Out of the Box: A CSA Minestrone
|Right Food for the Season - Early Summer|
|Written by Jane Ward|
Gardens have been on my mind lately – the gardens and gardeners I have relied on, past and present, to bring me the fruits and vegetables I love to eat – as I get into the swing of my first CSA (community supported agriculture) season.
I am a cook but not a gardener. In years past I have shopped around for my fresh produce at favorite local farms and farmers’ markets, but this year decided to throw my lot in with Cider Hill Farm of Amesbury, MA and Heron Pond Farm of South Hampton, NH and rely on them for the bulk of the produce that will accompany our meals. Back in February I paid for a growing season’s worth of half shares at each of these two neighboring farms, money that helps the farmers get their crops started and also do a little experimenting with growing new products. In return we at home will be well-fed for the next several months.
An added bonus is that we are being fed from our neighborhood as we in turn support our neighbors; the farm and my family now have a closely integrated relationship. Glenn Cook of Cider Hill Farm put it best when he wrote in a welcome email, “I want to thank you so much for your commitment to eating well, and for putting your trust in us to do you right. This is an exciting direction for us because it allows us to have an even closer relationship with families we grow food for.”
My first real glimpse into American farming came late in the summer of 1989 when we moved from the north side of Chicago to Champaign, Illinois, making the trek to the east central part of the state in a boxy, noisy, first generation Mitsubishi Montero with a fussy 17 month-old in the back seat. One doesn’t drive too far outside the borders of Chicago before the Illinois landscape becomes farmland, stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions. And by August, in the words of Rodgers and Hammerstein, “The corn was as high as an elephant’s eye.”
I thought as we drove and the scenery whizzed by: What a prospect for a suburban and city dweller like me who had just spent the past 3 ½ years working in a seasonal American restaurant high atop the John Hancock Tower! To live close to the fields, to the local food sources, close to the farmers who made it all happen – bucolic, right?
We would soon learn that the corn to the right side of the highway was being grown for one large regional corporation, while the soybeans to our left were being grown for another. Sugars and syrups and starches, corn oils and soybean oils, feed corn and processed soybeans. This was the great American heartland we drove into in the late 80s, more of an eyeopener to large agribusiness than a warm, fuzzy welcome to the culture of neighborhood farming.
Once settled in Champaign, though, we sought out a more diverse farm life that was not all agribusiness. A few day trips took us to places like Pontious Farms in White Heath, a beautiful and small family-owned u-pick farm full of gorgeous berries of all descriptions from late May through late September.
Smaller and more charming still were the home gardens. Once I found a new job at the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau and started working again, I inherited a client who was planning a reunion of his fellow service members. An older retired gentleman, he would often show up in our offices unannounced, ostensibly to check up on the progress I was making putting together a list of breakout activities for the group’s spouses, but more probably for the company.
We would talk a bit about the reunion before conversation turned to his garden, his pride and joy, and the luck he was having with his tomatoes and swiss chard. Avowed non-gardener that I am, I joined the conversation the only way I could.
“My father,” I told him, “also grew tomatoes and chard. And zucchinis and peppers too. He made pots of minestrone every summer.
“He was fond of his garden.”
The next time my client showed up at my office door he brought with him three paper shopping bags: two bags full to the brim with swiss chard and one packed with an assortment of red and golden tomatoes. The volume was overwhelming. There were more vegetables around me than I knew what to do with.
The gift was overwhelming too, just what I needed, and very much appreciated.
I turned some of the produce into minestrone.
Beyond being made from vegetables and beans and sometimes a pasta, minestrone follows no hard and fast recipe. The vegetables need only be of the season. Early in summer you might find it packed with the first garden greens along with a carrot-onion-garlic base; later in the season, add zucchini and corn and peppers to the brew and you’ll have something different altogether, but one just as delicious and satisfying.
Last week’s Heron Pond Farm CSA share rewarded me with, among other treats, beets and beet greens. I roasted then pickled the beets because there’s no question about how I best like my beets. What to do with the greens, however, came down to whim and nostalgia.
Leafy beet greens are in the same family as chard, and can be cooked in many of the same ways. They are delicious simply sautéed in olive oil with garlic. The same saute also holds up well under the addition of a creamy little sauce of mustard and greek yoghurt. Throw in a small dollop of horseradish to that if you like an extra kick in your mustardy greens.
Beet greens are also wonderful when cut into ribbons and tossed into any soup that calls for chard or escarole. So once again I decided to make minestrone.
CSA Minestrone with White Beans, Pasta and Beet Greens
1 cup dried white navy or cannelloni beans
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 carrots, sliced
2 ribs celery, sliced
2 garlic cloves, smashed
6-8 cups chicken or vegetable broth or stock
1 32-ounce can whole plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
I bunch of beet greens, washed, stemmed and cut into ribbons
1 cup fine egg noodles
salt and pepper to taste
shaved parmesan cheese for serving
Rinse dried beans well and put them in a large bowl. Add cold water to cover well and soak overnight. The next morning, drain the beans and set aside.
Add oil to a large stockpot set over medium heat. Add onions, carrots, celery and garlic to the oil and sauté, stirring occasionally until the vegetables soften. Add 2 cups of broth to the vegetable mixture, reduce the heat a bit and simmer, until vegetables are very soft. Remove the pot from the heat and puree* the vegetable base well.
Add to this base 4 cups of the stock, the beans, and the tomatoes, and partially cover, simmering until the beans are tender. This will take about an hour.
Remove pot from heat. Add one-half of the beet greens and puree* the soup a bit, leaving some texture. Set over medium heat again, add the fine egg noodles, and the remaining beet greens. Cook until chard is wilted and pasta is cooked, about 3-5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
If the soup seems thick, you may add more broth as needed to thin the consistency a bit. The soup thickens as it stands.
Serve hot with shavings of parmesan cheese.
*A stick blender works well and simplifies the process because you can puree right in the pot. However, the soup can be pureed in batches in a blender or food processor.