Monday, September 16, 2013

An Update and a Prayer Request

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a post in which I described the many health challenges of my nephew. Tonight I write to ask you to pray for him tomorrow, as he undergoes major surgery to stabilize and manage his condition.

The shortest update I can give is this: all the tissue biopsies that Taavi underwent last year came back inconclusive for mitochondrial disease. His mother says that this is apparently not unusual (so little is known about mito that tests often miss it), and that the doctors feel that his symptoms are consistent with mitochondrial complex 1. Further specialized testing and imagery of his digestive tract a month ago revealed that his stomach and small intestine are functioning normally, but that a portion of his large intestine is not. It is stretched out and does not contract as it should to move food through. This is the result of an autonomic dysfunction (caused by the mito), and it is one of the main causes of his feeding intolerance, abdominal pain and distention, and even bladder symptoms.

So tomorrow, doctors will be performing a diverting ileostomy--a procedure that disconnects the small and large intestines and routes the end of the small intestine out through the abdominal wall and into an exterior collection pouch. At this point, the hope is that the procedure may be reversed years down the road, so the surgeon will not be removing the dysfunctional portion of colon. Taavi will also have a central line inserted for IV nutrition as he recovers. We don't know how long he will have the IV for, but the surgeon is hopeful that bypassing the colon will enable food to pass unimpeded through the digestive tract once more, and that, with time, Taavi may finally be able to take in the nutrients and calories he needs, either orally through a combination of oral and tube feeding. Currently he is only able to tolerate about half of the amount that he needs. Rebuilding digestive function will be a slow process, and only God knows at this point whether Taavi will eventually be able to have the surgery reversed and how dependent he will be on feeding tubes in the long run. And the surgery won't--and can't--repair the nerve dysfunction caused by the mito. But we are all hopeful that tomorrow's procedures will greatly improve his health and quality of life. Thank you for your prayers.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Great CSA Experiment: Serendipity

The story of weeks 13 and 14 really needs to be fully narrated to be appreciated.

The finalized contents list for week 13 informed us that several crops had yielded lower-than-expected harvests. Each share, therefore, would contain one of four possible items: beets, an Italian eggplant (the large kind), a bag of mixed (smaller) eggplants, or a specialty herb (or green, I'm still not sure) called agretti. Individual boxes aren't labelled, and we were urged not to dig through boxes looking for a particular item. Pick one, and use the swap box if you get something you won't use.

I'm sure I've mentioned before how much we both hate beets. I actually have an aversion to them, thanks to a bad experience with some borscht I made for Lent one year. Maybe there's a good borscht recipe out there, but this definitely wasn't it. Eating it was, appropriately, a penitential experience. All season long, I've used the swap box to trade beets for something else that I know we will enjoy. So when I saw the contents list--and did a little research to find out just what agretti was--I decided that, on the 25% chance that our box contained beets, I would try and swap them. Anything else, I would keep.

On Saturday morning, I selected a box at random and hoped for eggplant. There, in plain view, was a beautiful Italian eggplant. Success!  After putting the rest of the items into my cooler, I was left with an extra item: a bag containing some oblong purple shapes, just the right size to be baby eggplants. What a bonus, I thought, we actually got two of the items and both of mine were eggplant--the best possible outcome. I headed home happily, to share the news of our windfall and to plan menus for the next week. I decided to curry the small eggplants, cook up the remaining potatoes in the pantry, and serve them with some take-away tandoori chicken. The sweet corn would be eaten on the cob with burgers from the freezer, some of the slicing tomatoes, the lemon basil, and the Italian eggplant would go into an Eggplant Provencal casserole for the freezer, the remainder of the slicing tomatoes and the entire bag of Romas would go into the slow cooker to become spaghetti sauce for the freezer, and the heirloom tomatoes would go for sandwiches. Easy.

