Sunday, October 23, 2016

CSA Closing Thoughts

I will be picking up my last csa box later this week. It's been quite a long time since my last post, and that summer busyness is precisely one of things I wanted to track through this series. I've *mostly* kept up with my box goodies, but I did lose nearly everything in a week's box back in July. Only a few items went into the weekend's potluck, so after the packed weekend I had most items still sitting in my fridge plus the leftover veggies from the weekend veggie tray. Then I got sick for most of the week, picked up my next box on Thursday, then left Friday morning for a camping trip. Hardly anything from that second box was used quickly, so those items joined what was still unspoiled from the previous week. Between the two weeks, I certainly did not make the best use of what I received.
One of the troubles I have with a csa is in the very nature of the program. I've purchased a weekly assortment of produce, whether I want them that particular week or not. If my week turns south (illness or injury) or is overly crowded, or I simply need a particular number and type of produce that the box cannot provide, I've spent more on produce than I would have otherwise.
If I were to purchase a csa again in the future, I would definitely consider buying again the particular program I'm enrolled in now. They gather items from several different farms, so each box has a far wider variety than I would receive in a program from a single farm. They have gone out of their way to provide a single unusual or less desirable item in each week's box, so there's not an overwhelming number of eggplant, or radishes, or arugula. The items which are generally more popular, the carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and salad greens, do appear much more often. I can see in my weekly box the effort they make to filling each week's allotment with mostly traditional, familiar, highly desirable items, with one or two unusual vegetables to broaden our horizons, and including a portion of fruit when the fruit is available.
The selection hasn't been entirely perfect. We have received several jalapeno peppers, poblano peppers, many green and baby colored bell peppers and even less common havasu and cayenne peppers. We aren't a family that generally eats a lot of peppers....None of us seek out spicy food, so I have had to freeze salsa and chopped peppers to stretch the heat, giving us peppers for our winter eggs and meatloaves rather than a whole mouthful of spice. Each medium or hot pepper needs to be spread out over several meals or my kids will rebel against eating any of that meal. Nor did the peppers appear with enough tomatoes to balance them out so we had to buy more at the grocery store to make that salsa. We even gave away a few peppers, a couple spoiled before I found time to preserve them, and we have an entire year's worth or more now in our freezer. The peppers would not have been too much if we liked spicy Thai or Mexican food, but, well, we don't.
I love that this program sends me an email a day or two before pick-up with a head's up on what is going to be in my box. This helps a TON in meal planning and identifying what else needs to be purchased to round things out for our dinners.
How many people purchasing a csa are feeding 7 people? The program is, of course, designed to be used by one or two adults, so I need to buy more of certain items to make it a full dish. I'm glad not to receive more than one eggplant a week (two total) but we could eat the carrots of 10 boxes in one meal, so I still have to buy many more from the store to make a dish large enough to feed my whole family a full portion.
We have received some very commonplace vegetables, even if not the same variety as we would find in the grocery store, which brings down the value somewhat for me. I just don't have the time to play to the specialty types of potatoes, or onions, So the garlic, for instance, has a tiny bit of value in that I know it's not grown in faraway China and potentially contaminated with whoknowswhat chemicals. But I can't really showcase the distinction in flavor of fresh garlic over dried. So that specialty garlic which probably sells in a farmer's market for $2/head, or (considerably?) more, isn't really improving our meal any more than the cheapo bulk package garlic that I normally buy.
I learned how to use fresh herbs in a way that fits my cooking style (compound butter), so I will grow and make better use of more herbs in my garden next summer. I have really loved the availability of that butter to add flavor to steaks, pork chops, roasts, and chicken thighs.
We discovered a couple vegetables that we enjoy enough to add to our garden next summer: bok choy and kale. My husband is hoping for a bumper crop of kale so I can make him lots more kale chips.
We found some vegetables that we would buy and enjoy if they are on sale at the local grocery store, will seek out at farmer's markets next summer, and will consider growing in our garden in future years: fennel, kohlrabi, okra.
I explored new ways of preparing vegetables we had not enjoyed in the past and was successful with the eggplant and the turnips (at least the Hakurei turnips). I did not find success with the radishes, the arugula, the carrot tops, or the cilantro.
By enjoying produce as fresh as possible without actually growing all of it myself, I feel more inspired to try buying more of our groceries next summer at a farmer's market. Of course, I can say that easily enough in October; we'll see what actually happens next June when the local markets reopen. I noticed that one difficulty I faced with the weekly csa basket was its size relative to my family's appetite. We received one "sunspot squash" which is way too tiny to actually feed my family more than a couple bites apiece, so I need to hunt down at least four more similar squashes before I can use it. At a farmer's market I would be able to buy the quantities needed to feed the whole family. Then I would be able to buy, for example, just 3 peppers to a whole basket of tomatoes to make the salsa mild enough for my family's taste. I would be much more inclined to make a bunch of kale chips at once rather than a tiny portion of 4 leaves.
At this point we are not planning to buy a csa again next year, yet I consider this year's to have been a worthwhile investment. We will add new vegetables and herbs to our garden next year, we will keep our eyes open for other vegetables to include in our diet more often, and I have more recipes I am confident in to make use of vegetables, purchased or grown, to serve to my family more regularly. My children have been exposed to new foods they had never tried before, will be very willing to try some of them again, and have even had their opinions changed on the eggplant they objected to in ratatouille but devoured in one meal when breaded and fried. While we won't be purchasing another csa in 2017, I did find enough benefit in the personal challenges to eat new vegetables that I might consider challenging myself in this way again in another 10 years or so.

