The Zen of U-Pick

Consider the quiet solitude of threading through the vines, choosing succulent cherry tomatoes.  Moment to moment, we focus on the different colored fruits,  they almost mesmerize us as we fill our baskets.  There’s a Zen-like, meditative quality to it.  We’ve forgotten the stress of the day or our trip to the farm.  We don’t even realize there are several others doing the same thing among the vines.  It’s that rare time when we leave reality and lose ourselves.

Indigo Cherry Drops on the vine

Indigo Cherry Drops on the vine

This, of course, changes as the season progresses.  Near the end of the season, we wonder if we’ve become part of a B-grade movie, where the vines will slither up and devour us (like Audrey from “Little Shop of Horrors”).  Or maybe a collection of mosquitos will gang up and take one of us hostage (I’m imagining a high-pitched squeaky Jimmy Cagney imitation, “no spray or the kid gets it, see?!?”). Then again, maybe spending too much time among the vines triggers such thoughts.

Welcome to U-Pick.  That’s shorthand for “you pick”.  Meaning you (or me) pick the small, numerous cherry tomatoes or string beans.  There are so many and they’re so intertwined in their greenery that it’s more effective if you or I pick the veggie.

Whether you consider U-Pick as meditation or a visit to Hell on Earth, you really want to take the time each week to make the trek into the field.  You see, U-Pick is a very valuable portion of your CSA (half) share.

I’m at home with spreadsheets.  Since I’ve been a CSA member, I’ve kept a spreadsheet measuring each week’s half-share (for me), and then calculating its value.  I published my results in 2015.  I failed to publish for 2016 because I finished the tally late in the season.  Looking back, here’s something I learned in 2016:  I received about $429 of produce for my $300 half-share investment.  Of that $429, $66 was for all the U-Pick cherry tomatoes.  My U-Pick tomatoes were about 15% of my CSA half-share harvest.

(Note:  My numbers are based on buying equivalent produce at my local Meijer’s.  $66 is based on the cost of buying NatureSweet Cherubs.  Retail Price:  $3.99 for a 10oz container.  These were the closest I could find matching the size and variety of cherry tomatoes in the CSA U-Pick.  I also calculate price on a “per ounce” basis where possible.  As always, your mileage may vary.)

So as we’re about to enter the U-Pick part of CSA season, be sure to take the opportunity to fill your pint or quart baskets with tomatoes and beans.  It’s worth your time (besides, you paid for it).  And who knows?  Maybe you’ll discover aliens hiding in that mass of vines hoping you’ll take them to an old Steve Reeves movie.

DG

About thImage_20150822_01e author:  Dave Gillen didn’t want to eat hotdogs for the rest of his life, so he learned to cook.  His mother taught him to boil water, fry an egg, and make oatmeal cookies.  Dave forgot how to make the cookies, barely remembered how to fry eggs, but is spot on at boiling water.  Currently, he divides his days between being wife Lois’ in-house techno geek and personal chef…and walking his greyhounds.

And Now For Something Completely Different

The Blandford Farm CSA season begins this week.  Since all seasons have an “opener”, I thought I might borrow from sports to celebrate ours.

I suppose I should choose baseball metaphors since this is baseball season, but I’ve never been much for the sport.  It’s far too slow for me.  When I lived in Dallas, a friend invited me to a game of the Frisco Roughriders (the farm team for the Texas Rangers).  I was bored to tears, and the beer was awful, too.

I’m a hockey person.  Although the season doesn’t start until the Fall, I can always dream.  Let’s see if I can re-imagine some hockey terms with a CSA meaning.  Following is my attempt:

Blue line – The imaginary line you cross when you come to the farm, ready to pick up your CSA share, and realize you left all your bags in the car (or at home).

(Body) Checking – Physically bumping into another member while picking up your share.  Of course it was unintentional…

Goal – We got all our vegies for the week.  Made it home.  And our family EATS them.  You SCORE!

Goalie – The role your kids or significant other play when you get your vegies home.  “We’re not letting that stuff into our house or our mouths.”  Ptui

High sticking – Don’t carry that crate above your head because you’ll tip and trip and … we warned you.

Icing – You showed up before paying for your CSA share.  Naughty naughty

Penalty Box – What U-picks feel like in the heat of summer, the tangle of vines, and the bite of bugs.

Period – Divisions of the CSA season.  First period:  the vegie selection is light because things are still growing.  Second period:  The summer weeks when you have tomatoes and zucchini coming out of your ears.  Third period:  Ahhh, the root vegies have arrived.

