Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Tale of Two Veggies.....

Last year, one of my goals in improving our eating was to include more fruits and veggies.  One way I was interested in doing that was by joining a CSA.
  • Those of you who aren't familiar with them, a CSA is community sponsored agriculture--a farm shares type of investment in a local farm. You might pay a set amount for a whole season (and get proportional shares of the crops) or you might pay a subscription amount per week or box of fruits/veggies you get.
Unfortunately, I found that out here, there isn't much active farm left (except for orange groves). But, luckily there are a lot of farm communities nearby (say w/in 50-100 miles). I found a co-op that several farms contribute to and then you purchase a box (paying by the size & frequency). Its all organic and....... it comes delivered to the DOOR! How awesome is that?

We signed up last June and I decided to start small-- a less frequent delivery but a bigger box. I figured that way we'd get lots of variety and maybe enough extra fruits and veggies to put something away for later. We started with every other week but I was quickly finding that with 2 (and a half) eaters, we just couldn't keep up and I didn't want to keep composting it all. So, now we're at once every 4 weeks and that is working out pretty well for me.

One of the most interesting things I've been learning is what's in season--right here, right now. Its really helped me in the grocery store, as I can look at certain fruits and veggies and now I KNOW right off the bat that they've been imported (probably from Chile, our opposite season partner). I've also been learning A LOT about new fruits and veggies. In our box, you get what's being grown at the partner farms. So, quite frequently I've pulled everything out of my box and had to check the packing list just to identify one (or more!) of the items. I'll admit that most of these things are not particularly exotic but with a Midwest/farm based food heritage, my food exposures were pretty basic. Fruits were apples, oranges, bananas. Maybe some peaches or apricots or grapes for excitement. Veggies were iceberg lettuce, canned green beans, peas, corn and the like.

With each box, I've been trying at least one new thing-- some I've liked and some well...... not so much. But I have to say its been a great example to the little people to see Mom and Dad dive into trying all these new foods. We've had a LOT less arguing and complaining when we are ALL trying something new!

Today I'm gonna tell you the tale of two veggies (I bet you were wondering when I was EVER gonna get around to those!) that if you haven't tried yet, you won't be sorry! To those in-the-know, these are AMAZING! But I definitely never would have tried either if they weren't staring me in the face every time I opened the fridge. So, while I can't magically send some to your fridge to stare at you, I will instead send my encouragement to get out there and TRY SOMETHING NEW!!

First up: LEEKS!
 The first leek we had looked about the size and shape of a green baseball bat! It was HUGE!!!! I had NO idea what to do with that thing. And, I'll admit it.... I kind of dithered, then I delayed and then I put it off a bit more until.... OH DARN, too wilted to use. When our next box had 3 of them, I knew I couldn't let them all go. So I flipped on the computer and did some research.


What in the heck is a leek? It turns out its a relative of onions. They are kind of like green onions from the land of giants. I don't have a great love of onions-- I like their flavor but they don't agree with my digestion and raw is completely out of the question. So I was a more than a little nervous about experimenting with them. But I gathered my courage and I started subbing leeks into any recipe that I'd normally put some onion into and WOW! great (light) onion flavor and NO digestive problems!

How to prep a leek: As they are often grown in sandy/gritty soil, you will definitely need to rinse these well. It is usually recommended to rinse AFTER you cut since the layers are so tight. You can either do one long cut lengthwise and pull the layers apart to rinse (kinda like celery) or slice them thinly crossways and drop into a bowl of water. Let the grit settle to the bottom and scoop the floating pieces from the top. When you are cutting, you typically only use the white and light green portions.

Veggie #2: Swiss Chard
We've been getting LOTS of leafy greens lately -- lettuces of all types, radiccio, spinach and lately chard. I've seen chard called "swiss chard" and "rainbow chard". If you haven't seen chard before, it looks like a big spinach leaf with a colored stem--this can be either light green or colored with pinks, oranges or purples! When we got a bunch of these leaves, with each stem's leaf around the size of an elephant ear (okay, maybe a baby elephant....) I was certainly a bit nervous. I freely admit that big green leafy things do still make me a bit anxious (the lingering 5 year old inside me, perhaps?) I do like spinach occasionally but haven't gotten on board (yet) with the great kale craze that's going on and not having much for southern relatives, I've not had any experience with many other types of greens (collards and the like).

I was greatly encouraged when several sites on the internet described the flavor of chard as being like a mild spinach. I thought "okay, I can do that!". The best suggestion I read was to blanch the leaves before adding to your recipe-- apparently this will reduce any potential bitterness that may be found in these deep green leafies.

To prep chard: Rinse and pat dry individual leaves. Cut out (or yank) the hard center stem and discard. Chop leaves into manageable strips or pieces. I cut mine into rectangles about 2" x 1" and that worked well. Drop into a pot of boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain well. Use any place you might use other cooked greens like baby spinach or kale.

I was so excited about chard that I've actually just planted 9 (!!) little baby plants into the beginning of this year's garden (along with some romaine and arugula). I'm very excited to see if baby chard tastes like baby spinach. I'll get to find out in a few weeks!!

Summary: Any place you would use an onion, you can use leeks. Any place you'd use a green like spinach, kale or collards, you can use chard.

One of the things I love about this recipe is that it took an old favorite (scalloped potatoes and ham) which had little nutrient value (besides calories....) and really beefed it up. Loaded with leafy green chard and leeks, it actually resembles a balanced meal!
Recipe: Scalloped Potatoes and Ham with Leeks and Swiss Chard
(This was for a VERY large casserole, 14" x 10" x 3")

8 medium/large russet potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly (about 1/8 inch)
1 LARGE leek (white and light green parts) sliced thinly and cleaned
8 LARGE ribs swiss chard, ribs removed, chopped and blanched in boiling water 3 min.
8 oz cooked ham, cubed (about 1/2")
8 Tbs butter
8-10 Tbs flour
6 cups milk

1) In your casserole dish, arrange potato slices in a single layer. Add approximately 1/3 of your prepared leeks, chard and ham evenly over the bottom. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the layer.

2) Repeat step one 2 more times (for a total of 3 layers)
3) Spread any remaining potato slices over the top.
4) Prepare thin white sauce:
  1. Melt butter in a large sauce pan over med/low heat.
  2. Sprinkle in flour, stirring constantly until all butter is absorbed and a paste forms.
  3. Pour in milk and whisk to dissolve any lumps.
  4. Cook over med/low heat until sauce begins to thicken slightly (it should be able to coat a spoon)
5) Pour prepared white sauce over entire casserole. Sprinkle salt and pepper over top. Cover casserole with foil.

6) Bake at 350 F for 60-90 minutes (until potatoes are cooked through and easily pierce with a fork or knife). Time will vary GREATLY depending on how thin your slices are-- the thinner you slice, the faster yours will cook!  Remove foil after 30 minutes of cook time. Replace foil if top of casserole begins to over brown. Enjoy!

Feel free to leave comments below. Have you tried either of these veggies? What did you think?

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