Cooking With a Box of Sweet Potatoes


Photo by Anastatia Curley

To try sweet potato and apple gratin, click here for the recipe.

I realized recently that I've gone soft, sustainable-food-wise. Sure, I shop at farmer's markets; I worked for a nonprofit that educated people about the intertwined issues of food, agriculture, and the environment. I could lecture you for hours on the various ways our country's collective diet is turning the atmosphere into a pressure cooker.

But I still don't bake my own bread or can my home-grown produce. I, er, don't actually grow any home-grown produce (in my defense, until recently I worked at an educational garden.) There are lots of food-related things I've always sort of meant to do that I haven't done yet.

So I made my list and a few resolutions, and then I joined a CSA (community supported agriculture). I've always wanted to be a member of a CSA. Even more than shopping at farmer's markets, it's a way to throw in your lot with local farmers. At the beginning of the season, you buy what's usually called a "share" in a local farm. You pay a sum of money upfront, and you get a box of vegetables usually once a week. This way, the farmer has capital at the start of the season, when it's most needed, and you have a steady source of produce. Some CSAs also require that you volunteer for a certain number of hours on the farm. Depending on the farm (or the group of farms) running the CSA, a share might just be produce, or contain milk, meat, eggs, or bread.

The thing about a CSA is that it's very possible one week (or maybe even a few weeks in a row) you'll get, say, 10 pounds of kale.

The CSA I chose is run through Enterprise Farm. I signed up for it mostly because I've been buying their produce at Davis Square Farmers' Market in Cambridge all fall, and I'd been impressed by its quality and come to like and trust the women who sold it. Their model is a little unorthodox, though: not all the produce comes from their farm. Their goal is to create a regional foodshed, so they collaborate with a group of organic farms up and down the East Coast. This means the share is not strictly local, which gave me pause. I knew, however, that I couldn't last a whole winter without fruit, and I'd rather eat an orange grown organically in Florida or Georgia than one grown conventionally in California or Chile. Maybe this is another example of how I've gone soft, but figuring out how to live sustainably involves balancing your carbon footprint, your health, your checkbook, and your quality of life, so I stand by my decision.

My share cost $700 for the season (December 1 through May 1), which entitles me to a 10-pound box of vegetables each week. It's a lot of money upfront, but it works out to about $35 each week, which is often what I spend at the farmers' market anyway. I'm splitting it with my best friend, partly because $700 is a big sum, partly because 10 pounds of vegetables is a lot of vegetables, and partly because it gives us an excuse to cook dinner together every Thursday.

I like the idea of being a partner in a regional food system, of getting the good with the bad. I also like the idea of testing my ingenuity as a cook--the thing about a CSA is that it's very possible one week (or maybe even a few weeks in a row) you'll get, say, 10 pounds of kale. Many people avoid CSAs because they're not sure what they'll get each week, and they fear it might be something they hate or don't know how to cook. But what's the worst that could happen? A week of potato dinners? While thinking up exciting new recipes might be a little daily challenge, on the plus side, joining a CSA also saves you trips to the grocery store. If you're wary, thought, just follow my adventures: I'll be writing each week about the vegetables I find in my 10-pound box and the things that I cook with them.

First things first: box number one contained (among other tempting things like satsumas and a huge bag of salad greens) apples and sweet potatoes. This seemed a clear sign that one of the culinary events of the weekend would be making Dan Barber's sweet potato and apple gratin. I found this recipe on the Stone Barns Web site a few years ago, and it is one of the many reasons that I believe Dan Barber is a genius of our time. This dish figures prominently in my imaginary perfect Thanksgiving dinner. I don't make it very often because it's a special occasion kind of a dish, laden with milk and cream. This week, though, I wanted to inaugurate my CSA box in style, so I pulled it out of storage.

Like any gratin worth the name, this is very rich, and sweet from the apples and sweet potatoes. And like most savory, apple-based dishes, it is very good with sausages (even or especially with chicken ones, of which I'm usually suspicious), which is how I served it. It does take a little time to assemble, about 45 minutes, but once you've put it in the oven you'll have an hour or so to leave it undisturbed. This makes it a very good Sunday supper, as it cooks while you pay bills or clean the bathroom or catch up on television or pad around the house in pajamas. Once it comes out of the oven, you can cook up some sausages and then sit down to your rich winter meal. It really helps stave off that impending Monday-morning feeling.