Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Free for all: black raspberries

Black raspberries (Rubus occidentalis), are native to the northeastern United States.

If you are on the bicycle paths of Northampton in the next few days, look for ripe black raspberries along the paths. The plants grow wild along embankments in swampy areas. Some are close to people's homes, and have clearly been picked over, but others, far from frugal homemakers with their bowls and pans, are still full of ripe berries, begging to be tasted. Bring a plastic quart container with a lid to protect your berries on the ride home.

Pick only the blackest berries. Wash them first, then eat them fresh, or freeze them. Fresh or frozen, the berries can be mashed and then pushed through a sieve until as much of the liquid as possible is extracted, or put through a food mill to remove the many tiny, hard seeds for a smooth sauce, syrup, or jelly. Raspberry puree that has been filtered of its seeds is perfect for use on or in cheesecake, ice cream, sorbet, or soda.

To make black raspberry soda:
In a glass, mix a quarter cup of the puree with a tablespoon of sugar and the juice of half a lime. Add sparkling water to within a couple inches of the top of the glass, and add ice. Garnish with a lime wedge or sprig of mint.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Greatest Scape

fresh garlic scape garlic bulb, dried

The garlic scape is a part of the garlic plant. (Photo credits: Scape, Wikimedia Commons. Dried garlic bulb, lowjumpingfrog on Flickr)

Perhaps you’ve seen these at the farmer’s market or in your farm share recently: a green, curling shoot with a segment in the middle and a tapering end. What is it, and what do you do with it?

The scape of the garlic plant is a flowering shoot the plant sends up. The garlic scape is eaten like green onions or scallions, or like chives. The garlic plant is stimulated by this trimming, and later in the season, the fresh garlic bulbs are harvested from the ground.

If you’re eating with the seasons, at this time of year, garlic scapes can be substituted for bulb garlic in many recipes. Their mild flavor and crispness suit them to raw dishes, such as tuna salad, gazpacho, vinaigrette, and pico de gallo; they are also good chopped into stir fries and pan-roasted vegetables. When making a substitution of scapes for bulb garlic in a recipe, use about three times the volume of garlic scapes as is called for in the recipe.

Garlic scape pesto allows you to preserve their ephemeral taste for year-round use. Process scapes in a food processor with a small amount of olive oil and salt: some recipes also call for almonds or pine nuts and a hard grating cheese, though these are optional. Pour the mixture into ice cube trays and freeze. After the cubes have frozen, crack them into a large, labeled ziplock bag and store them in the freezer. Whenever you want some mild garlic in a stir fry, a quiche, soup, or pasta sauce, pull out a cube or two. Melt one right in the pan, then sauté vegetables in the pesto, and eat them over rice or use them in another dish, like a stuffed omelette or vegetable lasagna. For an exciting twist on a standard, sauté rice or other grains in the pesto before adding water and cooking as usual.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Getting the best from your farm share

Are you new to CSAs? If this is your first season in Community Supported Agriculture, welcome! A farm share is a great way to eat locally, and support a local farmer.

In case you haven't heard of a CSA before, this is how it works: you purchase your share of the season’s harvest from a farm offering shares, paying in advance so the farmer can prepare to serve all of his or her shareholders. There are meat, poultry, egg, dairy, and even fish CSAs in the Pioneer Valley, although the most common sort of farm share is a weekly supply of seasonal vegetables. Most are harvested for you, and some are even cleaned, while other crops are available as a pick-your-own arrangement.

Think of your weekly shares of fresh produce as a kind of game show: you’ve already bought them, and now the clock is ticking. Your challenges as a farm share owner are to enjoy these vegetables while they’re fresh, to eat them all week long, and to use all of the vegetables you bring home.

Here are some tips for getting the best experience from your farm share, early in the season.

1. Go green.

Most farm shares include lots of greens: some that you eat raw—salad greens—and some that you eat cooked. Cooking greens range from the delicate to the robust. They can all be sauteed, steamed, and added to soups and stews. If you have a recipe for a delicate green like spinach, you can substitute a similar green, like chard or callaloo, with very little difference. Collards and kale, both hearty cooking greens, are likewise interchangable.

Use delicate greens first, and plan to use heartier greens later in the week. Cold spots at the back of the fridge can burn greens. Store unwashed greens in plastic produce bags, kept tightly closed and stored in the produce drawer.

2. Start with a salad.

All summer long, expect to get salad greens in your farm share. It may be loose, or in heads. There may be different kinds of salad greens, ones you've never seen before. You can even eat a little bit of a salad green right out of the bin to find out if it’s very bitter, spicy, or strong, before deciding whether to take some home.

Try mixing a handful of an unfamiliar salad green in with your usual selection. Every few days, wash a big batch of salad greens and spin them dry. Use loose greens before heading lettuce. Store the washed greens in a sealed plastic bag in the fridge, and make them the base of not just side salads, but whole salad meals.

Our version of “chef salad” is at its simplest, sliced boiled eggs and bacon over salad greens. In their season, we add cucumbers and tomatoes from our share. You can add croutons, avocado, cheese, sprouts, roasted seeds, nuts, and any vegetable you can eat raw. Cold leftover sliced chicken, steak, pork loin, and salmon are all good over salad greens and dressed with your usual favorite salad dressing.

