Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Playing the hand you're dealt - the CSA challenge

A lot of the people I follow on Twitter are foodies, and many of them belong to a CSA. (CSA is short for Community Supported Agriculture; you buy, basically, a share of a farm's harvest, and then each week you pick up whatever the farmer is providing).

Each week, they wax eloquent about the abundance they've received. And abundant it is. But what they don't talk about (and I acknowledge that it's difficult to discuss in 140 characters) is the flip side of that abundance. When you get your vegetables from a CSA, you don't cook what you chose. You cook what you've got. Whether it's what you feel like eating or not.

Even if you like it, it can be a problem. Red Jacket Orchards, which provides the fruit for my CSA, has recently been blessing us - positively overwhelming us - with apricots. Two quarts a week for the past two weeks, and another quart coming this week, along with plums. I adore apricots - but how on earth to use up four quarts of them? Especially as raw apricots aren't really appealing - it takes cooking to bring out the flavor.

Well, I have almost done it. Thanks to an apricot tart, apricot and orange ice-cream, and a serendipitous (because the same week that we got apricots, we also got fennel) recipe I found for fennel and apricot chutney, I have used up two and a half quarts. And last week, at - of all places - a beer fest, I met a guy from Red Jacket and posed my apricot dilemma to him He insisted that if I let the apricots ripen almost to the point of decay, they'd be delicious raw, and to my surprise, he was right. So that's another pint or so. I have one quart left, and today I found a recipe for spiced apricots that's supposed to be delicious with the Christmas bird. (Of course there's another quart coming, but I'll worry about that when I get it.)

More difficult than apricots are some of the vegetables we have been getting, like carrots, cabbage and turnips. Those may indeed be early summer vegetables, but unfortunately, they are also - for someone living in the Northeast - among the few local vegetables available all winter. By June I am, to put it bluntly, sick to death of them. I have now made two different kinds of cole slaw (not my favorite salad), and have also put some of the cabbage, as well as the leaves from the kohlrabi we got three weeks running. and a few other winter oddments, into a batch of kimchee. It's pretty good, though by the time it fermented enough to soften the kohlrabi leaves, the cabbage tasted almost cooked.

But this is exactly what makes a CSA worth doing, at least for me. Yes, it's a way of supporting a local farmer, and yes, it is, at least some of the time, a taste of summer's abundance. But more deeply, it is a way of cooking that - until the arrival of the deep freeze, the supermarket, and refrigerated shipping - was universal: doing the best you could with what you had. Which I find both an intoxicating challenge and in some way a spiritual discipline.

We are so accustomed, we Americans, to a hyper-abundance of choice. We import whatever we want from wherever it grows. Wandering the frigid aisles of a supermarket produce section is in many ways like wandering the air-conditioned corridors of an airport. We could be anywhere. The vegetables, clean and glistening in their waxed piles, look picture perfect, as though dirt never had anything to do with them. It's an eerily disconnected experience.

Which is not to say that I don't - CSA or not - take advantage of the choice available to me. Raspberries and red currants are in season right now, and since Red Jacket hasn't provided us with either, I bought some this weekend to make summer pudding, in my opinion one of the great desserts of all time, and not to be missed no matter what the CSA gives me.

But I don't buy too much, because at the back of my mind, always, is that refrigerator drawer stuffed so full of vegetables that they spill over onto the shelves: potatoes, turnips, carrots, half a cabbage, some fresh onions, several different kinds of green peppers. And always there's the question: now, how can I make
them - not the corn or tomatoes that I'd rather be dealing with - into something we'll enjoy? Tonight it was peppers, grilled, then briefly sauteed with chili powder, doused with leftover sour cream mixed with leftover ricotta salata and rolled in flour tortillas. It was delicious.

But I am really looking forward to the corn and tomatoes we've been promised at tomorrow's pickup.

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