Monday, August 1, 2016

CSA Week 5

French toast omelette with raspberries from our CSA
This week we found in our box peas, rosemary, swiss chard, golden raspberries, basil, cucumbers, breakfast radishes, scallions, and lavender. We purchased at the grocery store baby carrots, full size carrots, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, onions, broccoli. Our garden has begun to produce in earnest so we also harvested zucchini, chives, cucumbers with tantalizing promises of green beans, tomatoes, and swiss chard coming any day now. The garden also gave us a salad of purslane, which everyone except my oldest daughter rolled their eyes at, figuratively or literally.
I'm not a fan of my food tasting "floral" and I didn't think my family would be enthusiastic about eating lavender either. My kids do like to drink tea though and the idea of lavender tea seemed like the best way to make the most out of this item. If they enjoyed it, we have the opportunity to make many more cups in the future from the three baby plants in our garden, once those plants become more mature. I spiked the tea with chamomile and extra honey to give them the familiar flavors and appeal of a sweetened drink. My husband and 7yr daughter turned down anything more than an initial "shot" of the tea but the other kids came back for full mugs and drank down the rest of the quart of tea.
The idea of a CSA filled with week after week of radishes was one of the reasons I waited this long before buying one. No one in my home cares for them and they aren't versatile in cooking like onions or scallions or even chives. I wanted to find a way to tame their pepper so I, at least, might enjoy them. I considered fermenting them since the all-knowing internet suggested that that might reduce their spice, but every time I look in our fridge the sauerkraut stares back at me: the sauerkraut that no one else in my family will eat. It's good sauerkraut but it's "sauer", and a family that turns up their nose at it, and pickles, and other fermented vegetables isn't likely to suddenly enjoy fermented radishes. So, I was still trying to figure that vegetable out as the week progressed.
I once again made compound butter with the rosemary and basil, combined with some garlic cloves and garden chives. I used a cube of it on our lamb steaks on Saturday night. The cucumbers and peas went into a vegetable tray for a potluck along with tomatoes, baby carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. I tossed the raspberries with some fresh strawberries (from the store, unfortunately) and served them for breakfast on Friday as the fruit portion of our "French toast omelettes". The peeled scallion bulbs went into a beef stew for Thursday's dinner and half the greens went into our Friday dinner stir-fry along with all the chard (stems and leaves), radish greens, and the last two garlic scapes from two weeks ago.
I love that even my toddlers can identify a wide variety of vegetables. They might identify them as being items that they don't like, but at least they know them by sight.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

