Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Introduction to Green Garlic

Week 6's take included four heads of lettuce, Swiss chard, zucchini and summer squash, fennel, broccoli, and a strange, four-foot vegetable known as green garlic. In advance of getting the green garlic, I scoured the web for green garlic recipes and found a few. Recipes had instructions such as “snap off and chop the scape” and “peel the brown outer layer.” This left me confused until I watched a video about what green garlic looks like and what the different parts are called. At the bottom of the plant is a familiar bulb of garlic that has not been “cured.” Curing dries out the garlic bulb making it easy to store for longer periods of time. The green stem in the middle of the plant with the slight bulge at the top contains a flower and is called a “scape.” This is edible and has a mild garlic flavor.
I was eager to cook with this familiar, yet strange vegetable and found Penne with Roasted Garlic, Pancetta and Arugula. This dish was perfect because it not only used the garlic from this week’s selection, but also used some of the arugula that I still had from Week 5. And I love combining two or more of my weekly vegetables in a single recipe.

Roasting Garlic
Because roasting garlic can take anywhere from forty minutes to more than an hour, I roasted it the day before. The recipe called for 6 bulbs, and I only had 4 so I supplemented with regular garlic. In the picture, the green garlic bulbs are the smaller, pinker ones and the regular garlic is larger with papery skin. To roast garlic, simply cut off the tops such that the cloves are exposed, drizzle with olive oil (I used extra virgin), cover with foil and place in the oven for at least 45 minutes at 375 degrees. Roasted garlic can be enjoyed on its own as a spread. Once roasted, squeeze the cloves out (they should be soft and creamy) and spread onto bread for a delicious appetizer.

Penne With Roasted Garlic, Pancetta and Arugula

Some thoughts on the eventual dish I created: Overall, it was very good--and I would make it again--but it could use some modification. First, I never cooked with pancetta before and didn’t remember what it tasted like (but I’m sure I’ve had it in a restaurant before). The pancetta was on the salty side but came out as crispy as bacon, even though at first, it appeared fattier. In the future, I would likely use bacon instead. Second, when adding the garlic, my intuition told me that the 6 bulbs I had roasted was too much and I added only half the garlic stated in the recipe. That proved to be plenty and the garlic gave the dish a surprisingly cheesy, creamy texture. The wilted arugula added a delicious spiciness, rounding out the dish. Yum!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sautéed Collard Greens with Ham

Week five is the first week where everything I received was green. Strawberries, which were the only non-green item up until now, are done for the season. My take included more of the same: four heads of lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula, collards, and now, two new additions: scallions and chard.  After another hour of back-breaking work, I also picked a quart of sugar snap peas and a quart of snow peas.  Scallions were in a choice group with radicchio (this means that from this group, I pick two items in any combination I choose). I chose two bunches of scallions and no radicchio. I’ll be honest: no matter how many times I’ve had radicchio, I’ve never liked it. Its bitter taste is just too overwhelming for me and I always push it to the side of the plate whenever it comes with my salad. At the same time, I love scallions and was sure I could make lots of interesting things with them.

I’ve received collards three times and three times, I’ve given them to my parents-in-law. It’s not that the collards are the red-headed step-child in my weekly take; it’s just that I never seem to get around to trying them and since my in-laws know what to do with them and I don’t, I figure they could enjoy them while I figure out whether kale is just a decoration or an edible food. Imagine how delighted I was to receive the collards back. In cooked form. They were sautéed with some honey ham. The flavor of cooked collards mixed with meat reminded me of my Russian childhood eating golubtzi, known as stuffed cabbage in English. Collards retain their deep green color and the flavor is a cross between grape leaves and cabbage.

Here, then, is my father-in-law’s recipe for collards with ham:

Sautéed Collards with Ham
(Print this recipe)

1/4 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 lb. honey ham, diced
1 bunch collards, chopped
1 Tbsp. oil

Heat oil in a pan and, when hot, sauté onion and garlic until softened. Add the ham and cover with water. Cook for approximately half an hour. Add the collards and cook until soft. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Kale and Spinach and Yes, More Lettuce

My take for week four: four heads of lettuce, two pounds of spinach, kale, collards, arugula, and more pick-your-own strawberries and snap peas.

I focused on preparing kale this week because it’s a vegetable I’ve never tried before. My familiarity with kale is limited to seeing it used as a ruffled doily underneath sandwiches and burgers on my plate. Delis seem to use kale as a frilly border for potato salad. Well, it’s time to bring kale to the fore and make a dish out of it. Raw, kale tastes like a cross between broccoli and cabbage. Cooked, it has a mild cabbage flavor.

Bringing kale to the fore proved difficult. Kale still seems like a side dish to me so I made it with peanut sauce. I probably overdid the peanut sauce because it was a little heavy on the sauce. It was tasty to me despite my inability to convince anyone else to try it.

