CSA Member Elizabeth S. enjoyed playing with her food in 2010!
Here’s a short film of all the amazing creations she made with her weekly Veggie and Fruit CSA share.
CSA Member Elizabeth S. enjoyed playing with her food in 2010!
Here’s a short film of all the amazing creations she made with her weekly Veggie and Fruit CSA share.
I probably wouldn’t be working at North Star Orchard if it weren’t for the Asian pears. It’s true – they’re what drew my attention to this farm years ago at Philadelphia farmers’ markets. I’m not the only one; they truly have a cult following. I’ll often open my mouth to answer a question about them at a market, only to have another customer standing nearby answer enthusiastically for me. I’ve heard about Asian pears shipped away to kids at college who are yearning for a taste of home, and about some that are shipped each year to relatives in Europe. I know my parents won’t let me in the door at Christmas-time if I don’t bring pears along.
So many people love them, but they’re still a bit of a mystery to most. What are these things? These “apple pears,” “Korean pears,” “sand pears,” “salad pears,” nashi? Well, “apple pear” is misleading; they really have nothing to do with apples, except that they share a plant family (Rosaceae). What they actually are is another species of pear, Pyrus pyrifolia, that has been traditionally grown in Japan, China, and Korea. You’ve been eating them for weeks (if not years) now, so I don’t have to tell you what they taste like, or about their characteristic crunch. Unlike “European” pears, Asian pears are picked ripe and ready to eat – none of that guesswork about when it’s reached its moments-long window of peak ripeness before turning to unpleasant mush in the center. Keep them in your fridge loosely in a plastic bag and they’ll keep for weeks. (Especially good to know this time of year when the CSA’s ending!)
Perhaps the Asian pear fervor is only unusual in this country where fruit generally serves as a sort of placeholder. We’re not accustomed to great flavor, but rather a healthy something to tide us over or fill a lunch bag. Most of us grew up on inoffensive-at-best apples and identical-looking bananas, definitely nothing to get excited about. In Asia, however, where these pears come from, they’re served as a special treat or gift or shared around the table after a meal. Here, as well, I sense that Asian pears are treated as something special. If nothing else, the price inspires a bit more awe than we’re used to affording a piece of fruit, and reflects the hours spent hand-thinning the crop as well as their fragile nature.
All season long I’ve been looking forward to learning more about these pears and their traditional uses, and I have to confess, I haven’t been too successful. There still isn’t that much information out there, readily available on the information superhighway (in English anyway). I was, however, able to find a bit on their usage in traditional Chinese medicine. From Kitchen Medicine Cooking Medicine, a blog about Food, Herbs, and Philosophy from Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine:
“The most common Kitchen Medicine in the East for the lungs are Pears. Pears are cooling and moistening which in moderation is how the lungs like to be. Not only do pear’s cool energy counteract the heat building in your lungs with infection, but their viscous moist quality is a natural lubricant for the mucous membranes of the lungs, with expectorant qualities, too.
Bite into a ripe pear. Compare with a ripe Apple. Pears have a viscous quality. This is a moistening characteristic that targets the lungs and nasal passages, and makes them excellent food this time of year, raw or cooked.”
Appropriately enough, I was fighting off a cough as I did my research, and it took longer than it should have for me to realize that I should get up off the couch and go steam some Asian pears. I highly recommend this recipe (adapted from Nina Simonds’ A Spoonful of Ginger), even if you’re feeling 100% healthy. Once cooked, the texture of Asian pear is remarkably similar to cooked European pears.
For anyone who’d like to dabble in the world of pickle making, Asian pears can also be used in kimchi. I’d recommend using Olympic, a Korean variety with a little more crunch and tart flavor. Another Korean cooking technique I learned: use Asian pear to marinate and tenderize beef in recipes such as bulgogi and galbi.