Puck – What your potatoes become if you leave them in the basement too long.

Referee – The role Aaron plays when not out in the field or greenhouse.

Scrum (normally a Rugby term but Hockey players seem to practice it) – We’re all gathered around that one basket trying to guess what’s inside.  We can’t quite figure it out, not sure how many we get, and Aaron is away at the moment.

This cup is for the Blandford Farm team. (Yes, it's the real Stanley Cup.)

This cup is for the Blandford Farm team. (Yes, it’s the real Stanley Cup.)

Stanley Cup – This really should be awarded to Aaron, Liz, Mark, and their team.  Their work, sweat, and persistence gave us healthy vegies throughout the season.  I’ll bet Lord Stanley of Preston was a carnivore.

And finally, a tip of the hat to the late Frank Deford, NPR’s sports commentator.  He gave me the idea that sports can intersect other areas of our lives.  Dunno if he did a commentary on CSAs, though.

 

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About the author:  Dave Gillen didn’t want to eat hotdogs for the rest of his life, so he learned to cook.  His mother taught him to boil water, fry an egg, and make oatmeal cookies.  Dave forgot how to make the cookies, barely remembered how to fry eggs, but is spot on at boiling water.  Currently, he divides his days between being wife Lois’ in-house techno geek and personal chef…and walking his greyhounds.

Food as Medicine

The first Blandford Farm CSA pickup is about a month away.  Yet I’m already plotting the use of my half-share.  You see, this year, I’m focusing on using food as medicine.  But I needed a little push.

I must confess, I haven’t had a primary care physician since my early college years.  I procrastinated as long as I could until my health insurance provider basically said, “ya gotta get one.”  So I did.  And I went through a couple of initial “meet and greet” exams, complete with blood tests.  The results were troubling, but not tragic.

It's a brave new world, Peaches!

It’s a brave new world, Peaches!

When I lived in Dallas, I was afraid I would die while driving on Central Expressway or the Dallas North Tollway.  When I moved to Grand Rapids, that fear faded in my rearview mirror…so to speak.  But I’ve learned my latest risk of mortality comes from the inside.  My blood tests tattled:  I have hyperlipidemia and hypertension.  In layman’s terms:  high cholesterol and high blood pressure, respectively.

I made a face when the nurses and my primary doctor suggested medications.  I preferred to use non-pharmaceutical means of treatment.  Amazingly, they gave me the benefit of the doubt.  Suggested course of action:  more exercise, lose a few pounds, and adjust my diet.  Since I never smoked, that’s one vice I can’t lose.  And I’ve come to enjoy the benefits of Beer City USA.  Surprisingly, my doctor didn’t see that as an issue.  That left exercise and diet.

I now practice yoga or exercise on a dusty Nordic Track in the basement, each day.  And adjusting my diet?  Well, that’s where the CSA comes in.

A story on npr.org earlier in the year caught my eye:  Food As Medicine: It’s Not Just A Fringe Idea Anymore.  A couple of the referenced studies (here and here) suggest that one can reverse the effects of high cholesterol by eating more fruits and vegies.  When my doctor quizzed me about my diet, I was already practicing many of the changes she could recommend.  So, she suggested Dr. Andrew Weil’s web site for advice on other nutritional avenues to manage my cholesterol and blood pressure.  A quick search on the site for “diet high cholesterol” produced a list of useful articles.

This nudges me (and my household) toward a more vegetarian diet.  Since I’m the primary cook, this will be a shared experience.  But I don’t mind the change, and my wife is always clamoring for more vegies.  In fact, I ordered a book from Amazon today, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison.  I wanted to recreate some dishes served by my friend “BF#”.  And I definitely must make full use of this year’s CSA bounty.

I know I’m not the first person to alter their diet in response to a health issue.  For some, they like how they feel after the changes.  As a data-driven guy, my blood chemistry numbers are the benchmark for success.  And so, I have a date with a blood-sucker in September.  With luck, my primary doctor will continue to give me the benefit of the doubt in October.  I guess that sort of tracks this year’s CSA season, doesn’t it?

Image_20150822_01About the author:  Dave Gillen didn’t want to eat hotdogs for the rest of his life, so he learned to cook.  His mother taught him to boil water, fry an egg, and make oatmeal cookies.  Dave forgot how to make the cookies, barely remembered how to fry eggs, but is spot on at boiling water.  Currently, he divides his days between being wife Lois’ in-house techno geek and personal chef…and walking his greyhounds.

