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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Long Live Small Farms: Postcards from the Garden State

"It was fifty years since he had begun with his Mary, full of hope and pride, the merciless soil had hugged them to its bosom ever since each spring without rest. But he did not think of that. The soil gives forgetfulness. Only the present is remembered in the spring, even by the aged who have spent their lives tilling the earth." - Spring Sowing, a short story by Liam O'Flaherty.

Organic, non-GMO seeds on display at DePiero's Farm in Montvale, New Jersey, another family farm whose sun will set with a retail development slated to replace it. With the earth now providing its glorious bounty from the seeds, I am thinking of those who bring the food to our table: the under-appreciated farmers. Let us not have forgetfulness for them. reported on the plight of small farms in New Jersey, noting "Statewide, the last 64 years have seen the number of farms shrink from 25,000, to 9,071. Bergen County has only 60 left; Passaic County, 78." The article talked about farms diversifying and meeting the demand for entertainment, like hayrides and corn mazes. I see crowds at the farm during the fall and for things like peach picking in the summer, but many seem so quiet the rest of the year.  I like how James Abma, owner of Abma's Farm in Wyckoff, put it that, ultimately, the onus is on the customer. “If they want to continue to see the small farms and garden centers, they have to patronize."

There's a lot of opposition to developing DePiero's Farm, and I'm not for development either, but I feel for the family farmers too. We can't lionize them, but not patronize them. Admittedly, I do most of my shopping at Trader Joe's, so I can do better too. My mom and I try and lunch regularly at local farms (save for the winter) and I buy produce and baked goods too when I stop by. We stopped here just before the arrival of spring, and here are some postcards of farm visits from this season, my love letter to the American small farmers. Don't judge New Jersey by what you see on television by our governor or horrendous "reality" shows. We are the proud "Garden State."

Family farms are a part of my American dream. 

There were just a few others enjoying a Sunday treat and we didn't spot a soul in the greenhouse except workers and there were few shoppers. My mom remarked on how it was a little sad, but I noted we don't come here either usually (our other farm haunts were closed for the season). Imagine if this place was booming with customers. I seldom pass by a shopping mall and not see its parking lot packed.

I was dreaming of their bakery offerings and I was not let down. I had a comforting warm hot cross bun and chamomile tea.
My mom and I, both lovers of gardens, were overcome with a sense of joy upon entering the greenhouse. A neighbor remarking on the joy a small daffodil plant brought her when seeing it bloom each day said when you have plants, "Who needs medication?"

One of life's miracles: seeds sprouting. Gardens are not only place of beauty and magic, but are healing too. It turns out there is a natural antidepressant in soil. According an article featured by Gardening Know How, "Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has indeed been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress.

Gardeners inhale the bacteria, have topical contact with it and get it into their bloodstreams when there is a cut or other pathway for infection. The natural effects of the soil bacteria antidepressant can be felt for up to 3 weeks."

 I left with asparagus, frisee, red raspberries, some local honey and a cheerful daffodil plant. Cheery red tulips were on the cart too. I loved that for Grace's first birthday my mom bought her a bunch of tulips even though she's just a baby. She said, "It's important." I think flowers are too. So are books and farms.
"I love tulips better than any other spring flower; they are the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace, and next to a hyacinth look like a wholesome, freshly tubbed young girl beside a stout lady whose every movement weighs down the air with patchouli. Their faint, delicate scent is refinement itself; and is there anything in the world more charming than the sprightly way they hold up their little faces to the sun. I have heard them called bold and flaunting, but to me they seem modest grace itself, only always on the alert to enjoy life as much as they can and not be afraid of looking the sun or anything else above them in the face." - Elizabeth Von Arnim's Elizabeth and Her German Garden. How much we can learn from tulips, and from nature.
The Abram Demaree farm stand in Closter, a cozy, no frills lunch spot. As soon as they reopened for the season, we were here.

The Greek gyro with spinach, feta cheese, tomatoes and tzatziki sauce.

