A message arrives just after I get to work Thursday morning: I have your goodies here in the back room, my friend!
Be right over, I message back, and I drive the car across the street to College Hall, where I pick up my weekly veggies from Randy. Randy runs the duplicating center and mail room. He is a tall, slender, dark-haired man with a perpetual smile. He dances, Randy does–he dances for miles each day, a practice he discovered in the face of great loss. Randy dances, and he feels his joy return to him.
Farming is another thing that brings him joy, and he is very happy this year, when a cool and rainy spring and the recent sunny heat have coaxed the greens into freshness, and the fruit bushes preen.
Today, the canvas tote Randy hefts up over the counter is filled with treasure: pearly new onions with their long stalky leaves, two tender heads of romaine, a clutch of collard greens, and tough curly leaves of kale. We talk about recipes for a moment, Randy and I do, and he invites me out to see the farm this weekend. I hope to go. He tells me that his berry bushes are burgeoning with buds. We both take a minute, imagining sugar-dappled pie crusts, with sticky, deep-purple syrup bubbling thickly through the pastry vents.
And then I head back to the day’s duties. My veggies wait for me on the floor of my back seat.
In other years, I have contracted with Randy for a full growing-season CSA–a Community Supported Agriculture contract. In a CSA, the buyer shares in whatever is fresh and ripe that week on the farm. So spring brings greens and asparagus and tender onions, and then the berries begin. Potatoes arrive, and peppers, and exotic things like garlic scapes and celeriac. There will be summer squash and sweet corn. The onions will grow fatter, more mature, and stronger in taste. They will nestle in the canvas carrier with sweet potatoes and cabbage. Perfect little watermelons celebrate the hottest days of summer. Little pumpkins and winter squashes herald the fall.
This summer because–whooo hooo!--I am retiring, and I will not be on campus every week to pick up my bounty, I am going short-term, week by week. I could go out to Randy’s every weekend and pick what I want and need; I could just tell him what I’d like to see in my weekly basket.
But I like discovering, each week, what is snugged up in that carrier. I like running to fetch my Joy of Cooking, flipping to the glossary of veggies, figuring out what this milky green, many-armed, bulbous vegetable is, and reading to see just what I might want to do with it.
At home, I unpack my treasures. I wash the romaine and lay the leaves out on a big towel-covered chopping board. I dry each leaf carefully, admiring the colors; some leaves are a robust green. Other are paler, and they have veins of lavender and purple.
I set the romaine aside to completely air-dry; later, I will put the leaves in a plastic bag and refrigerate them. The salad we’ll make from them, with home-made croutons, will bring us the taste of the warm spring sun.
I peel the dirty outer layers from the onion bulbs, chopping off the hairy roots, and I place them, long green shoots and all, in a red ceramic casserole. Then I wash the kale and the collards, leaving them in the colander to dry.
Mark comes in while I am paging though Joy of Cooking, looking for the quiche recipes. We’d talked that morning about having a breakfast-for-dinner supper: scrambled eggs, maybe, with sausage links and country French bread toast slices. But seeing those tender onions, I thought of quiche,–which real men do, indeed, eat.
I have taken two lumps of pie crust from the freezer, and I carefully defrost them, using tiny time intervals, in the microwave. When the lumps are malleable, I roll them out. I line a small tin for Jim, whose autism displays in very definite food sensitivities. He will not tolerate the smell or texture of most vegetables, especially something as strong as onion, so his dishes are always simply and plainly prepared. For Mark and me, I use a heavy crockery pie plate. I crimp the edges of both crusts, and I put them in a hot oven to bake.
“Hmmm,” says Mark, poking through the ingredients, interested. “Quiche? Want me to chop those onions?”
He wields the chopping knife, moving from the onions to the ham, and I whisk eggs and evaporated milk together. I stir in some nutmeg and coarse salt, crank in a little pepper. I pull the hot pie shells out of the oven. We have grated mounds of cheese, cheddar and Swiss, and we scoop it up and mix it in the hot crusts. We layer ham bits on top of the cheese, and sprinkle all the chopped young onion into the bigger pie. Then I pour egg mixture into each shell, and back they go, into the hot oven.
We make side salads and pour some Chardonnay. Jim comes out and stacks plates and silverware on the counter; he gets the bread and puts more butter on a little dish. By the time we’ve shared the high points of our days, a sharp, slender knife slips cleanly in and out of the quiches; they are firm and ready. We pull them out and cut them into healthy portions and carry our plates to the table. Each slice is steaming-fragrant.
And, oh, it is good, with the fresh salad on the side, and the gentle zip of the tender onions motivating the cheese and the meat. Jim eats every piece from his small pan. Mark and I do well, too, leaving only two slices, which Mark will heat for breakfast the next morning. We finally push away from the table, begin gathering up the dishes,and Mark says, “That little bit of onion–that just makes all the difference.”
