Friday, September 24, 2010

CSAs - huh?

I got a watermelon for my weekly CSA share, and was wondering what else we could do with it besides eat it, since the dang thing weighed about 20 pounds.

Warning: informative rant ahead.

"What is a CSA?" you ask.

Let me tell you.  CSA stands for "Community Supported Agriculture" and until late last year, I had NO idea they existed.  I feel like I was living in the Middle Ages and just entered the Renaissance.

Simply explained, let me quote the Federal Government, because for once they actually were able to form a cohesive paragraph that makes sense:
Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members or "share-holders" of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer's salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm's bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production. Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. By direct sales to community members, who have provided the farmer with working capital in advance, growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security, and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing.
How great is that?  You are supporting your community, AND getting stuff that was  picked within a day or two of your receiving it, that was probably grown with little/no pesticides.  Yes, you share the "risk" of poor harvests, but the farmers know what they are doing, and the risk is minimal compared to the benefits you get.  For about $35/week, I get an assortment of 8 types of fresh fruits and veggies (enough to feed 4), along with a loaf of bread AND farm fresh eggs - oh - and I know MY eggs aren't on the Federal Gov't recall list  :-P  My CSA is a "value added" CSA - they  partner with local meat/dairy/agricultural farms, so I can also buy fresh cheese, beef, chicken, pork, and sometimes lamb.  I am in nutritional heaven :) And I have a confession to make - when I go to the grocery store, I secretly feel smug walking past all those poor people in the produce aisle that don't know what they are missing.  I admit it!

local made products - jams, soaps, etc.
If you haven't heard of CSAs, I suggest going HERE  and HERE to find out more about them, and to get a list of CSAs in your area.  In fact at the last link,, I found MY CSA, Breezy Willow Farm.

I hope I have you stoked about CSAs now...let me give you a few tips to help you make the right choice when choosing one.

  1. Find out the cost. (this varies)
  2. Find out how long the commitment is (also varies- mine is 24 weeks)
  3. Find out what you get (that also varies) and the amount. Don't expect an exact amount or monthly list of fruits/veggies - but they should tell you the number of items you'll get each week, and how much your share will feed, for example - "8 different items, that will feed a family of 4."  Be sure to ask what an "item" is...There is a CSA (not mine) that counts herbs as an "item" :-P  Most CSAs will have some sort of list on their website so you can get a feel for what is offered.  Don't be put off by stuff you don't recognize - it may be delish.  I never had kale until I joined my CSA - now I am hooked on Kale Chips! (recipe will follow in the next blog post or two)
  4. Find out if they partner with other farms in the area, or are a "value added" CSA.  If they are, you may have a wider variety of things being offered in addition to just veggies/fruits.
  5. Find out if they have work shares, if you don't mind getting sweaty and sometimes dirty.  You may be able to work on the farm for a few hours/week in exchange for your weekly share.  The work can be anything from loading a truck for a remote site pick up, to weeding, planting, or boxing/bagging shares.  Again, it varies.  But please don't go expecting to keep your manicure and wear that brand new white shirt you just bought.  Get real - wear old clothes and sneakers, and expect to get dirty and/or sweaty.  If you can't deal with this, then don't volunteer :)  A work share is also a commitment.  Make sure you can stick it out to the end.  If you can't make it one week, get a replacement...Remember you are working each week for YOUR share.
Now, this is what you, as a CSA member should expect:
  1. An assortment of fruits and veggies each week based upon what is ready to be harvested.  This means you have to go with the flow.  Sometimes you'll get a few weeks of one particular item if they have a bumper crop, but that just gets your creative juices flowing, and the freezer IS your friend!  They may not have those plums you ADORED for long, because they have a short growing season.  Ask questions - you'll find that farmers are intelligent, passionate, and willing to share their knowledge with you.
  2. A healthier diet!
  3. Produce that has minimal to no pesticides.
  4. Produce that has been picked within a day or two of your receiving it, not sitting on a truck for two weeks.
  5. A variety of fruits and veggies you will NOT find in your local supermarket.
  6. You'll spend less at the grocery store, even if you pay for your share instead of working it off.