Or so I thought. On Sunday night I pulled the bag of "mixed eggplant" out of the refrigerator to prepare it for cooking later in the week...and discovered that the bag did not, in fact, contain eggplants. It contained beets. Cylindra beets (hence the confusion), to be exact. Joy gave way to panic. I now had two dilemmas: 1) how do I salvage this week's menu plans? and 2) what am I going to do with these beets?

The first question came down to deciding whether I wanted to give up the freezer casserole and use the big eggplant for the curry. I decided not to take this path, as it would have left me with extra tomatoes and basil, and not enough room in the slow cooker for a larger batch of sauce. I ended up replacing the curry plans with some easy Thai-style oven steamed fish and an eggplant stir fry, for which I purchased two Japanese eggplants at the supermarket. They were no where near as fresh as the share vegetables, but at least they were local and in season. Everything else stayed the same.

That left me with the bag of beets. As I saw it, I had two options: contact the beet-loving friend with whom I split last year's share and see if she would take them, or find some way of preparing them that I might be able to choke down. I considered the first option for several days before deciding that since we'd paid for them, we may as well see what we could do. I googled "beet recipes for beet haters" and found many suggestions, mostly for salads, which I didn't think I'd be up for trying. Several people, though, suggested a radically different use: a chocolate cake made with beets. They unanimously praised the ability of the beets to lend a sweet and sort of earthy flavor to the chocolate, and they raved about how moist the end product was. I was skeptical at first but was finally persuaded to try it when I read comments about beets doing for chocolate cake what carrots do to spice cake. And unlike in the salads, the beets should be well-concealed in a cake. I decided to give it a try, and read through several recipes before selecting one that called for both cocoa and dark chocolate.

We'll return to the cake later, as I didn't get around to making it that first week. Everything else cooked up as planned. In our week 14 box, we got:

  • 6 ears of sweet corn, which were only half-developed--probably the last of that particular farmer's harvest for the season--were eaten with chicken enchiladas. Johanna now stops eating when she sees the corn come out of the cooking dish at the table and points insistently until I carve off some for her.
  • a bag of baby sweet "stuffing" peppers: I had originally planned on stuffing these and cooking them in the crock pot, but the operative word in the description turned out to be "baby." I guess the "stuffing" was intended to convey the idea of stuffing them with cheese for hors d'oeuvres. I chopped them up and made a Thai beef and bell pepper stir fry that was very tasty.
  • an Italian eggplant was stir-fried to accompany the beef and peppers
  • a bag of yellow wax beans was sauteed with lemon and garlic to accompany some French-style chicken cutlets. We also ate up most of the (now weeks old) red potatoes with this dinner.
  • two red bell peppers also weren't quite big enough to stuff, but they were the sweetest and most flavorful I've ever had, and we ate them raw. Or at least, Johanna and I did. 
  • Steve ate the almost-weekly pint of cherry tomatoes raw.
  • two "slicing" tomatoes were cut up to go into a corn (frozen, alas), zucchini, and tomato dish that Johanna also liked.
At the end of the week, I finally found some time to make the chocolate beetroot cake. It was quite an undertaking. The recipe said to cook the whole beets "until soft, about 30 minutes." After said 30 minutes, I could pierce the beets with a sharp knife, but that was about it. I let them cook for another half hour. Softer, but not soft enough to mash as called for. By this time it was time to put Johanna to bed, so I turned off the burner and let the beets sit in the hot water for another two hours. When I came back downstairs, I was dismayed to find them no softer than before. In desperation, I drained and peeled them, cut them into chunks, and microwaved them for six minutes. Still no change. After another six minutes, I decided they were as cooked as they were going to get and I lugged out the food processor. They pureed OK, so I decided to proceed with the recipe. We were both skeptical. My first impression was that the cake was just "OK." I could tell that there was something else in the cake besides chocolate but if I hadn't known that there were beets in the recipe, I would never have guessed, so that was good. But it was denser and, while moist, drier than I was expecting (I was thinking carrot cake) and reminded me of a moist brownie more than a cake. A brownie with no nuts, chocolate chips, or bits of anything in it. So I decided that instead of the cream cheese frosting suggested in the recipe, the cake really needed hot fudge sauce and a clean vanilla ice cream. Sure enough, turning the cake into a hot fudge brownie sundae knocked it out of the park. Steve, who hates beets as much as I do, and who also doesn't care for chocolate cake, was instantly converted. He hopes I'll make it again, and if I get stuck with more  beets, I probably will. My first choice would still be to swap them, since the process of cooking them just to make the cake was so lengthy. But at least now I know that there is something to make with beets that we won't have to summon extra willpower to eat!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Great CSA Experiment, Weeks 10-12