Also, one of the nicknames for Asian pears, “salad pears” makes a great suggestion – they go fabulously in salads, providing a sweet and crunchy counterpoint especially to bitter or spicy greens. Finally, online success – a search easily turns up a number of Asian pear salad recipes…
from New York chic (good luck sourcing the mâche outside of Union Square!): Morimoto’s Asian Pear Salad … to a tasty way to balance out bitter endive or escarole: Endive and Asian Pear Salad … to something like this, which comes pretty near my idea of food perfection: Asian Pear and Arugula Salad with Goat Cheese.
All of these suggestions, however, are contingent on any Asian pears lingering beyond the moment you take them out of their bag. The traditional way to eat a North Star Asian pear is, after all, to simply eat it, as soon as possible, caution to the wind with juice flying, a bit of the mystery still intact.
Most CSAs in this area offer vegetables, but there are also a few which offer meat, eggs, cheese, and fruit. I’ve even heard of a grain CSA, although that’s nowhere near us.
In the midst of CSA signups this spring, I received an email from a member stating that he’d like the “I Can Control Mother Nature” Share. Well, that statement gave me the chuckle I’m sure it was intended to give.
But what a concept, eh? The “I Can Control Mother Nature” Share would see us all getting exactly what we wanted when we wanted it. No worries about spring frosts, hail, or droughts. No concerns at all about biennial bearing issues. Taken to the extreme, it could mean getting Asian pears or heirloom tomatoes all year long….wow!
In many ways, that sounds like a mighty good idea. I can conceive of gorging myself on gage-type plums, nectarines, and Gold Rush apples day after day, year-in and year-out. For veggies, it would mean Swiss chard daily. I’m as addicted to each of those as I am to coffee.
My coffee addiction I can feed every day, usually with the same brand, although I do try new ones from time to time; they’re always Fair Trade certified and/or locally roasted. I’m currently SO into One Village Coffee, which I purchase at the Upper Merion Farmers’ Market, that I’m trying to figure the best way to source it over winter when market is done. I look forward to those two (or three) cups a day (morning and mid-afternoon) not only to feed my caffeine addiction, but as a comfort-food type of thing.
It’s kind of the same feeling I get when I eat some of those favorite fruits of mine, or eating my ‘green of the day’ (either kale, Swiss chard, arugula, mustard greens, or spinach). To me, they not only taste good, but they act as comfort foods to my soul. (Hey, better having mustard greens than Twinkies as a comfort food!)
But while the “I Can Control Mother Nature” Share sounds mighty appealing, I think I would tire of it. Part of the delight of eating locally-grown foods is the variety and the somewhat limited supply. It’s the surprise you get when the nectarine you just bit into is so gosh-darned sweet, juicy, and flavorful it hurts your brain….only to find out that the next one you bite into is even (impossibly!) better. It’s the first bite of a Hosui Asian pear of the year, when you realize that you absolutely forgot just how freakin’ good they are, because it’s been 10 months since you last had one. It’s digging into a plate of Swiss Chard that is so flavorful and addictive you’d swear the plant had been injected with MSG.
Sure, it would be great to be able to eat all of your favorites all of the time. But the ‘wow’ moments would wane. You wouldn’t experience that anticipation of waiting for the start of November because you know that’s when the Gold Rush apples would be coming on. Summer might not seem quite so fantastic if you could eat heirloom tomatoes and local sweet corn all year long. While I look forward to my routine two (or three!) cups of coffee a day, they don’t give me that sense of anticipation and sheer joy that eating seasonal food does.
As a farmer, I would certainly enjoy the “I Can Control Mother Nature” concept in many ways (the ability to turn off hail or hot weather would be a blessing). But as an eater, I’d like to keep things just the way they are!
You didn’t hear this from me, but the farmers’ market scene is a bit of a performance. I don’t say this to question quality or integrity, but rather to point out that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. What you see on a Saturday morning, or in your CSA bag, is only the cream of the crop. That produce had to go through a lengthy audition process to make it out on stage. Only the highest quality produce makes the cut.