CSA Week 4

Everything in the box seemed to be used especially quickly, reflecting both the actual items we received compared with last week's box and our schedule (my time available to utilize everything well). We received cucumbers, strawberries, garlic scapes, carrots, kale, sage, basil, and parsley.
Our veggie box was pretty this week but the picture is not
because our humidity was so high

Veggies we purchased at the store this week: 3#carrots, cauliflower, 3 bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, tomatoes, 2 avocados. We harvested our first three zucchinis and two cucumbers of the summer. The only herbs I'm growing this summer are rosemary and chives and both are a little small right now so I've been harvesting from only small bits from them.
I cut some chives from the garden and mixed them in with the sage, basil, and parsley for the compound butter. I froze that in an ice cube tray, like before, and a cube of it wonderfully flavored our grilled steaks on Saturday. One of the cucumbers I sliced for the veggie tray I took to a potluck. Another cucumber my kids ate at lunch, just sliced and served plain. The carrots were deliciously sweet roasted. I tried the carrot leaves as a salad since we didn't receive any traditional lettuce; they were ok but nobody really liked them. They were better the first time with a baby cucumber sliced into them, but not great. I plan to chop the carrot stems very small into a soup and throw the remaining leaves in at the end. A couple of the kale leaves and garlic scapes I sauteed with onions and peppers for a breakfast frittata. The remaining kale, leaves and stems, I included in a huge batch of veggie meatballs (about 200) along with carrots, onions, pepper, zucchini, and garlic, frozen for several future meals. The strawberries were eaten at breakfast without anything being done to them except washing them. Two of the garlic scapes I sauteed with two of the zucchinis, in the place of the garlic cloves I would normally use.
My oldest daughter complained about why we received garlic scapes yet again, though I certainly didn't! Their flavor is a bit milder than garlic cloves and they can be cooked a bit longer without burning. This gives me just a moment longer to add the next ingredient (sauce, eggs, greens, etc.) which is sometimes extremely useful in this season of life when I'm frequently interrupted by babies and toddlers. Their flavor is more "green", like the difference between green onions and yellow onions. I would certainly not use them in anything where the green color would be off-putting or where the smoothness of pressed garlic is important. I find they are easiest to cut with kitchen shears like chives rather than slicing with a knife. I think my daughter's complaint was that they are neither A) a special sweet treat, aka a berry, nor B) a familiar favorite such as carrots, cucumbers, or tomatoes. They are no longer even C) an exciting new flavor for her to try like the fennel, cilantro, or bok choy. Yet, they are truly the type of vegetable I was hoping for when I purchased this CSA, since they are not found in the grocery store yet I can grow them myself. They give us a new way to utilize more of a plant that can in the future reduce our grocery store bill just a little bit.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