Week 10:

  • a pint of cherry tomatoes went in Steve's lunches
  • a bunch of rainbow carrots were eaten raw by both of us. I'd seen purple carrots before, but never white (or maybe very pale yellow) carrots. 
  • a bag of "mixed specialty squash"--I recognized pipian and yellow straightneck--was julienned and sauteed in olive oil with salt, black pepper, and lemon juice. Johanna ate these too; once she got over her initial texture aversions, she really is interested in trying new things, for which I am grateful.
  • 4 more zucchini were shredded and frozen
  • 4 of crispest, freshest green bell peppers I've ever seen were stuffed with my "Greek hash" (ground turkey, onion, cooked rice, pine nuts, cinnamon, black pepper, salt, and a dash of nutmeg) and a can of diced tomatoes and cooked in the slow cooker. Yum!
  • a bag of green beans was steamed and then tossed with sauteed garlic slices, toasted almonds, and a little lemon juice as a side to a crock pot-cooked rosemary cornish game hen
  • more red potatoes were roasted and accompanied the cornish hen. I still have some left.
  • three sweet onions went in various dishes throughout the week. I can always use more onions.
Week 11:

  • a bag of green beans became a batch of creamy green bean soup, minus the cream because it was destined for the freezer. Dairy products don't survive the thawing process very well. with the exception of some cheeses in casseroles, so we'll add it when we eat it. I've never made this soup before, and am having some difficulty imagining green beans as the main ingredient of a pureed soup, but I didn't have enough space to blanch and freeze the beans on trays before bagging, so soup it was. The recipe has three whole shallots, so it will probably be good. 
  • a bag of yellow patty pan squash. I had big ideas for this: I originally planned on making squash a la grecque, a marinated dish served cold, but realized that in order to use all the squash in the bag, I would need to quadruple the recipe. I didn't feel like pouring four cups of good wine into this effort, so instead I sauteed them and served them with parmesan cheese and oregano from the garden.
  • 6 ears of sweet corn were eaten on the cob. We like them as an accompaniment to SLTs: smoked salmon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches with onion and chive cream cheese instead of mayo.
  • a bag of big orange carrots was eaten raw with lunches
  • I swapped the lima beans--the only vegetable we both dislike more than beets--for a bag of hot Hungarian wax peppers that I chopped in my food processor and then froze in single tablespoon portions for use as needed. Yield was 13 tablespoons, so we should be good for a while.
  • this week's challenge item was globe artichokes. I've had artichoke hearts in things, but I've never cooked or eaten a whole one before. I went the "simple" route and cooked them for half an hour, pulled off the leaves, and served them and the hearts with some balsamic mayonnaise. They were tasty, but I'm not sure it was worth the effort.
Week 12:
  • more cherry tomatoes were eaten raw for lunch
  • a bag of Roma tomatoes: one was chopped for Hungarian paprika gravy, two more were quartered for the okra curry (see below), and the rest were chopped to be combined with the next week's (3-bag) haul for freezer spaghetti sauce
  • one bunch of malabar spinach was substituted for regular spinach in our favorite Japanese-style wilted spinach salad (from Jack Bishop's fantastic "A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen" cookbook), but sadly, this didn't work very well because malabar spinach has a very strong taste. We preferred the tatsoi from earlier weeks.
  • a bag of okra was curried with onions and tomatoes to minimize slime. I have decided that okra just isn't growing on me, slime or no slime. If there's a next time, I'll try roasting them.
  • 2 beautiful Japanese eggplant got the Mark Bittman treatment and were stir-fried with basil and some of last week's hot chiles. Probably our new favorite eggplant recipe--and we love eggplant!
  • 5 Cubanelle (sweet, light green) peppers. One went into the paprika gravy, and the rest were cut into strips and frozen. Some will go into the spaghetti sauce, and some may go into a Basque chicken dish later on. Johanna liked them raw!
  • 3 huge zucchini made 11 more freezer portions
We ate some of the freezer pickles from week 9 on burgers today, and they were really good--this coming from a person who doesn't normally like sweet pickles. The freezer is filling up nicely with soups, sauces, and side dishes. Now, if we can just get through the summer without a multi-day power outage, we'll be well set for the winter. And we still have another 13 weeks of produce to go!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Great CSA Experiment: Weeks 7-9