Sharing their warm homemade apricot pie with a cup coffee. 
At Demarest Farm in Hillsdale. I wrote previously about the uncertain future of this farm after it was put for sale, and thankfully it has new owners.
From the hot buffet, a twice baked potato, zucchini, veggie chili, an onion roll and cranberry apple herb tea. We bring our reusable cutlery to reduce our impact.
An apple blossom and fresh fruit.
I couldn't think of a happier place to be on Mother's Day.
They had a complimentary breakfast buffet. Our red picnic ware was cheerier than Styrofoam.
Long live these farms, and long live the small farmer.
Nature's candy: strawberries. "He walks by the table and stops to look at a bowl of fresh field strawberries, still half full. David says that his daughter calls these "happy strawberries" because they grow wild. He says she thinks the fruit sold in stores is "unhappy because it sits in boxes" separated from the plant." - Brindle 24 by J.J. Brown.  I'm so tired of out of season, tasteless strawberries from thousands of miles away. These strawberries are happy indeed.
At Old Hook Farm in Emerson, the first asparagus of the season.
At Abma's Farm in Wyckoff.
Happy meal: carrot ginger soup, roasted red pepper hummus with veggies and a sour cream orange cake.

I brought one of their Chinese almond cookies home for tea time with my green jasmine tea. With a book: heaven.

We decided to put our money where our mouth is and signed up for a CSA (community-supported agriculture) with Abma's Farm. They use non-GMO seeds and utilize organic farming methods but are not certified organic because of the paperwork. I have been wanting to shift towards both local and in-season produce. With the ongoing drought situation in California, I'm not comfortable with so much of our produce coming from there, especially if such wholesome, high quality vegetables are in our own neck of the woods from local farmers. I'll never become a total locavore. I can't imagine parting with my avocados, bananas or mangoes, but I want to incorporate local foods much more. I still love Trader Joe's especially for pantry items, but with the CSA we're buying little produce there now.
Our first week's share: arugula, spicy salad greens, spinach, radishes, and a jar of local honey. Production was behind because of the weather. We signed up for the egg share too so will be getting half a dozen eggs each week for 20 weeks. It's like getting a present from Mother Nature.
Week two: spinach, arugula, kohlrabi, broccoli leaves, radishes and a head of lettuce.
Week 3: turnips, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, arugula, lettuce, bok choy and eggs. In addition to the eggs we signed up for, we decided to do their other add-ons, a dessert bread and wine. A raspberry chocolate chip bread and a Tomasello Winery Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine.
The two wines from the first two weeks: an Daffodil White semi-dry wine and an American almonique almond wine.  

I don't drink more than a glass of wine at a time. Like the produce we're getting, this was about going outside our comfort zones, enjoyment of life and supporting local agriculture.

In HGTV's House Hunters International, a guilty pleasure show, a couple living in Paris was buying a second home in Provence with a baby on the way. The couple was sitting on their sunny patio at the end enjoying their breakfast with local honey, and the woman, an American,  talked about the French understanding the "art of living." I think that's why I've been drawn to Parisian and French things so. But we can't all move to France. I want to embrace the "art of living" in my backyard here too.

I also think our culture creates an unhealthy relationship for youth with alcohol, not treating it as something with pleasure and happiness, but as taboo. I hate the excessive drinking as a right of passage for youth.

"In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary." — A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Week 4: arugula, garlic scapes, a head of broccoli, lettuce, spicy salad mix and escarole, with our add-ons: eggs, a chocolate chocolate chip bread and Tomasello cherry wine. Even my husband who is a chef is unfamiliar with garlic scapes. I love how much we are learning.
Escarole from the CSA with some basic pantry items from Trader Joe's like pasta and organic white beans. Red pepper flakes added some heat. We savored the meal on the patio fireside. This is good living.

This has already been a life-changing experience. Even if we had planted a large garden this year, we wouldn't have had things like bok choy or kohlrabi. Kohlrabi is my new favorite vegetable, and I feel like I'm cooking across time with my grandmother in Switzerland who prepared it with lots of butter and parsley for her family.

Gene Baur, in his book with Gene Stone, "Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day," said, "Our food is among the most intimate connections we make with the earth." I feel more tied to the earth when I visit a local farm. I think that's why I feel so content at them. Our world is so fast moving today and technology plays such a heavy hand in our daily lives. At farms I remember what matters most: health, good food (even better when shared with family and friends), gratitude, and respect for our earth which provides so well for us, a reminder to treat her kindly.