A Food Journey: My Father’s Day Gift

Last season I wrestled with storing my Blandford Farm CSA bounty for later use.  After overflowing our refrigerator, I started using a room in our basement.  It was a hit or miss affair.  I had to come up with a storage scheme.  And I tended to forget I had food in the basement.  I’m still getting used to having a basement – they were rare in Texas.

Are potatoes aliens in disguise?

Our winter CSA potatoes started taking on lives of their own:

 

 

 

My greyhounds came to the rescue.  I still don’t understand how dogs suddenly develop opposable thumbs, but who am I to question?

Father's Day card from Duncan and Gigi. (Original is off-center.)

For Father’s Day, they gave me a harvest storage rack from Gardener’s Supply.  Some assembly required, of course.

Orchard Rack...Some assembly required.

After about a half hour of effort (and absolutely no swearing), I was successful.  New veggie storage rack, assembled.

Now I need to work on balancing the environment in my basement.  The  temperature is about 68 degrees with 77% humidity (as of this writing).  Things are cooler in the winter.  While the storage rack is in a room without a window, the adjoining room has plenty of sunlight which clearly beckons growth.  I’m thinking of covering the rack with a dark cloth.  I’d rather not add a door to the room.

Did some background reading about storing foods in the basement.  What I could glean from the MSU Extension  wasn’t encouraging.  It made reference to another document, Storing Vegetables at Home.  Both advocate a much lower temperature (just above freezing) for storing root veggies.  In my basement, that’s not happening.  Even the instructions that came with the storage rack suggest colder temperatures.

Does this mean I’m doomed?  No, I don’t think so.  I’ve learned I don’t fully understand a topic until I start implementing it.  CSA membership has started to make me aware of many issues to fully understand and appreciate eating local.  I think storing veggies is another of those issues.  Besides, my greyhounds would be disappointed if I didn’t use their gift.

Actually, I can draw on my years living in Texas.  Like I said, basements are rare.  I did have a pantry in my kitchen…well, more like a tall cupboard with a door.  I’d store onions and potatoes in it.  They would last a month or so before going wild.  The pantry was quite dark.  Temperatures in the kitchen were typically in the upper 70s.  In fact, it was difficult to keep the house temperature below 80 during the nasty summer months.

And a couple of other web sites here and here give me hope that some root veggies can be stored at more reasonable temperatures.  All is not lost.

This has gotten me to thinking about a few side issues for eating local, being a member of a CSA, and trying to store (root) vegetables.  I’ve established I live in a house with a basement, but what about:

  • If one lives in an apartment? How do they store veggies for an extended period without basement or spare closet?  Are they at a disadvantage?
  • How about retirees? I know I’ll be downsizing in a few years as I age.  I see an apartment or condo in my future (presuming there’s room for my greyhounds).  Will I have the problem of storing veggies off season?

When potatoes go bad…

I guess I’ll content myself with having a new storage rack and focusing on the environment of my basement.  Hopefully, I can avoid close encounters of the ‘tater kind:

 

And if you’re curious, the catalog name for my gift is the “Orchard Rack, 6 Drawer” from Gardener’s Supply:  http://www.gardeners.com/home.  Cheers!

About the author.  Dave Gillen didn’t want to eat hotdogs for the rest of his life, so he learned to cook.  His mother taught him to boil water, fry an egg, and make oatmeal cookies.  Dave forgot how to make the cookies, barely remembered how to fry eggs, but is spot on at boiling water.  Currently, he divides his days between being wife Lois’ in-house techno geek and personal chef…and walking his greyhounds.

 

A Food Journey: I’m Not a Blue Apron Kind of Guy

When I’m not writing blog posts, I’m a technologist.  I watch netcasts and listen to podcasts to stay current on technology and issues.  To pay the bills, they run ads just like broadcast TV and radio.  The ads are for products you don’t normally find on broadcast media.  They are typically targeted to educated folks with disposable income.  And, yes, a typically male audience.

One of my regular netcasts is Windows Weekly.  One of their recent advertisers is Blue Apron.  The pitch:  for a regular fee, Blue Apron will ship you a kit with recipes and the exact amount of ingredients you need.  Your package comes weekly.  Using the contents of this kit, you will learn to cook fabulous dinners befitting a chef.  Supposedly, chefs in training wear a blue apron, hence the company’s name.apron-98644_1280 (2)

I take exception with this service.  It’s not a bad or evil service.  I suppose if I were a busy professional (with more money than time), I might subscribe to it.  Listening to the ad, though, makes me think about some of the hooks of the service:  it comes to your door in a timely manner, sophisticated recipes are included (on a laminated card no less), just the right amount of food is delivered, no waste (supposedly), there are videos on the web showing how to prepare the recipe, and (as with all food recipes) the photographs of the finished dish will make you drool a pool.

