Archive | July, 2011

CSA: Week 7

31 Jul

Lately I’ve been neglecting this blog, as staying cool in the midst of a terrible heat wave has superseded discussing food in our family’s need hierarchy. When hiding out in one air conditioned room, dashing out to the kitchen to throw a few barbecued chicken breasts under the broiler to cook unattended is about as interesting as eating gets. We even skipped the farmers market last week!

This week, however, was our CSA pickup. As you may remember, our last disbursement was chockfull of a wide variety of delicious produce. Due to our small, sporadic meals over the last ten days, that box did last for a bit longer than the others. Our pickups are on Thursday, and by Tuesday of the week prior we were craving something farm fresh, so I don’t know that this box will survive quite as long.

In our latest disbursement, we received:

  • one small, perfectly ripe cantaloupe
  • one pint of blueberries
  • one pint of sweet orange cherry tomatoes
  • three cucumbers
  • three yellow summer squash
  • two huge sweet onions
  • one pound of green beans
  • three green bell peppers
Today I plan on turning some of those luscious cherry tomatoes and cucumbers into a lemon-basil vinaigrette drenched salad to accompany some fabulous lamb meatballs.
Every week that we pick up our disbursement is one of long discussion about the benefits of maintaining the variety of the farmers market versus paying double the CSA membership to receive weekly crates from the farm. One of my coworkers is a member of the same CSA farm we’ve been using, also with a half share but picking up on opposite weeks. She and I frequently compare, and occasionally swap, the items we receive. It does seem that opposite weeks receive slightly different disbursements — for example, she has twice received fresh bundles of beets, but has yet to get any squash; while we have had squash twice now without ever receiving beets. With a full share, and some effort thrown into freezing and bagging the vegetables that can survive until winter (such as green beans and snap peas) and some research into the storing of root vegetables (like the beets and onions), the stockpile born of a full summer’s share may offset the cost. Factor in the flexibility of the farmers market prices as summer draws to an end and the price of baskets of vegetables fall, and that may in the end be the cheapest option. Next year maybe we shall see.
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Pesto!

19 Jul

Though I made a valiant effort to expand my horizons, the appeal of turning a pound of farm fresh basil into delicious pesto was too much to resist (plus I already had all the ingredients on hand!). And it was delicious.

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Pesto is an ideal way to extend the refrigerator life of a quick-spoiling herb like basil, which only lasts about three days bagged in the fridge. Store pesto in an air-tight container with the top of the pesto glossed in a thin sheen of good quality olive oil, and it will last up to two weeks. Or preserve it even longer by molding a tablespoon of pesto into each compartment of an ice cube tray to freeze. Pop the pesto cubes out into a freezer bag and use them to spice up soups and sauces.

Of course, ours never made it that long — I mixed a little over half of my recipe’s yield into some whole wheat elbow macaroni with a splash of pasta water to make a creamy, minty green pasta sauce. I served it topped with diced tomato and salty strips of prosciutto, which fed us as a main course for a night with leftovers to pack for lunch the next day. The remainder of the pesto we spread on melba toasts with Manchego cheese and olives for a TV time snack platter.

Here’s the recipe I used, which is a little different from the traditional preparation as it swaps out pine nuts for pistachios:

Ingredients

  • 2 cups fresh basil, packed
  • 1 cup shelled dry roasted and salted pistachio nut meats
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1/4 — 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • juice of half a lemon

Preparation

  1. Using a food processor, grind pistachios.
  2. Add garlic, basil and grated cheese. Blend.
  3. Squeeze in lemon juice and begin adding olive oil; use more or less based on taste and desired pesto consistency. Enjoy!
This recipe took approximately 10 minutes to whip together, and yielded about 1 1/2 cups of pesto.

CSA vs. Farmers Market: Weeks 4 and 5

14 Jul

An interesting factor in the cost comparison between the CSA and farmers markets became apparent this week: the variability of supply and demand, and its effect on prices of items.

Just as the grocery store can adjust the costs of fruits and vegetables based on seasonality, crop availability, and transport milage; so can the farmer at the farmers market. For someone who shops with solely cost in mind and little interest in variety, this can be a good way to obtain a large volume of one or two types of vegetable fairly inexpensively. However, for someone who doesn’t relish the idea of eating the same item for a week’s duration (or someone who lacks an extra freezer to take advantage and stock up for winter!), it can push the farmer’s market into pricey territory.

For example, our farmers market is currently bursting at the seams with zucchini. It’s a good time of year for zucchini, when they ripen in droves. Nearly every stall has them 2 or 3 for $1. If I were willing to eat zucchini every day for a week, and forget the slightly-too-early-in-the-season tomatoes priced at 2 for $3 or the end-of-crop sweet cherries at $4 a pint;  I theoretically could purchase seven days worth of fresh produce for around $2. But who wants to eat that much zucchini? (Steven already has had enough from the first time around!)

