As a long-time freelance food writer, Judith Hausman has written about every aspect of food, but local producers and artisanal traditions remain closest to her heart. Eating close to home takes this seasonal eater through a journey of delights and dilemmas, one tiny deck garden, farmers’ market discovery and easy-as-pie recipe at a time. She writes from a still-bucolic but ever-more-suburban town in the New York City ‘burbs.
Photo by Judith Hausman
Throughout this year’s growing season, I worked with another cook, Donna, to survey the surplus produce at Rainbeau Ridge and cook up value-added foods to sell through the farm’s CSA. We have a flexible working arrangement that shifts weekly. Sometimes we work together, sometimes we tag-team, and sometimes her daughter helps out.
We started the season dutifully with typed recipes, which we carefully multiplied for larger yields. We selected a new orange notebook to keep track of all our products and the tweaking we had done.
Well, all that went quickly out the door. Now, with about six weeks left in the season and a dwindling, if not less interesting, bounty to draw from, this is what it sounds like as we work in the farmhouse kitchen:
“Isaac says there’s no dill.”
“OK, how about fennel?”
“There are reject tomatoes, some peppers and a lot of hot peppers.”
“We can make that barbecue sauce after all. Whaddya think? Five jalapeno or eight for this many tomatoes?”
“I say eight. There’s no molasses in the pantry, but I can use this brown sugar. Is there dried mustard in the spice cabinet?”
“They don’t buy sauces; let’s call it eggplant-tomato salsa instead.”
“How’s this? More vinegar? More salt?”
“Oh no, there are 15 more pounds of green beans in the downstairs fridge!”
“We have eggplant, carrots and onions to chop up for this brown-rice stuffing. Any cheese left?”
Donna and I have truly learned to cook from what is best and most bountiful in the garden, turning surplus or imperfect vegetables into delicious, almost meal-ready food for our CSA members. We’re fortunate that the farmhouse kitchen is generally well-equipped, but we know how to make do if it isn’t. We flex, we create on the spot, and we compromise and adjust on the fly.
Sometimes the food sells well and sometimes it doesn’t — that’s the mystery we hope to reveal. Unfortunately, sales seem to depend more on timing, holiday weekends and kid-friendly selection than on how delicious Donna’s “Nana’s Green Beans” are. I’ve learned a great deal through cooking what the garden gives, but I still don’t know what moves customers to snatch up our sell-out caponata one week but leave behind our tomatillo salsa the next.
Donna recently compiled all of our scrap-paper lists from the orange notebook so we could survey our customers and make improvements. We’ve cooked an amazing number of dishes: beet salad and sorrel pesto, cucumber-yogurt salad and elderberry jelly, corn salsa and pickled green beans, tomato soup, broccoli soup, carrot-potato soup, and really hot-pepper jelly. We have even been able to freeze stock, chard, chopped peppers and some soup to extend our season. Replicating some of the favorites might be a challenge, but we’re hoping to pin some of them down this winter before the chives and sorrel poke through the farm’s rich earth again.
Our Barbecue Sauce
Photo by Judith Hausman
These recipes take a lot of judging, tasting, adding and eyeballing. Trust yourself.
First, trim, blanch, peel and squeeze the seeds out of a lot of tomatoes: yellow, red, green striped, bruised, speckled and so on. I must have used at least 10 to 15 pounds to yield 7 pints of sauce. Cook the tomatoes in a large pot with eight-plus cloves of garlic and two big, cut-up onions.
Seed eight to 10 mixed long or bell sweet peppers and six to eight cayenne, jalapeno or other hot peppers. Break them up and get them in the pot, too. Simmer the heck out of it all for a couple of hours.
While it cooks, add about a cup of brown sugar and about a half cup of vinegar. (I used tarragon vinegar.) Season with salt, several dashes of Worcestershire sauce, about a tablespoon each of dry mustard and allspice, and smaller amounts of dried oregano and cumin.
Keep tasting the sauce. When the vegetables are soft, wand blender them, re-season and continue cooking the sauce until it thickens. It could probably be put up in hot jars at this point but we cooled, packaged and sold it in 16-ounce tubs.