“One must maintain a little bit of summer, even in the middle of winter.” ~ Henry David Thoreau In the middle of August, we gathered to celebrate the farmers, the fields…
The cashier withdrew the receipt he had been pushing towards me. He skimmed it with a puzzled look on his face, searching for an error. “I guess it’s right. I just didn’t expect your order to cost that much money.”
“Consider it my super power,” I responded, grinning through the sinking feeling.
As I pulled into the driveway, the neighbor boy dangled from a tree, his summer tan nearly camouflaged by the bark of the shady branches. “Where did you go?” he pried.
“To the grocery store,” I responded in the general direction of the tree.
“That’s all you got?” he asked in disbelief.
Debby Downer from the adjacent house probably judged me silently behind a curtain, as I schlepped my “meager” quantity of groceries to my third floor abode. Fortunately, the dog was eager to encounter beef cubes and minty sticks, so she put up little protest to my apparent failure.
I get it! I spend a lot of money on food.
However, with hormones, GMOs, pesticides and God knows what else being injected in our food, it’s hard not to spend excess money on what should be the simple act of eating and feeding those we love. Thus, I justify these expenses as health insurance or better yet, preventative care.
Fortunately, this summer’s ingredients have been boosted by the Urban Farmer’s efforts. Contrary to popular belief, we haven’t been swimming in vegetables, with the majority of the harvest making its way to the CSA members. However, late July and August have been kind to us, especially on the juicy tomato front!
The Urban Farmer and I recently hosted friends on the farm, and that Mint Themed Dinner on the Farm was the first time I had to do very little shopping to prepare a meal for a gathering. Not only was it refreshing to celebrate the farm as a beautiful piece of land with a spectacular view of the downtown skyline, but it was refreshing to celebrate all the farm has produced recently like these exquisite beets…
Each slice into the beets revealed a different fuchsia intensity and pattern worth painterly strokes, but most importantly, roasting revealed a tender, flavorful bite, complemented by smoky sea salt and subtly sweet coconut oil.
Beets, cucumbers, tomatoes and mint- all from the farm- became one colorful, healthy, flavorful, juicy salad to celebrate the farmers, the fruits of their labors and the height of summer. There were very few groceries, and there was no one critiquing my food-buying habits. It was a win-win scenario. Harvest or hop to the farmers’ market, and snag these beauties while the season allows.
I’m not one of those foodies who spends hours in front of The Food Network. My only bond with cooking shows was during my nannying stint in Paris, when I watched to learn more French and inspire my menus. The tv personalities solidified my understanding of the words butter, cream, more butter and more cream. Yet, like a foreigner attempting to swear in a second language, I pretend I have enough understanding to reference the Iron Chef in social settings.
What [I think] I know is there is a secret ingredient, and several talented chefs must scramble to highlight that ingredient in an out-of-this-world way. My understanding of the rules and personalities stops there, but I do mentally play my own version of this challenge from time to time. In Iron Quelcy (if you will), I select an ingredient to feature in a menu, incorporating that ingredient into each element of the meal, from the cocktails, to the main course, to the dessert. The challenge is for the ingredient to be a common thread through the meal, not an overwhelming, blanketing flavor that in the end feels like eating one big bowl of mush.
For our most recent dinner on the farm, the star ingredient was mint, which grows rampantly in these parts. Most often associated with sweet leanings, the true brainstorm was using mint in savory ways. First up: Mint Pesto! Akin to a traditional basil pesto, this minty version has kicks of lemon and garlic contrasted by the sweet, cooling mint associations. It pairs well with grilled vegetables (we used eggplant, onions & zucchini), as a crostini spread, or wherever you would typically apply pesto. Give it a whirl, and stay tuned for more results of my self-imposed mint challenge.
In addition to the many hats he wears- farmer, beekeeper, graphic designer, photographer, environmentalist– the Urban Farmer also wears a kilt from time to time. Marching and playing the bass drum in the Balmoral Pipe & Drum band is one of the very few activities that motivates my soil-loving fella to wear shoes. These kilt & shoe gigs have made for many a unique weekend adventure to cathedrals, parades, historical festivals, a “Tartan Day” and most recently to the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix.
The Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix is an annual car show and races right through the winding roads of Schenley Park, one of the city’s valuable green assets. In architecture school, we learned to use perspective and contour lines to translate our drawing professor’s slides (slides!) of Grand Prix automobiles to paper. Aside from the many sketches and hearing the yearly rumble of cars in race mode, I never really explored this massive gathering of car enthusiasts. However, bagpipe performances, vintage cars, and a sunny day in Schenley Park all called for a picnic, so I packed a farm-influenced egg salad, and to the car show I went!