Week 7


  • 3 zucchini: shredded for pancakes as last week with the yellow squash
  • a pint of cherry tomatoes and a bag of (green) romano beans made a delicious variant on a french bean salad recipe from a British cookbook. The tomatoes were halved, sprinkled with sugar, salt and pepper, and roasted for 10 minutes. After cooling, they were tossed with the cooked beans and some cubed feta cheese with a garlic and dijon vinaigrette.
  • one head of brocolli was simply steamed with butter and garlic salt as a side dish
  • one HUGE head of cabbage: shredded some and tossed with a store-bought poppyseed dressing for the world's fastest coleslaw, but the cabbage weighed over 2 pounds and we still have some left
  • one head of red leaf lettuce was used for salads and sandwiches over the course of a couple weeks
  • one bunch of beets (we both dislike them; I have an aversion to them after making a particularly muddy tasting borscht a couple of years ago during Lent) was swapped for tatsoi, to wilt down as in previous weeks

Week 8


  • one pint of yellow cherry tomatoes and a bunch of purple carrots: eaten raw for lunches
  • one bag of mixed (burgundy, green and yellow wax) and a second bag of yellow wax (swapped for beets): steamed with butter and garlic for a simple side
  • one bunch of yellow onions: used in fried rice and zucchini pancakes
  • 4 zucchini: still more pancakes. This week I learned that zucchini can be shredded, measured and frozen in individual portions, so we can have pancakes well after the growing season is over!
  • one bag of sugar snap peas: stir-fried with garlic and soy sauce (so far, so good)
  • one bunch of red kale: another batch of sausage and kale soup for the freezer

Week 9 isn't over yet, but I've already used most of the produce thanks to a visit from my parents!

  • 6 ears of bicolor sweet corn were eaten within two days of receipt!
  • a small head of cabbage is still untouched but slated to become Indian-style cabbage with mustard and coconut along with some take-out tandoori later this week
  • a bunch of orange carrots and a very small head of broccoli (swapped for still more beets) were eaten raw with lunches
  • a bunch of kale hearts were (gasp!) eaten raw in a Mexican-style salad with pumpkin seeds, avocado, and a honey-lime vinaigrette. I was at the wrong store to buy cojita cheese, so I used up some feta instead. Both non-kale enthusiasts in this house pronounced the salad "not bad," though I don't think it would be as good with larger kale leaves
  • a bag of red potatoes is still entirely untouched. I will probably make a corn, crab, and red potato chowder for the freezer
  • 3 more zucchini have been shredded and frozen for later
  • 2 cucumbers--another vegetable we're not fond of raw--will be sliced and made into freezer pickles this weekend

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Great CSA Experiment: Playing Catch-up

I'm just a little behind--all this cooking has left me with less time to blog about it. Anyway, here's the quick summary:

