CSA Box #7

I knew this week would come eventually: the week that eggplant would show up in the box.

I love vegetables – almost irrationally so – but I have never loved eggplant. I’ve always found it almost intolerably bitter, frequently stringy, occasionally mushy, from time to time bland, and once in a while tough as shoe leather. None of these characteristics are endearing to me.

I am hoping that eggplant straight off the farm will be different. I mean, sure, there are eggplant recipes I love. Okay, there’s one – but I have a feeling, based on the extent of the eggplant crop we saw during the farm tour, that I am going to have to learn to like (or at least tolerate-to-a-greater-degree) eggplant. I’ll keep you posted. I’m genuinely hoping for a conversion.

Besides the dreaded eggplant, we have the world’s cutest little melon in the foreground, my squeal at which caused one nearby cat to take off running and another to flatten her ears.

And green beans, one of my favorite things to eat too many of while they’re in season. I love green bean time. I never get tired of stir-fried green beans with hot peppers and roasted tofu, or fasoulakia, which for those of you who haven’t had the great pleasure, is green beans with tomatoes and herbs. We have a holiday potluck at work at lunch today – fasoulakia will be my healthy contribution to the spread.

So here’s the list of the box’s contents:

Green Snap Beans
Classic Globe Eggplant
Summer Crisp Lettuce
Pungent Fresh Red Onion
Foster’s Garlic
Zucchini Squash
Green Forest Parsley
Fresh Red La Soda Potatoes
Mediterranean Cucumbers
Orange Sherbert Melon
Peterson’s Flavorcrest Peaches

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Vegan Zucchini, Tomato & Onion Gratin

“Do you like zucchini?” my co-worker asked, peeking into my office.

“Of course!” I said.

She put the two globe zucchini she was carrying down on my desk.

“Are these from your mom’s garden?”

“Yes…”

“Oh, they’re still warm!”

“She just picked them.”

“Thank you!”

I had to keep working, of course, but looking at the two of them sitting there, I couldn’t help but think about what to do with them. Later in the afternoon I popped out to her desk.

“How about a zucchini and tomato gratin? How does that sound? It’s pretty standard, but I think it’d still be good.”

“That sounds great. Do you need more?”

“Oh, no. I’ll just make a small one to start. I have a red onion – maybe with some onion too?”

She nodded in agreement. I nodded back.

Since today was Wednesday, I stopped by the farmer’s market to get tomatoes. I grabbed four of an heirloom type called Black Russian and headed home to do the assembly.

Well, the two zucchini and the four tomatoes was enough to make a 9×13 pan worth, and I think I could have spread the vegetables out on a jelly roll pan and done just as well. This may not be a true gratin – no breadcrumbs, no cheese – but the idea is there. If I did this again, I might add a couple cloves of finely minced garlic to the cornmeal mixture.

Continue reading “Vegan Zucchini, Tomato & Onion Gratin”

Poblano Peppers with a Black Chickpea Filling

Looking at the picture, you might think that looks like a lot of work.

You would be correct. Stuffed peppers are a lot of work to do well.

They can be done poorly very easily: slap cooked rice and some other stuff, mostly tomato sauce, into a raw bell pepper with the top cut off; bake until listless and flabby. Remove from oven. Eat; regret eating.

A good stuffed pepper, on the other hand, needs to start out with a thin-skinned variety, needs roasting or frying to make its flesh savory and flavorful, careful work to open the peppers up, and a filling with some character to give the whole thing a reason to live.

Black chickpeas have that character. They’re truly nutty and have slightly tough skins that keep them from cooking to wan split starchiness, as regular chickpeas will if unattended. For that reason, they grind up well in bits once cooked, rather than easily becoming hummus. Their toothsome nature occurred to me as a good texture for this spot where ground meat is usually found.

When it gets hot in Fresno, and boy, is it getting hot in Fresno this week, I tend to turn to Mediterranean foods. I flipped through a few of my Greek cookbooks to get ideas for this recipe, and not having looked at them for a while, I remembered why they seem like such a good idea in the summer – all those cool flavors and vegetable salads.

