Saturday, February 12, 2011

Working With What You've Got

I keep meaning to write about my transition from a typical grocery store shopper to CSA junkie. CSA stands for community supported agriculture; the idea is that the farmer organizes their own distribution system and you, the consumer, pay upfront for a season’s worth of whatever the farm produces. Generally, the food costs more than what you’d pay at the supermarket, but the quality is much higher and your food dollars support the farmer directly.

I keep meaning to write a Manifesto about why I chose to go the CSA route, how it’s changed the way I shop and cook, etc. etc. but I finally realized that it’s just too big a topic for a single blog post. Suffice to say that my cooking has shifted away from a meal planning/listmaking approach. I used to think about what I wanted to make; now I think about what I have to use up.

(This approach to cooking was surprisingly liberating. No matter how much I used to “meal plan” for the week, something would invariably throw the plan out of whack. We’d decide go out for dinner one night, or when Thursday came we just weren’t in the mood for goulash. So there I’d be with leftover groceries and no desire or time to use them).

I keep meaning to write more posts in general, but since I’ve gotten into the CSA groove I’ve been making a lot of the same things again and again. That’s a change for me, too, and it’s not all due to the CSAs – some of it’s because it’s just a LOT harder to make dinner now that I’m a Mom of Two. So instead, I’ll going to try sharing some small stories. If nothing else, my experience will hopefully show a CSA-non-believer how to make it work. And with that, I bring you,

The Pork Problem

Everyone who joins a CSA has a few items that they really don’t like. For example, kohlrabi is not my favorite veggie, but it grows well in New England so it shows up in CSA boxes frequently. Most of the time I can foist it off on my hubby by putting it in a salad. But if not and it spoils I don’t feel too guilty putting it on the compost pile.*

The meat, though, is a different story. We get pasture-raised beef, chicken, pork and lamb from Chestnut Farms. Their prices are comparable to other meat CSAs that I’ve looked at – $8 a pound. At that cost, I don’t want to waste anything. The meat comes frozen and will last a while in the deep freeze, but at some point you’ve got to use it all.

I could try to trade the cuts that I don’t prefer with a fellow CSA member, but to me that goes against the spirit of the CSA. Each chicken has just two legs, and there are only so many steaks in each cow.** So I sort of like the challenge of finding a way to use everything that arrives in the cooler each month.

One item that I’ve really struggled, though, with is Breakfast Sausage patties. I love breakfast sausage, but these are very peppery (too spicy for the kids, and almost too spicy for me) and too salty for my taste. The last time we got sausage patties, they hung around in my freezer for quite a while. I’d give them a guilty glance, then quickly grab something else and shut the lid. At last, however, I had a breakthrough and thought of not one! But two! different ways to make this product into a tasty meal:

Solution #1: Tomato gravy. This one was so obvious that I let out a big DUH when I finally thought of it. My favorite recipe for tomato gravy calls for a pound of Italian sausage, sweet or hot. I substituted the breakfast sausage and added a bit of crushed fennel seed. Yummy!

Solution #2: Meatloaf. Some time ago I started messing around with the ratio of ground beef to ground pork in meatloaf. A 2:1 ratio of beef: pork (we get both items in the CSA) worked best – the pork lightened up the loaf, but it still tasted beefy. So I tried swapping the sausage for plain ‘ole ground pork, and it worked great – and the extra seasoning in the sausage compensated for the salt that I forgot to add to the meatloaf mixture. (DUH).

I’m heartened by my small successes. The next time Breakfast Sausage patties make an appearance in the cooler, I’ll be ready. Now I just need to figure out how to cook Flap Meat (hint: it’s beef).

Recipe: Judy’s Tomato Gravy

I found this recipe in Gail’s Recipe Swap. It’s simple to make and oh so yummy. You can make it with you own homegrown or home-canned tomatoes. The sauce can be frozen so you don’t have to use it all at once.

Olive oil
1-2 lbs Italian sausage, sweet and/or hot (or breakfast sausage), casing removed
1 large onion, chopped
2 or more cloves of garlic, minced
2 28-oz cans Italian whole tomatoes
2 8-oz cans tomato sauce
2 6-oz cans tomato paste
2 bay leaves
Dried basil & dried oregano, to taste (I use about a tablespoon of each)
½ to ¾ cup dry red wine

1. Put the tomatoes through a food mill or blender to puree them (if you prefer a chunky sauce, you can just dump them into a bowl and squish the tomatoes with your hands).