3. Try something new.

It’s healthy and fun to try new vegetables. If something new to you seems appealing, take enough to make so everyone in your family can try it, but not so much that you’re stuck with it if it’s not a hit. Ask farm workers how to prepare an unfamiliar vegetable, or write the name down and google it when you get home.

4. Only take what your family likes to eat.

You may take everything allowed in your weekly share, but there’s no reason to take what you already know your family doesn’t like.

5. Freeze some for later.

If you eat with the seasons, strawberries and asparagus are nearing their season’s end, but you can always freeze some to enjoy later. It’s not always more cost-effective to freeze produce that you purchase; rather, take advantage of opportunities to turn your share investment and sweat equity into convenience food for later. Hit the you-picks and freeze berries and green beans. Take some extra cooking greens from the “all you can use” bins, to blanch and freeze for next winter and spring.

6. Only take what you can process.

t’s tempting to pick as many strawberries as your family can use all year. Delicate produce has to be processed quickly, before it degrades. Another factor to consider is the relative value of your currently available freezer space against the value of the produce you’re considering freezing. Do you have room for four month’s worth of blanched kale? Maybe this will be the year you learn to can tomatoes. If so, start with a small batch and make sure you have everything you need to tackle a larger canning job.

7. Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.

That's what the old chicken farmers used to say, and it applies to produce, as well. You may have been counting on getting enough tomatoes to make a truly heroic amount of marinara, but the potato blight could destroy your farm's entire tomato crop. Strawberries can be abundant, and then rained out in a day. That's the nature of sharing risk with your farmers.

8. Just roll with it.

You leap into action when a crop is abundant; the other direction to flex is toward a backup plan for when there is little or nothing of something you've come to rely upon. Be glad you are not a subsistence farmer, and can go to the market, or pull something out of the freezer.

Accept bounty with gratitude, and losses with grace; these are the strategies for enjoying your farm share this season.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Convenience food

Packing lunch and dinner (L) Pork shoulder with rice and sides, (R) eggplant parmigiana and a sausage

Preparing several dishes ahead of time allows me to pack different meals for my husband when he works through lunch and dinner at the office.

For a typical 9-to-5er, who comes home hungry to more hungry family members, the idea of a home cooked dinner isn’t a welcome relief at the end of the work day: it’s a setup for failure. When you’re hungry and tired, and have one or more hungry, tired people waiting for you to feed them, is the very last time that anyone, even a joyous foodie, wants to whip up a dinner from scratch. It’s when you scuttle over to the drawer where you stash your takeout menus, and make a call, head hung in shame and relief. In the 30-45 minutes that follow, you wonder why you didn’t just make something, or wish there were something already made that you could heat up right now.

The solution is to make your own convenience food. You don't have to start cooking dinner on an empty stomach. When you come home to a stocked refrigerator—stocked because you cook when you have time, not when you’re hungry—you can heat up meals for everyone in minutes.

Wherever I have an hour in my schedule to cook, I prep and steam a vegetable or two, or marinate some chops, or cook some rice or oatmeal. When I have more time, like on my days off from work, I make more time-consuming dishes. I keep at least two prepared entrees in my fridge, as well as prepared vegetables, a bag of washed salad greens, brown rice, and whole wheat tortillas.

Staying well-stocked means that even when my schedule changes on the fly, I don’t have to worry that there’s going to be nothing to eat, later. And when my friends drop in, I always have plenty to offer them.

If your free time comes in the mornings, or only on weekends, do your cooking then. Most dishes will tolerate up to a week of refrigeration, but if you want to keep it fresh at the end of the work week, use the cook ahead system to get through part of the week, and plan to carry in, dine out, or cook something quick on the other days of the week. By spreading out my cooking and doing it throughout the week, I always have a variety of foods to choose from, without having to prepare them all at once.

If you cook for a fussy eater, eat a special diet, or someone in your family works an odd shift, this is the way to be prepared. Their favorite, homemade foods—foods they can eat—can always be ready for them, whenever meal time comes. I always make a point of having vegetarian food around, and gluten-free foods, for some of the people I cook for at home.

Greens take up a lot of space in the fridge, until you cook them. Washing and cooking all of the spinach at once, when the farm share arrives, means it takes up less space. Ditto the kale and collards, though these store better without wilting than more tender greens like chard and spinach.

I make large batches of dishes like pork and beans, macaroni and cheese, and big roasts that feed the family for a few days. A lamb roast, or a pot of beans, can be served for a few days before it wears out its welcome. Some dishes are in such constant demand that a supply is always on hand, at least for its season: potato soup in winter, pan roasted vegetables in summer. If there’s too much, you can freeze the portions that you won’t eat within a few days.

When it’s time to eat, fix a plate and heat it up. In the evening or the morning before work, pack lunches from the assortment of good, home cooked food in your fridge. It’s convenience food, because you make it when it’s convenient for you to cook, and it’s already prepared when you need it.