Strawberry Day!

I am, ever and always, a research queen. I no longer do it for a living (or a degree), but if there’s a decision that needs to be made, whether it be major and life-altering or embarassingly minor and petty, you can bet I’ll come to the table armed with all the facts, opinions, and perspectives I can dig up. So understandably a lot of considerations went into such a significant decision as my choice of CSA.

A field of many lettuces at Eatwell Farm
Lovely lettuces at Eatwell Farm

Because I’m so tired, so often, I wanted food brought to me, rather than having to go to the farmer’s market each week. But I also wanted local food, and to be directly supporting specific, tangible growers, so that eliminated many of the grocery delivery services and produce-box services that box up an amalgamation of produce from all over the country and world. And I also, in my secret heart of hearts, wanted a farm that I could visit, where I could touch the soil my food was grown in and meet the people who nurtured it towards my plate.

Close-up of wheat growing
Nothing says “farm” quite like 40 acres of wheat

During the month I was researching CSA options, there was a medfly quarantine in the town of Dixon, where Eatwell Farm is located. It was late summer, and thousands of ripe tomatoes, waiting on the vine to go into CSA boxes and to farmer’s markets, were suddenly quarantined, forbidden to leave the farm unprocessed. So Eatwell threw a tomato-canning party. I watched with delight through the farm’s blog as hundreds of Eatwell members headed out to the farm for an afternoon of cooking up sauce and drinking bloody marys. Nigel, the farm’s owner, wrote in the blog, “When I got a few moments to myself I looked upon everyone working hard and having a great time and thought ‘this is exactly the farm and community that I have always wanted’. So it took a few Med Fly in Dixon to realize that what we all have here is something very precious.” When I read this, I knew I had found my farm, my box.

Farmer B picking strawberries in the field at Eatwell
Farmer B picking strawberries in the field at Eatwell

I missed the tomato-sauce party, and winter isn’t the best time for farm days, so my first opportunity to take part in this new community I’d bought into with my weekly box didn’t come until May. Earlier this month I headed out to Dixon for the first time, to take part in one of Eatwell’s “Strawberry Days.” We were invited to come and pick strawberries in the fields, welcome to eat as many as we could stuff in right then and there, and then pay just $1/pound for whatever we wanted to take home. I brought my good friend Farmer B with me (so called because, thanks to her interest in and dedication to farming, we are all counting on her to guide us through feeding ourselves post peak-oil apocalypse when there is total collapse of the massive network of trucks and boats and planes that currently shlep our industrially fertilized food around the world) to check out “my” farm.

Me picking strawberries
Me picking strawberries in the field

While we were there we picked many strawberries (and took our loot home to freeze for future smoothies – yum!) and also had the opportunity to tour the farm with Nigel, the farm’s owner. He showed us the 40 acre wheat field they are leasing to grow organic wheat for chicken feed, and took us through the rest of the farm, which is about 60 acres. We learned about the particulars of running a farm that must yield a constant variety of produce, to keep our boxes interesting each week. I hadn’t thought about it before, but Eatwell can’t just decide, “We’ll sell lettuce in spring and tomatoes in summer and squash in the fall” or whatever, because they aren’t just taking a bunch of stuff to market and selling it to people who are stopping by many stalls. They need to make sure our boxes have both novelty and variety each and every week.

Nigel giving the tour
Nigel leading the tour in front of the wheat field

On our tour we got to pick sugar snap peas off the vine, which was decadent for me, as sugar snap peas, even more than strawberries, are what I associate with “luxury” produce. We learned about the stands of trees that were the first thing Nigel planted when he got the land, to provide windbreaks for the crazy winds that can get up to 25+ miles an hour and just suck the moisture from plants and soil. We also learned that Eatwell gets their compost from the company that processes San Francisco’s food and yard scraps (we have a city-wide composting program here) which is pretty awesome, on a symbolic level. As Nigel pointed out, every time they pick a truckload of food from the farm, they are hauling nutrients away from the land, and now, because of the composting program, those exact same nutrients (barring, of course, the ones we have absorbed into our own bodies) find their way back.

Eating sugar snap peas off the vine
Eating sugar snap peas off the vine. Decadent!

And then, of course, we met the chickens. They were definitely the celebrities of the hour, with tons of questions asked and long lingering at their enclosure, whereas for the rest of the farm we’d been content to just let Nigel lead us from field to field. I learned that the beautiful green and blue eggs, which I love, come from araucana hens who are being “phased out” (stockpot, here they come) because they take three months off in the winter, producing no eggs but still chowing down on their pricey organic feed. True free-ranging chickens, although they eat plants and insects as they forage about, still need more supplemental feed than factory-farmed chickens. This is because outdoor hens use a lot of energy moving around all day and keeping themselves warm, unlike chickens who are packed in together tightly, keeping each other warm and unable to move.

