News From the Farm | November 13, 2017

Getting Dinner on the Table

Years ago at a Farmers Market, one of our CSA members opened his CSA box and said to me, sounding a bit exasperated, “I just need to get dinner on the table after work so the kids can go to bed on time.”   I don’t remember what it was about the box that he was responding to, but his comment worried me.  We hear similar expressions of frustration whenever we put too many pomegranates in the box — “So much time, so little return” –– or when there is 1/2 pound of spinach and the cook needs a whole pound to complete a chosen recipe.  

I have come to realize that we are in our own private produce reality at Full Belly, cracking open watermelons in the heat of the summer and devouring them whole, or crunching our way through an entire bunch of carrots from our ‘quality control’ CSA box before the rest of the vegetables have even been noticed.  You can find snacking-bowls full of pomegranate seeds in most of the kitchens around the farm these days, and huge oversized cabbages greeted with comments like, “I LOVE cabbage!” Full Belly interns often arrive at the farm with very little experience of beets, chard, rutabaga or daikon — but each of them is assigned to cook lunch for several dozen farm hands once a week.  Of course the results are varied, but I do think that those that arrive saying they can’t cook and don’t want to, leave the farm with more kitchen-confidence.

Recipes are one way to figure out your way around the challenge of getting dinner on the table — whether handed down as a family heirloom, borrowed from the internet, or found in a cookbook, the best ones are pearls of wisdom practiced over and over by the author until the kinks have been worked out. I have somehow collected an extensive library of cookbooks.  Many of them are beautiful books, full of evocative photos of people, ingredients, places and feasts.  Others in my library, like several editions of The Joy of Cooking, or The Gourmet Cookbook by Ruth Reichl have no photos, just hundreds of recipes.

Several of the cookbooks that I enjoy the most take a relaxed approach to the use of recipes and I think that this is the approach that is needed for anyone preparing dinner out of a CSA box (or preparing for dinner by shopping at the farmers market).  It is the contents of the CSA box that inspire the cook more than the recipe. The relaxed approach starts with some basic ingredients and techniques, but admits endless variations from that point forward.  In our kitchen, we don’t often use our cookbooks at dinner time, but are more likely to read them when we have a few extra minutes over coffee and tea on Sunday morning.  When it comes to preparing an everyday dinner, vegetables are almost always the base, and using whatever is at hand is part of the challenge and fun.

Here are some chef comments from a few cookbooks in my collection (available at your local library):

“Anyone can cook anything and make it delicious.  Whether you’ve never picked up a knife or you’re an accomplished chef, there are only four basic factors that determine how good your food will taste: salt, which enhances flavor; fat, which amplifies flavor and makes appealing textures possible; acid, which brightens and balances; and heat, which ultimately determines the texture of food.” 

     Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat, Simon & Schuster, 2017 

“Many times the best dish is the simplest:  vegetables steamed or sautéed and finished with a bit of olive oil or butter and lemon….”

     Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food, Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2007

“Having an arsenal of herb-laced, vinegar-spiked, spicy, sour, and sweet salsas, pestos, aioli, and herb emulsions on hand makes it easy for us to add flavor to a dish quickly and without much fuss.”

     Travis Lett, Gjelina, Cooking From Venice, California, Chronicle Books, 2015

“You may not have farmer friends who are hooking you up with perfect vegetables, but maybe you have a garden yourself or an excellent local market.  Either way, at some point, if you are paying attention, there will come along that vegetable that is so clean, so flawless, that you’ll know you need only put a pot of water on to boil, adding nothing but a dose of salt.  You’ll reach for that tiny turnip or cute carrot and it will look up at you and with pale, dewy eyes, ask, ‘Is my bath ready?’ “

     Cal Peternell, Twelve Recipes, HarperCollins Publishers, 2014 

“Cooked cabbages, which people often fear will be strong tasting and smelly, simply are not, especially if you cook them quickly… When cooked relatively briefly, there is nothing to dislike, for cabbage is, in fact, a delicate vegetable that can be led in numerous directions. Sliced and gently simmered or steamed in a skillet with more forceful elements such as rosemary, blue cheese, cream, toasted peppercorns, or smoked salt, it is close to divine.”

     Deborah Madison, Vegetable Literacy, Ten Speed Press, 2013

Blessings on your meals 

—Judith Redmond