Spinach, Salad, and the Seasons

What a dozen seasons as a shareholder in a small farm can teach even the most accomplished cook

A couple of weeks ago, while the rest of the country was taking on that question for the ages—Is spinach still good for you?—I was enjoying the first fall crop of leafy greens. In fact, I sautéed a heaping pile of the fat leaves just the other night, stirring them in hot, garlicky oil for less time than it took me to type this sentence. I would have eaten them standing right at the stove if my husband hadn't been staring at me, waiting to get his fork in.

And not once have I checked myself or my family for symptoms of E. coli.

That's because I know the exact patch of land where my spinach, along with all our other vegetables from June through December, comes from. I know the guy who grows it. I know it was cut by hand and not by the dirty blade of a mass harvester. I know it wasn't washed in a massive vat of chemicals or contaminated water (its first bath was right in my sink). I know it never saw the inside of a plastic bag. (So, permit me a smug little thought: Why on earth does the FDA think the spinach is the problem?)

David Van Eeckhout with some of Hog's Back Farm's sweetest sprouts
Sean Smuda
David Van Eeckhout with some of Hog's Back Farm's sweetest sprouts

For half the year, all the vegetables for our family of four come from Hog's Back Farm, a more-or-less one-man community supported agriculture (CSA) operation in Arkansaw, Wisconsin. Our farmer (we get a kick out of calling him that) is David Van Eeckhout, a rangy, 30-ish father of two. He's been farming on his own for four years. Before that, he was a partner in Riverbend Farm, in Delano, Minnesota. Every Thursday, he makes the 75-mile drive from Arkansaw to the Twin Cities in a beat-up pickup, pulling a trailer with 85 yellow boxes of vegetables. He drops them off at centrally located private homes in St. Paul; Nokomis, Cedar-Isles, and Kenwood in Minneapolis; and a corner of St. Louis Park located just across France from Linden Hills, where shareholders pick up the goods.

The dishy demographics of his customer base can't be denied: These are families who can afford to live in nice neighborhoods and spend $495 on a summer's worth of vegetables; many shareholders, including us, split a share, and many, also like us, pay an additional $225 for a fall/winter share. But there's no reason CSAs should be a choice exclusively for the upper-middle class. Yes, $500 is a big check. But divide that by 18 weeks and you get $27.50. That would buy you plenty of veggies at Cub or Rainbow, but far less at your co-op or Whole Foods, where you're more likely to find comparable quality. And remember, we fill up on half a share. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, we pay a little more than $1.50 per pound of vegetables—not too shabby.

Hog's Back is one of more than 50 CSAs in Minnesota, according to Local Harvest, and more than 1,200 in the United States. They all work on more or less the same model: an upfront fee that funds the farm through the season, in exchange for regular deliveries of vegetables. In a good year, the shareholders enjoy bounteous yields. In a bad year, they take the hit.

This is our third year of CSA membership. Truth be told, I lived the first two years in fear of Thursdays. I had nightmares about that overflowing yellow box, which sometimes held as much as 25 pounds of vegetables. I dug disgusting things out of our crisper drawers and cried when I had to throw food away. And I still found myself picking up vegetables at the grocery store: My husband had a yen for green peppers, say, or I needed eggplant for a recipe.

Here's the thing about a CSA box: You can't have a big butterleaf salad on Monday and green beans on Tuesday and ratatouille on Wednesday, because lettuces get picked before it gets too hot, beans mature in the first flash of summer heat, and the eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes for a ratatouille take all summer to get juicy and fat.

In fact, you don't get a whole lot of say in what you cook and eat. The first boxes of the summer weigh next to nothing, but they're overflowing with lettuce. Those lettuce heads are something else: green and red leaf lettuces too delicate for any grocery shelf and butterleaf heads with more character than any other I've had. But four or five big heads of lettuce means salad every night in June.

And that is the key to the CSA box: embracing the idea that now is the time of salad suppers; soon that time will end and the time of grilled zucchini will come, followed by the time of the tomato, the time of the squash, and the time of the potato. In our ancestors' days (in my family, going back exactly one generation to my parents), that time was followed by the time of the home-canned pickled beets and green beans. For me, after the last of the squash (which I dislike) is gone comes the time of the return to the grocery-store produce aisle, where I now feel a little lost: Where is David and his one-sheet newsletter, the Hog's Back Almanac, telling what is at the peak of production and what to look forward to next week?

Left to my own meal planning and cooking devices, I might fill my shopping cart with spinach (for me), broccoli (for the kids), and green beans (for my husband) all year round. Left to my own devices I might not have known that in Minnesota's extreme climate there are two seasons for delicate greens like lettuce and spinach: late spring and early fall, because greens hate the heat. I might not have looked forward to that September spinach so much.