Behind the scenes is the not so glamorous side of agriculture: dirt, rot, bugs, and the tedious work of sorting through all that. In the packing room, we speak a language of “ones” and “twos,” “firsts” and “seconds.” The firsts are what you see, the seconds (as in “second quality”) find some other home – it might be apple cider, Asian pear butter, or the employee fridge. (Come to think of it – as a farmer, I don’t know that I’ve eaten “first quality” produce in nearly a decade, and I’m no worse the wear for it…) If there were such a category, I suppose the number threes would be the produce that doesn’t even make it to the sorting table. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say, fruits and vegetables will eventually go the way of all the earth, and they’re not all going at the same rate.
While other points on the agricultural continuum, from planting to eating, have been glamorized or merely familiarized, this whole intermediate step that can include sorting, grading, washing, bunching, packing, stacking, loading, and unloading is nearly invisible. These are less captivating tasks, I know, but the only image of this sort of work that I can conjure up from the common imagination is that one “I Love Lucy” episode. You know, the one where Lucy and Ethel try out a job in a chocolate factory? . They’re at the conveyor belt, and the chocolates keep coming faster and faster… Well, I have those moments, too, when apples are spilling out of the sorter, faster than my brain can make the decision “one or two?” But, unlike Lucy, I can flip a switch and make them stop. (And, unlike Lucy, I don’t get to eat chocolate!)
In a world where the vast majority of our agriculture is out of sight and out of mind, there are, unfortunately, a number of invisible sectors in our food system. Joining a CSA is a great way to bring your food source a few steps closer. But you’re still not there on the farm with us day in and day out to see how we spend our time. Just like with any job, whether you’re creating spreadsheets, preparing annual reports, or sorting apples, there’s the mundane and nitty-gritty work that keeps everything rolling. And, behind the scenes are glimpses of some truths that used to be common sense to folks. Farming, like life, isn’t all number ones and sweet-smelling peaches. That whole “one bad apple spoils the bunch” business didn’t come from nowhere! And, hopefully, we’ll find it before it gets to you.
Poor Luther Burbank. The plant-breeding wizard created 113 new varieties of plums, 16 blackberries, 13 raspberries, 10 apples, and 35 fruiting cacti (just to name a few), and what he’s most widely recognized for is McDonald’s french fry potato, the Russet Burbank. This most ubiquitous potato didn’t even come along until after Burbank had sold the rights to his ‘Burbank’ potato (its parent, so to speak), but it proudly carries his name into more than 32,000 McDonald’s restaurants and a few other fast food joints as well, I’m sure.
It’s hard to talk about plums in this country without mentioning Luther Burbank. Around the turn of the last century, he was working with plums newly introduced from Asia, helping to popularize them and using them in his breeding program. The result was a significant shift in plum cultivation; his most famous variety, the ‘Santa Rosa’ plum, named after his adopted hometown, was a great fit for the evolving California plum industry. That said, the modern California plum industry may not have done a lot to warm our hearts toward the “new” Asian and hybrid varieties, which usually reach us in supermarkets back east as something resembling a mealy purple baseball. But I’ll vouch for a Santa Rosa plum, eaten dead-ripe off a tree in the California sunshine. That’s what Luther Burbank was working with, so I suppose we shouldn’t hold him responsible.
So, Poor Luther Burbank, with his unwitting legacy of french fries and mealy baseballs. And poor plums! Of all the fruits, they seem to be the most underappreciated in this country, and not without good reason. They really have suffered at the hand of industrial agriculture. Supermarket plums are just miserable. To boot, the sum total of our cultural knowledge of plums in this country seems to amount to the fabled Christmas plum pudding, dancing sugar plums fairies, and our grandmother’s prune juice.