So the filling is Mediterranean-influenced. Onions, both raw and cooked, make an appearance, as well as copious garlic, salty feta and olives, bright lemon juice and green notes from parsley and mint.

Continue reading “Poblano Peppers with a Black Chickpea Filling”

CSA Box #6

I had to grab my box on the way out to a business dinner this week at Jonathan’s in Kingsburg. We have group dinners there every so often, and he closes the restaurant for us for the evening.

When I walked in on Thursday evening, he said a gracious hello, and leaning into the pass-through to the kitchen, said, “Do you buy at the farmer’s market at Shaw and Blackstone?”

“I do,” I said. “And I’m also getting a box from T&D Willey now.”

“I thought I saw you at the market a couple weeks ago, but I wasn’t certain. You had a hat and sunglasses on, I think.”

“Probably a scarf – I don’t bother with my hair on Saturday mornings.”

“Ah, that was it. It looked sort of Caribbean, the way you had it tied up.”

“Yep, that was me. And in fact, I have my box from T&D with me – could I please put it in the fridge? Is there room?”

“Of course!”

I fetched it from the car.

“Wow – you must do some serious snacking on that commute of yours! I’ll put this in the walk-in.”

Jonathan is a character – a confirmed, dedicated meat-eater, he never fails to rib me a little bit about my herbivorism, but he always makes something good for me as well. His offerings for the evening, he described to the group, were a choice of a grain-fed 24 ounce porterhouse or a lobster tail, both with saffron orzo and summer squash.

“And something special for you,” he said, motioning in my direction.

I’m not usually much on eggs, but he’s made me a caramelized onion-and-goat cheese custard before that’s been the envy of the rest of the table. I had that, and beautifully grilled and seasoned zucchini and tomato.

About dessert: “We were originally going to have poached peaches tonight,” he said to the group, folding his hands together a little apologetically. “I was here at 5:30 this morning, trying to get the fruit off the pits, and swearing, and…well…there were peaches thrown in the kitchen.”

We all laughed. At this time most years, the freestone fruit would have begun already, but with the late start that the wet spring gave us, we haven’t moved into those varieties. Everything is still clingstone, and there’s no clean, aesthetically pleasing way to liberate the flesh of a clingstone peach from its pit. It’s a shame, as I’ve had Jonathan’s poached pears before, and I can imagine how good a peach would be given the same treatment.

We didn’t suffer, though. Dessert was house-made boysenberry sorbet and vanilla ice cream with fresh local blueberries and crème anglaise. It was wonderful. One of my tablemates was away when the dessert orders were taken, and when he came back, I said, “Would you like dessert? We ordered while you were gone.”

“I’m not usually a dessert eater. Just some coffee would be fine.”

“I’m not sharing,” I said.

“It’s okay.”

When mine arrived, he changed his mind and asked for one – and finished it.

It’s about half an hour back from Kingsburg to Fresno. It had been a hot day – over 100 – but it was getting to be dusk and bearably balmy when I left, my box carried back to the car by one of Jonathan’s staff. Once I was out on 99, I opened the sunroof for the first time since the winter and cranked up the music. The travel to San Francisco had worn me out pretty well, but with pleasant company enjoyed and a good meal eaten, I felt better than I had most of the week.

Maybe it was the eggs, I thought.

Here’s what I found when I opened the box:

Green Snap Beans
Red Leaf Lettuce
Pungent Fresh Red Onions
Cuyama Pink Lady Apples
Fresh Yukon Gold Potatoes
Mediterranean Cucumbers
Foster’s Cabbage
Peterson’s Fiesta Gem Peaches

I was very happy to see the cabbage – I had something I’ve wanted to make with cabbage, and I thought I wouldn’t see it in the box for a while because it’s summer, and it’s too hot for cabbage in the Valley. This cabbage came from Phil Foster in San Benito County, where it’s cool.