Week 4

  • one head of butter lettuce--salads
  • snow peas--stir-fried with ginger and soy (or, in our case, coconut aminos); some kept for later next week in a vegetable curry
  • mustard greens and collards--cooked Greek-style with rice, lemon and cilantro (swapped for dill)
  • spring onions and kohlrabi and red potatoes--baked into scalloped potatoes and kohlrabi with ham as soon as the oven gets fixed
  • garlic scapes--went into the casserole with the potatoes and kohlrabi
  • 1 head of broccoli--steamed and served with a fennel and lemon dressing with spaghetti

Week 5

  • a bag of English peas and a bunch of mini red onions--braised with marjoram as a side dish
  • half a head of cauliflower, half of a quart of red potatoes and the remainder of the previous week's snow peas made a nice curry side dish to accompany tandoori chicken
  • the rest of the cauliflower went into a Thai curry with turmeric
  • one head of broccoli was steamed as last week
  • a second head of broccoli (this must have been cruciferous vegetable week) was cooked with an entire bunch of garlic scapes and made into soup for the freezer

Week 6

  • one head of red leaf lettuce--salads
  • one bunch of garlic scapes (again???) and a head of broccoli--more soup for the freezer
  • 3 yellow squash--made into pancakes with eggs and cheese, which Johanna just gobbled up. Winner!
  • 2 bunches tatsoi (one in the box, one taken from the swap box in exchange for a bunch of beets)--wilted with a Japanese-style onion, sesame, and tamari dressing to accompany Thai-style fried rice with shrimp. Yep, folks, I'm trying to reintroduce soy this week. Fingers crossed!
  • 3 sweet onions--went into the salads and soup
  • one bunch of carrots--eaten raw
At the end of this stretch, I still have some red potatoes left, but that's it. The only item tossed out so far has been the frisee. Week 7 is almost over, but I'll save that for next time.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The CSA Experiment, Week 3

Not as many items in the box this week; I think the farms are still catching up from the cold snap at the end of April. We got:

  • One head of green leaf lettuce: used for salads; still have at least half left. I’m going to have to find other things to do with lettuce besides salad because we can’t even get through a half share’s worth of lettuce in a week. Either that or resume having people over for dinner.
  • One huge head of frisee: also went into salads, but sparingly as it is another bitter green that we don’t particularly care for.  We did find out that it is at least palatable if the dressing is super sweet, to cut through the bitter taste. I used it in a salad with strawberries, almonds, and a (fat free!) homemade balsamic and honey dressing. It actually started to rot within a few days…
  • Asparagus: pan roasted with bacon and onions (the red spring ones from the previous week), as a side dish for the pasta with ham and chard. Think warm bacon and onion dressing from spinach salad but served over roasted asparagus. Yum!
  • Another beautiful bunch of rainbow chard: Steamed and tossed with sautéed shallots, garlic, and a splash of vinegar; eaten as a side dish with roast chicken.
  • Kale: another batch of sausage and kale soup, this time for the deep freezer.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Great CSA Experiment of 2013

I promised a post featuring some success stories from my job, and I still intend to write one, but this one's in my head now, so stay tuned.

Last summer, a friend and I signed up to join a CSA--a community shared agriculture program. This means that we paid a lump sum before the summer growing season to purchase vegetables directly from an organic farming co-op about a 3-hour drive away in the Lancaster, PA area. Each week, the farmers harvest whatever's ready and divide that harvest up among the shareholders, each of whom gets their own box. The share boxes are loaded up onto a delivery truck and arrive at a central pick up location, where we repack them into our own coolers or bags and return the boxes for use the next week.