I agree; Jim snorts; and we clean the table and stuff the dishwasher and fill the sink with hot sudsy water.
The kale is more of a challenge. My husband, usually so balanced and objective, does harbor a bias or two–and one of them is against kale. He is, in fact, as Jim says, a confirmed kale-ist.
Mark does not want kale mixed into his salads. He does not care to sample kale chips. He would be happy to put the kale into compost.
But I am determined to give everything that comes in the weekly carrier a fair and open-minded try.
Friends suggested, when we’d all embraced the CSA concept a couple of years ago, that maybe we could use kale in any recipe that called for spinach. Now, I look up spinach recipes on line, and I find a promising one from Martha Stewart: hot spinach dip. It sounds savory and creamy and ultra-cheesy—so cheesy, in fact that all health benefits from the kale are surely buried under rich, thick, dairy calories.
But I think that it might be a way Mark would actually enjoy kale, so I add cream cheese, half and half, and mozzarella to the shopping list. On Friday, James and I do a big shopping. We put a package of ruffly, cup-shaped corn chips in the cart.
I trim and chop the kale, a little less coarsely than the recipe calls for; I want it to be as innocuous as possible. In a heavy cast iron skillet, I sauté more of the fresh onion and two minced garlic bulbs in melted butter, and then I stir in the chopped kale. It soaks up the butter; it turns dark green, and it shrinks down by about half. I scrape the veggie mixture into a colander, pressing it down, and I pour some half and half into the hot skillet. When the cream begins to steam, I stir in chunks of cream cheese, and I whisk that together until the mixture is thick and smooth. I add Worcestershire and Tabasco, and I scrape the kale and onions back in. Then I stir in a quarter cup of mozzarella. The blend smells tangy and rich, and I spoon it into a little glass casserole. I top it with a half cup of grated mozz, and I put it into the hot oven.
In twenty minutes the dip is bubbling, bronzed on top; I take it to the patio table with plates and chips. Mark grabs a cold beer and grudgingly tries the dip.
“Not bad,” he admits, although he allows that, next time, we could be a little more liberal with the Tabasco. The two of us devour more than half the savory dish. Jim, spying the little green flecks, declines a taste.
All that’s left are the collard greens; I think I will just chop them and put them into vegetable beef soup. There is a limit to the culinary experimentation one week’s adventures can bear.
Kale has a long growing season. There will be kale, I am pretty sure, in each weekly treasure chest. I pull cookbooks from the shelves and search for spinach recipes. I borrow more cookbooks from the library.
In Guy Fieri Family Food, I find a new riff on Italian Wedding Soup. It calls for diced red pepper, sliced carrots and celery, half moons of zucchini. It makes the meatballs from healthy ground turkey. It uses two heads of escarole, trimmed and chopped into one-inch pieces. I can easily, I think, substitute kale for the escarole. This would be a soup we like.
I bookmark this recipe, and I continue my search. I imagine veggie-carriers to come.
I will not lie to you and claim I will never buy another pre-bagged package of lettuce. But getting our weekly packages from Randy’s burgeoning farm not only changes the way I eat, it deepens my awareness of the land around me. I am aware, now, when lettuce season ends, and when the first tender zucchini squash begin to sprout. I see the shift as summer matures, the sun bears down, and corn ripens.
And I know my food more intimately. I wash them, those bunches of greens that were this morning rooted in the rich brown dirt, and I pat them dry. I package that myself and put it in the refrigerator to break out triumphantly at some night’s dinner. I peel and rinse and chop. It is more work, for sure; there is more to this than ripping open a bag and banging a bottle of salad dressing onto the table. Sometimes, for true, I look at the carrier full of veggies–veggies demanding my time and attention RIGHT NOW,–and I sigh.
But I know where this food came from; I have seen it sprouting, and growing, and ready to be picked. I swear I can taste the Ohio sun when I eat it. And I definitely taste the difference when I eat its factory-farmed cousins.
So we’ll savor the freshness and the goodness of the Ohio growing seasons, freezing what we cannot eat, and we’ll experiment with recipes and learn about veggies we’ve never cooked with before. We’ll add newcomers to tried and true recipes–to soups and stews and salads,–and we’ll try new recipes suggested by the foods that arrive in the weekly carrier.
Will I convert my kale-ist? I have my doubts. But it won’t be for lack of trying.
For more on Randy’s produce, like the Hutchs Haven page on Facebook.
Here’s Martha Stewart’s hot spinach dip recipe: http://www.marthastewart.com/338357/hot-spinach-dip