Peggy is taking a blog break this week. While she’s away, her sister Joyce is guest blogging for Cook Out of the Box. Food writing runs in the family: Joyce Hanson is a New York City-based writer, editor and blogger who recently wrote a story about snails for the James Beard Award-winning website Leite’s Culinaria. CSAs also run in the family: in this blog post, Joyce describes her experience with her local Brooklyn CSA, which she joined earlier this year.
I’ve never met a vegetable I didn’t like, and I’ve eaten many vegetables in my time. Humble steamed spinach, sensible raw carrot sticks, sunny yellow corn on the cob, bold purple beets, complicated artichokes, fragile zucchini blossoms from an artisanal farmers’ market stall, wild purslane that made a mysterious appearance seemingly overnight in my apartment building’s flower beds –all are good friends to me.
Yet it took me several years to summon up the courage to join a community-supported agriculture group. I’d heard about CSAs cropping up around the borough of Brooklyn for several years. Why did it take me so long to join? I suppose it sounded like a big commitment. I worked in Manhattan and ate a lot of restaurant meals, and I heard that those overflowing CSA boxes arrive on a relentlessly regular schedule that can be hard to keep up with.
Then I got laid off. All of a sudden I could see the appeal of CSAs. They help you manage your food budget because you pay your money upfront. They give you a lot of creative options for cooking healthy meals at home. They’re a good way to meet your neighbors because you’re involved in a community project with like-minded people and volunteer alongside them. They’re good for the environment. And last but not least, they guarantee a summer-long stream of farm-fresh produce into kitchens all over the city. What’s not to like?
So when a friend who lives nearby told me about how she had joined the Ditmas Park CSA connected with our local greenmarket—and kindly sent me the group’s email address—I didn’t hesitate. I contacted the CSA’s volunteer manager, had my name added to the summer/fall 2010 list and learned where to send my check. All CSA members paid our farmer, Jorge Carmona of Amantai Farm in Pennsylvania, directly, and I can think of only a few other times where I’ve been so happy to give someone my money.
It’s all about volunteering
For $575 plus a volunteer shift one night during the season (more on that in a minute), my husband and I for 20 weeks into November will receive a weekly full share of vegetables, which we share with our next-door neighbors. We also have signed up for a half share of fruit—Jorge grows our melons and gets other fruits such as peaches and plums from a neighboring orchard—and a free-range chicken every other week. (It’s also possible to sign up for eggs.)
Here’s the full-share drill: every Tuesday, from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., we bring carrier bags or a box to the pick-up point at the Third Root Community Health Center, 380 Marlborough Road, at the corner of Cortelyou Road, where we look for the week’s distribution allowance on a marker board that tells us what we can take home that evening.
The Ditmas Park CSA kicked off on June 15, and on July 20, I put in my volunteer shift. That week’s“self serve” distribution included four ears of corn, one bag of yellow or green beans, cantaloupe, a bunch of basil or parsley and a bunch of purslane. The other half of the distribution—pre-weighed boxes assembled by CSA volunteers—included 2.5 pounds of zucchini, four cucumbers, 2 pounds of potatoes, 1 pound of beets, 1 pound of onions, 2 pounds of tomatoes, 4 pounds of peaches and 4 pounds of plums.
Volunteering was fun! It gave me a chance to meet some members of the Carmona family. Jorge wasn’t there because he was back home on the farm getting ready to truck his produce in to the Cortelyou Road greenmarket for the coming weekend. But I did have the chance to meet his brother, Rene, Rene’s wife, Luz, and their teenage daughter Daniela.
Originally from Colombia, they immigrated to the United States years ago and lived on suburban Long Island near New York City and worked at a fire sprinkler business. But this year, when the demands of Jorge’s produce business got to be too much, he asked them to move to Amantai Farm and help him work its 11 acres of land. (The CSA has 90 more shares this year than last, growing to a total of 140 half shares and 70 full shares in 2010.)
“This is all new to me, but I like it because you get more in touch with nature,” Daniela told me on my volunteer night. “This morning the grape tomatoes were so good, I was picking and eating them in the field.”
A chance to meet my neighbors
I also had a chance to meet some of my Brooklyn neighbors as we volunteered together. We did a lot of sharing.
“I forced myself to turn on the oven last week and I roasted all my root vegetables,” said Christine Diedrich, who as our distribution leader puts in volunteer shifts week after week. She wore a bibbed green apron over her business clothes, which gave her a welcoming down-home look when weary commuters just off the subway arrived at the pick-up point to collect their fruit and veg.
Maurita Baldock said it was her boyfriend who had the idea of joining the CSA because he’s the cook in their apartment.
“Since this is our first year, we’re just exploring everything,” she said. “Everything tastes so much better. I still remember my first bite of a CSA tomato.”
Mary Mulliken, originally from Champaign, Illinois, agreed that CSA vegetables can’t be beat.
“We Midwesterners appreciate our produce, especially when they break out the corn,” she said.
As for Week No. 4’s purslane, we were enthusiastic but a bit mystified about how to prepare the somewhat obscure green. Chop it up for salads? Throw it in soup?
“If you had a juicer, you could totally rock the purslane,” Mary said.
Later that week, several recipes for purslane appeared on the Ditmas Park CSA’s Google group. Here’s my favorite one:
The Ditmas Park CSA maintains a Google group so members can trade shifts and recipes and other information. When the purslane arrived, a lot of us wondered what to do with it. CSA member Liv Yarrow obliged us with the following recipe, which uses almost exclusively CSA veg.
6-10 new potatoes, depending on size and how many people you plan to serve.
1 or 2 ears of fresh corn
1 large bunch purslane (Substitute spinach for half of the purslane for a milder taste; substitute parsley for a stronger taste.)
1 clove raw garlic
½ cup pungent hard cheese
1 fresh lemon
Quarter new potatoes and boil together with corn for approx 10 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool. Put eggs in cold water, bring to a boil, drain water but leave covered in pot and set aside.
Finely chop one onion and add to salad bowl. Finely chop one large bunch of purslane (discard thicker stems) and add to salad bowl.
Add garlic clove, crushed, to the bowl. (Saute garlic for milder taste.) Finely grate approximately 1/2 cup of any pungent hard cheese and add to bowl.
Run eggs under cold water, cut in half and scoop out contents. Finely chop or chunk and add to bowl. (Eggs will have softer yolks.)
Add potatoes to the bowl. Cut corn off cob and add to the bowl.
Season with the juice of one whole lemon and salt and pepper. Toss well. Taste and adjust the seasons accordingly.