Strolling through but a small section of the Grand Prix, I gained a new appreciation for these car enthusiasts. I once discounted this annual event as a pompous waste of resources and a flashy display of expensive collections. While I still see elements of excess (i.e.: semi trucks, with more amenities than my apartment, for carting car collections?), I also came to see the celebration of design, quality, old values and the idea of building something to last.
I had to quell the judgmental idealist inside me, acknowledge the charitable underpinnings of the event and simply indulge the side of me who believes in nostalgia, tradition and bringing people together. I also indulged the side of me who really just wants to cruise around town in a vintage, red beamer. After all, I am the owner of this beauty, who awaits some much needed love and care this winter (i.e.: when the Urban Farmer puts on his “mechanic” hat).
I hadn’t the slightest understanding of the racing rules or categories, but the people and car watching enthralled me. Plus, I may have discovered my spirit animal in this real-life Luigi. Consider this a glimpse of my future, white overalls and all!
The engine of this forest green car (above) might be impeccable. It might trace its roots to a pastural English village. I have no idea. I was simply blown away by the leather detail on the spare tire!
I went for the bagpipes, the sunshine and the park picnic, but as it turns out, I’m really a sucker for a red, vintage set of wheels. Whether you’re browsing beamers, a flea market, or simply a park on a sunny day, try this egg salad for your next picnic. You’ll revel in some sandwich nostalgia made healthier and more vibrant by farm-fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Farm Fresh Egg Salad Sandwiches
About this Recipe: Greek yogurt, dijon and local eggs come together with accents of local celery and sweet peppers. You don’t need to measure anything. Just trust your tastebuds and your eyes to achieve the right flavor, color and texture. Using local celery makes a big difference in flavor, and be sure to include the greens. Pick a flavorful mix of greens for the sandwich such as mustard greens, which add a pleasantly bitter accent, much like a hint of wasabi. For a little sweetness, add a slathering of organic relish to the bread.
There’s a lot of time to think when watering an acre of organic heirloom vegetables. I took a few turns with the hose while the farmer was busy with bees and helping other green thumbs and good hearts. I tried to embrace the effects of the sunshine, forming some sort of mental reserve for the gray winter months ahead, but mostly, my mind just wandered wildly… until I reached the tomatoes. The tomatoes transfixed me.
If the color green had a smell, it would be the smell of water hitting tomatoes on the vine. As the water arched from the hose and rainbows formed in the mist, that aroma conjured a nostalgic mix of the purest, happiest moments of summers past. BLT’s eaten on the porch swing, my parents in the garden and dinners featuring simple plates of tomato slices were all alive in that scent. That moment was the tip of the tomato iceberg. They were still growing, still sweetening, still changing colors, but shortly thereafter, the tomatoes poured into our kitchen!
In the height of tomato season, I feel wrong bringing heat to a tomato (or rather, the juicy, sweet, fresh tomatoes never make it to heat, since I eat them like candy). Those reservations, however, change abruptly when staring at wooden crate after wooden crate of tomatoes- 75 lbs of tomatoes to be exact!
This salsa is a perfect marriage of raw and roasted, where nutrients and flavors mix in each symbiotic scoop of the tortilla chip. The skillet of farm-fresh vegetables intensifies in flavor after roasting, then adds thick, flavorful chunks to a raw tomato puree. If only the American political system could find the unity this salsa achieves!
Like my mind while watering, this recipe is fluid, and it’s easily changed based on the seasonal offerings. If your garden or farmer’s market is brimming with scallions and red peppers, throw those in the skillet. Peppers are the next flavorful flood, with the Urban Farmer’s rainbow growing richer by the day, so perhaps your version will feature even more chunks of blistered peppers.
Much like trying to soak up a reserve of sunshine, I thought this salsa might bring us bites of summer when the skies turn gray and cold, but both acts of preservation are proving to be impossible. The combination of corn chips and salsa creates a disappearing act like no other, but perhaps the vines will bestow enough bounty for a second batch.
Roasted & Raw Garden Fresh Summer Salsa
About this Recipe: Use the images above as a guide for quantities, but feel free to make substitutions for the roasted ingredient choices. Use whatever summer vegetables are in season and abundant. Try green onions instead of yellow, or different hot peppers instead of jalapeño.
Imagine going to the grocery store, fending off the oblivious shoppers and crying children to stake your claim at the dairy cooler, agonizing over food labels, arriving at the purest choice, and investing a small fortune in a gallon of the most earth-friendly, wholesome milk on the shelf. Then imagine returning home, unloading your groceries and promptly pouring half of that milk-of-the-gods down the drain. You wouldn’t do that with your milk, and yet, we as consumers probably discard a lot of valuable ingredients without a second thought.
The Urban Farmer lives and breathes the word “permaculture,” and the principles have begun to permeate our kitchen too. As the movement’s co-founder Bill Mollison described, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.” (Check out this short video of Bill Mollison to learn a little more). In simpler terms, learn more, and waste less.