The idea of shipping a culinary dinner kit to your doorstep strikes me as counter to a CSA and the idea of eating local:

  • You’re not minimizing your ecological footprint by localizing the transportation of ingredients. Instead, the food is shipped by farmers to Blue Apron’s facilities.  There it’s turned into a kit and shipped to you.
  • Nature does not grow perfect ingredients. Veggies have blemishes, sizes are weird.  You can cut a salmon steak to an exact 8 ounces, but what about the leftover?  Blue Apron claims there’s no waste in the ingredients they ship you.  The uglies, odd-sizes, and fish tails have to go somewhere.
  • You trust what comes to the door. You can’t interact with  the farmer.  You can’t verify the process of food selection, warehousing, or kit preparation.  You can only ask questions through the web site or an 800 number.
  • Your “community” is limited to a digital presence of comments on blog posts. While I think social media is useful, it doesn’t take the place of one-on-one interaction with real people.

Let’s play “What If” here.  What if I were a busy professional with more money than time, wouldn’t I simply go to a restaurant?  Yeah, but that gets old, and I still have to eat.  Maybe I really want to try my hand in the kitchen simply to clear out my brain from a long day.

Maybe there’s an opportunity here.  I’m not an entrepreneur, but could a clever graduate from GRCC’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education create a comparable local business?  What if they bought seasonal ingredients through area CSAs, or cut deals with local farmers?  Design delectable dishes.  Create simple instructions – on laminated cards of course.  Package it all up.  Deliver it by Uber-like drivers to folks who want fresh, fancy, make-it-at-home dishes.  What if?  Would this be taking CSAs in a different direction?

Of course, maybe this idea of DIFM (do it for me) is counter to the mindset of CSA participants.  I know I’m a DIY (do it yourself) kinda guy when it comes to my kitchen, my food, and my technology.  Although I did try to brew beer about 25 years ago when it became legal in Texas to do so.  The beer tasted good, but it was a lot of effort (and kitchen mess).  I decided beer should be DIFM.  But I will not wear a blue apron.

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About the author:  Dave Gillen didn’t want to eat hotdogs for the rest of his life, so he learned to cook.  His mother taught him to boil water, fry an egg, and make oatmeal cookies.  Dave forgot how to make the cookies, barely remembered how to fry eggs, but is spot on at boiling water.  Currently, he divides his days between being wife Lois’ in-house techno geek and personal chef…and walking his greyhounds.

A Food Journey: Local Breakfast

Here’s one I’ve been working through for a while: How do you eat a “local” breakfast? Yes, I’m a traditionalist, I eat three meals a day. If I don’t eat breakfast, I’m hurting by 10 AM. I’m not a bacon and eggs guy, either. I suppose if I were, I would have the “local” covered. I could get my bacon from a local farmer and my eggs from Blandford.

In a previous job, my wife had Israeli colleagues. When they came to the States on a project, she learned they ate salads for breakfast. Maybe I could go that route, too. Then I could have a local breakfast of CSA produce or from the Fulton Street Farmers Market in the Winter (choices are a little thin, though).

Nope. Growing up in the 50s and 60s in a large family, I learned to eat cereal. That tradition is hard to break. These days, I have two Weetabix biscuits (it’s a Canadian cereal – long story), with milk and sugar. Plus a cup of coffee and glass of OJ on the side. Let’s see, I use Hilhof or Mooville milk – both local. Pioneer Sugar from across the state in Bay City. Yeah, that counts as local. But, the coffee, OJ, and cereal not only are not local, they’re not even domestic. My bad.

I started thinking about this when I quizzed my wife about what I should buy for her for breakfast. She typically eats fruit: often citrus, or (now) pears. The citrus she loved were Rio Star Red grapefruit from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. In Dallas, you could get these nearly year-round. They were beautiful, tasty, and ruby red. Yes, technically they were local, although they travelled at least 8 hours to reach us with stops along the way (Texas is a big state).

I noticed bags of Rio Star Red grapefruit in a local grocery store. Peering through the orange mesh at the actual fruit…they looked kinda sad. Guess they don’t travel well to Grand Rapids.