 This is a commitment.  The farmers plant and plan for the season based upon the number of shares they have.  Please don't leave them high and dry.  I have to admit, I was a little hesitant to step into my CSA waters, because of the 24 week obligation - that's almost half a year.  I am SO happy I did though!  Our family has never had healthier food in the house, I get to play with stuff I've never had before and I get varieties of things I never see in the supermarket.  I cajoled Ken and Jason to let me buy the last few dinosaur plums they had lying around because I was so in love with them.  I rarely bought plums in the supermarket because I did not care for them.  These are delicious.  Meg just called me from college complaining about the peaches she bought at the local supermarket.  She couldn't eat them.  The CSA has spoiled her rotten (in a good way!) luckily, there is a wonderful farm just 5 miles from campus that she can get her fresh picked fix :)

When you go to pick up your share, if there is something you like, ASK if you can buy extra -  you sometimes can, especially if they had a bumper crop.  If you like to can or freeze, ask if they have any seconds.  It never hurts to ask :)

My CSA donates extra produce to the local food bank.  How great is that? :)

If there are just two of you - consider splitting a share with another couple.  Take the CSA plunge!  You may find some new foods you like, you'll definitely be eating healthier, and you'll be supporting your neighbors :-)

Willow - you can see he sometimes like to help out on pick up days at the farm :)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Butternut whut?!

Most people think of butternut squash as something in soup or that you serve all butter and sugared up at Thanksgiving dinner.  Having gotten a beautiful one as part of my C.S.A. share, I pondered its fate in our family kitchen.

I wanted to do something different - I do have a great recipe for a beef chili-like stew with butternut squash, but we hadn't had chicken in a while, so I decided to put my thinking cap on, and peruse FoodNetwork for possible ideas.

I found a recipe for a chicken with butternut squash and prunes.  First off, I don't care much for prunes - when I was younger I liked them, but now that I am getting closer to an age that is associated with prunes...ehh...notsomuch.  Prunes. Ugh...the name isn't even appetizing, and I would rather eat plums before they become a dried up whisper of what they once were on the tree.

 Besides, I prefer figs over prunes.  I love their flavor - it's not overpowering, and it pairs wonderfully with a naturally sweet veggie like butternut squash.

So I decided to make a variation of the recipe I found on the Food Network (original is HERE if you are interested)

If you like Mediterranean food or Indian food, you'll probably like this - it's aromatic, slightly sweet, and the chicken is moist.  The butternut squash pairs perfectly with the figs and the orange juice, but the shallots and garlic offset the sweetness.  It is SO EASY TO MAKE.  I am guessing you could probably even crockpot it - if you do, I would suggest browning the chicken first.  

Baked Chicken with Fall Veggies and Figs (printable recipe HERE)
Serves 4

4 Chicken breasts bone in skin on, cut in half and thin rib part removed (Don't be afraid to sub out thighs/legs for breasts)
1 small to medium butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, and cubed (If you don't want to peel and cut a butternut squash, they do sell them already cubed in the store - but honestly? fresh is best! :)

3 medium potatoes, cubed, or some small baby potatoes skin on. (Not necessary, but I like a nice contrast of colors when I cook)
1/2 cup frozen green beans, or fresh green beans sliced. (Again, not written in stone - sub out corn, peas, carrots, whatever you want/have in the house)
1/2 cup mission figs, halved
2 good size shallots, sliced thin (You can sub out 1 onion, halved and sliced thin)
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup orange juice
about 1 tsp of grated orange rind
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 - 1 1/2 tsp fresh thyme (1/2 tsp. if you are using dried)
1/2 tsp oregano, dried (or 1 1/2 tsp. fresh)
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2.  Add veggies, figs, spices, shallots and garlic to a dutch oven, or roasting pan.  Toss to mix.  Just toss the stuff into your roasting pan as you cube/slice/dice it.  Can't get much easier than that...Feel free to fool around with the veggies you put in as well - Don't have shallots? Use an onion halved and sliced thin.  Don't want potatoes? omit them.  Want parsnips? add them..turnips would probably work nicely here too.  Anything that pairs well with some sweetness, i.e. the orange juice and figs.

3.  Place chicken breasts on top of the veggie mix. Combine the broth and OJ, and pour the liquid over the top of the chicken, grate some fresh orange rind over the chicken, and season with salt and pepper.  I just grated the orange rind over the top of the chicken - I would guess it was about a teaspoon if you want particulars.  Salt and pepper the chicken before you pop it into the oven.

4.  Bake covered in a 350 degree oven for 40 minutes.  Uncover, then cook for about 40 more minutes, basting about every 15 minutes until chicken is nicely browned.  Basting is important - it will keep the chicken breast nice and moist.  If you don't have a turkey baster, use a soup spoon to ladle the juice over the chicken.

5.  Put some veggies on a plate, arrange 2 breast quarters and spoon some pan juices over all.

This will make your house smell GREAT as it's cooking, and the combination of flavors is out of the ordinary, yet delicious.  Plus again, it's one of those recipes with a HUGE margin for experimentation if you want to get adventurous.  I would say cook for 6-8 hours on high if you do it in the crockpot, and brown the chicken before you add it to the pot.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Summer bounty and what to do with it all.

