Introducing the CSA Challenge: Cook inside the box

csa_boxnite_all.jpgDo you get seasonal veggies delivered from a local farm, also known as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box? Ever feel overwhelmed with what to do with everything? A friend just hosted our first-ever CSA Challenge, a lively dinner party that solved that problem.

Here's how it works. Pick up your CSA box. Invite several friends over. Discuss what you can make that will use as much of the box as possible in one meal. Throw in other ingredients you have on hand…or not. Divide up the dishes to make. Pour some wine or beer, and hand out the sharp knives (perhaps not to the same people). Start chopping. Eat until you burst.

Ours was a fantastic vegetarian meal that left five people feeling very sated — and virtuous — for a total cost of about $30: $15 for the box, $15 for crème fraiche, butter, and other ingredients. (Wine not included.) I hope others out there will try this. If you have a blog, send us a link to your account; if you don't, I'd be happy to post descriptions and photos on the Ethicurean for you. I'd love to see CSA boxes from around the country, and how they change with the seasons.

On Friday, our box was from Full Belly Farm, which delivers to the elementary school where our friend and neighbor Lil' Laura teaches fourth and fifth grade. Here's what the five of us had to work with: four ears of corn, a bag of salad mix, red Russian kale, radishes, mixed sweet peppers, tomatoes, apples, and butternut squash.

Laura and her furniture-designer honey, Sir Chopalot, share the weekly box with our host that night, Survivalist Sean. Sean is just the right person to lead a CSA Challenge team — or a commando raid. He can make piecrust from scratch as well as fire with just two sticks, thanks to a French mother and a four-year period spent living entirely off the grid in Hawaii, growing his own coffee and everything. (Did I mention he can also build patio decks and computer networks, and he looks like a slightly feral Yves St. Laurent model? But I digress … and anyway, ladies, he's spoken for, by a woman who's more than his equal. Alas, she happens to be away right now.)

Sean immediately began washing and slicing the tops off the radishes.

"What are you doing? I thought we were going to decide together what to make!" I cried.

"We are, but first I'm making a snack," he said. "This is how my family always ate them."

He sliced the radishes in half and arranged them on a plate with a smear of butter and a pile of coarse, different-looking salt. I should have known Sean would have fancy salt: Sauvier de Carmague Fleur de Sel sea salt from France, to be exact. I have to say, I didn't know salt could taste anything other than, well, salty. I also didn't know how delicious raw radishes could be with just butter and salt — although as the Potato Non Grata pointed out, he would eat a rubber galosh if coated in sufficient butter and salt.

As the Potato (pictured) and the rest of us munched on the radishes, we contemplated the cornucopia of produce. I suggested we roast the butternut squash; make a salad with the lettuce, tomatoes, and corn; and stir-fry the kale with the peppers. Someone else suggested we roast the peppers and put them in the salad.

In the end, Sean gently herded us to a more exciting mix of dishes: we would make an Indian-inspired soup with the butternut squash and a few tomatoes; a salad with the lettuce, tomatoes, and some blue cheese he had in the fridge; and a stir-fry with the corn, peppers, and kale. He had already made the pie crust for a tarte tatin, planning to use Granny Smith apples he had on hand; we could peel and add the sweeter CSA apples to the mix.

CSA Challeneg Team No. 1Butternut squash soup with red lentils: I was supposedly in charge of the soup (that's me in the back, next to Sean), but in reality I was just a galley slave. Under his direction, I sliced a yellow onion and chopped some ginger, then sautéed both in a few spoonfuls of olive oil in a large soup pot on high heat. Meanwhile, I peeled the butternut squash, halved it and scooped out the seeds, then chopped it into 1-inch cubes.

Once the onions had turned translucent, I tossed in the squash and stirred until all the cubes were coated and had begun to soften. Then we added about 6 cups of water and put the lid on to boil. After about 15-20 minutes, when the squash was softening but not yet squishy, we added 3/4 cup red lentils. (It was news to me that you're supposed to rinse lentils before using them.) Then we added two or three heaping spoonfuls of coriander and curry.