I’ll leave the latter two alone, but what exactly is plum pudding, anyway? A peek into Escoffier’s seminal tome on “modern cookery” (published in 1921) reveals that plum pudding is a pretty involved affair, one in which you tie up your pudding, boil it for 5-6 hours and then light it on fire. The ingredients? The list includes beef kidney suet, breadcrumbs, apples, raisins, sultanas, currants, stout and brandy. No plums. Turns out, the word “plum” historically covered all dried fruits.
I’ve heard rumors that the Europeans, enlightened in so many ways culinarily (dare I mention the cheese course, a tradition of afternoon cake and coffee, or olive oil?), have a much greater appreciation for the plum. We should take note, because plums can be absolutely amazing. They come in a a staggering variety of flavors – sweet to tart – and colors – red, purple, yellow, green, blue, and every shade in between. There really is a variety out there for everybody, and if you’ve felt wishy-washy about plums up to this point, it’s time to try again. Because we grow so many different varieties of plums at North Star, there often are only one or a few trees of each kind. Since the harvest window of each is brief, most varieties make an appearance for only a week or two. Some have come and gone already for the season, so time is of the essence!
A bit of a plum primer for those looking to make up for lost time…
There are many, often confusing, categories of plums. Here are some highlights with examples of North Star varieties in parentheses. (Some of which have passed already for this year; some you can still keep an eye out for.) For our purposes, there are two main, overarching groups of plums: Asian or “Japanese” plums and European plums. Japanese plums originated in China, but western botanists first caught wind of them in Japan, hence the name.
Asian (or Japanese) plums (Vanier, Purple Heart, Redheart) – The type of plum you’re used to seeing in the supermarket. Often larger and tarter than European plums with a clingstone.
Burbank plums (Burbank, Elephant Heart) – These were bred by Luther Burbank from Asian plums and are usually large, round, and red or purple.
Damson (sometimes used to refer to Italian plums) – Named for Damascus and originating in Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Especially tart and astringent, and so generally cooked with plenty of sugar.
Gage (Greengage, Golden Transparent Gage, Rosy Gage, Oullins) – Gages are round, very sweet European plums.
Italian plums – Refers to egg-shaped plums with a dark purple skin and yellow flesh. One of the most popular plums for baking.
Mirabelle plums (Geneva Mirabelle) – Tiny and very flavorful plums (think small cherries) originating in France, usually cooked.
Prune plums – Any dried plum can be called a prune in English, but “prune plum” usually refers to oval, black-skinned, freestone plums with an especially high sugar content, which allows them to dry well.
Plums don’t technically ripen off the tree, so it’s important that we pick them at the right time, once their sugars have developed. Once you get them home, however, they will continue to soften and sweeten up a bit. If you keep them in the refrigerator, you can delay this process, bringing them out at will and they’ll be perfect in a day or two or three (depending on how soft you like your plums!). You might enjoy trying your plums at different stages of ripeness to see how the flavor and texture evolves. As my favorite plum, Purple Heart, ripens, it develops a rich, spicy flavor that tastes like cloves. And I ate a gushy-ripe Oullins plum the other day that reminded me of coconut. Then there are the ripe (some might argue over-ripe) Santa Rosa-type plums that taste just like banana!
One more note: You might notice a white film on your plums that appears to go away when you rub your finger across the skin. This “bloom” is just the naturally-occurring wax on the skin.
If you can’t keep up with your supply of fresh plums and you have a dehydrator, plums are also excellent dried. Relinquish those bad prune associations, I dare you! I dried quite a few last year and enjoyed adding them to hot cereal and muffins all winter long for a dose of tartness, which can be hard to come by in winter. And if you’re into that sort of thing, plums can also be preserved in alcohol. I’m guessing, though, that once you discover or are reacquainted with what real plums taste like, the only plum supply problem will be not enough.
The Penguin Companion to Food, Alan Davidson
In the Sweet Kitchen, Regan Daley
“Luther Burbank, Plums, and CA Horticulture” Cynthia Houng
How to pick a peach depends upon who’s picking it: the commercial farmer, the grocery store shopper, the local small farmer, and the farmers’ market shopper. Let’s look at all of them!
