Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How to Cook with your Farmer's Market Bounty

This is not a recipe post but rather an explanation of how I cook with a big bag of vegetables, some unknown, from our weekly CSA.

Tip #1: Take Stock (potentially includes detective work for mysterious vegetables)

First of all, I take an inventory.

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I am well-versed in my vegetables, but sometimes I cannot identify them all, especially here in Nepal. Exhibit A:

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Readers, what is this thing? I call it a round winter melon because it has a similar texture to the long, pale green winter melons I see in the grocery store, but really, I have no idea.

I think the surprise factor is one of the best things about joining a CSA (in addition to supporting local, organic farming, of course). Too often I find myself cooking the same things over and over again. While I think it is great to have a reliable list of favorite recipes that I can make blindfolded and with one hand tied behind my back, particularly on those days when I work late or just want something that I know will be good, sometimes I bore myself (and probably my husband too) with the same old same old. A weekly CSA, therefore, forces me out of my standard repertoire and my comfort zone, and this is a good thing. Even if I cannot identify a certain vegetable, I use it in some dish -- maybe not in the way it should be used, sure, but who cares? Right now that round winter melon frequently masquerades as zucchini in my ratatouille, and it is working just fine.

Tip #2: Get Creative

This brings me to my next point: improvise with your CSA ingredients! Have a little trust in yourself and your ability to throw something together. When you are working with fresh vegetables, it is hard to go wrong, especially if you keep it simple with a little bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Maybe some garlic too. Or maybe some lemon. But oh, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Tip #3: When in Doubt, Search the Internets

If improvising like this intimidates you, then turn to the great world wide web for inspiration. Google your vegetable or herb of choice and see what delicious and very different recipes come up. Try Whole Foods' recipe page, which allows you to search by ingredient, course, and dietary considerations. I also love food blogs and vegan ones in particular because they highlight vegetables, often in incredibly inventive ways.

Tip #4: Cook in Bulk

My last tip addresses how I deal with a large volume of veggies because some people -- myself included -- worry about spoilage when you're dealing with, say, five pounds of kale per week (I WISH! No kale yet, but I'm hoping for some in the cooler months).

We pick up our CSA batch every Wednesday evening, and when we get home I immediately take a quick inventory and pull out anything that might be best used as soon as possible, such as salad greens. Even if I have dinner more or less set for that night, we can always do with some extra vegetables, especially those that require little to no cooking. After taking a mental note of everything else in our haul, I put the whole bag in the crisper drawer in our fridge. And, to be honest, it might sit there, relatively untouched, for a couple days. I have found that our CSA bags, which these days typically include green beans, edamame, okra, hardy greens, and herbs like rosemary and basil, stay fresh for several days.

Then, when I am feeling inspired to cook, I usually deal with about half of the ingredients at once -- say, okra and tomatoes one day, and green beans and edamame another. Herbs get used as needed. Therefore, I wash the vegetables in large batches as well (and in Nepal, washing involves a 30-minute soak in iodine and water).

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The dishes that I make are simple and vegan, and they last for a few days in the fridge as leftovers, so I never worry about cooking too much at one time. Some days I even deal with the whole lot of veggies at once. Yes, it looks like a tornado hit the kitchen afterward, but sometimes you just get in the groove, ya know?

Tomorrow I will be showing you how I manage to wrangle a bunch of different ingredients into one somewhat cohesive dish, so stay tuned!

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