This is where I see the farmers market losing ground to the CSA. With the CSA, we have purchased a share in the farm’s yield; so as the farm’s yield grows mid-season, ours follows suit. The particular CSA that we belong to promises at least eight items per week; their website states that at times of low production they “supplement” with fresh eggs, homemade jams and local honey to reach that eight item per crate mark. Likewise, when the farm is producing well, each crate is apt to have above and beyond that number. The one thing that does not fluctuate is our price, which is locked in at $23.63 per delivery. Some weeks it may be stretching it to say that the CSA is a deal, but other weeks (like this week) it feels almost like stealing.

In this week’s disbursement we received:

  • 1 pint of red raspberries
  • 4 huge perfectly ripe peaches
  • 2 sweet onions with greens attached
  • 2 bunches of green onions (5 onions per bunch)
  • 2 stalks of green garlic
  • 1 pound of green beans
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 1 pound of radishes with tops
  • 1 pound of fresh basil
Adding up estimated grocery store value, the gain far outweighs the price paid. It definitely is a much more interesting and varied haul than that of our take at the farmers market last week (3 zucchini, 3 cucumbers, 2 tomatoes and a pint of cherries costing a total of $9). Though with a Southern boy in the house, those four peaches aren’t going to be around very long.
Now I need to start researching uses for basil that extend beyond pesto and Caprese salad. Does anyone have a good basil recipe to share?

Fish Tacos in Twenty Minutes

13 Jul

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Ingredients

  • 1 lb of your preference of mild white fish fillets, thawed (we like mahi mahi best, followed by tilapia)
  • 1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2 cups bagged broccoli slaw mix
  • 1 cup shredded cheese (we use four cheese Mexican blend)
  • 1/2 large tomato, diced
  • 1 medium-sized jalapeno, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 lemon or lime
  • 8 flour tortillas

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place fish fillets in a shallow baking dish. Squeeze lemon or lime juice over fish; scatter with garlic and jalepeno. Bake for 15 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.
  2. Wrap tortillas in foil and place in hot oven to warm through. Using a slotted spoon, transfer fish to a plate and flake with a fork (don’t forget to include all of that delicious garlic and jalapeno!).
  3. Divide fish evenly between 8 tortillas. Top each with 1 tbsp of black beans and equal amounts of slaw mix, cheese and tomato.
  4. Portion two tacos per person; divide remaining black beans among plates and top with cheese. Serve with garnishes of choice (I like sour cream, guacamole or hot sauce).
Serves four.

The Cost of Eating Well

12 Jul

According to the USDA’s Center for Nutritional Policy and Promotions May 2011 analysis of cost of food at home (on which food stamp allotments are based), a household of two adults 19-50 years of age is expected to consume $84.60 worth of food each week on the “thrifty” food plan — a plan that covers the recommended daily allowances of each food group as determined by the USDA. This factors out to an average of $6.04 per adult, per day. In short, this is what the USDA expects a “healthy” diet to cost if the household is eating according to MyPlate guidelines. By comparison, a 2008 New York Times blog posting (the most recent daily breakdown data I could find) quotes a research study completed at the University of Washington that reports the average American eating a mix of “healthy” and “junk” foods spends approximately $7 per day on food — $4 per day for those classified as low-income.

This week was BIG grocery shopping, a trip requiring the purchase of essentials — ketchup, mayo, flour, sugar, coffee and such — so I figured it would be a good week to do the math and see where exactly we fall in the numbers. The results actually ended up being quite suprising — even to me, knowing our pattern of spending in the past. Here’s the breakdown, after a quick stroll through our shopping habits.

Generally, I grocery shop at three locations: Trader Joe’s, our local Chain Grocer, and farmers markets. Most often I buy enough to food to fill our (apartment sized) freezer and cupboards with the intention of it lasting 6-8 weeks for 3 meals per day per person. (We never buy lunches out; we always brown bag it — money saving tip #1!) In that time period I make, on average, two more small trips for perishables like yogurt, milk, and fresh fruits and vegetables. I try to focus on ingredients that can be assembled into meals as opposed to stocking up on convenience foods, though we do usually have some things like boxed macaroni and cheese, cans of tuna, and snack items like cookies and cheese crunchies on hand for when we’re in a pinch. We do not drink soda unless using it as a mixer, so rarely do I buy any (this is strictly a water, coffee, tea household by taste preferences). During that 6-8 weeks between grocery trips, we eat out in restaurants approximately once a week so, for statistical purposes, all calculations will be based on a 7 week time period though most likely this grocery trip will feed us for slightly longer. (I’m not an economist, so this is bound to be less than scientific).

First, the cost of fresh fruits and veggies for the next 7 weeks will total $100.89 for three CSA disbursements and three farmers market visits (estimated at $10 each).

My trip to Trader Joe’s (for items such as ground turkey, ground beef, crabmeat, Fair Trade organic coffee, cereals, blocks of Manchego, parmesan, and Havarti cheese, canned/dry goods, and nuts/dried fruits/mini chocolates for trail mix) cost me $144.37.

