I promised myself I’d learn how to recognize and cook one new vegetable every year. See a lean coarse stalk, a leafy feathery head, or rotund soil-crusted root, and know it for what it is. Recognize it as beautiful and tasty, once it’s been scrubbed and chopped, or the outer layer peeled back to reveal its tender interior. The work of a sharp paring knife, and a sense of each plant’s purpose, reveals that each vegetable has its own sweet taste, sharp bite, or clean verdant flavor. And plenty of goodness and nutrition to impart to us.
Why do I care? Me? ‘Cause I’m not a gourmet cook. And I’m a most reluctant gardener. (In fact, I don’t garden. I just don’t.)
I care, because we have a share at Appleton Farms, the Trustees of Reservations’ CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). It’s also the oldest continuously operated farm in the United States. And it’s a model for sustainable agriculture. Hundreds of families have shares, and receive the bounty of the fields from June into October, with access to a winter supply of vegetables before the end of the year. Plus there’s a dairy store and a small selection of meat (which may appall some readers, but it’s part of this farming model) and access to other locally-made produce, such as honey or bread!
Much of the CSA share is planted, cultivated, and harvested by staff, interns and volunteers on the farm. We don’t have to go out and put seeds in the earth, turn the soil, pull weeds, water row upon row of plants, or participate in the other labor included in bringing a single plant to leaf and table. Instead, shareholders enter the cool interior of the lofty barn, and fill a single large bag with produce already plucked from the earth. We walk among wooden bins overflowing with leafy cabbage and lettuce, chard and carrots, beets and turnips.
So my goal to learn new vegetables and make a meal of them? So far, so good. Well, I learned to identify kohlrabi, which is in the broccoli family according to my friend Meryl, with its bulbous root and leafy stalks; it is good diced small into coleslaw or salad, for instance. A few years ago, I learned to appreciate dark green kale, whether its chopped and massaged into a tasty salad or simmered with sausage in a Portuguese kale soup recipe. I’ve made pesto and fresh salads from the farm’s selection of basil and tomatoes (tomatoes aren’t ready yet, fyi).
Another part of the experience is picking. We wear boots and hats, sunscreen and probably insect repellent, then go out into the fields with scissors and bag, to pick whatever has grown ripe. We come back with snow peas and basil, oregano and snap peas right now. Many herbs, actually.
Again, do I really know what I’m doing? No. But I’ve learned.
Sigh. Or remembered back, to childhood when our family depended on the produce from a large home garden to supplement the meal on the table. My mother, who worked fulltime, nevertheless became adept at canning, freezing and storing produce in ways that it would last through the winter months when our family income was stretched too thin to heat a large drafty house and buy enough food for a family of six, too. As a child, contribution to the garden? Weed. Pick. Shell. Knock beetles and other unwanted infestations, critters that vied for the same green leaves and juicy crop we needed, off the leaves.
Back then it was a burden. A task. A necessity.
Now I go out into the field, often with a friend, and choose which rows I’ll walk down. Bend over and search among the pale green vines, coated in dry earth, for promising sugar snap peas that aren’t too fat or leathery. Snip tassels of dill, bouquets of chive and mint. Visit the flower garden, and bring home a few lacy heads of yarrow, a flower whose name I didn’t know until this week.
Usually, just like waking up for 5am yoga, I debate with myself about the merits of getting out to the farm for PYO (pick your own) moments. I’d be happy enough to take just the share already picked for me, and miss out on the other juicy and floral opportunities. Wouldn’t I?
Okay, okay, I know there’s benefit to the pick your own crops. I’d be disappointed not to enjoy them. Or not to make the effort to partake in that part of the CSA.
So I put away the bag of vegetables already neatly harvested for me, and head out to the fields. Once I’m out among the knee-high rows of early summer crops, kneeling down, sometime alone and sometimes chatting companionably with other shareholders, adults and children, it’s a form of healing and meditation. Something loosens up and gives way.
Out in the fields, amazingly, I grow relaxed. Feel connected.
The presence of the natural world and the character of cultivated land surrounds me. I hear a chorus of birds, some startled out of hiding in tall stalks a few rows away, warbling or crying. Catch the furtive rush of small mammals who share the fields with us. Brush away the drone of a curious insect. Hear a tractor in the distance. Smell the up-close pungency of manure from the dairy pastures.
Pluck. Snap. Snip.
I’m learning to know these shapes and scents, these green and colorful plants, by their leggy vine or bushy shape, their pale flowers and crisp fruition. I have plans for what I’ll make with them. Some fresh. Some baked or stored for later in the year.
And when I leave the fields? I feel beautiful myself, outside and inside. Like the cultivated crop I am coming to know, one name and recipe at a time, I may be a little dusty and droopy on the exterior, until scrubbed and freshened up. Once peeled back a bit, and bared to the light? Inside of me there is a hard nub of persistence and life, something too tough, bitter or stubborn to bite and swallow, but also a crisp or soft part that is tender, flavorful, nourishing. Some part of myself that’s willing to give way and be made into something new.
In its way, spending an hour or so in the fields at Appleton is a form of prayer. A letting go. Connecting with self and something greater.
My bag is filled with the bounty I’ve chosen or picked. With the promise of meals to come, experiences to share with family and friends as we savor these flavors and times together. And my heart is at ease, reminded of a part of life that it’s easy to miss, either because we don’t have a reason to go into the fields, or we just barter away the chance by shrugging our shoulders and saying it doesn’t matter, really, does it?
It matters. It does. That’s one more thing I’ve come to recognize – and name, for myself anyway — in the shadows of the barn and the broad, green expanse of the CSA fields.