Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The produce challenge

My sister Kathryn gets a CSA box every week that's packed with both usual (lettuce, broccoli, strawberries) and unusual (cardoon, purple goosefoot orach, lamb's quarters) items. But occassionally, she can't keep up, and that's when she starts passing off her extras to me.

Recently, she did this twice in two weeks, and I got a little taste of the pressures of eating fresh and local in large volumes.

To digress briefly, right after college I lived in the Oakland Hills in one of the few houses on a street that hadn't burned down in the big fire in 1991. The fire story explains how bunch of young 'uns could afford the rent. Well, that and the fact that the owner had illegally developed the basement so that four to five people could live in what records indicated was a two-bedroom house. This house had a huge backyard with loquat and meyer lemon trees and a bunch of sunny open space, and one fine spring day we decided to build raised beds and plant a huge garden. I loved this garden and tended it carefully until the day it started yielding vegetables.

This didn't make any sense, because I enjoy fresh vegetables and really liked working in the garden. But once the tomatoes from the seven plants, 12 green bean stalks, and carrots, squash, and other veggies started ripening, I became so overwhelmed that I refused to even go in the backyard anymore. Ripe produce is an unstoppable force. You either stay on top of things and harvest, cook, and eat it as fast as it demands, or you create this cycle of waste and guilt. I couldn't handle the pressure, and I couldn't handle the guilt, so I gave up.

I'd like to think that if I had that garden today, I'd do a better job enjoying the harvesting and eating part. But receiving a bunch of veggies all at once induced that familiar panic. But I'm older and wiser and cook more, plus my kitchen is way less nasty than the one at the Oakland hills house (water had leaked into the wood under the plastic veneer of the counter tops, which made the plastic cave in and filled the whole kitchen with the aroma of rot. Incidentally, this is also the house where someone made a package of Top Ramen and only after they had eaten half the pot of noodles noticed that there were boiled maggots floating on the top of the broth. These are the associations I have with that kitchen).

So first I ignored the veggies for a few days, which was easy enough to do because I recently got some of those cloth produce bags, and since they're opaque the vegetables couldn't stare out at me and wilt accusingly in plain sight every time I opened the fridge.

But I knew they were there. So finally I took them all out, laid them on the counter (there were so many it took up most of the space), and stared at them. I knew I needed to assert my authority over this produce, but I wasn't sure how. I began to move them around, to think about how the flavors might taste together and what might go well with what. After a few minutes I had three neat piles. A salad pile, full of various lettuces, carrots of many colors, and radishes. A greens pile, with red chard, lamb's quarters, and purple goosefoot orach, plus some kind of heirloom onion. And a squash pile, full guessed it.

I put each of the groups in a bag, and over the next few days cooked, prepared, and ate my way through the groupings. It was nice to be able to pull out a bag with all the primary ingredients already assembled. And next time Kathryn gives me veggies, I'll know what to do right away.

Here's an altered and summarized version of the Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook Garlicky Kale recipe I used to prepare the greens:

2 pounds greens
4 garlic cloves
1 tropea onion (that's the one that Kathryn gave me. It was a young, torpedo-shaped purple onion)
Red wine vinegar

Remove thick stems from kale, coarsely chop leaves. Wash and drain, but do not dry. Heat a large saucepan, add 1/4 c. olive oil and enough kale to cover the bottom. Cook on high heat while stirring until greens wilt. Add more greens as the leaves wilt until you've got them all in there. Season with salt, cover, and reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally until tender. Add a splash of water if the leaves start to scorch. When the leaves are tender, remove the lid and allow the extra liquid to cook away. Push the greens to one side and add a bit more olive oil, and the chopped onion. Cook it for about two minutes. Then add a bit more olive oil, the garlic, and a pinch of red pepper flakes to the bare spot. Just as you smell the aroma of garlic, stir it into the kale. Turn off heat, add a splash of vinegar, and correct the seasoning.

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