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Greens: Cooked or raw? August 30, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. I’m mostly an equal-opportunity greens fan; I love them raw (in salads and sandwiches), semi-cooked (in hot sandwiches like cheese panini with tomatoes and arugula), and cooked (in pasta, soups, dal, sauteed, or steamed). Pretty much the only greens I won’t eat are the ones that taste like dirt (beet greens, Swiss chard), the ones that are prickly (radish greens, turnip greens), and the ones that come from cans. (Just give me the beets and radishes and Japanese turnips and let me enjoy the colorful chard as an ornamental.) If I knew how to grill, I’d doubtless love the grilled halved Romaine lettuces and halved radicchio that have become popular.

I love to make a big pot of greens, including the “supergreens” kale and collards, along with spinach, arugula, and methi (fenugreek greens), cooking them down with a tiny bit of water clinging to the leaves, and then make saag paneer, the delicious, Indian dish that uses their equivalent of farmer’s cheese/fresh mozzarella, paneer, with a simply luscious mix of sauteed onion, spices, and cream. Served over basmati rice, which soaks up the sauce, it’s pure heaven.

Greens prepared this way are also a great base for soups and a great filling layer for lasagna. (You can tuck them in between the lasagna pasta and the ricotta or Greek yogurt, then top with sauce and shredded cheese.) So are greens that are added to dishes like pastas at the last moment. I love sauteing diced sweet onions and minced garlic in extra-virgin olive oil, perhaps with sliced mushrooms and diced red, orange or yellow bell pepper, a dash of crushed red pepper, Italian herbs (a mix of basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme), salt (we love RealSalt and Trocomare, hot herbed salt), and fresh-cracked black pepper. Then I add arugula when everything else has cooked down, use pasta tongs to immediately add cooked spaghetti to the sauteed veggies, and toss the pasta with the veggies and my choice of shredded cheese before serving it up. Yum!

But I’d still want to serve my pasta with a crunchy green salad. I really love salad, from a Caesar (yes to hard-boiled eggs, no to croutons and anchovies) to the famous iceberg wedge (I like mine with chopped sweet or purple onion, diced tomato, crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese, and an olive oil-lemon dressing, with plenty of salt and fresh-cracked black pepper).

There are so many salad variations that I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t love salad. One of my favorites has a crunchy Romaine base with arugula, radicchio, Boston (Bibb, butter) lettuce, watercress and frisee giving texture, flavor and color, with shredded carrots, diced bell pepper (red, yellow, and/or orange), diced red onion, cherry tomatoes (my favorites are the orange Sungold tomatoes), cucumbers, red cabbage, shredded white sharp Cheddar and/or blue or Gorgonzola cheese, sliced hard-boiled eggs, black olives, scallions (green onions), and pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds) for nutritional value and crunch. I’ll add avocado and/or jarred artichoke hearts in oil for an especially decadent salad. With so much going on in the salad—especially if I mix in fresh basil, mint, cilantro, or another fresh herb—I like to keep the dressing simple: good olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

But not all is well in the raw greens world. I had a very sad revelation a few months ago when I read that eating raw kale was damaging to people with thyroid issues. I love raw kale in salads, but I guess I’ll be eating all my kale cooked from now on. A dear friend reminded me that the oxalic acid in spinach is bad for people with arthritis, and can not just accumulate in the joints but contribute to the formation of kidney stones. And if, like my father, you’re on blood thinners to prevent heart attack or stroke, your doctor will probably tell you to avoid all greens and salads, since leafy greens are rich in vitamin K, a natural blood thinner. Bummer!!! Not to mention that you need to eat some oil with your greens to release their nutrients in the body, preferably a healthy oil like olive oil.

