ultimately create a “Yiddish speaking pluralistic community there all year round,” says Ejdelman. We sat down with Ejdelman to find out their plans, a bit about the roots of Yiddish farming (there’s more than you might expect!) and what they will be growing on their farm.
Check back on Wednesday for an editorial on “Fair Food” and a podcast with author Oran Hesterman.
My first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) pick up of fresh, local, organic veggies, is a few days away. In mid-winter, I plunked down $550, signed up for my volunteer slots, and felt good that I was voting with my fork for a healthier, more sustainable food system.
During the 2011 growing season, I’m joined by a network of 56 Hazon CSAs and thousands more CSAs across the country. While I am excited for the season to begin, I’m aware of the many people don’t have access to a CSA or even to a grocery store. According to one USDA study on food deserts, “more than 57 percent of people living in low income neighborhoods have limited physical access to supermarkets or grocery stores.”
Our food system is broken. Joining a CSA is a great first step, and there is more we can do in order to fix it.
Rabbi Rebecca Joseph changed one letter and started a business.
Last August, she launched the first kosher and sustainable CSD — Community Supported Dinnerculture project— a tasty riff on a CSA (community supported agriculture project). Community supported dinnerculture, like its agricultural counterpart, involves buying shares of a company and sharing in the proceeds. Members pay a lump sum at the beginning of a season and then pick up a freshly prepared, ethically sourced, kosher dinner for their family to enjoy at home each week.
Joseph’s CSD, called 12 Tribes Foods, runs on a seasonal cycle, with members buying shares — basically a subscription — for three months at a time. However, with its summer season beginning June 1st, 12 Tribes is experimenting with month-to-month subscriptions to accommodate people’s erratic summer schedules.
Many years ago, as I was just beginning to learn about eating locally, I took what felt like a big step: I promised myself I would only eat strawberries in the summer, when they were ripe in New York where I lived. I would celebrate summer with the sweet red juiciness of freshly-picked strawberries, and cast away their pallid, California-born cousins that would appear on fruit platters and dipped in chocolate at other times of the year. The switch hit home an important lesson: Eating with the seasons brought new treats with the passing of time. Waiting for those strawberries, I noticed the seasons change…and I enjoyed those strawberries ten times more than I had before, having waited so long to eat them once again.
In practice, the pressure of waiting for the next harvest is something we’ve largely relieved ourselves of, thanks to refrigeration, transportation and new varieties bred to withstand season bending production and travel. But Jewish tradition still retains something of that eager countdown towards a new crop: counting the Omer.
When winter arrives in the northeast, local farms are blanketed in snow and even some of the most conscious cooks’ attention shifts away from farmer’s market and into the sad acceptance that it’s nearly impossible to eat locally-sourced vegetables and fruits during these cold months. Folks look around at the snow and ice and then look at me, an organic farmer, and ask the inevitable question: What do farmers in the northeast do now? After I let them know that I’m on “summer vacation”, relaxing from growing their food, I let them in on the rarely-told story of the farmer in the winter, and how that story can help them eat locally year-round, supporting small, sustainable food businesses.
The winter is definitely a time for farmers to catch their breath, let their bodies recover from the physicality of the rest of the year, and read (I’m currently nose deep in “Atlas of Remote Islands”. It is also a time for farmers to get busy crop planning, scheduling the timing of plantings, determining how much of each crop to grow, ordering seeds and equipment, and hiring apprentices or farm labor for the coming season.
This week, New York celebrates its local foods with the Edible magazines’ “Eat, Drink Local Week”. If you live close by, you can enjoy the tart sweetness of a concord grape from the Fingerlakes, or delectable cheeses fermented in the rolling countryside of this beautiful state.
CSA members around the country, who’ve signed up for a share of a local farm for the entire season, are enjoying one of the most bountiful harvests now, when heat-loving nightshades like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants have finally gotten enough sun and are producing full force. The first hints of fall fare – including corn squash, purple potatoes, storage onions – are also starting to come in, in bright hues, ready for roasting on a blustery fall day.
I have always thought that there could be no better farm-to-table experience than a dinner hosted by Outstanding in the Field, an organization that brings chefs and farmers around the country together to experience the connection to the land via local and sustainable produce and artisan food-makers. The image of the long rectangular table stretched out across an open field has always represented to me the most fitting way to celebrate the fruit of the earth.
That is, until I attended Chef Michael Solomonov’s Sukkot Harvest Supper: A Celebration of Nature’s Bounty in support of Hazon, the largest Jewish environmental organization in the world, this past Sunday. In the middle of a field at Judy and Mark Dornstreich’s Branch Creek Farm in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, under a giant herb- and flower-filled sukkah, approximately 150 folks gathered to bless wine and challah. They were of course also there to enjoy the bounty of the farm’s harvest in a five-course meal designed to highlight the best local produce, Hazon’s local CSAs, and organic sustainable gourmet products from the Negev desert.
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