Foods I’ve Come to Love: Apricots

This is the first in what I intend (best laid plans of those with CFS, of course) to be an occasional series of lessons from a year of eating locally.

There were quite a few fruits and vegetables that I came to a new appreciation of this year because of the Eat Local Challenge – items I saw new sides of, new parts of what they have to offer, things I had never had a love for that I came to adore – things I had never known before. Here’s the first of them.

Apricots.

I once put together an alternative Easter basket filled with dried fruit instead of candy for a friend who was trying to eat healthier. I put dried pineapple rings on dried papaya spears to make flowers to go in the plastic grass. It was silly fun.

There were some unsulfured dried apricots in the basket too. Dried was primarily how I knew apricots at that point. I never had liked fresh ones very much – my East Coast experiences with them had pretty consistently delivered wan flavor and mealy texture. And it was usually a lot of money for something that didn’t taste very good.

But as I’ve found with so many fruits, once you land in California, you suddenly understand what all the fuss is about. It was some apricots I got from Fred at Savage Island Farms early last summer that changed my mind.

Apricots come on after all the other stone fruits – cherries, peaches, plums and nectarines – have already begun. “Hey guys,” they say, walking in when everyone’s already ensconced in conversation and well into their second drink, “I came to the party too!” The peaches, plums and nectarines are going to keep on coming well into the fall, though, and the cherries and apricots are going to run their season’s course by July.

So, in deciding what fruits to make yourself sick on when, I’d suggest you start with the cherries, move on to the apricots, then shift to the other stone fruits. It’s a strategy that works for me.

This was Fred’s first weekend of the season with apricots. The market crowd parted when I was about a dozen paces away from his booth, and I spotted the pink-blushed golden fruits beaming in their little green baskets. By the time I got to the table I was smiling from ear to ear.

Fred saw me coming. I think he thinks I am crazy.

I bought five pint baskets of cherries last week – and Fred doesn’t skimp on packing the pints – and had eaten them all by Friday night without devoting any of them to a pie or a tart. “I finished all those cherries,” I told him. I’m not sure if I was expecting praise or admiration or a comment on the apparent robustness of my digestion. He gave me that smile that I can never decide if it’s pleased or wary. But he keeps selling me fruit, and that’s all that matters.

Fred’s apricots – how can I explain them? They’re sweet and dense and perfumed and carry the barest note of tartness, just enough to smooth out the fruit’s sweetness. It’s not the super-sweetness of cherries, nor the exuberant brash tartness of a traditional yellow peach. What the fruit is really about is that floral note that the meaty flesh conveys as it separates cleanly from the stone as you bite into it. It calls out to be combined with raisins, or walnuts, or basil, or honey, if you can restrain yourself long enough to come up with a recipe idea.

I restrained myself in terms of how much I bought, anyhow. I got two pint baskets each of apricots, Ranier cherries and Tulare cherries from Fred.

But my restraint is not holding. I have already eaten six apricots in the last two hours. Okay, now the count is up to seven.

If you can manage to stash some in a folded-over paper bag or a fruit bowl for a day or two, you will really be rewarded. I’m one of those people who likes really ripe stone fruit – a “leaner,” as we say, for the posture you’re forced to adopt to try to avoid being dripped on – and really ripe apricots are incredible. The tartness starts to wane as they ripen, and the fruit’s cell walls weaken until it really does taste like you’re biting into some sort of mythical ambrosial fruit plucked from the heart of a magnificent flower.

Which you are, I suppose – but it’s a tiny pink unassuming-looking apricot blossom.

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Lessons from a Year of Eating Locally

A little bit more than a year ago now, I started a subscription to TD Willey Farm’s CSA, as part of the Locavores’ May 2006 Eat Local Challenge.

Though I undertook it, I didn’t think I had that much to learn or that much to change as part of the challenge. Being part of a CSA was a new habit I had wanted to make for a long time and it made sense to make it part of the month’s activities; getting back to shopping at the farmers’ market was an old habit I wanted to rekindle. I ended up carrying those two changes through the entirety of the past year.

In doing so, I found I was right, in the larger sense, that there weren’t major lessons I learned from the Locavores’ challenge. Most of the big stuff was already under my belt. I already understood seasonality; I could already name off the groups of vegetables and fruits that were at their best in any month of the year, and I already mostly followed the seasons when planning what to cook. I was pretty well versed in food miles as well and had no shortage of information about the practices of American agriculture.

As the year wore on, it turned out that there was a lot to learn, but it wasn’t the larger lessons that were waiting for me. Not the kind of knowledge you’d find in the text, but the notes written in light pencil in the margins, the synthesis that you come to when new experience meets up with old. They were, in short, the things I didn’t even know I didn’t know about until I found them.

Tomorrow, thoughts on apricots are the first of the series; I plan to write more on this subject in the weeks and months to come.

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.

No-Kebab Kebabs: Vegetables with Lemon-Herb Tofu

I’ve been trying to put together a lemon-herb tofu for a while, and I think I’ve finally got it.

The original inspiration for this was kebabs. However, you will notice that no sticks were harmed in the making of these vegetables.

They did not go on sticks for a couple reasons. Mixed skewers are beautiful-looking, with all the vegetables arrayed in a colorful progression, but no matter how evenly everything is cut, one foodstuff inevitably cooks before another, resulting in burned something and nearly-raw something else. Additionally, I don’t own a grill (it seems somewhat pointless when my favorite food is beans) and I find that placing the vegetables flat on a baking sheet under the broiler works very well.

I usually make something like this at midsummer, when there are plenty of appropriate vegetables. I especially like broiled small tomatoes, their skins puckering and their flesh slumped into a juicy mass that collapses over the other ingredients when tossed together. In May, though, there are no such ideal tomatoes on offer, so we limited ourselves to what was locally available: the yellow squash and red onions from our CSA box, plus zucchini and fennel from the farmers’ market.

