Growing up in a Venezuelan Jewish home opting out of nightly family dinners was never an option. But every once in a while, I wished it was. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that I wanted to watch the finale of American Idol which always happened to air during dinnertime or that I would have rather had dinner at a friend’s house. Instead my occasional and mostly failed attempts at avoiding the family table came from my deep-seeded aversion to eating zucchini.
Photo: Joelle Abramowitz
Sometimes we need to encounter something new to help us unearth a remnant from the past.
“This week, I got sorrel,” I told my mother. Each week I’d recite to my mother what had come in my CSA share and what I ended up doing with my vegetables. The sorrel was notable because somehow, on my third year of being a CSA member, I still had not yet encountered sorrel for myself.
After receiving my box of vegetables, I tasted a small piece of the sorrel. It was as I’d expected, but more: lemony and sour and wonderful. Having only a few ounces of sorrel, I decided to make a sorrel-onion tart. Indeed, the bites with ample sorrel were quite lovely and refreshing.
I related my sorrel adventure to my mother.
White Russian kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, mustard greens, Chinese cabbage, cherriette radishes, and garlic chives fill my grocery bags. Delivered from the Northern Catskills to Lower Manhattan, this vegetable share is the beginning of my CSA experience in the city. I begin washing the bunches of greens, excited for the first flavors of the summer. Muddy water runs from the leaves into the sink.
Standing there in my studio in the middle of Manhattan, I can’t help but think about the farmer who planted these vegetables, the laborer who picked them, and their short journey from the farm to my counter. As an urbanite isolated from the food system that sustains me, and as a Jew with the Shmita year in the horizon, I cannot help but to draw connections between my participation in a CSA and my religion.
At the local farmer’s market, I’ve often been intimidated by some of the most beautiful produce on offer during the summer months: the varieties of shelling beans and peas that arrive in unusual colors and shapes. While I’ve admired these beans for their beauty, I’ve never been quite sure of what to do with them…and the prospect of spending time removing them from their pods has never been particularly attractive.
But when a pound of Tongue of Fire beans arrived in the CSA share this week, I had to step up to the plate. And…It was totally worth it.
In my earlier CSA Psolet Challenge posts, I committed myself to trying new recipes—specifically pesto—as part of my effort to be waste-free this month. My relationship to all this pesto-making turned out to be a mixed bag: I enjoyed eating pesto on pasta. I enjoyed creating a simple yet elevated dinner by spreading pesto on a baked potato. I enjoyed watching my one year old son smear pesto all over his face. What I did not enjoy was making the pesto. In my tiny Manhattan kitchen, none of the lovely kitchen appliances that occupied the extensive countertop in my Brooklyn apartment are anywhere within reach—so I grab the very useful Magic Bullet mini blender whenever I want to make a smoothie or some hummus. But sadly, the Magic Bullet was not particularly effective at making pesto, and blending the basil leaves and walnut to the right consistency became a very time consuming endeavor.
So when another bunch of basil arrived in this week’s CSA share, I opted for another route—several, in fact. Here are four ways to use your next basil harvest, with nary a pesto in sight.
If last week was about confronting my CSA enemy, this week was all about reuniting with a good CSA friend: beets. It took me a while for my love affair with beets to ignite, but when it did, I never looked back. In addition to being gorgeous and delicious, nutritionally speaking, beets have it all: folic acid, iron, magnesium, calcium, fiber, B-complex vitamins, potassium, and more. A beautiful bunch arrived in the share, the first we’ve received this season, and I pondered which of my many favorite recipes to prepare. As I considered my options, I realized that most recipes I love call for peeling the beets—a rather arduous and messy task. No matter which technique I’ve tried—peeling while raw, roasting wrapped in tin foil, roasting not wrapped in tin foil, boiling—I’ve never found the peeling process to be as simple as every cookbook promises. So I decided to go with a simple roasted beet recipe, shared with me by my good friend Stephanie Pell, which does not require peeling the beets. Not only is this a huge time saver, but—CSA psolet challenge bonus!—you create less waste by eating the peels instead of throwing them away.
Frisée! My CSA nemesis. What to do with this morass of spindly, bitter leaves that poke wildly in my mouth? The word frisée means ‘curly’ in French, and a head of this green indeed resembles a Medusa-like afro on the most humid of days. I’ve never bought frisée on my own accord, having experienced it in restaurants as a somewhat pretty but largely inedible garnish; on the rare occasion when I’ve encountered it as an unwieldy component in a salad, I’ve left it behind on the plate. So I stared rather blankly when a large head of frisée arrived in my CSA share this week, thinking that I would have to literally choke this one down in order to live up to my psolet challenge.
A quick Google search for recipes turned up variations on a theme: apparently, frisée is the preferred green for a French country salad that is bathed in a Dijon vinaigrette and topped with a poached egg. Traditionally, the salad includes thin slices of bacon (called lardons), but that would not fly in my kosher kitchen. Kashrut isn’t the only reason to eliminate the bacon, though, and I found several meat-free versions of this recipe that turned out to be surprisingly delicious.
Each day I go to breakfast
Put oatmeal in my bowl
Fill up my glass with O.J.
Eat half my jelly roll
I can’t believe I took more than I ate
That’s why I have so much psolet on my plate…
Some readers of this blog may recognize these words as the lyrics to the Psolet Song, sung at mealtimes at the Teva Learning Alliance as part of an effort to teach students about the Jewish injunction of bal tashchit, not wasting. This mitzvah comes to us from the book of Deuteronomy:
“When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy [lo tashchit] its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you?” (Deuteronomy 20:19)
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.