Friday, July 5, 2013

Poor Man's Chopped: My Adventures in CSA, Pt. 1

I've been buying starter plants (hot peppers, assorted veggies, and herbs) for my garden, and occasionally a pint of fresh strawberries or a bunch of asparagus, at Futtner Family Farm in East Hartford for more than a decade, but this year I'm trying something new: I've signed up for their community supported agriculture (CSA) program. The concept of CSA is simple: You pay for a share of a farm's crop in advance, and then get regular (typically weekly) deliveries of food, varying as the season progresses. It's good for farmers, because it provides income security and higher total income; it's good for CSA members/customers because they get a regular and varied supply of high-quality produce, not to mention that they're benefiting their local communities by supporting local, sustainable, family farms like Futtner.

For an emerging foodie like me, there's another benefit, too: Each week I get a box of ingredients I didn't pick and may never have cooked before, and I have to figure out what to do with them in order to get my money's worth. It's not exactly Chopped or the "Mystery Box Challenge" from MasterChef... but for a decidedly non-Master non-Chef like me, I expect it to be challenge enough to be entertaining.

This week was the first of the CSA season. Pickup days are Tuesday and Thursday, and though I'll normally get my box on Thursdays, everyone picked up on Tuesday this week because Thursday was the 4th of July. My first box included 5 very nice tomatoes (two different varieties, but don't ask me what they are), a large bunch of basil, a "mess" of collard greens, a bunch (not a whole head) of Chinese cabbage, and a pot of thyme plants. The thyme went on my deck (with the bigger pot I already had); my wife made bruschetta with one of the tomatoes and a bit of the basil, and I made pesto with most of the rest of the basil (I'll chop and freeze what's left); and I'm still trying to figure out what to do with the cabbage (trying, really, to figure out how to make a little bit of kimchi). But tonight I did my first substantial CSA cooking: the collard greens, with bacon, as my contribution to tonight's Independence Day dinner.

Despite having deep roots in the South — my father's father was from Alabama and his mother from Georgia; my father grew up in northern Florida; and I was born in Florida and raised in Texas — I've not only never cooked collards, I've barely ever eaten them. I knew bacon was bound to be part of the mix — I can't remember my grandmother ever cooking green vegetables that didn't have bacon in them — so I just fed collard greens and bacon into the Google machine and came up with this simple recipe.

We only had half an onion in the house, and were uncharacteristically out of fresh garlic, so I substituted an eyeball-estimated half-onion-worth of minced garlic scapes (yes, more of the ones I got from my coworker) and about a quarter teaspoon of granulated garlic; otherwise, I followed the recipe pretty much exactly, carefully getting my mise en place "en place," cooking the bacon, adding the onions and scapes, then the sugar and seasonings, then the cider vinegar, and finally the collards and liquid.

Though I didn't eat collards as a kid, I did have turnip greens and mustard greens, and I was never a fan: In my experience of them was that they were typically boiled to mush, and even the bacon was typically an uncut lump of pork, boiled with the greens for flavoring rather than sauteed as an actual ingredient. This was a whole different matter: Perhaps because of my remembered wariness, I was careful not to overcook the greens, and the bacon became a distinct flavor and textural element. Interestingly, to my wife the combination of greens, bacon, and cider vinegar seemed German. In any case, everyone enjoyed it.

I imagine I'll see collards again in CSA boxes yet to come; I can't wait to experiment with other ways to cook them.

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