CSA Week 3

This is the first week I found it really difficult to use some of the items that we received. The lettuce, snap peas, cucumbers, carrots, garlic scapes, rosemary, and saskatoon were easy enough, but the cilantro and fennel challenged me. In fact, I did give the cilantro away. Neither my husband nor I like it, At All, not one little bit.
I was excited to see that we were receiving more garlic scapes. I loved using them the first time in stir frys, and will use them again in the same way, though we didn't receive nearly as many (three instead of around 10 I think). My kids were excited for the saskatoon berries. I let them each eat one the same day we received the basket and the rest we enjoyed thoroughly with our breakfast the next morning. My neighbor benefited from the cilantro. I had never eaten fennel before (scared off by its licorice reputation) let alone tried to prepare it. What we received was a rather small bulb with gigantic stalks. I decided to make a pesto with the leaves and roast the bulb, but what to do with the thick stems? I threw them on the sheet pan with the bulb and the carrots, keeping each of the three separate but tossing all with olive oil and salt to roast. I added a few of the leaves to our meatballs. But then I chickened out on the pesto and added the remaining leaves to a coleslaw instead with cabbage, carrots, and a mayo-free dressing. My husband ate three helpings before dinner (I think he had skipped lunch that day), the kids complained each time I served it (but I gave them each a bite-full anyway), and the rest made its way into my hubby's lunches and my own lunches. Coleslaw lasts a really long time, btw, if two thirds of the people eating it only take a single spoonful, and even that under protest. In our case it appeared at quite a few family meals over the course of more than a week.
We are attending a potluck nearly every weekend this summer as usual and I quickly decided to make "vegetable tray" the item that we bring to each one. If I don't have a lot of flexibility in my schedule we can purchase one pre-made and if I do then I can pick items that I know my family will eat. Leftovers are easier for me to do something with (I can rinse any gluten crumbs off and still use them as opposed to most things which I have to throw away) and my kids have a familiar vegetable without loudly telling me and everyone else that they're skeptical about the various salads and casseroles which might otherwise be their only options to eat the vegetable that they know they're supposed to eat before picking a dessert. This week's cucumbers and snap peas were perfect for that; Well, they would have been, but my oldest saw the peas and ate them all up before the next day was over. Some of the cucumbers survived until veggie tray time and I only had to add cherry tomatoes, peppers, baby carrots and a dip to complete the tray.
I've used fresh herbs that I've grown in the past, but I've used them mostly in the later half of the summer, with fresh green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and other foods that haven't come into season yet. So far I haven't felt like I've really taken full advantage of the herbs in my box since I've only minced them into butter and frozen that butter for later. That will taste good on our winter chicken and steak, but it's not doing much for us yet in the summer. I did put a generous slab on the steaks we grilled though and we certainly enjoyed it.
Other vegetables that we bought this week: 6 pounds carrots, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower. The tomatoes were for the vegetable tray, the cauliflower and some of the carrots worked beautifully with the garlic scapes and an onion in a stir fry, and more carrots complemented various other meals throughout the week.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

