Community Supported Agriculture

“YAY RAIN!! Keep it coming!!!!” wrote Courtney Tellefsen, on the Facebook page of our Community Supported Agriculture organization, or CSA. Courtney is the founder of The Produce Box, the CSA in the Raleigh, NC area. She tells us regularly  what’s happening on the farms in North Carolina. Over the course of the growing season she has kept us informed that a rush job was needed to pick cherries, that she was able to get a shipment of fresh garlic and that the farmers need to know how much asparagus we are going to eat next year.

“YAY RAIN!! Keep it coming!!!!” got 39 likes and a couple of comments on Facebook. Facebook connects in a strange way our hyper active, socially networked world back to the farm. Back to a point where we city dwellers will realize how strongly we are still connected to nature and that we occasionally should push the “Like” button for mother nature. That rain will ensure that we’ll get our corn, our peaches and our squash on Wednesday with the next delivery. If it doesn’t rain, we will see how sorry our produce looks in our box. The supermarket will just raise prices and transport more tomatoes from 1500 miles away for this week.

A CSA buys food in your local area and distributes it to its members either by having pickup locations or by delivering it to their doorsteps. The food, and usually it is produce, is always fresh and always in season. You will not find asparagus in August or corn in May. It is yet another way to remind us of nature’s rhythm.

An important aspect of a CSA is the community it creates, even without Facebook. The farmers are always recognized by name in the newsletter. There are various events throughout the season. There’s always a way to meet-your-farmer. More than once a call for volunteers went out to get the harvest in, since things started to get overly ripe, or a big storm front was approaching. Often enough there are events for kids, planned together with a local museum.

For me, the CSA has changed the way I cook. It wasn’t me who picked the produce anymore, but I had to adapt to what was delivered. I was forced to research new dishes, even new vegetables and fruits. It was a helping hand in my battle to become a better cook. How else can you explain that I am now cooking so many dishes using sweet potatoes or the fact that I know how to make a winter squash soup.

“YAY RAIN!! Keep it coming!!!!”. Courtney actually used a lot more exclamation marks in her Facebook post. I know why.

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How to Rate a Recipe

Here’s a big question with plenty of answers:

Taste is already not very objective. Tastes good, bad or indifferent isn’t very reliable. Some like it hot and others sour and with some qualifiers things can become clearer: 5 chili beans, 3 lemons or 4 little tenderizers.

Can smell be rated? Does Harzer or Limburger cheese smell good or bad? How about garlic and onions? Ginger on your stir fry? Freshly baked muffins? There’s just no way to measure, the only way is to describe how it smells, or supposed to smell if things go wrong.

To judge looks is difficult in the frame of Cook-Like-a-Guy. Most of our efforts go into getting it done and getting the taste right. Presenting it on an oversized square plate, drawing smiley faces with the sauce and top the perfectly rounded rice ball with a mint leaf is just not going to happen. Unless it’s a high maintenance date, then we want to hear all the details, but you’ll have to get your recipe over there ->

Feel and sound would get all five senses engaged. And the sound of fajitas served on a hot iron skillet certainly adds to the atmosphere, but describing how that slice of pizza felt in your hand is clearly over the top.

Then there’s how difficult it is to make and the time how long it takes to prepare. How many ingredients are needed and does it need constant supervision while cooking. We want low scores here for our purposes.

Can the dish be salvaged when something goes wrong during the cooking? What happens if 3 more guests show up? And not to forget, important for the bachelor cook, can the dish be re-heated without much loss. What happens if an ingredient is missing, something not uncommon for the visitors of this site? We either didn’t have it on the shopping list, or we just forgot to take it out of the cabinet when we started.

And here’s one of my favorites: How many utensils do I need to prepare the dish? How much work is it to clean up afterwards. A single pot for stew is great, but knives, cutting boards and ladles count as well.

I haven’t come to a final conclusion, yet. Taste should be in there. You want to hear “Hmmm, that was yummy” or “I didn’t expect you can cook” as well as the scraping noise when they scrape the last pieces from the bowl. The second rating should certainly be how easy it is to make the dish and how low the chance is to create a mess. Two criteria. Sounds good to me so far.