The Commercial Farmer: By this, I mean the big mega orchard grower (growing hundreds or even thousands of acres of peach trees!), who wholesales most, if not all of his production. Typically, this grower will pick on a calendar schedule, regardless how not-ripe the peaches are. His goal is to pick a peach which is hard enough to withstand not only shipping over long distances (across country or into a different country altogether) but also can hold up to bouncing around in trucks, ships, and planes for several weeks to a month before it is selected by a customer (usually at a grocery store). To make things easier for this grower, fruit breeders have bred for more and more red skin color on peaches. (By breeding, I don’t mean genetic tomfoolery but good old-fashioned sexual propagation between two peach trees). In heirloom or old traditional varieties of peaches, the little bit of red blush they developed was a sign of ripeness. So, as people grew to equate ‘red’ with ‘ripe’ on a peach, fruit breeders did their darndest to breed peaches that were as red as possible before ripening. To this end, we now have countless varieties of peaches that are practically all red, with little yellow (or white, in the case of white peaches) showing way before when they are truly ripe and ready to be picked. This suits the big mega peach farmer quite well, so he picks when the red color is there and ships them off.
The Grocery Store Shopper: This may have been you at one point or another (it was certainly me many years ago!). You go into a grocery store where they have, piled in tall pyramids of red color, heaps of lovely-looking peaches. Perhaps they’re labeled tree-ripened or local. Perhaps they’re just labeled with a price. Regardless, they look so lovely you just have to take some home. The question next is how to get those rock-hard beauties to soften up? This is where the “ripen in a paper bag” notion came in. As commercial (ie. the aforementioned red-before-they’re-ready) peaches came to the forefront, it became obvious that it was difficult to get the danged things to soften up at home. Fruit gives off ethylene gas, which is a ripening agent. So, by placing the peaches in a paper bag, the notion is the gases will be trapped in the bag and hasten ripening. Problem is, when peaches are picked way-too-early, they essentially die and cannot give off ethylene in the first place. Additionally, since they’ve been shipped and stored in refrigerators for weeks-on-end, any potential flavor components are essentially shot. So, oftentimes those grocery store peaches end up either never softening up properly or they’re mealy or end up moldy before they are eatable. As I always say, just as with grocery store tomatoes…just say NO to grocery store peaches! There’s no point in wasting your money.
The Local Small Farmer: A small farmer (like us!) who sells all (or most, depending on the farm) of their peaches directly to the customer, has a lot more work to do, actually, than the big mega-farmer, in order to pick peaches. For those like us, we want to make sure the peaches are ripe enough that they’ll develop the proper juicy texture and luscious flavors. But in order to do this, we can’t just pick based on red color. We have to look at the ‘undercolor’ of the peach, which can vary from white to brilliant orange depending on the variety. We also have to do some taste-testing (a nice perk of growing fruit, although there really can be too much of a good thing sometimes!). Each and every variety is different in appearance, ripening time, color and undercolor, and flavor, so picking at the optimal time can take several years of learning, evaluating, and note-taking. We also like to make sure that peaches don’t end up already bruised at the farmers’ market or CSA share, so we have to figure out when the optimal time is to pick them that they only have two or three days to go before they’re perfectly juicy and delicious. We have to ‘spot pick’ each tree about 3 times, picking the peaches as they mature instead of all at once. And then we have to get them into the hands of the people who will eat them in fairly short order. Whew!