For some reason, blogger is acting weird, and I can't comment on my own blog.  Then again, I don't know if anyone else can either.  They've implemented some new "anti spam" filter which I am guessing may be part of the problem, I don't know.  If they don't fix it in the next couple of weeks I may go back to Wordpress.  Just a heads up.

I joined a local CSA, and each week I get a boatload of fresh produce, in addition to a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs.  I sort of have the egg thing under control - I've rediscovered hard boiled eggs, and I am baking more (which makes hubby and son happy).  The produce I sometimes get behind on - I had a yellow squash, an eggplant, and a plethora of tomatoes, in addition to a small heirloom pepper.  Not enough to *make* anything individually with, but combined they could contribute to a delish summer pasta sauce!

(Sorry for the paucity of pix - but veggies are veggies!)

So...I chopped up about 4 cloves of garlic and an onion, and diced the pepper and threw it in a pan with some olive oil.  I cooked it til it was transparent.  I cubed up the small eggplant, threw that in there along with the zucchini that I sliced in half lengthwise, then cut thinly.  I mixed all this up until the eggplant was turning golden.  I then threw in a few chopped tomatoes, some fresh basil, rosemary, and marjoram that I snipped from my herb garden, some S&P to taste, and a jar of my favorite marinara sauce (actually, it's a can, and you get it from Trader Joe's)

and a couple teaspoons of sugar to cut the acidity in the sauce.  I let that simmer a bit, then a few minutes before serving, I threw in half a cup of 1/2 and 1/2, and a handful or so of parmesean cheese.  YUM!

My point is - this sauce has endless possibilities.  This is where you get creative fits of genius - where your family looks at you and goes "wow...this is good!" and you really didn't follow a recipe at all.  Just to give you some ideas:

  1. Omit the half and half.
  2. Throw in half a cup of red wine instead.
  3. Saute some italian sausage in the pan, remove, then add the onions, garlic, etc. to make it a meat sauce (can use ground pork or beef as well, or any other meat)
  4. Add mushrooms.
  5. Add peas. catching my drift?  Put anything you want in this "foundation" of onions, garlic, olive oil, and marinara sauce, and I guarantee you, it will taste good.  You don't have basil? Add oregano.  You don't like rosemary? don't put it in.  What's marjoram? you say? Then add thyme instead.  You LOVE basil? Just use that!  Don't be afraid to try something different, or let your imagination go wild.  You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.  It's kind of hard to mess up a red sauce!

Hopefully, your family loved it, now you are stuck with a potful of sauce and "leftovers" - I don't know about you, but getting my family to eat leftovers is like pulling teeth.  I recently discovered that I have to fool them into thinking that they are eating something new.  So...some ideas to makeover the leftovers :)

  1. Layer with lasagna noodles, some ricotta (which you've added parm cheese and an egg and some parsley to) and mozzarella and make lasagna.
  2. Make grilled cheese with it. omg this is nirvana with a slice of fresh mozzarella.  Seriously.
  3. Add meatballs and make a "stew" serve with salad and crusty bread.
  4. Add broth (chicken or beef, or vegetable, doesn't matter) thin to desired consistency and voila! SOUP! :)
 OK...I made a grilled cheese with the leftover sauce.  The sauce is thick and chunky, so it was easy to slather on a nice piece of bread again, no Wonder Bread crap need something with substance that can support the veggies.  I then added a few slices of fresh mozzarella cheese (the kind you buy in a ball) then grilled it in a pan.  It was a huge hit.  My son who "hates eggplant" and "doesn't like fresh mozzarella" inhaled it.  When told it had two ingredients he "eschewed" (blog joke here, sorry LOL) - he was amazed.  Hubby loved it, daughter loved it, I loved it - it was unanaimous.  Yum OH!

It might be helpful here to insert the fact that I beat up an egg with a bit of milk, and dunked the outside of the sandwich in it before I put it in the pan...sort of like a Monte Cristo, but without soaking the bread.

I've always eaten fresh mozzarella in a Caprese salad - you know, with fresh tomatoes and a drizzle of vinaigrette.  I realized when you cook it, it gets chewy, stringy, and even yummier than the shredded stuff you buy in the bag.  I am now hooked, and I don't know if I will ever buy bagged mozzarella again. :)  Yeah, it looks a bit weird when it melts, but omg the taste!

So...when you cook this grilled cheese - do it at a slightly lower heat so that the veggies in the sauce get heated up, and the cheese gets melted.  It may take a bit longer, but it's worth the wait!