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Facing the Rice

It’s already a good while back since I got to visit my first Indian restaurant and got to smell Basmati rice for the very first time. It was incredible. Until then I had mostly eaten boil-in-bag rice, and some rice a Korean guest student had made a couple of times in the dorm. Of course I wanted to make Basmati rice all by myself. (Note to self: need to rant about Basmati(tm) )

So I got the instructions kind of right, 1 1/2 cups of water for every cup of rice, get it boiling and turn it on low for 20 minutes or so. That worked well a couple of times. Sometimes I added some more water. Sometimes I ended up with a more or less solid layer of rice on the bottom of the pot. Which I had to soak over night and to scratch out from the pot next day. But it did produce a decent amount of rice.

And then I burned my $50 1 gallon pot. Blackened, inside and out. No way to wash it off the ionized surface. Kaputt. Damn. I admit, I had forgotten to set a timer. But there were no obvious signs I was in trouble. No smell. No smoke detector went off. Nothing. The rice was burned, too. I tried to revive the pot a couple of times, but nothing helped and all that was left to do was to give it a proper burial. I salvaged the lid, though. And I face that lid at least once a week.

I haven’t managed to make rice since. Not that I didn’t attempt it. No, I failed multiple times: burned, under cooked, soggy beyond believe, not enough rice. And worst of all, I think I infected my wife, too. I think next time she attempts to make rice, I’ll just leave the house for a while.

And then there were a couple of attempts to cook rice in the crock pot. I am being told it is possible, but you need to have the right rice and good timing. Me? Impatient and struck by ADD as I am?. The crock pot recipe did produce a soggy hard to describe mix of halfway dissolved rice, overcooked chicken and various vegetables. Tasty, actually, but it felt more like eating grits.

All that’s left now is boil-in-bag. The bag of Basmati rice is half empty, sitting right next to a bag of Jasmin rice, also half empty. Don’t start a discussion if they are half full or half empty, I don’t know which one the pessimists view is. All I am saying is, I want to eat some good rice. Without trouble. In my despair I looked up an article about making risotto. It made me cry. Somewhere two paragraphs in they said, this cook was able to make such great risotto only because he knew his rice so well. Oh, the horror!

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Double Date and Mousse au Chocolat

By now it’s a good while back that my friend Lutz and I had meet those two great women we anted to impress. Nothing easier for Lutz to invite them for dinner, since he’s a great cook. And careless as I am, I am offering to make the dessert. I had just come back from a trip through France and had tasted mousse-au-chocolat for the first time. That’s what’s it going to be.

Yeah, right. I really don’t recall the details of the recipe, but there were three core ingredients: chocolate, coffee and eggs. Which presented a few challenges. Working with chocolate is tough, so I hear nowadays. Back then I had no clue and I skipped the part that says it is complicated. I got it molten and I kept it that way for a while. Part two required half a cup of coffee. Great. The recipe I found stated it clearly. What it didn’t say was: brewed coffee or coffee powder. It’s french food after all, they do weird things to their food. There was no internet to look things up quickly. I had found the recipe I was working with….somewhere. And still no idea about the coffee.

So I mixed the coffee powder with the molten chocolate. And I needed to fold the chocolate mix into the egg yolks. Grumble. WTF. Folding A into B. No clue what they want me to do. Somehow I just mixed it. Might have been the right thing to do. Who knows. Who cares.

And then there was the egg foam. I did ask my mother how to make it: Separate the egg whites, add sugar and beat it into submission with a mixer. Well, there is no mixer in this bachelor household. There’s no need for it. Up until now, all mixing could be done easily with a whisk. Doing heavy whisking by an impatient bachelor without any talent to cook? Beating egg whites until there’s stiff foam? Exactly. I produced a layer of foamy egg whites, about 1/4″ thick, but not very stiff. And there was still plenty of egg white. That got soaked up by the chocolate/coffee/egg yolk mix and somehow stiffened to feel like a pudding. Good enough.

I didn’t taste it, since it was supposed to cool in the refrigerator first. And once it was cooled down, tasting it, would have left marks on the perfect surface. Off to Lutz’ house. He’s almost done with his part of the food. I tell him my mousse story and he raises his eyebrow. Coffee powder?? Funny. The rest of the story is short. Each of us tasted 1 spoon full of it and tried to get the coffee grinds out of our teeth for the rest of the night. I was branded as a clueless cook, but willing to take a risk… with the life of my friends.

Good thing we had Lutz’s food and plenty of red wine.

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