CSA Week 2

Mixed salad greens, carrot leaves, carrots
This week my CSA box included salad greens, romaine lettuce, carrots, strawberries, mint, sage, bok choy, and a cucumber.
The first thing I did with the food in the box was to mince the sage and mix it with garlic and softened butter for a compound butter. Then I roughly chopped the mint and added it to the jar of peppermint extract that I began last week. I covered the fresh leaves with more vodka and put the jar back in the cupboard. The salad greens fed my sister and I at dinner that same night and provided a salad for me for two more lunches. We enjoyed the strawberries fresh and unadorned. I chopped the carrots and added them to my salads. I separated the carrot leaves from their stems. The leaves went into the salads and a few went into my stir fry dinner on Saturday; the stems will be chopped into small pieces in a stew. The bok choy was really three small heads, altogether being about the size of the romaine lettuce. The first head I sauteed with garlic scapes from last week and marinated chicken and powdered ginger, and uncooked carrot leaves. That was a large dinner for one person but tonight I need to feed four children and myself, so I plan to repeat the same basic recipe, although with beef instead of chicken, but saute some carrots before I add the scapes and bok choy and serve smaller portions with plenty of salad on the side. (Update: my husband and I loved that bok choy. We're ready to add it to our garden in future years.) That salad: The lettuce head from last week was a round head with leaves I could use all the way through. It fed our family for two dinners. This week's lettuce head was a very large romaine. There is a lot more of it but it isn't really as nice. Since the head is obviously as big as it could grow I needed to trim more off the tips and the stems. So the size is larger but I felt like I wasted more of it and I felt like the quality was lower. There is enough lettuce for every dinner though, so we'll have salad from it at least 5 times this week.
Growing up, we didn't eat many vegetables compared to what I feed my own family now. We were required to eat the vegetable served at every dinner, but really that little word "the" means a lot and our portions were sometimes no more than a single spoonful if it was a vegetable we particularly despised. I went ahead and purchased this CSA because I knew that I would be able to use all the vegetables in it. Our family doesn't often eat vegetables at breakfast, but we generally get one serving apiece at lunch and 2-3 servings at dinner, and our servings are much larger than those I endured growing up. When my two oldest daughters were around 3 and 4 years old we decided that the portion size rule for a vegetable from a vegetable tray was the same number of pieces as their current age. So now, my 9 year old picks out 9 baby carrots (or cucumber slices, or cherry tomatoes, or snap peas) to qualify as having eaten her veggies at lunchtime. Cooked vegetables and salad are less fixed but imagine the amount of space that 9 cucumber slices would take on a plate, and that's a good approximation of the serving size I require them to eat before getting served any seconds on another dish and before eating dessert. It's not a hard-and-fast rule, especially when we're not at home, but it helps us all understand the expectations within our family culture. The little kids are not required to finish their vegetables before receiving seconds until I think they truly understand the concept. Our 3 year old is learning that now, which means that she generally has to finish her servings but not always, depending on whether she seems able to handle that requirement at that particular meal (i.e. is she too tired? overstimulated? too attached to the main dish?). Their portions also match their appetite rather than their age, so the 3 year old receives 2 baby carrots and the 2 year old receives 1. I think the 3 year old will graduate to 3 carrots by her half birthday. When I know they don't like a particular vegetable, I still feed it to them, just a very small amount, so they get used to seeing it on their plates. The 3 year old has been seeing lettuce on her plate a couple times a week for 2 years now (without actually eating it in all that time) and just decided to begin eating that single lettuce leaf. She even requested a second leaf recently!! So, really, I would like to increase our vegetable intake even more, but we do eat more than the "average" household. And when I say that the romaine fed us for 5+ times, that means enough lettuce to cover a third to half a large plate for each adult at that meal and the 9 year old, a quarter of a small plate for the 7 year old, and a single torn "bite-size" leaf for each of the toddlers. Each dinner means 1-3 adults, and all children.
The other vegetables we did buy this week: 3 pound bag of carrots, two green bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and a Sam's Club vegetable tray. Of course we still had to buy our normal amount of fruit since a single box of strawberries doesn't go very far around here.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Our first CSA

