Saturday, August 1, 2015

Garden State Goodness: A CSA Update

"Summer was on the way; Jem and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the tree house; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill."  To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

Punishing heat has come to New Jersey, but thankfully summer's bounty from the earth is here along with it. Harper Lee's Scout recalled summer rituals like lemonade breaks on a scorching day, simple pleasures that transcend time. While autumn has always been a favorite season of mine, summer tastes sweeter with this year thanks to our CSA. Summer really is everything good to eat. 

Steve, Grace and I were taking a quiet evening stroll down our block with our two dogs when we saw a neighbor we'd never met. You can see his large garden from the street and I told him how I had admired it. He graciously gave us a tour and said he'd been doing it for forty years. Since he was a native of Italy, I wrongly assumed it had been part of his roots, but he said he grew up there in a more urban area and he'd learned everything here by reading books, getting advice from other gardeners and trial and error. I felt almost euphoric walking along his garden, and listened to him talk about disappointments like the chipmunks eating all of his strawberries. I soaked in as much I could, recalling from J.J. Brown's American Dream novel,

"He remembers a verse from the mystic poet, Rumi, Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

It's funny how chance encounters, sometimes so short, stay with you. I still hope for a vegetable garden one day beyond our mini tomatoes and herbs. The English are incredible gardeners,” remarked Kate Brashares, in a New York Times article. “It’s in the blood somehow," who runs, Edible Schoolyard NYC, an offshoot of an Alice Waters effort to bring gardens and cooking classes to public schools. She talks about gardening as being part of her "cultural heritage." It was once part of ours. What happened?

Is gardening in your blood? My parents are both natives of Switzerland, and my mother said her family always had a garden but she was never made to work in it, only recalling having to pick currant berries and dealing with the pests in them to send them off to markets. My father's dad tended a schoolyard garden. We never had a vegetable garden and my ignorance about them can seem daunting sometimes.

While my garden dreams may be achieved in the future, for now we are savoring our weekly pick-ups from our 20-week CSA (community supported agriculture) with Abma's Farm in Wyckoff, New Jersey. Even a large home garden wouldn't produce the variety we're getting. I'm posting some photos if you are curious what a CSA experience is like, as we are new to it ourselves, and also to capture our summer of eating well. We signed up for their add-ons, including six eggs, a dessert bread and Tomasello wine.

Week 5: Arugula, carrots, broccoli leaves, head of lettuce, green garlic, turnips, broccoli, with eggs, raspberry chocolate chip bread, and blueberry forte (a fruit port). This dessert bread, made with raspberry jam, has been my favorite of the breads we received. We've tried about half of the wines and enjoyed all of them, and I particularly like this port. This was precisely why we did the CSA, to be more adventurous with our palates.

Week 6: Garlic, zucchini, lettuce, basil, beets and green beans, with eggs, zucchini bread and Riesling. The basil is the only thing we really wasted so far. It's abundant in our herb garden and we didn't get to the CSA basil soon enough.

When I put basil to Grace's nose, she inhales deeply and intensely. Those are memories I must capture for her. What's forming in her ever shaping mind?

Week 7: Cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli leaves, onion, peas, lettuce, garlic scapes, with eggs, banana chocolate chip bread and ice wine.

Week 8: Cucumbers, green beans, lettuce, leek, corn, Swiss chard, with eggs, blueberry bread and sparkling blueberry wine.

Week 9: Cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers, Swiss chard, garlic, beets and tomatoes, with eggs, cranberry bread and raspberry moscato wine.

Week 10: Cucumbers, Tuscan kale, beets, eggplant, grape tomatoes, green beans and corn, with eggs and a summer solstice wine (a rose). Since they offered cranberry bread again, I exchanged it for an Australian tea bread, which had a sponge like consistency with brown sugar that reminded me of something you'd get at New York City's Tea and Sympathy.

Week 11: Lettuce, dry onion, tomatoes, a mini-tomato pint, zucchini, finger eggplants, sweet corn, with eggs, lemon bread (I asked if I could switch the chocolate bread since we got it once before), and blackberry wine. I cannot wait to try the wine, which evokes such happy memories of lush Washington state with its abundance of blackberry goodness.

My sister looked at one of my CSA photos and declared it looked very "Little House on the Prairie." Indeed these images do to me too.

My husband made a delicious ratatouille, a French peasant dish which was the culinary star of one of my favorite food films Ratatouille, and cherry clafoutis made with the CSA eggs which he adapted from Claudine Pepin's Kids Cook French, an Easter gift from my mother for Grace.
I love that Grace is under two and already has a cookbook in her library. I got the idea for cherry clafoutis reading Charlotte Goes to Paris, part of a wonderful four book fictional diary series of a young girl and her life among artists including Monet.

Our stove is older and "outdated" by many people's standards and capable of turning out heavenly meals. I don't give in to the modern myth that we need all of these high end appliances and fancy finishings . Our grandmothers fared fine on what they had, why can't we?  We've had corn chowder, potato leek soup, zucchini pancakes, pasta with peas, beet salad and so much more with our CSA goodies. I'm actually drawn to older kitchens like ours (the only modern finish is granite countertops installed by the previous homeowners). Kate Brashares said in the Times article, "That’s another English thing. We like things that are old, have history.” I do too. I'm definitely an old soul.