The chickens with their chicken house

The chickens with their chicken house, one of five houses. The enclosure is an electric fence, turned on at night to keep out the coyotes. The chickens seem to have no problem flying over it when they like the looks of the neighboring pasture!

Altogether, it was amazing to be at the farm. It’s sad how disconnected I have been my whole life, and still mostly am, from my food and its origins, but this was a small and meaningful step in bridging that gap. I didn’t walk away with entirely fuzzy feelings, however. At the end of the day i found myself sitting at a picnic table with Nigel. Most everyone had gone home, and Farmer B was out in the field gathering one last bucket of berries. Nigel, who has a kind of reserve and brusqueness, didn’t seem like the kind of person to whom I could give a real soul-baring expressing of gratitude, so I started with, “You guys are a big part of my life. I write a blog based on my box and what I do with the food you grow.” His response was, “Oh yeah. A lot of [Eatwell customers] have blogs.”

Portrait of farmer with wind break and cell
Portrait of farmer with windbreak, sprinklers, and cell phone

Oh, okay. So much for my conversational opener. That was too bad, but a good reminder that this isn’t all a fantasy farm fairytale. What’s a food blog, in comparison to twelve hour days of actually growing the food? I mean, I want the people who grow my food to see what I create with it and how much it touches my life, but maybe that’s not why they grow it or what gives the work meaning for them. I can sense a kind of forced resolution in my desire for things to come “full circle,” an uneven equation in which I want my end of things – the consumer end – to have the same weight as the producer end. I’m not really sure what I’m trying to express here, just the sense that this may be one of those situations where the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. I still feel essentially naive about the origins of food, and the little bit of knowledge and understanding that I’m acquiring is like lifting the lid off a deep well and peering inside, totally unable to fathom the bottom.

There are something like five roosters for 1600 chickens. Those are some busy birds! (I mean busy protecting the flock, get your mind out of the gutter!)

For what it’s worth, I’ll say it here, and hopefully find a way to say it more personally some day. Anna, Agustin, Arturo, Daisy, Fernando, Jesus, Jose, Molly, Nigel, Nikko, Ricardo, Roberto, Sadie (RIP), Yvette, and anyone else whose name I don’t know, Thank You. Every time I open a new, thrilling box, I thank you. Every time my body gets that tingly “healthy!” feeling from eating a whole bunch of kale in one sitting, I thank you. Every time I smile with delight to see another stranger has found my blog by googling “spinach for breakfast,” I thank you. When I read Omnivore’s Dilemma or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and, instead of feeling panicked and overwhelmed, I feel secure and even slightly smug, knowing the majority of my food comes from my local, sustainable foodshed, I thank you. Even when I’m finding out I don’t like turnips, or having a strange allergic reaction to radish greens, I thank you, because this is what it means to eat what’s local and in season and not live in a bubble of banana-scented safety and routine. For all your work, for the tremendous investments of time and energy and money you make and the risk you assume so that I can have safe, healthy, delicious food delivered to me week after week, I thank you, and I cannot thank you enough.

Farm Princess with wheat

Scrap Stock IV – Mega-edition

Another consequence of being too tired to cook or blog or generally do anything was that my veggie scraps really started piling up. By early this week most of my fridge’s top shelf seemed to be devoted to scraps, waiting like pining lovers for the transformative kiss of the stock pot. So when I finally started to have a bit more energy, it was time to brew up some stock and get that shelf cleared.

I ended up having enough material to make two pots of stock, ending up with 13 cups of rich, savory broth, tinged a beautiful pink from the beet scraps. My freezer is truly well stocked now, which saves me from treating the stock like it is a scarce commodity.

Two pots of scrap stock

In this mega-edition of scrap stock:

Spinach crowns
Garlic peels and trim
Carrot trim and tops
Chard stem
Kale stem
Asparagus trim
Red cabbage trim
Fennel stalks
Apple cores
Radish trim
Leek trim
Green garlic trim
Arugula trim
Sugar snap pea trim
Thyme stalks
Red onion peels and trim
Shallot peels and trim
Mustard green trim
Beet trim
Bay leaves

Scrap stock, III

Getting bored of my surely less-than-engrossing detailed account of what I put in my stock each week? Well, I’d like to keep track of it for my own purposes and something tells me there’s a short life-expectancy for the soggy little scraps of scratch paper I use to record all the components as I toss them in the pot.