The Farmers’ Market Shopper: When you shop at a farmers’ market for a peach (remember, you’ve said NO to grocery store peaches!), usually all you need to do is decide which peach to get. If you are buying from a reputable orchardist, the hard part (as mentioned above) has been done for you. Your job is to decide: white or yellow? (whites tend to be sweeter; yellows tend to be ‘peachier’) Peach or nectarine? (nectarines are essentially peaches without fuzz…so give them a try – but not from the grocery store!), large or small fruits (although size doesn’t necessarily matter. Some varieties are genetically smaller and some are larger). If there are several varieties available for sale…which to choose? Most small growers raise many kinds of peaches. Each variety ripens over 7 to 10 days and then the next variety comes into rotation. While many growers just lump them altogether as ‘peaches’, some (like us) like to keep each variety separate and named. Oftentimes, most peaches taste very similar (which is why many growers just lump them together), but sometimes there are standout varieties. So, which to choose? Just ask which one we like the best. You might often get a “well, they’re all pretty much the same and yummy”, but some weeks there will be a definite favorite. Then, just take them home and set them on the counter for a day or two or three (NOT in a bag!). Give them the ‘squeeze’ test. When soft to your liking, grab a napkin and enjoy!
There is a notion out there that prices at the farmers’ markets are higher than those in the grocery store. I was made aware of this a couple months ago when I was the guest speaker for a “Buying Local” class. Quite frankly, the notion that there are such classes nowadays sends a thrill through me. Absolutely fantastic!
One of the class members said she tries to encourage her friends to shop at the farmers’ market, but often is rebuffed with the “it’s too expensive” notion.
So, I’d like to address this issue in a three-part series, which will hopefully give you some food for thought (!?!) about farmers’ markets prices, which you can then use as arguments to sway your friends who say “But the farmers’ market is too expensive.” The subjects? Produce prices, meat/cheese prices, and social justice (the human price).
For today, let’s talk produce. I actually went out with pen and paper and did a little sleuthing at a couple of grocery stores. I felt like a spy, really, and was taking my notes very surreptitiously, lest a store manager demand what I was up to. Here’s what I found:
At Genaurdi’s: tomatoes $3.99lb.(from Mexico), apples $1.99lb (except for Red Delicious, which were dirt cheap as most people won’t buy them). Most of the produce I saw there were at prices more or less like market prices, but the quality was generally inferior. Some items in the store were priced higher, like colored peppers at $3.99 (and those tomatoes).
At Giant: peppers 3.99lb., beans 2.99lb., tomatoes 3.99 (Mexico and ‘product of USA) mixed greens were between 7.38 and $11.81 per pound, depending on mix and company. Apples $1.99lb. for Golden Delicious, Red Delicious (go figure), and Granny Smith, and $2.49 lb. for ‘premium’ varieties like Fuji, Braeburn, etc.
At many farmers’ markets, tomatoes average about $2.50 a pound. Sometimes you’ll find them for less in the height of the season, and sometimes you’ll find them for more ($4.00lb.) for certified organic growers’ heirlooms. Apples tend to range from $1.50 to $2.00 a pound. Many veggies are less than grocery store prices: colored sweet peppers for $2.50 a pound or less, salad mixes for $7 or $8 a pound.
So….why do some people have a notion that produce is more expensive at the farmers’ market? I think it’s simple: there is a big disconnect between selecting and paying for produce in the grocery store which blinds folks as to what they’re actually paying. It’s a much different thing to pick out a few apples, put them in your cart, and then not even notice how much they are at checkout because you’re busy loading things onto the belt or packing your bags. On the other hand, at the farmers’ market, you pick out apples (or whatever) and pay for them right away – so sometimes ‘sticker shock’ ensues. But think about it: last year’s $3.99 (for real!!) a pound grocery-store Honeycrisp apples actually cost twice as much as those at the farmers’ market – but you just don’t notice it when you’re dealing with a whole cartful of other items.
Certainly there will be times when things cost a bit more in the grocery store or a bit more at the farmers’ market – prices are not static and depend on a number of variables. But in general, if you really study it, I think you’ll find that most prices at the farmers’ market for produce are pretty much on par with those at a regular (or high end) grocery store. But….you get a bonus! The produce at a producer-only farmers’ market is usually MUCH more fresh and flavorful and comes in many more varieties.
It’s definitely something to keep in mind next time you’re shopping.
Stay tuned for part 2: meat and cheese prices