"Don't be shy with the spices," Sean advised.

We let the soup simmer until the lentils were kind of disintegrating, about five minutes; their job is to thicken the soup. At that point, you turn the flame down and get out a handheld blender, like those little gadgets for scrambling eggs. Puree the soup in the pot (also a first for me). Add a handful of diced tomato and a handful of chopped fresh cilantro, and a generous amount of salt. Top with a dollop of crème fraiche (or sour cream if you are not lucky enough to be at a Francophile's house) and a sprig of cilantro to garnish.

Veggie stir fry: While Lil' Laura and the Potato Non Grata lolled in the living room, Sir Chopalot was put in charge of the stir-fry. As he husked the corn, exclaiming at all the resident worms.

"The bounty of nature — we must share it with every living thing," intoned Survivalist Sean. "Even the caterpillars."
"Ah yes, the complicated tapestry of life, the pageant of profusion," teased Chopalot, dropping the worms in the trash. "I guess we know for sure this corn is pesticide free."

(Note: CSA corn will often have caterpillar worms, so if you're not going to eat the corn right away, you might want to remove the competition before you refrigerate it.)

The stir-fry was not very complicated. Sir Chopalot sliced the peppers into strips, sliced the corn off the cob with a sharp knife, and chopped the kale. He heated up some oil in a cast-iron pan and sautéed the peppers, then added the corn and the greens just enough to wilt them, followed with a large sprinkle of paprika. Sean had suggested he add a spoonful of mustard seeds to the oil first, but he forgot.

Salad: This was pretty basic. Sean mixed the dressing in the empty salad bowl, pouring in a tablespoon or two of champagne vinegar, whisking it with some Dijon mustard, then whisking in olive oil and some chopped shallots and fresh lemon thyme that I'd brought from our herb garden. He plopped the mixed greens, sliced tomatoes, and crumbled blue cheese on top of the dressing, waiting to toss it all together once we were ready to eat.

Meanwhile, the Potato Non Grata soft-boiled some eggs (not from our box, but from Kaki Farms at the Berkeley farmers market) with which those who felt like it could top the salad.

Tarte tatin: Sean had made piecrust ahead of time, because it needed to chill. He eventually admitted that the recipe for it had come from Martha Stewart, but insisted that the butter must be cut in by hand, with a pastry blender, not in a food processor.

"Martha Stewart is kinda hot," said the Potato non Grata. I stared at him in disbelief; I learned a lot of new things at this dinner party.
"You're insane," said Sir Chopalot.

"Maybe I just like bossy women." My husband smiled.

Before dinner Lil' Laura and the Potato had peeled and cored about six small apples, then cut them into eighths. Sean put them in a bowl of water so they wouldn't brown while we were eating.

After we more or less licked our dinner plates, he preheated the oven to 375 and melted some butter in a large Le Creuset cast-iron pan, then stirred in close to a cup of sugar, reserving some for the top of the tart. (Naturally, Sean buys organic, unprocessed coarse sugar in bulk.) He turned the burner heat to low, drained the apples and placed them in a concentric pattern in a single layer in the butter and sugar mixture, bemoaning the fact that the apple slices were different sizes. Then he carefully cooked the apples, moving the pan around on top of the burner because his stove doesn't heat evenly.

Do not stir the apples. The idea is to watch until the liquid caramelizes, browning throughout the pan.

Meanwhile, he pulled the disk of piecrust out of the fridge and began rolling it out into a rough circle. When the apples were properly caramelized, he dropped the flattened crust on top of the pan, then put it in the oven to bake until the crust turned brown, about 15 minutes. After it cooled for a bit, he flipped the pan over onto a tart plate.

csa_boxnite_piegone.jpgWe had it with crème fraiche drizzled over the top. It was like caramel apples on flaky pie crust, tart and sweet and crispy and soft all at the same time.

After we devoured the entire thing, we fought each other for the crumbs. The first CSA Challenge was officially a success. (Thanks, Sean!)

All right. Who's going next?

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