Beet Greens
I bought a CSA for the first time this year. At $400 for 20 weeks, if we buy this CSA or another again then the cost of $20 per week needs to prove its worth. With my brain going in a million different directions these days I thought that keeping a record here will help a LOT when it comes time to evaluate the benefits of this CSA and decide whether to purchase it or another CSA next year.
In the first week's box we received carrots, garlic scapes, beets, asparagus, lettuce head, mint, thyme, oregano, sage, and mixed salad greens. I made a pound of compound butter with the thyme, oregano, sage, and a couple garlic cloves and froze most of it in an ice cube tray. I was concerned that the scapes would make an unpleasant texture in the butter, like the Egyptian onions did in the stew I used them in the first time, which is why I used minced garlic cloves instead of scapes. We diced the carrots, unpeeled, and roasted them and the asparagus seasoned with some of the compound butter, and served them with the mixed salad greens at dinner. There were enough salad greens for a second dinner's salad, and the head lettuce also lasted us as a side dish for two more dinners. I tried to roast the carrot greens but that was a complete bust. I put the leftover carrot greens in the next night's soup but when I pureed the soup, the greens wrapped around the stick blender. Next time I plan to cut the leaves up to garnish a soup and chop the stems into small pieces to add into a soup or roast. A couple of the beet greens, leaves and stems, went into the second night's soup and the rest were included with other non-box veggies cooked with a lamb roast. I peeled the beets with a vegetable peeler and sliced and boiled them. The older girls assured me that they tasted just like Grandma's (a good thing in their opinion) but not quite as tender. I think I'll increase the amount of water in the pot next time. The mint leaves I chopped into small pieces and covered with vodka. That mixture will steep in the cupboard all summer long, then I will strain it and bottle it for mint extract.
My first week's thoughts: The box is smaller than I hoped it would be, but not really smaller than I thought it would actually be. $20 seems like a lot for the quantity we received (compared to what we normally buy), but I also realize that each item went further than the same item from the grocery store would have stretched for us. The carrots, for instance, didn't need to be peeled, so we didn't pay for the peels to be put straight into the compost or trash. The asparagus were tender to the very end so I didn't need to snap the ends. The beets came with their greens and I was able to use everything except the peels. I wonder, if I boiled the peels for a natural dye whether I could freeze the dye water and expect it to work to dye Easter eggs next spring? We might experiment later this summer if we get a lot more beets. What actually went into the compost: beet peels, herb stems, carrot greens. Some of the items didn't really replace what we would have normally bought at the store, so they seem to be an extra cost, but might really save us money in the future. I never buy fresh herbs but I won't have to buy another bottle of peppermint extract for the foreseeable future and the compound butter will replace a small portion of the dried herbs that I would normally buy. That savings will disappear in future years if I start growing more of my own herbs again. The asparagus was an extra cost since we don't normally justify its expense to buy it outside of special occasions so the produce it displaced in our meal (cooked frozen broccoli, probably), which would have been cheaper serving-for-serving, made it a treat rather than a money savings. Of course, all the items in the box were higher quality than what we purchase at the store, so the quality justifies the expense, but whether we can afford that higher quality in future summers remains to be seen. I also need to remember when I evaluate whether to buy a CSA again that our grocery expenses increase during the summer on other types of food. I don't expect our weekly grocery bill to go down as much as we might actually be saving with our CSA items since during the summer we buy more expensive meat (to grill rather than roast) and more convenience food (vacations, vegetable trays, fruit trays, junk food).
Another benefit which could help us in the future and possibly save us money is in the items which will show up in our box which we aren't used to buying. Since they're in the box, I will use them. Since I've never used them before, I will be pushed to find ways to use them that we all like. Once I find ways to enjoy them, we'll all want to buy or grow them, so our normal diet will expand and include other healthy, possibly even cheaper food, such as cooking greens, turnips, radishes, and beets. We'll know how to use the carrot tops that we grow as well as the more familiar roots. We'll want to grow other cooking greens and become familiar with more unusual items such as garlic scapes. I'm motivated to use every single item we receive, since it did cost me more than I'm used to spending, so I'll learn how to preserve anything that we can't use immediately. And when the okra and rutabaga show up, we just might discover a new favorite vegetable. Of course, when the corn and peaches show up, no one will complain about those either!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Recipe: Pumpkin Pancakes

This recipe is for my sister-in-law. We had a family brunch today and she enjoyed these pancakes I made very much, especially considering that she doesn't normally enjoy pancakes. I managed to snap this shot of the last 3 pancakes just in time...they have since disappeared altogether. I will note that I used a gluten free flour mix which does not include xanthan gum, my pumpkin puree was home cooked, and I skipped the baking powder and replaced most of the milk with plain dairy kefir. But I've made the recipe just as it is written below, so anyone should feel confident in making it without those particular changes for their own delicious breakfast.
Pumpkin Pancakes
1 3/4 cup flour (gluten free or not)
2 Tbl brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice (or your favorite mixture of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, citrus zest)
1 1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1 egg, beaten
2 Tbl melted butter
chocolate chips, optional
Preheat griddle. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl; mix well. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, pumpkin, egg and butter; mix well. Combine wet and dry ingredients.
As you pour each pancake on the griddle, sprinkle with a few chocolate chips if desired.