Friday, June 26, 2009

My kale pep talk.

I've hit my first real obstacle with my CSA. Allow me to explain.

In 1998, my sister and her soon-to-be-husband brought home an adorable little dwarf bunny named Duncan (RIP, Duncan). Duncan really lived the high life. Yes, he had a cage, but my sister would also let him peruse the apartment, sniffing here and there, occasionally leaving a small "present" for her to find (although Duncan was largely housebroken, which is another story on its own). He would recline on the floor while they watched TV or studied (they were both grad students at the time. Meaning my sister and her husband, not my sister and Duncan. He was a smart bunny, though. They even taught him some tricks).

Duncan did eat those bunny pellets that looked suspiciously similar to what he left in his liter box, or around the apartment as the case may be. (Are you wondering if I actually just said "liter box" when describing a bunny cage? Yes, Duncan had a liter box. See comment above about being housebroken. Crazy, but true.) In addition to his pellet food, since he was such a well-loved, pampered bunny, my sister always had treats stashed in the kitchen to make the little guy hop for joy. He really did do little joyful hops, too. For such a small bunny, he sure had a lot of nervous energy.

Guess what his favorite treat was.


Not only did my sister always have kale, but only Duncan ate the kale. This was not because he was a diva and would shun us if we tried to sneak his precious treat. Although, if Duncan could speak English, I have a nagging feeling that he may have chastised us for sinking so low. The reason, though, that only Duncan ate the kale was because it was kale. Kale is bunny food. Or so I thought.

Fast forward 11 years. Over the past two weeks I started seeing posts about kale on the Google group I belong to for Cooking Away My CSA. I was secretly wishing that maybe I wouldn't be confronted by any kale. However, on Wednesday I eagerly clawed through my second CSA delivery and discovered my own bunch of Duncan's bunny crack: kale.

I've been keeping my eye on posts about how to use kale, and I'm seeing the words delicious and nutritious repeated. I saw one recommendation for a recipe that may just be the best way to start my kale adventure. I'm planning on trying this out over the weekend. Regardless of the end result, I know Duncan would be proud.


Baked Kale Chips
1 bunch kale
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon seasoned salt

Preheat an oven to 350°. Line a non-insulated cookie sheet with parchment.

With a knife or kitchen shears carefully remove the leaves from the thick stems or tear into bite size pieces. Wash and thoroughly dry kale with salad spinner. Drizzle kale with olive oil and sprinkle with seasoned salt.

Bake until the edges brown but are not burnt, 10-15 minutes.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Turning over a new leaf.

I was initially warned by friends after I signed up for my CSA that I would be totally overwhelmed by vegetables. I pictured myself trapped under a pile of kale and strawberries, digging my way out with a paring knife and steamer basket, trying to force garlic scapes and beets down my family's throats. Kind of a Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout situation, but in a much more sanitary way.

But it didn't happen that way. I used almost everything in the first week. The exceptions were a small bunch of chard (hanging on for dear life as I write), a bunch of cilantro (which I'm freezing in my first herb-preserving experience) and extra cornmeal (which thankfully keeps well in the freezer). My first CSA box was impressively full, too. The sheer volume of produce that I cooked is not the only surprise of the week, though.

Creative Cooking
I had never purchased some of the veggies that I used during the first CSA week. I was absolutely determined to cook (and hopefully enjoy) everything in my box. One of my on-going goals with the CSA is to broaden my family's veggie selections. We've always been good about eating vegetables, but I had fallen into the broccoli-zucchini-peas-corn cycle that I was afraid would spiral into oblivion. But last week we ate swiss chard. And beet greens. And pac choi!! And, they tasted great in a fresh, we've-done-something good-for-ourselves-and-community sort of way.

Shopping Habits
Keeping in line with my goals of being more conscious about wasting food and simplifying our food supply (e.g. we do NOT need 10 boxes of crackers in the pantry), I tailored meals around the CSA produce first, then incorporated what we already had in the house, and used a "quick trip to the grocery" as an absolute last resort. I've emptied out our pantry and freezer of some items that have been lingering there for ages, making me feel more organized and in control of my own kitchen. It also...