The real divider in our household, though, is spinach. Our friend Ben likes it raw in salads, I like it cooked. I find the texture of raw spinach both limp and dusty—no crunch, and this dreadful musty, felted texture. (I feel the same way about raw mushrooms, and won’t eat them in a salad, either, although I love cooked mushrooms.) I, on the other hand, love cooked spinach (again, cooked down with just a few drops of water) with balsamic vinegar. OFB hates it. His exception is spanakopita, the Greek phyllo pockets filled with spinach and feta. We’ve finally found common ground with spinach sauteed in olive oil with minced garlic or onion. OFB will eat it if I add crushed red pepper, and I can discreetly add a splash of balsamic vinegar to my serving. And yes, I do buy baby spinach for his salads when I remember!

‘Til next time,

Silence

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Hip hip hooray for the CSA. June 7, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Yesterday was the first day of the season for our local consumer-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, Quiet Creek Farm. Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been looking forward to CSA season for months, so we were really excited as we gathered up our bags and prepared to head out to see what produce they’d have waiting for us.

But first, what is a CSA? Let’s start with that dreary name, which could only have been created by a committee of government drones. “Consumer-supported agriculture”?! Oh, please. Couldn’t they have called them “community food farms”? And how ’bout those initials, folks? Maybe they should have remembered their American history and thought back to that other, more famous CSA, the Confederate States of America, before slapping this name on the poor farmers and their enterprise. (This reminds our friend Ben of the time a former employer proudly unveiled his latest creation, the People’s Medical Society, PMS. Knowing how unworldly the guy was, our friend Ben would bet any amount of money that he’d never heard of the “other” PMS. But, since the Society was often referred to by its initials, like a CSA, it just about killed the rest of us. What’s the point of having a bunch of company presidents and vice presidents if not one will open his or her mouth and say “Hey, boss, I don’t think you want to call it that”?! But I digress.)

Returning to the point: A CSA is a way of food farming that involves customers more directly in the process, in the same way that a food co-op involves its members in the grocery store experience. You “join” a CSA as a member by signing up, usually in the fall or winter, and paying at least part of your membership in advance. (Our CSA lets us pay in installments, so we’re not hit with the whole bill at once.) This lets the CSA farmers know how much to plant for the following season, since they know, literally, how many mouths they’ll have to feed. And it gives them the cash up front to buy seeds and supplies and to hire people to help them. In return, members get a wealth of just-picked produce every week throughout the growing season (June through November at our CSA). Everybody wins.

Note that CSAs are individual enterprises, not franchises in a chain. That means each one will be different in terms of what, how, and how much it offers. Our friend Ben suggests that, if there’s more than one CSA in your area, you check them all out before you join and pick the one you like best. Quiet Creek Farm is a dream come true for us. First of all, it’s organic. We’re lifetime organic gardeners, and we just don’t see the sense of paying good money for chemical-laden produce. We can get that at the store. Quiet Creek is literally five minutes from our home, Hawk’s Haven. It offers two pickup days, Tuesday and Friday, and also delivers to two large businesses in the area one day a week. And it has an extensive pick-your-own garden that’s open to members every day except Sunday.

And the produce!!! You will never see such beautiful, vibrantly healthy veggies, and in such variety. Our friend Ben and Silence grow a variety of veggies ourselves, but we have only so much room for them. The CSA gives us an abundance of produce every week to supplement what we grow ourselves. And “abundance” is definitely the word. We have enough for our own meals, to share with friends, and to provide treats for the chickens, too (which in turn means more luscious, nutrient-rich eggs for us). Speaking of which, the folks at Quiet Creek have a special arrangement with the Hawk’s Haven hens: They give our friend Ben big bags of imperfect greens in exchange for six-packs of Hawk’s Haven organic eggs just for the management (we don’t sell our eggs, there aren’t enough of them). Once again, everybody wins!

And about those eggs. Quiet Creek partners with local, small-scale, top-quality producers in the area to give members an opportunity to buy an incredible array of fantastic foods in addition to the weekly share of veggies. Members can buy a vast array of organic meats; eggs; wild-caught salmon; raw-milk cheeses, yogurt, and cheese spreads; honey; and homemade soaps. In season, they offer organic apples, cider, corn,  and pumpkins from local growers. And this year, they’re offering “fruit shares” from a local organic orchard, so you can pick up a weekly assortment of seasonal fruits when you come for your veggies. Folks, it doesn’t get better than this!