This week was not as successful, I think because of technical difficulties. I left the pot alone for its simmering time (I’m usually in the kitchen with it doing kitchen things, but I was in another room this time) and I think the fire may have actually gone out. So this round of stock is very mild. However it will serve to add a bit of flavor and nutrition to something that wants a mild broth, like risotto, so perhaps it is actually a blessing to have one batch with a decidedly non-aggressive character. I was a bit let down, though, since I felt like I was being wild and throwing caution to the winds, what with all the ginger peels and lemon balm stalks.

More scrap stock fixin\'s

I googled “scrap stock” and found an interesting recipe from the civil war. Inspired by this, I added an apple core to my pot (although I forgot to save most of them this week – I need to get in the habit of putting them in the stock box and not the compost). I quite flagrantly ignored the admonition to never use cabbage scraps, however. Take what you like and leave the rest, right?

Into this week’s pot:

Leek tops
Green garlic tops
Onion skin
Garlic skin
Asparagus trim
Red cabbage trim
Apple core
Lemon balm stalks
Ginger peel
Potato peel
Portobella stems
Chard stalks
Beet green stalks
Kale stalks
Sugar snap pea trim
Carrot trim
Bok choy trim
Fennel trim
Thyme stalks

Foiled again!

I report to you live from the salad front, your brave investigator into the perverse and often baffling world of salad dressing. It saddens me to have to report that, once again, and despite a rousing attempt involving lettuce, fennel, sugar snap peas, Point Reyes Farmstead blue cheese, and strawberries, for goodness sake, we can add another strike to the list. This time the no-go concoction was a balsamic-shallot vinaigrette from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

Strawberry salad, before the unfortunate dressing

Is it possible that I just don’t like dressing? The way it turns out I don’t like turnips? No, I like salad. And I often like salads in restaurants. And those generally have dressing on them. I just never seem to be satisfied with the dressings I make, no matter what I do. Whether I wing it or carefully follow a recipe, they are invariably too oily or too vinegary or too bland or too seasoned.

I feel like a salad idiot. It seems like one of those things you would joke about someone not being able to cook. “She can’t even boil an egg! Or make pasta! Or salad! Ha, ha! She can’t even cook salad!” Well, I can’t. And I am feeling quite disgruntled at this point, let me tell you. But my box continues to bring lettuce upon lettuce. And so we soldier on.

Snap Pea and Asparagus Into Battle!

Bhutanese Red Rice Salad with Asparagus, Cabbage, Peas, and Cashews

The lovely blog Mele Cotte is hosting a blog event called Cooking to Combat Cancer, asking food bloggers to “utilize recipes that include ingredients that help the body fight cancer.” Cancer is something I had never really given much of a thought to until my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer ten years ago. Then everything shifted into high gear in terms of education and research as we sought to put together the best resources for her, both allopathic and “complementary.” A lot of my knowledge and interest in alternative medicine and health in general stems from this time.

The year my mom was undergoing treatment was probably the single most formative year of my cooking life, as well. Her integrative (as in integrating “traditional” and “alternative” cancer treatments) oncologist had a whole program that was heavily based in diet and supplementation, so when we were presented with the huge twin lists of “food to eat more of” (mountains of cruciferous vegetables, seaweed, miso, some weird thing called quinoa) and “food to avoid” (all meat, all dairy, all sugar, wheat, refined grains, tofu, basically anything easy to make, it seemed) it was clear the learning curve was going to be steep. My mom was so exhausted from her treatment, and the new diet was so labor-intensive, and I already loved to cook, so I basically became a macrobiotic chef for a year for the two of us. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet, so my mom would drive us to the health food store and then sleep with her head on the steering wheel while I combed the aisles for kombu and buckwheat and some kind of treats that wouldn’t be harmful but would make life still feel worth eating.

So when I saw the Cooking to Combat Cancer event, I was immediately flooded with all these memories of the time when cooking to combat cancer – and to boost the immune system – was nearly my full-time job. Many of the bright points in my memories of that time are the dear friends who really came through for my family when my mom was sick, and one of the dearest new friends we made during that year was the amazing Rebecca Katz. Rebecca is a professional chef for whom cooking delicious, nourishing food for people with cancer actually is a full time job! She has such tenderness, such creativity, such sensitivity to the balance of nutrition and taste – she takes the twin lists of terror I wrote about above and turns them into yummy, yummy recipes. All her recipes are based on her genius principles of FASS (balancing the fat, acid, salty, and sweet).