My trip to the Chain Grocer (for items such as ground lamb, salmon fillets, 2 lbs of raw shell-on shrimp, 6 large steaks, just over a pound of olive bar olives for tapas snack platters, 5lbs of all natural chicken breasts and a dozen containers of Greek yogurt) came to $173.09 but was reduced after applying card member savings, doubling a few coupons on name-brand condiments, and the 10% discount earned through their gas/food perks program. My total cost after a combined $20.59 in savings amounted to $152.50.

I expect that in the next 7 weeks I’ll spend approximately $50 more, $25 for each of those small trips for perishables.

This brings our food cost total to $447.76, or $63.97 per week for two adults. Breaking that down further, that’s $31.99 per week each, or $4.57 per person per day — right around the estimated low income expenditure, according to the NYT article, and $1.47 less than the number quoted by the USDA.

Not too shabby. The question now is: is it possible to increase our consumption of farm to table items (reducing the grocery store’s role even further), maintain our current healthy food philosophy, and continue to save money?

Easy Cheese Ravioli and Summer Squash in a Green Garlic Cream Sauce

7 Jul

You may remember from my last post that I was a bit mystified about the introduction of green garlic into my kitchen vocabulary. Prior to last week’s CSA disbursement, the only garlic I was familiar with was the everyday kind purchased in the supermarket — papery layers of peel hiding sticky cloves garlicky enough to make my eyes water while mincing. Boy, was I missing out.

A quick tour around the Google results revealed that green garlic is in fact regular garlic, harvested before the plant fully matures and the bulbs differentiate into cloves. It resembles a scallion on steroids (greens included, ours were approximately two feet in length), and is similarly edible in it’s entirety.

Green garlic

Green garlic may be eaten cooked or raw, with a taste that is far less bitter and aggressive than the mature plant. The mild garlic flavor actually sweetens as it’s cooked.

We experimented with both raw and cooked versions to get the most milage from this new-to-us, farm-to-table produce: I served the greens with a side of sea salt on a crudite platter of pickling cucumbers and tomatoes, just as I would a green onion; and made the bulbs the star ingredient of a light and lovely cream sauce for pasta. Recipe follows.

Ingredients

  • 12oz frozen cheese ravioli
  • 2 small to medium summer squash, thinly sliced into rounds
  • 2 turn-of-the-pan swirls of good quality olive oil

(for the sauce)

  • one inch square of salted butter
  • 2 bulbs green garlic, finely minced (about 1/4 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon white flour
  • 1/3 cup half-and-half
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preparation

  1. Cook ravioli according to package directions. Don’t forget to season water well with salt! Drain and set aside.
  2. While ravioli are cooking, heat olive oil in a shallow skillet over medium heat. Add summer squash and saute until tender and beginning to brown, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat.
  3. Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add green garlic and saute until tender and fragrant, 1-3 minutes.
  4. Stir one tablespoon of white flour into butter and garlic, salt and pepper to taste. Allow to cook one minute to “cook off” taste of flour.
  5. Add half-and-half and whole milk all at once. Continue to cook, whisking occasionally, until mixture begins to bubble and thicken. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat.
  6. Divide ravioli between two plates and top with half of the sauteed squash, and half of the cream sauce. Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley or basil if desired.

Recipe yields two dinner-sized portions.

CSA: Week 3

2 Jul

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Thursday was our second CSA pick-up day. As I posted previously, in our quest to find the cheapest way to eat well, we are experimenting with the cost effectiveness of a CSA plan versus attending the Farmers Market weekly. Our first box from the CSA lasted us one week to the day, with every last bite of produce being used for a cost of $23.63 that week. In comparison, the trip to the market cost $11 even, and also lasted one week (though it provided a lot less variety). Thus begins the second round.

This week’s CSA box includes:

  • one pint of blueberries
  • one pint of blackberries
  • three tomatoes
  • a quart of pickling cucumbers (8 cucumbers total)
  • five small to medium sized summer squash
  • a pound of snap peas
  • a giant head of red leaf lettuce and
  • two stalks of green garlic with greens attached

The green garlic is new to us, so it will take a bit of research to figure out the best way to exploit it’s farm fresh goodness.

The gluttony for fresh produce that this household is demonstrating speaks volumes about the eating preferences of it’s members. A deli container of fresh salsa has survived nearly five days (unheard of!), and a bag of Trader Joes’ cheese doodles sits in the cupboard unopened. Instead of reaching for our usual quick bites, we’ve been snacking on fruits and veggies. Which leads to the question: if the variety that the CSA and market are providing us were available all the time, would we buy less snacks — thereby saving money at the grocery store even as we spend more at the farms? It’s an interesting idea, and one I think I’ll begin exploring since the freezer contents will be depleted mid-July, making us due for a big grocery store trip.

But back to the CSA: it is now Saturday morning, and already we have eaten our way through all of the blackberries, 2/3 of the blueberries, four pickling cucumbers, one tomato, several leaves of lettuce, one summer squash, and the light green tops of one of the garlic bulbs (delicious raw as part of a crudite platter garnished with sea salt). I expect this week’s crate to stretch a little longer than the previous one, since the holiday weekend will have us eating away from home two days this week.  We shall see.