Thanks to our CSA share, we are now enthusiastic eaters of the hearty greens—kale, beet greens, chard, and (less successfully) collard greens. We discovered the classic Italian trio of kale, white beans, and sausage and now incorporate it into our menu every time a braising green shows up in the box, in soups, risotto, tossed with spaghetti (whole wheat stands up better to the flavors), and on its own, hopefully sopped up with some lovely cornbread.

Standard hearty green procedure in our house is this: Bring cold olive oil and garlic up to a nice shimmery heat (the garlic goes into the oil cold so you're flavoring the oil, not browning the garlic), toss in some freshly washed greens, turn with tongs, give it a chance to release that first big breath of steam and liquid, then lower the heat and cover it until it looks like something you want to eat—more of a smother than a braise. (Don't try this with collard greens! They're tougher and need to be de-stemmed and parboiled before braising. Even then, my CSA experience suggests that collard greens are best left to Southern cooks.)

Emboldened by these less-familiar greens, I didn't think twice before cooking up the dandelion greens that came mid-July. I bit into a fresh leaf—a little more feisty than arugula, but not unpalatable, I thought, and likely also improved by some olive oil and garlic. So into the pan it went. Those dandelion greens, once cooked, were beyond bitter. There was a metallic sting to them like an electrified fork scraping the roof of your mouth. (I've heard guinea pigs love them. I think it's more likely I'll eat a guinea pig than try dandelions again.)

Other things I have learned from my CSA box:

· You can stick a whole tomato in the freezer for a couple of months. Just chuck it in there. When you pull it out, run it under warm water and the skin will come right off. Then thaw it on the counter for a couple of hours and throw it in your sauce.

· Fresh salad turnips, grated and tossed with a vinaigrette, will make you forget every ugly thought you ever had about turnips.

· Celery root will keep in the crisper for up to 12 months. At the end of 12 months, you will still not know what to do with it. There is only so much celery remoulade a family can eat, and all the recommendations about mashing it along with your potatoes? Yuck.

· The first corn and tomatoes of the season taste so good at least in part because you wait for them. Who knew that the same could be true of fat, leafy, juicy heads of lettuce; sweet basil; even eggplant?

· The weather changes the way our food tastes. Hot weather makes radishes spicier and lettuce more bitter. Cool weather makes carrots sweeter.

· You can make pesto out of anything leafy, and pesto (without the cheese) freezes well. So too much green left in the fridge at the end of the week means a batch of pesto going into the freezer. Great candidates: parsley, arugula, pea shoots, and fennel tops (boil them first, stems separated from the frondy parts and cooked a little longer).

· Your family will not know the difference when you bring turban squash pie and butternut squash bread to Thanksgiving dinner. Also: delicata squash cookies and acorn squash pancakes.

· I still don't like squash.

But, squash is in the box, so squash I cook. With a CSA, you pays your money, you takes your chances. While David has taken surveys of shareholders, asking for their vegetable preferences (I can just imagine: "More tomatoes! More corn! Less squash! No turnips!"), no individual member has any say in what ends up in the box. And, as shareholders, our culinary fortunes rise and fall with Hog's Back Farm.

I was thrilled this year when David said he was planting fava beans. Because you know what we don't eat enough of in the United States? Fresh shell beans. And this is truly a seasonal treat: plump, creamy beans, cooked with olive oil and garlic, are the very embodiment of spring in the Mediterranean. I was imagining fava bean dips and hot, crackly, garlicky favas sprinkled on wilted spinach or arugula salad. I had whole menus cooked up around beans while they were no more than green stems poking out of the ground.

But then, as David says, with new crops come new pests. Three- and four-inch-long iridescent beetles, in this case. David watched in horror as the swarm, unidentified even after calls to the University of Minnesota's Extension Service ("They're a great help if you grow corn and soybeans," he quips), threatened to move on to other crops. He had to mow the favas down. The Mediterranean terrazzo I had mentally built on the back deck came crashing down on my head.

Greg Reynolds, David's old partner at Riverbend Farms, who now sells wholesale to co-ops and restaurants, once told me that, as a CSA farmer, he felt a lot of pressure to put something new and interesting in the box every week. Of course, Greg also told me that he didn't know how anyone who subscribes to a CSA could make the vegetables—7 to 25 pounds, with Hog's Back—last through the week. I suggested that just maybe his field-laborer-sized portions of squash and kale were a little different from my cube-toiler portions. He seemed nonplussed.

David at Hog's Back grows more than 40 crops—a tremendous feat of management and diversified farming skill. He puts 8 to 12 kinds of vegetables in the boxes every week, more variety than I have ever picked up at the supermarket. What's more, he puts things in that box that I simply can't get at the supermarket: fresh-ground cornmeal, vine-ripened melons, those spectacular heads of lettuce, and an assurance that my spinach is still good for me.

Hog's Back Farm; W8937 Moritz Lane, Arkansaw, Wisconsin, 54721; 612.756.0690; www.hogsbackfarm.com; david@hogsbackfarm.com. Directories listing other CSAs may be found at www.localharvest.org/csa/ and landstewardshipproject.org/csa.html

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