Joining the CSA appealed to me for many reasons: it encourages eating seasonally and shopping locally, it supports small farms, and the produce--which is all grown organically--is as fresh as it can be short of growing it myself. The price is competitive, too--more than the supermarket but less than shopping exclusively at a Whole Foods-type store. There are, however, two drawbacks that made both of us think twice about joining again this year. First, the size of the share was awkward: the full share would have been way too much for a small family, but splitting the full share between us often resulted in amounts too small to use effectively (one week we each got half a baby cauliflower). Second, you have no control over what's in the box. The co-op sends out a tentative list earlier in the week with what the farmers anticipate harvesting, so you can plan your menus ahead of time, but sometimes substitutions are made at the last minute, and there will inevitably be times when your box includes something no one in your family will eat (for us, that's lima beans, beets, and most bitter greens). As a result, each week last year several items went into the garbage untouched (that and the reality of dealing with a high needs baby who left me with very little time to process the items that couldn't simply be roasted or eaten raw...).

This year, the co-op offered a solution to the first problem: a half-share option which would provide fewer but full-sized items each week, with a focus on kitchen staples over specialty ingredients (like garlic scapes, pea tendrils, and stinging nettles). As for the second problem, there is a swap box at the pick up site in which you can place a whole item that you don't anticipate using and (hopefully) walk away with an item someone else didn't want, but you  still have to get lucky when using this option.

We both decided to give the half share a try, and I have resolved to try and use everything in the box each week. I thought that blogging about the experience might help me keep my resolution, so I will be reporting each week about how I used the contents of the previous week's share. If you have any suggestions for recipes to try, I'd love to hear from you!

Week One was actually the first Saturday in May--the CSA does a staggered start at the beginning of the growing season, so I had a bit more time to process everything. Here's how it all worked out:

  • One bunch of the freshest asparagus I've ever had: this was a no-brainer--it was roasted in the oven as a side dish.
  • One head of green leaf lettuce was also a no-brainer: salads.
  • One bunch of radishes: I ate these raw. Steve doesn't care for raw radishes, but I like them.
  • One bunch of scallions and part of a bunch of mint went into a lamb casserole that was quite good but a lot of work.
  • The rest of the mint was minced and combined with vinegar, sugar and water to make British-style mint sauce. It was either that or dry it for tea. We like mint and lamb together, and I threw out the mint sauce we had in the fridge after the derecho last summer.
  • A bunch of kale--which we will get almost every week, if this year is like last--was chopped and put into a pot of sausage and kale soup. Soup is really the only way we like kale, and this one bore a slight resemblance to the Olive Garden's zuppa toscana. Pretty good.
  • We also got a bunch of mizuna, a bitter green which I swapped out for a bunch of thyme (in the full share). Some of the thyme went into a rabbit (yes, rabbit) casserole, some went into something else, and some is still in the fridge--but it's the only thing, so I did well this week.


Week Two--last week:

  • One head of romaine and one head of red leaf lettuce: more salads. Some still left, but it will all be used.
  • Two bunches of radishes: one from the share and one from the swap box as an exchange for collard greens, which we don't really care for except with Ethiopian-style spiced cheese, and that's a two-day process. On the advice of my friend, we tried them roasted with olive oil, salt, pepper, and some fresh oregano from the back garden. Not our favorite, but not bad, and Steve ate them.
  • One bunch of red spring onions: will be used together with the bunch that's supposed to be coming this week in a side dish.
  • A pint of strawberries: gone in a day and a half. Johanna seemed to like them, too, but I think they may have set off her reflux.
  • One bunch of lovely rainbow chard: the leaves were blanched, chopped, and substituted for spinach in a cheesy ham and pasta casserole, and the leaves were blanched and layered with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese as a side dish. The latter went into the freezer for later, or to take to a potluck.
  • This week's challenge item was a bunch of kohlrabi, a member of the cabbage family that tastes kind of like broccoli stems. I'd never tried it or worked with it before. I found a recipe for a kohlrabi puree that used both the bulbs and the leaves and served it as a base for the rabbit dish mentioned above. It was OK but had a much stronger flavor than I'd expected and took a lot of prep time.

As I was prepping the kohlrabi and throwing the stems in the garbage, I thought how nice it would be to find somewhere to take the scraps each week for composting. So my next challenge will be to find someone who does it themselves, or to find a community composting program.

Overall--some thyme and lettuce still left, but nothing else.