Saved Us Money
Hallelujah. Grocery spending has always been one of my family's largest budget items, ridiculously so. In addition to the minor benefits of supporting local farmers and eating healthier and better-tasting food (that was sarcasm, by the way), I was also hoping to lower our grocery bill with the CSA. The first week of our farm share our total grocery spending was almost 20% lower (and that includes the weekly cost of the CSA). This was partly because the CSA cost really is incredibly competitive. But as mentioned above, it was also because of creatively cooking what I already had in the house and a conscious effort to use the produce as a centerpiece of cooking rather than wandering the grocery aisles looking for inspiration.

Eating Habits
This change really makes me the happiest. I'm incorporating vegetables into more of our dishes and am proud of showing my kids a healthy way to eat. I even did a pac choi stirfry to go with our take-out Chinese food. That has never happened. That example also goes to show that not all of our eating habits have changed. But hey, we'd go crazy without a crab rangoon now and then. Overall, though, we are happier and healthier eaters, and feel good about the changes we've made.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

CSA Week 1: Greens and Reds.

Picking up my first CSA box on Wednesday was everything I hoped it would be. Much to my relief, my name was on the list (I've had a paranoid vision ever since I signed up in March of arriving for my pick-up only to be told they had never heard of me). Bags and boxes full of local produce and products covered a corner of Sweet Clover Market. I felt badly for customers in the store who were not participating in the CSA, because they clearly would be missing out on a quality haul. When I arrived home, I took a good look at my ingredients for the next week. I made my first dish that night:

Roasted Beets and Sautéed Greens, adapted from a Coastal Living recipe. I was specifically looking for a recipe to use both the beets and beet greens. While I love beets, I've never cooked beet greens before and didn't want them languishing around the fridge for too long. If not used right away, they had a high probability of becoming neglected beet green mush in my produce drawer.

I started by drizzling each beet with olive oil, sprinkling with salt and pepper and roasting wrapped in foil at 375° for 45 minutes. My beets were fairly small, so larger beets would likely cook 1- to 1-1/2 hours. After roasting, I cooled slightly and rubbed the skin off. Next, I sautéed garlic in a little olive oil, added chopped beet greens, a sprinkle of salt and pepper and cooked until the greens wilted. Finally, I tossed the beets and greens with a light balsamic vinaigrette and topped with toasted pine nuts and goat cheese. The final product was an explosion of earthy, rich flavors.

Skillet Gnocchi with Chard and White Beans
On Saturday night I was looking for a way to use my bunch of swiss chard, which I have never cooked before and was slightly scared of. However, I followed the advice posted on Twitter by one of my fellow Cooking Away My CSA members (@mmmfiber) and made an EatingWell recipe: Skillet Gnocchi with Chard and White Beans. I knew right away this would be a good choice, because it is absolutely loaded with fiber. Having followed Weight Watchers formally and informally for 8 years now, I am always happy with high fiber dishes. This was not just a healthy dish, though. It was also incredibly flavorful and earned an A+ from my husband and me (both my kids ran screaming, but rest assured they will see chard on their plates again in the future).

Raspberry Rhubarb Cobbler with Cornmeal Biscuit Topping
On the day I picked up my box, I wanted to make a recipe for Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler with Cornmeal Biscuit Topping that was included in my CSA newsletter (adapted from Bon Appétit). Since my box this week had strawberries, rhubarb and cornmeal, I was stocked and ready. However, due to selfish beets hogging the oven, I didn't get to it that first day. By the very next day, the strawberries were completely gone (my kids might not like swiss chard, but they l-o-v-e strawberries). Tonight, though, I adapted the recipe to make a Raspberry Rhubarb Cobbler with Cornmeal Biscuit Topping. The cornmeal gives the topping an unexpected (and welcome) nuttiness. The raspberries did the trick in this recipe, but I would certainly give the strawberries a try next time. ** One Note: When using raspberries, I would recommend leaving out the ground cloves. Doesn't work quite as well as it does with strawberries.** It's hard for other fruits to compete with strawberries when it comes to pairing with rhubarb. This treat, though, was a New England summer on a dessert plate, especially appropriate considering the rising mercury this weekend.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I'll be eating well tomorrow.