Kale in Peanut Sauce
(adapted from How to Cook Everything)
(Print this recipe)

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. chopped garlic
1 lb. kale
1/4 c. chicken stock (or vegetable stock if you want vegetarian)
3 Tbsp. peanut butter
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

In a deep skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until hot.  Add garlic and cook, stirring, until golden brown. Add the kale, stock, peanut butter and salt and pepper. Cover and cook until the kale is wilted, about five minutes.  After five minutes, uncover and cook another five minutes.  Remove from heat and add the lemon juice. Adjust the seasonings, if necessary.  Serve hot or at room temperature.

Blanching and Freezing Spinach

With so much produce, it’s time to get serious about preserving some of this goodness, else risk spoilage. There is not much one can do about lettuce but the other greens lend themselves to freezing. I ordered Preserving Summer’s Bounty to learn how to freeze, dry and can a variety of vegetables. Freezing turns out to be quite easy. You just blanch the vegetable in question, shock it in ice water, dry it off and freeze it.  Of course "easy" doesn't always mean "quick."

Having frozen spinach on hand means I can top homemade pizzas with it or drop some in omelets for extra flavor and nutrition.  I also sneak it into homemade Asian-style dumplings.  Amazingly, spinach is a vegetable my son has always liked. My daughter has never touched a vegetable in her life so I continue to experiment with trying to sneak vegetables into her.

To freeze spinach, in a large pot, bring at least a gallon of water to a rolling boil. Use a gallon of water per pound of vegetable. While the water is coming to a boil, wash and trim the spinach and discard wilted leaves. Prepare a large bowl about a third full of ice water. Once the water boils, drop the spinach in and wait for the water to come back to a rolling boil. Once it is at a boil again, set your timer for two minutes. After the spinach has blanched, pull it out and drop it in the ice water. This shocks the spinach and prevents it from cooking further. Let it cool. Pull it out and dry it out on paper or kitchen towels. Divide into batches or leave as one big batch (whatever you need) and put into freezer-safe containers. Freeze, then bag and stack more efficiently in the freezer.

I separated mine into four half-cup plastic containers. The volume of spinach went from this:

…to this:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Lettuce, Spinach and Bok Choy… Oh Boy!

My take the third week: Six heads of lettuce (it makes the previous week’s four heads seem downright stingy), spinach, bok choy, collard greens, and pick-your-own strawberries and snap peas. Apparently, the family share of the harvest includes a free gym membership as well. After picking strawberries and snap peas for over an hour, the following day I felt as if I'd been to the gym. Every muscle I had ached and all I wanted to do was to stay in bed. But no. Whether I want to or not, I have to make dinner most nights for my hungry crew, else we have to suffer through take-out.

I gave most of the lettuce and the collard greens away. I’ve never bought or used collard greens before and I’m not sure I’ve even tasted them before. It wasn’t that I wasn’t willing to try them; I was just preoccupied with making use of the other things in a timely manner. With bok choy and snap peas, I made a dinner of grilled Flat Iron Steak, accompanied by Bok Choy and Snap Peas. With spinach, I made Schav, a Russian cold borscht traditionally made with sorrel, but which can also be made with spinach. Sorrel is hard to find and spinach is the common substitute.

Flat Iron Steak with Bok Choy and Snap Peas
(Print this recipe)

1 lb. flat iron steak
1 Tbsp. oil
1 head bok choy
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1/4 c. oyster sauce
2 cups snap or snow peas, cleaned and strings removed
3 Tbsp. soy sauce

1.  Preheat grill or broiler. Rub steak with oil and season with salt. Grill (or broil 4 inches from the heat) on each side for about 3-4 minutes for medium rare. Remove from the heat and let rest before slicing.

2.  In the meantime, chop the bok choy. Separate the white stems from the green leaves. The stems take longer to cook so they will go in first. Heat a skillet with oil and sauté the garlic until light brown and fragrant. Add the stems and stir fry until softened. Add the leaves and stir fry until wilted.  Remove from heat and stir in the oyster sauce.

3.  Wipe pan and return to heat. Add more oil if necessary. When hot, add the snap peas and stir fry until they've turned bright green and are crisp tender. Remove from heat and stir in the soy sauce.

4.  Slice the steak and serve with these two delicious sides.

Spinach Soup (Schav)
(adapted from Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman)
(Print this recipe)

When days are hot, I always crave this cold, green soup from my Russian childhood. My grandmother would make this with the tangy, lemony sorrel that was always available there. Here, in the US, it’s not so available. In the last ten years, I’ve only seen it sold once in my local supermarket and even so, it was sold as an herb in a small plastic container alongside the other herbs. That is not nearly enough for this light, cool soup. You will need seven cups of it so the small containers won’t do. Use spinach instead for a reasonably good facsimile to the traditional sorrel soup.

