This year I tried, and largely failed, to grow my own garden. Granted it was not my full time job and I certainly was not being paid for it (in fact, I paid a pretty penny to plant it), but it did not take me long to realize how difficult farming must be. I also learned quite quickly that I was in way over my head. It was overwhelming to discover how inadequate our soil was in so many ways and how challenging it is to grow a variety of items in the same soil given the unique nutrient complex required by each item. Then there was the hardship of figuring out what to plant where and managing different water needs. Not to mention the scourge of pests and small animals that wrecked havoc on my efforts. My lettuce, tomatoes, and jalapenos did great, but everything else pretty much failed to thrive. I am humbled by the experience and feel determined to do better next year, but I certainly developed an admiration, respect, and gratitude for the work Joe and his crew have made on our behalf this season. They all deserve a big round of applause.
In my final post of the season, I always like to reflect back and recognize things I have learned or remember particular highlight experiences at the farm. Here is my list for this year:
- Picking berries is therapeutic—I have especially loved picking the raspberries this season. In past years I skipped over it, imagining that I didn’t have the time and they would go bad too quickly anyway. However, this year, I got hooked. I especially loved gingerly stepping into the danger zone where bushes were close together and I had to constantly fight prickly branches and swarming bees. The choicest, plumpest berries could be found there and I would always end up pleasantly surprised when I would look up and see that I was literally buried in the bush. How the time flew…I was hardly aware of it. Raspberry meditations is what I will call it from now on.
- It is ok to eat ants, even a lot of them. On my berry excursions I learned to befriend the ant. At first, when I would pick a berry with an ant or two on it, I would quickly drop it on the ground. Then I got over it and started to put the berries, ant and all, into my quart basket. I figured I would deal with the ants later, like when I washed my berries. But wouldn’t you know I never found an ant on a berry later on when I went to wash them. My guess is they went and hid for cover deep inside the center of the berry where I would never find them. So what did I do then? I ate them. And guess, what? I ‘m still here, happy and healthy, a new “ant-filled raspberry” convert.
- Weekly fresh cut flowers displayed in your kitchen is a seriously underrated source of joy. I’m not sure what it is about it, but having flowers in my kitchen near where I work is a simple pleasure that I have long discounted. I always figured flowers were for appearance…something to buy when company comes over to make the house look nice…and yet, what a joy they bring to the hostess herself. Now I love to have them on my kitchen island near my chopping block during the entire CSA season. I’m learning more and more each year that life’s overall joy is made up mostly of small, simple pleasures such as these.
- A watermelon radish is the ultimate VIP guest. Want to fascinate guests and stimulate conversation? Serve watermelon radishes at your next party. I have served these beautiful and tasty treats about a dozen times now and they never fail to delight, to incite curiosity, and to keep conversation flowing. Who knew that serving these radishes on a crudité platter would be like inviting a famous guest to join the party. Folks just adore them. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, move on over cause here comes my new friend, the watermelon radish.
- It is ok not to use EVERYTHING in your share ALL THE TIME. This one has been a hard lesson for me. I cook for pleasure, I cook for a living, and I am the sole cook in my household, so I always figured there could be no excuse for not using all of my share all of the time. But the reality is that LIFE is always happening, and sometimes, it just takes up all the space and air in the room so that you have to just get out, take a big breath, and have your spouse take you out to dinner. Remember, if worst comes to worst, there is always the stock pot (see my post on making home-made veggie broth).
- The secret of success is knowing the basics—I did a stint in cooking school 14 years ago and it was the best thing I ever did to improve my overall skills in the kitchen and to insure the success of my CSA experience. The key was learning basic techniques and formulas that can be applied to any combinations of food items. Probably the one formula I use the most during my CSA season is the basic structure for a stew/braise, which I lump together because the techniques are so similar. As a parting gift, I thought I would print that out here. I’m sure this is old news for most of you, but perhaps you have never thought of these techniques as a formula, which can be applied as a means to very diverse ends. Application of the formula has helped me move away from recipes to explore my creative side in the kitchen.
Basic Stew/Braise Formula
- If using meat: If you prefer a thickened end product, toss meat in seasoned flour. If not coating meat with flour, season well with salt and pepper. Sear coated or uncoated meat on medium-high heat in oil in batches (avoid overcrowding) until nicely browned. Remove to a bowl or plate. Return pot to stove.
- Add a bit of oil to pan and heat on medium heat. Add longer cooking vegetables and all flavor base mixes or mirepoix (like onions, celery, carrots). Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are translucent and other vegetables are crisp tender, at least 10 minutes but ideally longer. Browning helps develop flavor for dark or richer dishes.
- Add a deglazing liquid like wine or broth (about ¼ to ½ cup). Scrap up all browned bits on bottom of pan. Reduce liquid until almost completely evaporated.
- If using tomato paste, add tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, until darkened (caramelized). If you wish to use tomatoes, add now. Cook, stirring frequently until tomatoes begin to break down and water has cooked off.
- Add additional broth and meat back to pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until meat is cooked. If doing a long term braise, cover pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until meat is very tender.
- Defat by carefully using a spoon to remove the excess fat that rises to the surface.
- Add medium cooking vegetables (potatoes, broccoli stems, butternut squash, peppers) or greens (kale). Cook just until tender.
- Add quick cooking vegetables (cauliflower or broccoli florets, ) or greens (spinach, chard) and cook until just tender and/or wilted.