I just got my initial CSA newsletter with a list of what to expect in the first pick-up tomorrow. All I can say is: Wow. Judging by this delivery, I made the right choice going with the "localvore" option, which includes fresh and homemade products from around Vermont. My mind is already swirling with ideas on what to cook with this list:
  • Mesclun Greens
  • Spinach
  • 1 Bunch Ruby Red Swiss Chard
  • 1 Bunch Red or Chiogga Beets
  • 1 Bunch Cilantro
  • Pac Choi
  • 1 Quart Soup Base
  • 1 Pint of Strawberries
  • 1/2 lb Rhubarb
  • 1 European Cucumber -or- Tomatoes
  • 1 Dozen Pullet Eggs from Pa Pa Doodles Farm
  • 1 Quart Applesauce with apples from Champlain Orchards
  • 2 lbs Early Riser Cornmeal from Butterworks Farm
  • Elmore Mountain Fresh Herb and Sea Salt Focaccia
First order of business tomorrow will definitely be Pete's Greens' recipe for Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler with Cornmeal Biscuit topping (their recipe will be linked tomorrow). This is going to be one delicious summer.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Worth the six-year wait.

As I continue waiting for my first CSA delivery (2 more days!), I am distracting my foodie obsession with other delights. This weekend I finally tried an Italian treat that I was hoping to sample on my honeymoon in Rome six and a half years ago. At the time, I was too distracted by gnocchi with Gorgonzola sauce in Campo dei Fiori, paninis in Villa Borghese, suppli on Via Veneto and hazelnut gelatto at every gellateria we saw. Oh, and the occassional bottle of wine (I still buy Frascati when I want to be transported back to that amazing trip). One side note about suppli: if you have never tried these fried balls of risotto stuffed with mozzerella and prosciutto, then you must add this treat to your bucket list. I make it at home now and then (when I can work up enough courage to actually deep-fry something. Seeing that much oil in one spot can send shivers down my spine). Every chop, boil and fry is worth that first bite.

But this weekend, I finally (FINALLY) tried what I have missed out on all these years: stuffed zucchini blossoms, courtesy of L'Amante in Burlington, Vermont. It was undoubtedly worth the wait. My Williams-Sonoma cookbook Rome says that zucchini blossoms are often stuffed with mozzerella and deep-fried (ohhhh yeah), but can also be added to pasta sauces, risotto or frittatas. Not only did L'Amante deep-fry their version, but they dolled it up with so much flavor I could have eaten another antipasti portion as my entree (except for the fact that I absolutely swooned over my entree of basil ravioli topped with eggplant parmigiana...).

Picture this (since taking an actual photo somehow didn't seen appropriate in the middle of dinner with friends): a delicate, fresh squash blossom stuffed with taleggio (a mild, melty, buttery cheese), then dipped in a light tempura-like batter and fried to a delicate crispness, and finished off with a drizzle of sweet honey and rich truffle oil. While I was shamed into sharing with the other three people at my table, I still had an ample portion to savor (and I also tried each of their antipasti: grilled calamari, steamed mussels and prosciutto with grilled bread and fig jam).

Maybe, with any luck at all, my container zucchini plant will produce a few blossoms later this summer that I can snag and experiment with my own stuffed zucchini blossoms. Or maybe I'll leave this one up to the experts and find my way back to L'Amante pronto.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

From the first bite.

In junior high school, while the rest of my classmates were becoming interested in boys (or girls, as the case may be) and going to dances and making sure their jeans were pegged perfectly and their hair stick-straight, I was baking chocolate eclairs and cream-filled sugar wafers. By high school I was on to chocolate-dipped brandy snaps, dutch chocolate-mint cheesecake and Texas sheet cake (still my favorite).

After college I moved on to Weight Watchers (a 2-year stint in New Orleans did not help matters - have I mentioned beignets yet? See picture to the left.), and I started baking in moderation, combined with healthy eating and loads of fresh produce.

Now, after a husband, two kids and five years in Vermont, I have come to appreciate the flavor, nutrition and economic benefits of eating locally. In six days I pick up my first box of produce and locally-made products (will it be bread...? Eggs...? Chicken stock...? Ohhh, I can't wait!) from the CSA (community supported agriculture) farm share my family is participating in this summer. I look forward to sharing my experiences and recipes here over the next few months.
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