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 small rib celery, chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/4 chopped scallions
5-6 cups chicken stock
2 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
7 cups spinach (or 4 cups sorrel and 3 cups spinach)
salt and pepper
1/2 c. heavy cream
2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced, for garnish
2 small cucumbers, peeled and diced, for garnish
sour cream, for garnish

1.  In a large soup pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add celery and shallot and sauté until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the scallions and sauté another 5 minutes.

2.  Add stock and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and reduce the heat to medium low. Make sure the stock is covering the potatoes; if not, add more stock or water to cover. Simmer the potatoes until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove them from the soup and set aside.

3.  Bring the soup back to a boil. Add the spinach and cook until wilted, 3 minutes or so.  Remove from heat and add the salt and pepper.

4.  Using an immersion blender, puree the soup in the pot.  Alternatively, pour the soup into a blender and puree in batches. Move the soup to a tureen.  Stir in the heavy cream, cool, and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

5.  To serve, dice the potatoes and add them to the soup along with the sliced egg, cucumber, and sour cream.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Lettuce, Lettuce, and More Lettuce

On my pick up day of the second week, it was raining cats and dogs and lizards and snakes. I debated about whether to go at all and re-read the rules about switching pick up days. You can switch days if you call in advance and you’ll be able to pick up the produce that they harvest for you on a different day but you can’t pick your own vegetables on other days. So I put on my poncho and headed to the farm. I dressed in a light t-shirt and pants underneath. I arrived and had my first experience with picking up the vegetables that they had harvested. At the farm stand that week they had lettuce and arugula. I had checked the farm’s blog before going to see what would be available that day. The blog mentioned a “little lettuce” and arugula. When I arrived, I realized that my definition of “a little” was different from the farmer’s. My share included four heads of lettuce and a pound of arugula! I laughed. What was I going to do with four heads of lettuce? Even at our most diligent, there is only so much lettuce that we can eat in a week. And a pound of arugula? When you go to the supermarket and you pick up a clamshell container of arugula or other greens, the container looks big but it is usually only 5 or 6 ounces of greens. Imagine loading up the scale with a pound of greens. It makes for a lot of volume.

There were strawberries to be picked still and I decided to go picking despite the rain. It wasn’t raining heavily – and I did have my poncho on – but the wind made it cold. What made me think that mid-May rain was going to be warm? I trekked the significant distance to the fields and began to pick. It was slow going because of the rain and my glasses began to collect rain and obscure my vision. The wind whipped at me periodically. By the time I was done, I could barely wait to get home. My fingers were so frozen I couldn’t uncurl them, and the two paper quarts of strawberries became too wet to hold all those strawberries. A tear developed in one of them and by the time I got to the car, the bottom fell out and with it, all the strawberries. I picked them up from the gravel and put them in a plastic bag. In the car I turned on the heat, which quickly warmed up my frozen fingers. Next time if it rains, I’ll pick a different day to go picking.

But oh, those strawberries were worth it.

The lettuce found its way into my usual green salad consisting of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and carrots. Arugula took a little more thought because I didn’t remember what it tasted like or knew what to do with it. Sure I’ve had it in salads when I've gone out to a restaurant but I’ve never bought it. When fresh, the taste is bitter and surprisingly spicy. How could a green be spicy? Over the course of the week, I made two different arugula salads, one using both arugula and strawberries. It makes me feel clever to make use of more than one weekly CSA ingredient in one dish.

Arugula Salad
(adapted from a Whole Foods recipe)

2 Tbsp. lime juice
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
¾ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground cumin
1 garlic clove, minced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups baby arugula leaves
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro

Combine the first six ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk in the olive oil. Add the arugula and cilantro and toss. Adjust the seasonings if necessary.

Strawberry Arugula Salad
(adapted from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman)

3 cups strawberries, hulled and halved
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
4 cups arugula
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Mix the strawberries with the balsamic vinegar and let stand for ten minutes. Add the arugula, salt and olive oil and toss. Adjust the seasoning, if necessary.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The First Week: Strawberries!

I turned down a road at the sign for the Watershed Reserve and immediately saw farmland ahead. The quiet country road is flanked on both sides by tall grass and farmland. The farm entrance was not too far away. I parked by the farm stand and checked in with the attendant who had set up a table near the field. He explained that this was the first week and they didn’t have the name badges ready yet. I signed in and got my two single quart containers to pick strawberries. The field for picking was a bit of a walk past the herbs (which I could also pick) and some tall grass. Now, picking strawberries isn’t something I had done in more than ten years. My only experience with picking strawberries entailed bending down twenty times a minute in 90-degree heat trying to find some reasonably ripe strawberries underneath wilted leaves that had sprawled into the dusty channels between strawberry beds. It was then that I had decided that I’d stick to store-bought strawberries. The only problem is that store-bought strawberries are usually disappointing and I haven’t tasted a good strawberry in years.