I don't think Americans understand the true reckoning of their ability to shape the country by where they choose to spend their dollars. Election day is important, but equally is where we vote with our wallets. Family farms, mom and pop restaurants, bookshops, and charity thrift stores all get my vote. This canvas tote says it all: Support Local Farms. Don't let small farms be a disappearing act.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

For the Beauty of the Earth: A Visit to the New York Botanical Garden

"We have a little garden,
A garden of our own,
And every day we water there
The seeds that we have sown.

We tend our little garden
And tend it with such care,
You will not find a faded leaf
Or blighted blossom there." Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes by Beatrix Potter

Seeds in the gift shop at the New York Botanical Garden. If only we tended to our planet, starting in our own communities, with such care.

If people began to care about flowers, they'd begin to care about the planet, Lady Bird Johnson believed, according to Andrea DeLong-Amaya, Director of Horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. DeLong was interviewed for an NBC News story on the spell bluebonnets cast each spring in Texas. Lady Bird, DeLong-Amaya says, was a woman ahead of her time. "She was very sensitive to the importance that nature plays and wanted to share that with people and the joy of the wildflowers and the joy of nature." Lady Bird Johnson would say, "Where flowers bloom, so does hope."

Lady Bird cultivated beauty in this world. I want to spread beauty in this life too: of flowers, of words, of heart.

A cheery yellow pansy on my front steps adding beauty.

Botanical gardens are so many things to me, including a place of immense beauty where you cannot help but be in awe not just of flowers and trees but of life itself. It is so striking when you walk the grounds at these types of gardens how there isn't any litter to be found. I contrast that to the multiple discarded water bottles and other trash found on our quiet suburban street I live on in New Jersey. I keep finding "Nirvana" water bottles when walking my dogs and add them to our recycling bin. Littering doesn't seem very zen at all. So much litter is also by the drains that say, "Dump No Waste. Drains to Waterways."

No litter thankfully near these snow drops at the botanical garden.

Poems celebrating spring line the walkway to the conservatory where the orchid show we were there to see was held, including O Sweet Spontaneous by E.E. Cummings, Come Slowly -Eden! by Emily Dickenson and Let There Be New Flowering by Lucille Clifton. I think of Elizabeth von Arnim writing in Elizabeth in Her German Garden,

"while admiring my neighbour, I don't think I shall ever try to follow in her steps, my talents not being of the energetic and organising variety, but rather that of that order which makes their owner almost lamentably prone to take up a volume of poetry and wander out to where the kingcups grow, and, sitting on a willow trunk beside a little stream, forget the very existence of everything but green pastures and still waters, and the glad blowing of the wind across the joyous fields."


Glen Miller and other classic big band and jazz music piped in as I walked through the serene setting. The music and the beauty all felt so timeless.

I cannot see water lilies and not think of the painter Claude Monet. I love the new water lilies stamps being offered by the U.S. Post Office.

I adore the travel you can do at botanical gardens. From deserts to rainforests in one day.

Steve was carrying Grace around and holding her to the flowers, I wondered what imprints might be made in her ever forming young mind.

All this strolling through the gardens whetted my appetite for a late lunch from the garden's bounty.
In their Pine Tree CafĂ©, the Asian Garden salad: baby kale with carrot slaw, broccoli, cucumbers, edamame, toasted sesame and wasabi peas with a soy ginger dressing, with an organic mint tea and a clementine.

In a "Cheater's Guide to Living to 100" in the April 5th issue of Parade Magazine, it noted "The world's most robust 100-year-olds stick with diets that are 95 percent plant-based, says journalist Dan Buettner, who spent more than a decade examining the healthiest, longest-living people around the globe. "They eat a little meat, but mostly fish." 

Browsing in the gift shop, I think of how much environmental awareness and stewardship needs to be taught at an early age.
East Coast seed bombs in the gift shop. Here's to spreading seeds about caring for our planet. I believe in the power of smalls steps like recycling, buying secondhand and hang drying laundry as often as possible, shutting off lights, and using reusable bags as a few examples to reduce our impact. Happy Earth Day!