Since we can’t all have Rebecca cooking for us all the time, luckily she’s written a wonderful book called One Bite at a Time. More than a cookbook, the book includes alongside its delicious cancer-treatment-accomodating, immune boosting recipes chapters on how friends and family can help and how to sustain the effort of cooking nourishing meals over the long haul. It’s a real resource for the whole food-related world of living with cancer, one which is sorely needed since food is one of the largest parts of our physical and emotional lives but it’s often one of the lowest priorities for the doctors who are trying to keep us alive.

When my mom was first diagnosed, we picked up a little brochure at the hospital called something like “What to eat during cancer treatment.” I guess the focus of the pamphlet was to replace protein lost during chemotheraphy – all the recipes were for things like eggs benedict with canadian bacon and hollandaise sauce. It was insane! Not only do I find it highly unlikely that someone on chemo could tolerate a mountain of creamy fat on a plate, this is the opposite of the veggies and fruits and whole grains and sea vegetables we now know fight cancer and support immune strength. It is really important to make sure you get enough protein during chemotherapy, though, as we discovered to my mom’s detriment (you may notice that nearly every heavy-hitting source of protein is on the “avoid” list up there…), so don’t just eat veggies and fruits and grains.

For this event I decided to make a recipe from One Bite at a Time that I’d been eying – a kind of warm-weather variation on my adored rice bowl. The recipe in the book is Asian Japonica Salad with Edamame, but I made my own variation (using Rebecca’s delicious and perfectly FASS-balanced dressing) with what I had left in my box. Continue reading

Scrap stock, round two

I was so nervous making this week’s scrap stock! I think I was worried that last week’s good results were sheer random luck and that it was statistically unlikely I would succeed again if I just did a repeat of last week’s method of simply cooking up all my veggie scraps from the past week, without regard to composition. But I gave it another shot. This week’s stock came out quite rich and quite assertive, which is unsurprising given that there were many asparagus stalks, fennel tops, and even two heads of roasted garlic that had been emptied of their yummy gooey cloves. I think it would make a delicious soup base, but I wouldn’t use it for something like risotto, because it would just take over the dish.

Scrap Stock!

In this week’s scrap stock:
Leek tops
Green onion tops
Carrot tops
Roast garlic bulbs (no cloves)
Red cabbage trim
Red kale trim
Fennel stalks and leaves
Asparagus bottoms
Carrot trim
Shallot peels and trim
Spinach crowns
Thyme stalks
Sugar snap pea trim
Garlic peels and trim
Mushroom stems

Spinach for breakfast, the sequel

I’m totally enjoying the feature on wordpress that lets me see what google search phrases have led people here, to my box. I get a lot of visitors on “aphid” related searches, and surprisingly few on “community supported agriculture” related ones. (Although I get a lot of CSA-specific visitors clicking over from the Eatwell list of member blogs and from the post on Chowhound about choosing a CSA.)

Frittata with spinach and Humboldt Fog cheese with salad

Super Easy Pan-Cooked Spinach Fritatta with Humboldt Fog cheese, green garlic, spring onion, and thyme (medium-pan sized, cut in half) with a salad of lettuce, red cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, and sugar snap peas

One surprising search phrase that shows up almost every day, sometimes in multiple versions, is some variation of “spinach for breakfast.” Which is, of course, the title of a post I made back in February extolling the pleasures of spinach as a breakfast food. My first thought of course is, “Wow, there sure are a lot of people who want to know about eating spinach for breakfast. Huh.” My next thought every time I see that someone’s search for breakfast-spinach information led them here is a bit of guilt. Because my first Spinach for Breakfast post is more about my personal, heartwarming journey to spinach acceptance than it is a helpful guide on how to use spinach in one’s morning meal. Which I assume is what all these googlers are googling for.

So I decided to revisit the topic of spinach for breakfast. It gives me an excuse to share a recipe I’ve been wanting to share. The other morning I was cooking breakfast (it involved spinach, of course) and thinking about how much this one recipe, which isn’t even a recipe but more of a technique, completely changed my breakfast life. I used to think I was “not a breakfast person” and “not an egg cooker” because fried eggs bored me, scrambled eggs eluded me, and frittatas were special occasion food involving all kinds of fancy cooking and flipping using plates or pans with heat-proof handles so you could finish them in the oven.