2. Heat a large pot and add a little oil. Add the sausage, breaking it up with a fork or spatula, and cook until it is browned. If there is a lot of fat in the pan you can pour some of it off. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft, stirring often. Add the pureed tomatoes, sauce, and paste and stir well (you can rinse out the cans with a little water and add that to the pot, too). Add the wine, bay leaves and dried herbs and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook, partially covered, over low heat for at least 30 minutes – longer is better, I usually let it go for at least an hour.

Meatsloaf: A guideline

This is loosely based on a recipe for meatloaf in an old "Best Recipes from the Los Angeles Times Cookbook". It’s a lighter loaf, not dense, that is great for meatloaf sandwiches the next day. It makes one big loaf or you can shape the mix into 2 smaller loaves. Eat one tonight and freeze the other for a busy day. Use as many of the different vegetables as you’d like or skip them altogether – but I recommend that you add them. They add a lot of flavor and they help to lighten the loaf.

2-3 slices of bread (or a leftover bagel, English muffin, whatever)
2-3 eggs
1-2 tablespoons ketchup or 1 tablespoon tomato paste

Olive oil, butter, or rendered fat (pork or chicken)
1 medium onion, diced
1 medium-to-large carrot, shredded
1 salad turnip, or a 2-3” chunk of daikon or Korean radish, peeled and shredded
½ of a red or green bell pepper, or a couple of slices of roasted red pepper from a jar, minced.
1 small zucchini, shredded, or some thinly sliced and chopped green cabbage, or napa cabbage, or kale, or other leafy green from your veggie CSA that you need to use up
As much chopped garlic as you like, or a handful of garlic chives, or a couple of garlic scapes, finely chopped
About ¼ cup dry vermouth or dry white wine, optional

2 lbs ground beef
1 lb ground pork or breakfast sausage

1. Place the bread in a large bowl and rip it into pieces. Add the milk and toss the bread around, letting it soak up the milk while you sauté the veggies.

2. Heat a large skillet and add 1-2 tablespoons of fat, oil, or butter. Cook the onion over medium heat until beginning to soften, stirring occasionally. Add the shredded carrot, radish, and bell pepper and cook until they wilt and soften, about 5 minutes. Add the shredded cabbage or zucchini and continue to cook until the veggie are soft and limp. Add the garlic/garlic chives/garlic scapes and cook for 2 min more. Add the vermouth and bring to a boil; let it simmer for a couple of minutes and then turn off the heat. Season with salt and pepper and then let the veggies cool a bit.

3. Use your fingers to rub the milk-soaked bread into small pieces – they to break up the lumps, unless you like lumps in your meatloaf. Add the eggs and ketchup and mix well with a fork. Carefull add the vegetable mixture and stir well.

4. Add the beef and pork to the bowl, then use your hands to mix everything together. I like to start by squishing with my fingers and then finish by kneading it together. Wipe your hands with a paper towel and then shape the mixture into 1 or 2 loaves. Place in a baking dish and bake at 350 for at least an hour – use a meat thermometer to check the temperature. I cook it to at least 160F.

5. Let cool for ~10 minutes, then slice and serve.

*I should note that I do try to avoid wasting food. Even though I spend more food dollars on CSA veggies and meats, I think less food goes to waste overall in the use-what-you-have approach to cooking.

** Kim, from Chestnut Farms, explained this a lot better in one of their newsletters (scroll down to November 2009, "Prime shares").


el said...

Wow, Karen, my hat is off to you as a (now reformed) meal planner. I could never do that, and always wondered if it was because I was simply undisciplined or what...I felt a failure compared with friends who did meal-plan.

But you're quite right, CSAs and gardens go a long way to reforming a list-making cook into being a lot more spontaneous and a lot more conscious of the "now." I think it lends one to be more careful to use things up, too: no more mystery items in the fridge, lots more leftovers, all good things.

We make kohlrabi (a winter veg here) disappear by shredding it with carrots and/or celeriac for a salad. And your breakfast patties sound like they need to be toned down: like your loaf, if you have some extra pork you can grind up, it can be the basis for a better less zesty/salty patty. Yep: use it or lose it!

Karen said...

El - wow! Thanks for visiting!

I think I was a meal planner because that's what my Mom always did. But deep down, I really wanted to be able to wing it. 20+ years of cooking and I finally feel comfortable enough to just make things up as I go along.

And I totally agree, there is less waste when you wing it - which helps me justify the higher prices that I now pay for most of our food. Not that I really NEED to justify it - nobody around here is complaining about their dinners :-)