We recently joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in the West Village. For those unfamiliar, CSAs are local agricultural programs where an organizer establishes a drop point and relationship with a local farm. Members can apply for a “share” of produce, ranging from $200-500 for a 20 week season. Being a member means coming to collect your produce once a week at the designated time, and being flexible enough to cook whatever you get. (Check out Just Food for more information.)
On our second Sunday to pick up the produce, I was still trying to hold out on my opinion. But as I measured out my 1/3 pound of spinach dripping with water which I would unavoidably be paying for and which still wasn’t enough to boil or make dal with, I pondered the local farmer option.
I was comfortable enough to make a contract with a farmer responsible for supplying me with rich produce for two, decide to be flexible with my cooking, and knowing I could potentially go hungry and eat canned beans in bad weather. I knew there was no real way of understanding the volume of a share without giving it a try. But when this farmer forwarded me emails about potentially cashing out or increasing share costs by 30%, I wondered, “What the hell am I going to do with 1/3 a pound of spinach? Farmer, CSA, did you think about that?”
I was envisioning problems like “What do you do when you have 9 pounds of turnips?” Or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs queries like “Brussels Sprouts for 3 weeks. Nehhhh.” But I never considered what I would do if there wasn’t enough food to even make a single ration. I thought of my mother’s garden. Granted, slugs have taken little nibbles of her cabbage and chipmunks have run away with all her peas, but I would still describe the garden as bountiful. My CSA farm? Not so much.
I want food of high quality, fair cost, from a conscientious and knowledgeable producer relatively conveniently and with excellent taste. But where? Only finding out on Sunday what I will have to cook for the week is a pleasant surprise. But finding out week after week I will need to somehow supplement my trip with one to the grocery store is costly and tiring. Is my food high quality? Well, after sitting out in the heat in cardboard boxes, it’s somewhat wilted and wet with water, which vastly shortens its shelf life. So that’s debatable. Is it a fair cost? My calculations say I could get 10% more at the farmers’ market. Is my farmer conscientious? Not with his shares. Is my CSA convenient? No. Is the food of excellent taste? Not even close to my mother’s or things I’ve purchased at countless farmers’ markets where I was able to hand pick my selection.
CSAs are tricky. While the concept of buying local or working directly with a farmer is an excellent one, depending on the specific “chapter” and farm you work with, you can be sorely disappointed and turned off. So I ask you, what of your experience?
With my 1/3 pound spinach I made molahootal. First I combined it with 3/4 a pound spinach from the following week, 1 pound from the farmers’ market, and 1 pound from my mother’s garden. It’s amazing how greens cook down; more amazing how many we can fit in our stomachs once they do. Like I was saying, there are two foods that make me feel complete: miso and dal.
Molahootal is a common South Indian dish. This recipe, from the Kerala Iyers (of my name, Ayer, and my father’s heritage), is about as straightforward and forgiving as they come. So if you’re new to South Indian cooking, it’s a good dish to try.
If you’re a pro, it’s an excellent comfort food that can be varied in a number of different ways. The spicy, savory dal with a nutty, bright crunchy carrot/pepita salad is like wearing earth tones with hunter’s orange kicks and blinding white laces, but don’t you do that all the time?
1 cup moong dal
1/3 cup fresh (or frozen) grated coconut
1/3 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoon ghee or butter
2 prewashed plastic containers 5 oz. each of baby spinach
1 1/4 teaspoon rasam or sambar powder
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 1/4 teaspoon urad dal, dry roasted
1 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
Rinse the dal and cover it by 1“ with cold water.
Heat a small pan on medium low. When the pan is hot add the oil and turmeric. Cook for 20 seconds and remove from the heat. Add this to the dal.
Bring the dal to a boil in a medium-bottom sauce pan, skim off the foam and discard. Turn the heat down, put a lid on cocked and simmer for 20 minutes until the dal is soft and losing shape.
While the dal cooks heat the ghee (or butter) in a large frying pan over medium low. Add the coconut and sauté until lightly browned. Add the spinach and sauté for 2 minutes. Sprinkle the rasam (or sambar) powder and the salt on the spinach, put a lid on the pan, and continue to sauté for 3 more minutes until the spinach is completely wilted. Remove from the heat. Add the spinach to the dal.
Using a blender or hand held, puree the spinach/dal mixture until smooth.
Heat a frying pan on medium low again. Add the sunflower oil and the urad dal and black mustard seeds. Cook until the urad turns medium brown and the mustard seeds pop. Add to the pureed molahootal.
Bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice.
Serve with brown basmati rice.
Carrot Salad w/ Pepitas and Sesame Seeds
1 1/2 cups carrots, 1/4 inch dice
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/3 cup pepitas
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
Pinch of hing
15 grinds fresh black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt or more to taste
Juice of 1/2 orange
1 teaspoon honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
Cut carrots and mince coriander. Place in serving bowl.
Heat olive oil on medium low. Add the hing, mustard seeds, salt, black pepper, sesame seeds and the pepitas. Cook until the mustard seeds, sesame seeds and the pepitas all pop. Add to the carrots.
Mix the orange juice and honey together and add to the carrots. Stir to combine and taste for salt. Serve!