Frittata with thyme and Carmody cheese, tempeh bacon, pomelo fruit salad

Super Easy Pan-Cooked Frittata with Carmody cheese and thyme (small-pan sized, whole), tempeh bacon, and fruit salad with pomelo, kiwi, apple, and mint

This technique is usually how spinach ends up in my breakfast, but it’s also a great, simple way to incorporate most any kind of leftover into a hot, pleasing morning meal. It’s so obvious that I feel a little silly even writing it down, but I so distinctly remember the change in breakfast, from before I practiced this to after, that it seems worth taking the time to share it.

Recipe below… Continue reading

Spring! Spring! Spring!

Part of why I have struggled so much with a constant excess of lettuce since I started getting my box is that, well, I just don’t like lettuce that much. I’m still not very good at making salad dressing (it’s always too oily or too vinegary or too flowery or too something), and, without some kind of interesting accessories, plain lettuce just doesn’t get me all that excited. But there haven’t been very many things in my box this winter that lend themselves to salad fixin’ – radishes occasionally, and carrots, of course, and apples and oranges if I want to get creative, but that’s been about it, besides the lettuce that arrives relentlessly each week, whether I have something to toss it with or not.

Which is why I am just so indescribably excited about spring. Spring means asparagus and sugar snap peas and fennel, just to name a few things with the power to turn a bowl of lettuce into a tasty meal. So many colors and textures and so much sweetness and crunch. Today’s salad looked like an Easter basket with asparagus, sugar snap peas, red cabbage, carrots, purple spring onions, and radishes marinated in rice vinegar, sesame oil, and black sesame seeds, with a light, sweet, rice vinegar and sesame oil dressing. I think that weekly bag of lettuce just got a whole lot more exciting…

Scrap Stock

Some kind of revolution took place before I was born, or at least before the chef side of me was born into consciousness. By the time I made my first forays into vegetarian cooking, there was a kind of stock backlash happening in the pages of all the cookbooks I read. According to all these veg-empowerment cookbooks, people used to make their stock from scraps and trimmings, but now, especially for a vegetarian cook without simmering bones and flavorful marrow to add to the pot, this was highly discouraged. We are worth it!, these books proclaimed. Worth a delicious, savory stock made from whole vegetables and bundles of aromatic herbs. I made vegetable stock from one of these recipes once. I almost cried to see pounds and pounds of beautiful vegetables reduced to a heap of mush and a pot of broth.

All the scraps, ready to go into the stock

And so the scrap stock experiment was born. For a bit more than a week I saved all the trimmings from every vegetable I ate. Brown or yellow bits went straight into the compost, but everything else was washed and put into a tightly sealed plastic tub in the fridge. At the end of the week, I made an experimental stock. I had no idea how it might turn out. Really bitter, I suspected, because the majority of the heap consisted of the green, almost leathery tops of leeks, green garlic, and spring onions. But I figured, what do I have to lose? All I’m really wasting is the water I’m adding – everything else was compost-bound. At the last minute I almost chickened out and added a whole onion, a whole carrot, just a few things to boost the flavor, but I decided to really go for it this first time and just see what happened.

Here’s what ended up going into my scrap stock pot:

Leek greens and ends
Green garlic greens and ends
Spring onion greens and ends
Swiss chard stalks
Onion ends and peels from red and white onions
Red cabbage leaves from the outside of the cabbage
Spinach crowns
Garlic ends and peels
Thyme stalks
Carrot leaves and trimmings
Cauliflower leaves
Kale stalks
Radish trimmings
Sugar snap pea tops and strings

All the scraps in a pot, turning into stock

I cut everything into pieces and then first sauteed the allium trimmings (leeks, garlic, onions) for a bit in 2 teaspoons olive oil, then threw everything into the pot and stirred it over pretty high heat for about ten minutes. Then I added 3 quarts of water, 2 1/2 teaspoons of salt, 3 bay leaves and a few peppercorns, brought it to a boil, turned it down to a simmer, and simmered it, uncovered, for about half an hour. I let it settle for a few minutes and then strained it right way (I’ve heard stock can get bitter if you let the bits sit in the broth too long after cooking). And I have to say, it is quite, quite tasty. Certainly head and shoulders above the bitter brews that pass for vegetable broth in those vacuum-boxes. I can’t wait to freeze it and have it on hand the next time I need veggie broth for something. Best of all I am so tickled to have created something really valuable from something I’ve been throwing away. There may have been a broth revolution, but I guess I’m just an old-fashioned girl.

The stock, rich and flavorful, made totally from scraps!