If we go back to that grocery store analogy, dumping a half-gallon of milk down the drain seems preposterous, but most of us, myself included, have tossed valuable greens into the compost, at best, or worse yet, straight to the garbage pail. These leafy greens offer a world of flavor beyond the pre-packaged produce aisle varieties, as well as many nutritional benefits. Inspired by the Urban Farmer’s permaculture interests and the latest CSA shares, I channeled a classic savory snack as a way to take full advantage of the seasonal turnips- chips and dip!
If you have a mandolin slicer, you’ll be able to mimic the thin crispness of store-bought chips, but being a rustic, knife-slicing type of gal, my “chip” consistency landed somewhere between a roasted potato and a potato chip. However, the extra depth soaks up the spices and delivers waves of flavor, especially when paired with a thick dollop of dip!
Accented with fresh, fragrant dill, this Turnip Greens Dip is reminiscent of the party spreads we all know, but this blend of raw turnip greens, garlic and thick and creamy Greek yogurt replaces guilty snacking with a clear conscious. This is wholesome, conscious eating that works to waste less and enjoy more.
We all affect the environment with our choices, but what I find inspiring about permaculture is seeking how my individual influence can be a positive force for the world, how I can add and contribute, rather than resisting and combating. You attract more flies with honey, as they say, so whether you’re a gardener, an old hippy, an “earth cruncher,” or just a plain old salty-snack lover, take advantage of the whole turnip, and share this savory snack with someone who might not understand your fixation with soil and seeds.
Baked Turnip Chips and Turnip Greens Dip
About This Recipe: If you’re a gardener or CSA member in planting zones 5 or 6, you’re probably seeing lots of turnips, radishes and herbs in your produce shares or at the farmers’ markets. These two recipes work together to use all of the turnips. The dip is also delicious on pasta or sandwiches, or any place you might use a pesto. The thickness of the turnip slices will alter baking time, so watch the turnips carefully when in the oven.
Like a dancer rehearsing tirelessly for a performance, the Urban Farmer has worked and worked for this day. Excitement, jitters, second guesses, strokes of confidence and last minute preparations culminate in today’s performance. Today the Urban Farmer delivers his very first CSA!
A CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) is the consumer’s way to invest in a farm. It’s a way to support principled farming practices with dollars and cents. It’s a way to share in the highs and lows, the bounties and the dry spells. It’s a means to understanding the seasons, the gambles and if all goes well, it’s a way to understand one of the best gifts of locally grown food: fresh, intense flavor!
Much like an Iron Chef challenge, a CSA arrives weekly with surprise ingredients. If your glass is half empty, the lack of choice and control will be a burden. What am I going to do with kohlrabi?! If your glass is half full, the array is a creative challenge and just the motivation you need to break with culinary monotony. Hopefully, you’re the latter.
The Urban Farmer could eat radishes (and just about anything from the ground) like grapes, but for many of us, the spicy, bitter and crisp radish is more perplexing. These bright red beauties emerge with a bouquet of greens, which we often overlook, tossing them into compost piles without a second thought. With so many radishes emerging from the field, my creative challenge was to harness more potential from these French Breakfast varieties: enter pesto!
In true S.A.T style, when I say “pesto,” your immediate association is probably basil, and the word nerd in me wondered, why is this? Is it a rule? Are pesto and basil inextricably linked?
In an intense research effort, I consulted Wikipedia, and I found my excuse to break with basil traditions:
The name [pesto] is the contracted past participle of the Genoese word pestâ (Italian: pestare), which means to pound, to crush, in reference to the original method of preparation, with marble mortar and wooden pestle. The ingredients in a traditionally made pesto are ground with a circular motion of the pestle in the mortar. This same Latin root through Old French also gave rise to the English word pestle.
I respect European traditions enough not to assign names sacrilegiously, but Wikipedia permitted me to extend the idea of “pesto” to the ingredients of the very first CSA and fulfill my radish challenge. Whether you’re receiving the Urban Farmer’s very first CSA or a fresh bunch from another farmer, here’s to new ways of using the freshest, local offerings.
Radish, Chard & Leafy Greens Pesto
About this Recipe: Crunchy and garlicky, use this farm-fresh pesto wherever you would use the traditional basil version. The chard and large, leafy greens yield far more than their basil equivalents. Whether I used broccoli or cauliflower greens will be determined soon, when more of the vegetable protrudes from the ground. You can use turnip greens, kale or more chard as a substitute if need be. The main objective is just to use as much of the vegetables as possible. I left the texture of my pesto rather coarse, preferring to add more oil based on the application. The thicker consistency works well for these chèvre, back pepper and radish crostini. I skipped the cheese, preferring to add cheese with the application as well. The result is a vegan-friendly pesto with lots of healthy raw nutrients!