The pears are a recent change for her. Until the season ended, we were getting nice local Michigan pears. Now, I buy passable ones from some mystery point in the “USA” (according to the label).

Yes, we could eat apples for breakfast. They are very local, and very tasty. Access during the winter is still possible, too. But there’s just something not very “breakfast” about an apple, and wielding a knife before I’ve had my coffee could be hazardous. (Side note: When we lived in Dallas, relatives from the Great Lakes region would ask what we wanted for Christmas. “Send us apples!” They thought we were crazy. You can’t get decent apples in Texas. My mother sent us a huge box of apples one year. We stretched the shipment to last a few months.)

Maybe there’s hope for my wife’s breakfast. Some creative growers in the Midwest are experimenting with geothermal greenhouses (here). This would allow near year-round enjoyment of local citrus.

As for me, guess I’ll continue munching on my cereal. I can’t be a purist about eating local at breakfast. At least not yet.

About the Author:  Dave Gillen didn’t want to eat hotdogs for the rest of his life, so he learned to cook. His mother taught him to boil water, fry an egg, and make oatmeal cookies. Dave forgot how to make the cookies, barely remembered how to fry eggs, but is spot on at boiling water. Currently, he divides his days between being wife Lois’ in-house techno geek and personal chef…and walking his greyhounds.

 

A Food Journey: Mostly Plants

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s the simple mantra from food writer Michael Pollan. I recently watched his PBS program, In Defense of Food. It aired locally on WGVU on December 30th. I won’t rehash it, but you may be able to find it on the web. He also wrote a book by the same title in 2008.

I actually stumbled on the program. Wednesday night is “science night” on PBS. We watched the weekly episode of Nature. In Defense of Food immediately followed. As the program played out, all I could think was, “ooo ooo ooo CSA!” Besides the mantra, Pollan shared another pithy (and easy to remember) idea: “If it came from a plant, eat it, If it was made in a plant, don’t.”

Contrast this to (so-called) survivalist food being promoted by televangelist Jim Bakker. Bakker is selling, through his web site, various powered/freeze-dried products with a shelf life of twenty years. Mix with water and heat…assuming both are available when you might need this type of food. It’s not my idea of eating food.

The summer and winter CSA seasons hooked me on eating local veggies. How does one continue this in the off season? True, I’ve potatoes coming out my…ears. I’m just now eating the ones from September. The celeriac, squash, onions, and shallots also look good. All are stored in the darkened laundry chute room of my basement. I figure all of those veggies will last me until Spring.

I've got potatoes coming out of my...

I’ve got potatoes coming out of my…

But not everything keeps. I have some beets and they look very sad. Leeks get real papery if not eaten immediately. I’ve learned both are salvageable if I peel away some layers. But they should be eaten soon. And I have greens hiding in my fridge and in my garage. They’re mostly edible (albeit a little wilted). But the mushiness factor is rising. I figure I can make them last through the end of January with a bit of trimming.

Then what? Yeah, I have some Irish in my blood, but I’m not gonna subsist on potatoes. I made a trek to the Fulton Street Farmers Market on January 2nd. Bless them for braving the cold. I found largely what was in my basement: squash, potatoes, leeks, apples, and a few other veggies. No greens.

So, if I want to eat mostly plants and mostly local, I have a conundrum.

Over the course of the last year, my wife has suggested getting a freezer. Then we experienced a power outage in the wee morning hours of December 24th. We received a surprise gift of power on Christmas Day. Luckily, everything in the fridge and attached freezer were ok. But if we had a standalone freezer, would we have been as lucky? I’m not going to invest in an emergency power generator just to keep a standalone freezer going. I may be eccentric at times, but I think that one’s going too far.

I guess in the interim, I’ll make do. I’ll buy what I can from Fulton Street and fill in the gaps with the stuff trucked in to my local supermarket from who knows where. Since I now have a good idea of the Blandford Farm CSA schedule, I can better plan use, storage, and preservation of the 2016 harvest. The trick will be combatting my lethargy at the preservation part. Stay tuned.

But I would much rather try to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Instead of trying to reconstitute something out of a processed powder.

About the author:  Dave Gillen didn’t want to eat hotdogs for the rest of his life, so he learned to cook. His mother taught him to boil water, fry an egg, and make oatmeal cookies. Dave forgot how to make the cookies, barely remembered how to fry eggs, but is spot on at boiling water. Currently, he divides his days between being wife Lois’ in-house techno geek and personal chef…and walking his greyhounds.