The Joy of Farm-Fresh Cooking


Photo by Sara Lipka

Food cravings don't usually involve escarole. At least mine never used to. But so many vegetables springing up all over the place can get in your head.

On the way back from a dusky run last week, I had a single thought: escarole. We'd been harvesting dozens of heads of the bitter chicory green, with its stiff, ruffled leaves, and I'd tried them both raw and stuffed with ground lamb. My favorite dish came recommended by a customer at the farmers market, who said he lightly wilted the leaves in olive oil, then drizzled them with honey. Wow.

But that night, two weeks and several drizzled platefuls later, our crop was done, and I was in withdrawal. I pined, then mocked my spoiled palate as I clipped some chard instead. Now on harvest days, Tuesdays and Fridays, I go for raw green chard as an early morning snack.

Tomatoes! I sliced our first substantial yield on Friday and dressed them with puréed basil and garlic scapes. Gone before the thunderstorm hit.

We graze here on the farm. Like chefs over simmering pots, we taste various crops to see how they're coming along. In the field, we cleave heads of lettuce and sample their inner leaves, pausing to swallow and deliberate. Too bitter and the heads have bolted. No good. Last week, just before lunch, we harvested four varieties of cucumber and took one of each to the table for a tasting. Diva and Tasty Jade were smooth and crisp; Marketmore and Vertina, sweet and juicy. I shared our findings with several customers: 2009, a good cucumber vintage.

A determined taster, I've nibbled even seeds. But the best bites are ripe and raw. Okra, for instance, tastes great within an hour--or five seconds--of harvest. I learned to like fried okra in my freshman dining hall, but raw it's got crunch and gleam. And asparagus is so satisfying straight out of the ground that the other day, with the season long past, I snuck into our swaying, flowering asparagus forest to hunt a young spear.

The eggs and fruits and vegetables around me all day become ingredients in my mind. One long afternoon harvesting snap peas, my eighth or ninth sweet snack had me hankering for salt. I imagined peas in peanut sauce and mixed it for dinner that night.

Deciding what to eat on a farm is a matter of supply and improvisation. Farmers' potlucks raise the stakes. Everybody's got fresh greens and roots, so there's pressure to innovate. Our weekly spreads have featured ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms, kim chee, and cherry crisp. A first harvest at a potluck stirs particular excitement. Neighbors squeal: Tomatoes! I sliced our first substantial yield on Friday, mostly Gold Nugget and Sun Gold cherries, and dressed them with puréed basil and garlic scapes. Gone before the thunderstorm hit.

First harvests are thrilling, but I prefer to rescue waifs and strays. I can't help but save the non-rotten half of a zucchini or a deformed but still delicious carrot. Outside our greenhouse we toss extra or otherwise rejected flats of plants in a heap that makes me sigh. The other day I plucked from the pile a full handful of wilting microbasil, crushed it with olive oil, salt, and turmeric, and spread it on sliced hard-boiled eggs. Our vegetable production manager has started calling me the patron saint of lost causes.

My eventual chicory fix was an orphan, too. One tiny, round radicchio head came back from the farmers market, its outer leaves withered and brown. Cleaned up, halved, grilled, and crisscrossed with honey, it hit the spot.