Well, actually, it does. Quiet Creek provides recipes for its seasonal produce that you can pick up each week when you get your veggies. It sells cookbooks that feature veggie-rich recipes, some from other CSAs. Farmer Aimee Good even hosted a workshop last summer on preserving veggies through canning and dehydrating, demonstrating how easy it was to use a food dehydrator and water-bath canner to put up the harvest for future enjoyment. Silence attended this workshop, and we’ve been enjoying jars of homemade salsa, chutney, pasta sauce, hot peppers, and applesauce ever since. Thanks, Aimee!

Okay, let’s get down to it: What did our friend Ben and Silence get at our very first CSA pickup of the season, after all this anticipation? Huge bags full of mixed baby lettuces (red, green, speckled) and baby spinach. Bunches of gleaming red radishes and white salad turnips (we give the tops to the ever-grateful chickens, but of course, you could cook them as greens, too). A huge Napa cabbage (coleslaw, here we come). A big, beautiful head of butter lettuce (we could have chosen a red Romaine or several heads of leaf types instead, but that butter lettuce was calling our name). And in the pick-your-own plot, as much oregano, sage, and chives as we needed. Yum, what a haul!!! The beauty and freshness of everything is indescribable. And this is just the start of the season!

Our friend Ben and Silence have been members of Quiet Creek Farm since this CSA opened three years ago. We have loved our experience—thank you, farmers John and Aimee Good!!!—and recommend that all of you check out the CSAs in your area. We love the thrill of discovering what we’ll find each week, sort of like a grownup treasure hunt. We love the unusual varieties of veggies (such as ‘Cosmic Purple’ carrots, the gorgeous red-and-yellow ‘Striped Roman’ paste tomato, and ‘Dragon Tongue’ beans) we’ve been introduced to. And we love the pick-your-own garden, where we can get strawberries, herbs, cut flowers, beans, hot peppers, cherry and paste tomatoes—even edamame!—whenever we need some.

Speaking of Silence, she has something to say about cooking fresh spinach, so listen up!

Thank you, Ben. Silence Dogood here. If you’re lucky enough to get just-picked spinach or baby spinach from the CSA, farmers’ market, or your own garden, don’t treat it like bagged or frozen spinach from the store. Despite the fact that spinach has a lot more body than lettuce, fresh-picked is surprisingly delicate. Handle it gently and you’ll be rewarded with a treat we can only call addictive.

Our favorite way of preparing super-fresh spinach is to saute some diced sweet onion (‘WallaWalla’, ‘Vidalia’, or ‘Candy’ type) or chopped garlic scapes in olive oil. While the onions or scapes are cooking, wash the spinach to remove any dirt or (gack) sand. But once you’ve rinsed off the leaves, don’t dry them, spin them, or try to get that water off them. Instead, toss them water and all, into the heavy saucepan or Dutch oven you’ve been using to saute your onions or scapes. Stir, reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting, cover, and allow the spinach to wilt.

Let me remind you that spinach, and all greens, shrink to nothing when they cook down, so be prepared to use a really big bag to make a single meal. It’s amazing to see that giant bag of greens turn into barely enough to go ’round! That’s why I use a Dutch oven to cook my spinach—it looks way too big at first, but you can add the whole bag of spinach at a time, as opposed to a heavy frying pan, where you have to keep adding more as the previous batches cook down. Once the spinach has wilted, give it a final stir and serve with plenty of vinegar (we like balsamic) and salt. Yum!!! Or make it a pasta topping (or lasagna filling) by adding sliced mushrooms when you saute the onions and/or garlic scapes.

You can also skip the onions and olive oil and simply wilt the spinach in its own water if you want to serve it another way. Just don’t add liquid, and don’t overcook! It doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes for fresh spinach to cook down. Then it’s ready to season, serve, and enjoy!

So hip hip hooray for the CSA!!! It feels—and tastes—so good to support your local veggie farmer. It’s not just the right thing to do for your community. It’s a wonderful gift for yourself, your family, and everyone you cook for.