CSA Box #5

We have on offer this week:

Bunched Beets – I did, in fact, yell the Lisa Simpson line We got beets! to Chimp when I opened the box. It never gets old – well, judging by the eye roll I received, it never gets old for me, at least.
Red Summercrisp Lettuce – This is the biggest challenge for us in this thing…staying ahead (ha!) of the lettuce each week. We’re getting the hang of it – our habits are having to shift a little.
Pungent Fresh Red Onion – We are warned in the newsletter to cook with it, not try to eat it raw.
Cuyama Pink Lady Apples
Crookneck Squash
Italian Zucchini
Yukon Gold Potatoes
Genovese Basil – Hooray! Some of that basil I was in danger of throwing myself into!
Mediterranean Cucumbers
Flavorosa Pluots
Spring Crest Peaches

It was such a relief to know this box was waiting for me today, and that I didn’t need to go grocery shopping, as this week has had it in for me. I haven’t been cooking; I haven’t been feeling well. I’ve felt feverish and dizzy and pretty weak since Monday, though I seem to be improving. Yesterday I was on a two-hour conference call and by the end of it I had my head down on my desk because I just couldn’t hold the phone up any longer. I’m hoping I’ll feel better shortly so I can spend some time in the kitchen this weekend.

Also, I’m eagerly awaiting this weekend’s Bizarre Bazaar at Yoshi Now! If you live in Fresno, you probably already know by now that it’s going to be the thrift store flea market mass yard sale BBQ live surf music ska DJs roller derby bake sale benefit of the summer. I know I’ll be there.

The Eat Local Challenge: Looking Back

It’s been a while since the May Eat Local Challenge ended. Frankly, most normal people have probably written their reflection posts by now. But I, Ms. Chronic Fatigue, sitting here with my head resting on my shoulder because it takes too much energy to hold it up, am getting around to it about two weeks into June.

So what came out of it for me?

My daily habits changed. I stopped eating frozen blueberries on my cereal (antioxidants, you know…superfoods…) and started taking a few moments in the morning to cut a local peach, nectarine or handful of strawberries into my bowl of plain puffed rice instead. It tastes like a great treat, like a light version of fruit and cream once I pour the soymilk over it.

My shopping habits changed. My goal had been to buy more of my produce from producers, and to do so with sources as close to Fresno as possible. I got my CSA subscription started, and I couldn’t be happier for it. I got back into the habit of going to the farmer’s market, and I’ve been on enough consecutive weeks now that I’m starting to be welcomed instead of just greeted by the farmers I buy from.

The produce is delicious, but that’s probably what feels best about the whole thing. Fresno has been such a struggle for us – the heat, the pollution, my illness, our disconnection from friends and family, the difficulty we’ve had making new friends here. Going to the market, and being recognized as a person, a member of a community, as a member of this community, with something to contribute that’s of interest, is where the real reward came from for me.

And I really do feel privileged to be welcomed by the farmers I buy from, because they do something amazing, something risky, something altruistic, by committing to feed others in their community.

Agriculture is inescapable in my day-to-day life – farmers pay my wage, they sit in restaurants at tables next to mine, they climb out of pickup trucks to check the trees along the road while I’m driving to work; crews kick ladders open and climb into trees, or weed strawberries, or bag onions, or pack grapes while I have the great fortune to sit at a desk in a cool office.

Hard work. Tom Willey said on the farm tour about his full-time 60-member staff, “Well, I guess I’m just a sucker for someone who’s willing to do an honest day’s work.”

It’s hard and amazing work, making stuff grow. So few of us do it now, as compared to how many did just a couple generations ago. We used to feed ourselves more, and more within our communities. I grew up with and still have farmers in my family, but most Americans don’t any longer, and the more time I spend close to agriculture, the more I think we all need a better connection to it.

It grounds us. It reminds us what raw materials really are. It removes us from the world of manufactured products a little bit and reminds us – or reminds me at least – that we are not unlike the living things that sustain us. We need sustenance, and we need farmers to provide it; they nurture plants directly and us indirectly by feeding us, by allowing us to grow, to thrive, to be protected from disease, to satisfy our stomachs and our palates.

I’m grateful to be cared for that way. I’m grateful to be fed.