I came to the strawberry beds and picked one to taste. What a difference! It was sweet and juicy, not hard and bland like supermarket strawberries. The strawberries were plentiful and easy to pick. The challenge was how to pack my quarts efficiently with as many strawberries as possible.

Opening day actually fell on my pick-up day: Tuesday. When I signed up, the application asked me to choose a pick up day. Without knowing anything about the best day, I picked Tuesday. As I picked, there was another man picking who told me that in previous years picking always started on a Wednesday. After he complained that “Tuesday don’t get a break,” they decided to start on a Tuesday this year. How lucky for me!

With my quarts full of strawberries, I made my way back and stopped to pick a few herb sprigs. Never (well, almost never) having cooked with fresh herbs before I can tell you that I don’t know the difference between sage and oregano and wouldn’t be able to identify either of them by sight or by taste. I mean, who knows what oregano tastes like if it’s mixed into jarred pasta sauce? I picked oregano, sage, chives and mint. Perhaps I can get a crash course in cooking with a wide variety of herbs this year.

At home, I added chives to an omelet and made some fresh mint tea by steeping mint in boiled water. Delicious! But I didn’t know what to do with the sage or oregano. At least, not yet.

As for the strawberries, most were eaten fresh. I sliced them up for my kids and they devoured them. My daughter in particular likes strawberries. As the days wore on however, half a quart of the strawberries began to languish in the fridge. Unthinkable! So I made some strawberry yogurt pops. My daughter loves these and thinks they are a “treat” when, in reality, they are a healthy snack.

Strawberry Yogurt Popsicles

2 cups strawberries, washed and with stems removed
2 cups vanilla yogurt
1-2 teaspoons honey, or to taste

Blend everything to desired consistency, pour into ice pop molds and freeze. If you want a smoother consistency without strawberry chunks, puree the strawberries first and press the mixture through a sieve to separate out the seeds. Then, blend with the yogurt and honey. If you don’t have special ice pop molds, you can pour the mixture into small Dixie cups. Cover each cup with foil and stick a wooden popsicle stick into each.

So I Joined a CSA

Together with my husband, we joined a CSA this year. Finally. A co-worker of my husband’s told us about this whole CSA thing a few years ago. It sounded interesting at the time but given that we were both working, it remained a good idea only in theory. In practice, I knew that I couldn’t devote that much time to cooking all week long to take advantage of the produce before it would go bad. But last year, in 2009, I remembered about this idea in the spring and decided to join. I looked through a list of local CSAs online and settled on one: Honeybrook Organic Farm in Pennington, NJ. But when I clicked on the link to join, I received the message that it was too late and that the 2009 season had sold out. What a shame.

So I waited. Promptly in February of this year, I filled out the application and sent in a check. And waited. It was a long wait to see if I’d get a share and I didn’t hear from them until the end of March. Priority is given to previous members over new members. But we got the postcard in the mail that we were in. I could hardly wait until May.

Hubby and I had debated about whether to get an individual share or a family share. According to their website, an individual share feeds two adults and a family share feeds four. Given our two little ones, it was doubtful they could be relied on to chow down on all those veggies. But, my husband felt it was better to have more rather than less. So we chose the family share. But neither of us really realized how much a family share was.

What is a CSA?

CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. Individual farms participating in CSAs offer shares of farm crops to community members for a fee. In this model, consumers pay ahead of time for a “share” of the crops that they then receive throughout the season. Consumers generally have no control over what they will receive; they receive whatever is ripe and in season. A positive feature of the model is that the produce is usually below market price and often organic. A negative is that this is not for people who can’t handle unpredictability, who don’t like most vegetables, or who don’t like the concept of not being able to choose.

For more information, visit Local Harvest; the website describes what this is and how it works. It also has a search engine for finding a CSA farm that is close to you.

The Challenge

After the first few weeks of receiving vegetables, I began to realize just how much a family share is at this farm and just how much cooking, preserving and giving away I must do. My refrigerator is now overstuffed with bags of greens: lettuce, spinach, arugula, kale, chard and bok choy. Every crevice is taken up to the point where I’ve had to cut back on buying other foods that I normally restock the fridge with. It is overwhelming.

What to do with it all? The answer is that I must cook, cook, cook. What to cook and what to preserve for later? Can I use it all up in creative and delicious ways? Can I preserve some for later use the rest of the year? Will my picky family eat it, or at least try new vegetables? Oh, and did I mention that I’m just a home cook who has never cooked with some of these vegetables that I’m going to get?

I don’t know the answer to these questions but I’m excited to embark on this culinary journey for the next six months.