Especially for us urban dwellers, getting involved with a CSA (community supported agriculture) is just a no-brainer. For the uninitiated, it’s essentially like buying stock, but instead of buying shares in a public company, you’re buying a stake in an organic farm. It’s a pretty great investment, too, because one reaps the rewards in the form of a nice bounty of seasonal, local organic veggies, and sometimes other goodies like fruit, eggs and even flowers.
I’ve been involved in CSAs before, up in Dutchess County, NY, where the highlight of my week was my Saturday visit to Sisters Hill Farms. This year, I just eeked in membership into the Greenpoint-Williamsburg CSA in Brooklyn, and got a share with a weekly booty of vegetables, fruits, eggs and flowers from June til November. Those who join do some sort of work shift: they either work the distribution (on Wednesday nights, it’s at a local church basement; on Saturday mornings it’s at the Williamsburg Farmers market), or take the leftovers to a food bank, or, like me, help with the newsletter and by providing recipes and/or cooking demos. They also do farm trips to the primary origin of the produce, at Long Island’s Garden of Eve. Much of what we get through the CSA can be found at farmers’ markets throughout NYC, but there’s something very gratifying about being part of a very virtuous circle by investing in the farm at the top of the season and being part of making the whole CSA tick.
For the avid cook, being part of a CSA is also like playing a weekly puzzle: like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know quite what you’re gonna get. You’ll certainly have an idea, based on experience, about things that are generally in season, but what’s always kind of a mystery is quantity and precisely what combinations or varieties of say, kale, or cukes or basil will be waiting for you. I view it as kind of a vegetable roulette, and it’s a challenge I relish. My Wednesday nights, where possible, have been reserved for cooking what I pick up that evening.
The CSA roulette wheel has inspired to me learn more about (and make) amazing things I cook with all year ’round, including Pot Au Feu, which I freeze into ice cubes and use to flavor everything, a million different pestos (which I keep bright green by adding powdered/buffered Vitamin C, then storing in the freezer flat, in ziplock bags), and pickled everything.
This week’s take included the season’s first tomatos, as well as some terrific looking eggplant. I immediately knew I’d be whipping up one of my favorite recipes from Patricia Wells: a superb eggplant/tomato gratin (recipe below).
I also came away with some really interesting varieties of melon, a huge haul of peaches and more. Pix to come. Recipe follows.
MONSIEUR HENNY’S EGGPLANT GRATIN
The dish is best made with tiny eggplants, weighing no more than 5 ounces. They generally have more flavor and are less likely to be bitter.
Four to six servings
Equipment: One shallow 2-quart (2-l) gratin dish
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 small eggplants, each weighing about 5 ounces or the equivalent weight in larger eggplants, trimmed at stem end Fine sea salt to taste
3 tablespoons finely minced mixed herbs, such as rosemary, sage, thyme, and basil
A pinch of dried oregano
1/2 cup (2 ounce) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 pounds (1 kg) fresh tomatoes, cored and halved crosswise
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
2. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of oil over the bottom of the gratin dish. If the eggplants are small, slice them in half lengthwise. (If they are large, cut them into four lengthwise slices.) Place the eggplants, skin side down, in a single layer in the gratin dish. Lightly score them with a sharp knife. Sprinkle with the salt, minced fresh herbs and oregano.Sprinkle with about half the cheese. Place the tomato halves, cut side down, on top of the eggplants in a single layer. Brush the tomatoskins with the rest of the oil and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
3. Place the gratin dish in the center of the oven and bake until the vegetables are soft and almost falling apart, about 1 hour. (Baste the eggplants as they cook for added moisture and flavor.) The tops of the tomatoes should be almost black, and the juices from the eggplant and tomato should turn thick and almost caramelized. Serve warm or at room temperature, as a side dish or main vege table dish. Use a spatula to cut and serve measured portions.
–From Patricia Wells’ “At Home in Provence”