Despite the lack of tomatoes, these came out very well. The summer squashes developed a buttery, almost nutty toasted flavor, the onions softened and caramelized beautifully, and the fennel yielded its crunch just enough to provide an interesting counterpoint to the softer vegetables and the springy-textured seasoned tofu.

I’ve been wrestling all week with how to describe the red onions used in this recipe – I would call them green onions, because they have their soft stalks on – except they’re red on the bottom. Green red onions sounds confusing. Perhaps they’re immature red onions, because they haven’t been dried for storage?

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Chard Fritters

Yes, that is an okay I can’t bear to photograph and not eat this for another moment image. I needed a little box lined with parchment paper to nestle these into, and I didn’t have one. If you’re dissatisfied with the aesthetics of this, let me assure you that there’s a far better-looking recipe coming tomorrow.

Chickpeas really are the endless vegetarian miracle. Beyond their charms in whole form, they give us hummus, falafel, and chickpea flour, the last of which assists egg-avoiding vegetarians in all sorts of helpful ways. For example, I put up the chickpea pancakes last week, and now I’m putting up a little fritter.

I saw that the women at Naughty Curry had made some chickpea-flour bound Peppy Greens Pattycakes last week, which had been inspired by Rayma’s greens-potato-breadcrumbs Mustard Greens Cutlets.

I had leftover cooked chard in the fridge, which had come from K.M.K Farms at the farmers’ market. Actually, some of it was the white chard from K.M.K., and the other portion was the tops off a bunch of beets (which are effectively chard) that – I confess – I bought from Whole Foods because they looked so good, and besides, they were only from Bakersfield! It’s not that far away…and they were probably from north of Bakersfield, really…

At any rate, it was two huge bunches of greens I had cooked, and both Chimp and I had grown tired of eating cooked chard and beet tops, so I decided to make them into fritters, which helped the leftover greens disappear tout-suite.

These would be great dipped in yogurt, raita, or with a dab of chutney atop each. And you can do this with cooked or raw vegetables – in fact, I’m planning to inflict this method on some cooked carrots later in the week, and make larger cutlets, more like what Naughty Curry got up to. I’m in a vegetable cutlet mood – but it seems like I’m not the only one, huh?

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Naked Samosas

At the farmers’ market on Saturday, I bought some pea shoots. I’ll admit, I hadn’t eaten breakfast and was rather hungry, so I bought about six cups of pea shoots. I was excited, too, which might have contributed to my overbuying; I’ve never seen them for sale, so I’ve never had pea shoots except for at restaurants. On those occasions, there have always been about four or five artfully arranged atop whatever I’ve ordered, and it’s never been enough to satisfy.

So this was my chance to do what I like to do with produce: overindulge.

Is that possible?

I didn’t have a plan for them; I knew I could eat them as sprouts or wilt them slightly. I came into the kitchen around 4:45 that afternoon. I remembered that we still had some potatoes from a batch Chimp had bought a while back for something. I used to be such a potato lover, and I hardly eat them any longer. There were four, though, and I figured I could make Chimp some mashed potatoes and throw some wilted pea shoots on top of them. That would be nice; potatoes and peas, very homey.

I also had some chickpeas soaked and ready to cook. I could put pea shoots on top of those like I usually do spinach or arugula with some lemon and olive oil, I thought. That would be nice too, though it would be kind of a weird dinner…mashed potatoes and chickpeas, both with pea shoots.

Then, like a bolt out of the blue, I thought Peas and potatoes. Samosas. Samosas sometimes have chickpeas in them too. Holy cats, this could be great! Spiced potatoes, garlic- and red pepper-spiked chickpeas, garlic-laced pea shoots with a tiny squeeze of lemon…oh boy. This could seriously go somewhere.

What I ended up with, as you see above, is a sort of naked samosa, made up of the typical ingredients in samosa filling, except the peas are replaced by pea shoots. It tastes phenomenal. I have to say, I think these are some of the best potatoes I’ve ever made – and I have made many, many potatoes.

I’ve doubled the potato recipe from what I made in order to create an even number of servings of all the components.

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Chickpea Pancakes with Shredded Zucchini

This is another example of getting halfway there on the Eat Local Challenge: the zucchini are emphatically from around here. These were the first organic zucchini I’d seen this season; they came from K.M.K. Farms of Kingsburg at the Vineyard Farmers’ Market, as did the green onions.

However, the chickpea flour for the pancakes was bought at Whole Foods and is good ol’ Bob’s Red Mill, from Oregon.

Even if they’re not local, I love these little chickpea pancakes, which are adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian. Learning to make these was worth the price of the book. They’re easy as pie, gluten-free, delicious, incredibly versatile, and relatively fast if you have two small non-stick skillets. I’ve made a version before that she suggests with peas and cilantro added, which is wonderful as well, but these are the plain-Jane version, the batter for which you can whip up in about three minutes.

The way they’re spiced now, these pancakes would make a wonderful wrapper for a great many vegetarian dishes – just about anything with an Indian flavor would work well, from chickpea stew to buttered greens to spiced potatoes to roasted cauliflower.

Shredding is one of the tactics I’ve begun using more since I’ve had chronic fatigue syndrome, when I have the energy to cook, and zucchini lends itself especially well to it. The food processor does most of the work, and shredded vegetables cook in an instant. If I have enough energy to stand and chop an onion, I can make this filling.

The raita I made for this was an arugula one; this would be equally good with a cucumber, cilantro or mint raita, but arugula was what I had. It had a nice peppery bite.

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