Our fireside supper of ratatouille and the summer solstice wine. So many simple pleasures I cherish are featured in this photo: geraniums, blue and white dishes, red and white checked napkins, water with mint from the garden, candlelight, the sight and smell of a real fire, eating outdoors, and sharing a meal.

I am so thankful to the farmers who brought the food to our plates, watering and tending crops on hot days.  Someone remarked to me that the winter feels so long and summer so short. I hope you are savoring summer days, especially the bounty of the season.


  1. Oh, Catherine, as always I just love reading your posts. As I read I feel as if I am in conversation with you, and wish we were sitting over a cup of tea (perhaps at Tea and Sympathy!) and sharing thoughts, experiences, and memories of books. I just began re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time since I was a teenager. I had planned to re-read it before the "new" book came out, but just had too big a pile of library books next to my bed that I didn't get to it until now.

    I am glad you are getting on beautifully with your CSA. As I mentioned before, we have been getting CSA boxes for quite a few years now. And I must commiserate with you on the basil. We have had various visitors over the last few weeks, and somehow I keep "missing" using my basil! I am most unhappy about that. But something you said made me realize, as you describe holding it to your daughter's nose to inhale the divine scent, that even if I haven't used it for food, I have definitely taken many long and deep breaths of its scent each time we got some in our box. I have decided to count that as making very good use of it! And when it finally turned brown, it went into our compost. An offering back to the earth. But I do have some in my fridge at this moment, wilting slightly. Perhaps it will make it into a batch of pesto today!

    Lastly, I wanted to be sure you knew about Alice Water's book Fanny at Chez Panisse. It is another cookbook that deserves a place on your daughter's bookshelf, though she is still a bit young for it now. When my daughter was little we took it out of the library a few times, and then I finally bought a copy. It is both a book of stories about her own daughter, Fanny, and her adventures with food and in the restaurant; and a cookbook. My own daughter has outgrown this book herself, but it still sits on my shelf. I love the illustrations and feeling of the book, and there are a few recipes in it I use. The recipe for risotto is written in such a simple and friendly manner that it is the first time I ever dared try to make a risotto on my own and I continue to use it. And there is a lovely recipe for plum ice cream. Plums aren't something I get often, hard to find really good ones. But I discovered that a house around the corner has several plum trees growing in front of it. I remember that the previous owners took great care of the yard, but the last few years I think it has been a rental and everything looks very neglected. At the end of the summer the trees would be laden with fruit looking unappreciated. So I knocked on the door and asked the residents if they minded if I picked some, and they said, "sure!" So I loaded up a bag of amazing tree-ripened plums and brought them home to make Fanny's plum ice cream. And it was exquisitely delicious!

    Wishing you a happy rest of your summer! --Amy

  2. Hi Amy. Thanks so much for your most kind comments! I haven't been to Tea and Sympathy since I stopped working in New York City. How lovely it would be to share a "cuppa" there! A slice of Victoria sponge cake would hit the spot too. :-) I've been craving it since hearing a reference on Mr. Selfridge. Have you seen it? I like it as much as Downton Abbey.
    I have no recollection of ever reading To Kill a Mockingbird and read it and Go Set a Watchman both from the beloved library. I hope to do a spring/summer storytellers column. I could never be a "I read the book in one day!" reader. I like to linger over a passage that moves me, something I did so often with Lee's poetic prose.
    I was just telling Steve I don't know what I'll do when our CSA is over. I'm already seeing circulars with Fall décor, and as much as I love autumn, how I don't want to be rushed through the season as we are in heaven with all these vegetables, as well as enjoying summer pleasures like long hours of daylight and swimming. We got heirloom tomatoes this week that are like artwork, and mini-tomatoes so sweet they rival any candy.
    On your recommendation, I ordered a copy of the Fanny cookbook from Better World Books, my favorite go-to used book site. At just over $4 I couldn't resist. Thanks so much for the tip. Steve and I were just reminiscing about the meal at Chez Panisse Cafe on our honeymoon.
    What a treat about your plums! We have neighbors around us who have various small fruit trees, it seems most of which fall to the ground for the lucky wildlife. We have wild raspberries which the birds eat heartily, and we get a few too. :-)
    I hope you are enjoying some pesto or some other delights. Steve made us a delicious bruschetta with the basil in our garden. Yum! We haven't had risotto in far too long. All the best!


  3. The CSA brings you closer to the earth's bounty like being part of the local farm, so happy you found this one where you live. Gardening was central to every summer of my childhood, and picking wild berries was a tradition as well as a treat. I loved taking care of the perenial and annual vegetables so much. Your daughter Grace will thank you for these memories of fresh basil and all as little treasures later in life, I think!

    1. Lucky you having a garden each summer with berries too! I still recall the sweetness of raspberries and cherries growing in the field of the old farmhouse in Switzerland visiting my grandparents as a child.
      I hope Grace loves all the vegetables too. She loves the Swiss chard, zucchini, green beans and more from the CSA. So much plant-based goodness to be had. Thanks for the comment!