I’m a terrible cook. I mean granola-bars-three-nights-a-week atrocious. My past attempts at cooking have resulted in calls to the SF Fire Department to extinguish flaming fish fillets. So imagine how excited I was when my nutritionist Tessa urged me to add more fresh fruits and vegetables to my diet with organic farm boxes, the modern equivalent of wheelbarrowing a regular harvest into your kitchen.
Initially, I tried to thwart her efforts. I claimed not to have the time to prepare healthy foods, to which she said, “Just try making a few meals with fresh produce – you have nothing to lose.” Except money, I thought to myself – I already spend a pretty penny on unripe peaches at my corner market. Was I really going to spend more dough on fancy fresh produce?
But after all my grumbling and a week subsisting on store-bought soup, I decided to give Tessa’s advice a go – after all, maybe I had nothing to lose besides pesticides. Thankfully, San Francisco is home to enough organic-minded consumers that there’s a range of different subscriptions for community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes that offer a seasonal array of nuts, fruits, and vegetables. But before committing to a regular subscription, I wanted to test my options. I was looking for people who’d show me the ropes of cooking from a farm box – those who weren’t afraid to be adventurous in their kitchens and who wouldn’t judge my lack of culinary knowledge. I was lucky to find four different CSA subscribers who let me follow their food, from box to table.
Delicious details ensued.
After seeing two co-workers, Kim and
Ruskshan, whip together a radish/spinach/apple/pear juice in our work
lunchroom with a farm box and a juicer, I invited myself to cook with
them on a Friday night at Kim’s Upper Haight apartment. Although the
meal would happen at Kim’s, it actually started with the delivery of a
cardboard box from Farm Fresh to You to our office.
To our lip-smacking delight, our hostess proudly pulled out $32 worth of fragrant treasures bit by bit from the box. The bounty included carrots with crawling roots and a dash of real dirt, plump blackberries, sunny yellow onions, and varieties of lettuces and legumes that I couldn’t identify.
These veggies not only looked and smelled better – like wet soil after a good California rain shower – they tasted crisp and fragrant like vegetables served in SF’s best restaurants. As Kim held an overflowing handful of greens in one hand and a bottle of wine in another, our trio grew girlishly excited about the contents.
“I feel like I can be inventive with recipes, but working off of what’s in the box is so much more fun,” Kim said, while blending a homemade ginger sauce. As she showed me which cooking utensils to use for max stir-fry enjoyment (“big wood”), I could tell she actually liked making meals, something that I still couldn’t claim for myself. Still, I was into the fact that Farm Fresh to You can deliver to home or office, making it one step easier to cook meals from local, seasonal ingredients. I left Kim’s feeling inspired, but I still wanted more experience under my belt.
Next up was Jenn and Jeremy’s Pac Heights home
for a curry meal. Jenn, a Tartine-trained pastry chef who now works at
the California Academy of Science’s Moss Room, would be making the curry
from a recipe suggestion included in the small $14 Terra Firma Farm CSA
While preparing the ingredients for dinner, I popped a raw English shelling pea into my mouth. Echh! Not being well versed in my veggies, I had confused bitter English shelling peas for sweet sugar snap peas. This was definitely turning out to be a learning experience for both mouth and mind. As Jenn instructed me on the importance of using sharp knives, I resigned myself to something easy – stirring Trader Joe’s peanut butter that would be combined with coconut milk for the sauce. Luckily, I didn’t screw this one up – the curry sauce was deliciously creamy, and masked any leftover aftertaste from those horrible raw peas.
At the end of the night, I learned another valuable lesson from the dinner: there’s nothing like spicy curry and cocktails to make you wish you didn’t have to bike home.
The next evening I met up with Kelly, who
started subscribing to Terra Firma CSA boxes when she and her husband
Noah discovered they were expecting a child. “If I had a religion, it
would be food,” she told me, but her thin frame made me doubtful of her
“Wait – is this the same meal you had yesterday?” she asked sweetly as she unpacked sauces and oils to accompany the meal outlined in the same Terra Firma newsletter I saw at Jenn and Jeremy’s.
“Uh, no. No…we made something different.” I was lying through my teeth – lying about curry, nonetheless.
I decided the easiest way to divert any more awkward questions was to start shelling peas, so I quickly got to work.
As we continued prepping the meal, I soon found that there really wasn’t a reason to worry about a repeat meal – Kelly and Noah’s medium $24 box contained three more varieties of produce and Kelly used a wok to prepare her zucchini, sugar snap peas, and onion curry.
When we sat down to our finished meal, in lieu of a pre-meal prayer, we wished Gourmet magazine a “rest in peace” at Kelly’s request, and got to the good stuff. In the end, although the same recipe was used, the two curries were very different in taste. I marveled how people in alternate parts of the city are making use of the same high-quality produce in a way that scouring for ingredients in grocery stores doesn’t allow.
I’d gotten a taste for the scheduled
subscription delivery and pick up of CSAs, but what if I was feeling
noncommittal? I joined my
medical-researcher-by-day-gourmet-chef-by-night pal Jason to prepare one
of Mariquita Farm's Thursday night “mystery boxes” after retrieving it
from Piccino in the Dogpatch. The company also has a standard CSA box
program but the mystery box project requires customers to order a box
via email at least a week in advance; the contents of the box aren’t
known until the time of pickup.
The $25 box – purchased especially for a meal for eight friends – seemed to be the most exotic of those I tried. Baby cabbage and stringy and sour agretti looked like seaweed; and the newsletter implored us to “be patient and adventurous with [our] veggies.” Cooking from a farm box for a special occasion requires more creativity and collaboration than working from a Safeway shopping list, and the intrigue involved with this mystery box quickly made it my favorite.
Grateful to learn about kitchen tools and tips from someone who’s an executive chef at a successful (and secret) underground restaurant in the Mission, I was put to work blanching and then shelling fava beans. After we parboiled the beans, Jason demonstrated how to press the beans from their coverings. After trying to make a joke about needing to call on the Golden Girls' patron saint Blanche Devereaux, I tried my hand at a few, and instead of the gentle pop Jason had achieved, the boiled beans seemed to disintegrate in my hands.
“Emily, gentle! Easy does it,” he said while preparing beets, urging me to coax the fava beans out intact, and to at least mildly improve my technique. Being a good pal, he didn’t toss my mushy mess – he integrated it into his lovingly prepared dinner full of subtle flavors.
If my first farm box meals stressed that simple prep was possible, experiencing the art that Jason created – including mixed vegetable crepes with béchamel sauce, roasted new potatoes, braised chard, and fresh mint ice cream – was the ultimate humbling experience. Something to work toward? Maybe not for me, but it hasn’t stopped me from requesting a second invite to his kitchen.
I wish this could somehow be a scratch ’n sniff story; the smells I inhaled in the kitchens I visited were unlike any I’d experienced at local restaurants. My farm box education – and tasting the connection between the farm, the seasons, and the cooking – has affected my choices when filling my fridge. It’s now clear how much fresher and healthier the raw farm-grown goods can taste, but I’m still not sure that I’m ready to single-handedly make regular meals that do justice to the quality of the contents. I’ll give it some time before I erase the fire department from my contacts list.
As long as you’re willing to try something new, you can’t go wrong with boxes from Farm Fresh to You, which offers home and office delivery, and a location at the Ferry Building farmers market; Terra Firma Farm, with neighborhood pickup options; and Mariquita Farm, with its excuse to visit Piccino, a great restaurant that also cooks with community produce. While the farms are located no more than two hours outside SF, the companies all offer online ordering and pickup or delivery within the city.