Monday, November 9, 2009

What I've Learned

Growing up I always made a big deal about my birthday, mostly because I was a year younger than most of my friends and always felt behind.

I saw my birthday as a day to catch up, and everyone knew it. Exactly three months prior, I would start to self promote so by the time the big day rolled around, anyone who forgot incurred my wrath. Then my friends turned a year older, and that longing to be the same age started all over again.

That all changed once I turned 30 and no longer felt so eager to catch up.

So that may explain why nine days ago, a very important birthday of sorts slipped by without me even realizing it: my two-year blogiversary! But really, it was two years ago that I subscribed to a CSA and changed my eating and cooking habits. (Technically I didn't receive my first box of produce until November 16, so I suppose I have some time yet.)

When I started this CSA experiment, I wasn't sure if I would really take the time to find recipes, cook, and manage to eat the stuff too. But it has become a new way of life for me.

I went from buying the same boring foods at the grocery store to getting unidentifiable veggies that I had to figure out how to make.

I went from coming home from work, ordering takeout, and planting myself on the couch in front of the tv all night to chopping onions and garlic, sauteing with spices and veggies, and going straight to bed after eating and cleaning up. (Except when Lost is on. Two more months!)

Along the way I have collected some favorite recipes: strawberry and feta salad; chicken tajine; rhubarb crisp bars; pasta with butternut squash and sage, and so many others that I was just plain lazy to blog about.

I have learned important lessons about cooking: always make at least one test batch when baking pumpkin pie for a holiday dinner; always put a lid on the pan when popping popcorn on the stovetop; and food left out too long or stored incorrectly will rot (and when this happens, I will feel sad).

I also have made many discoveries about food and my own tastes and habits: I don't like a vegetables that rhyme with arse-snips; potatoes come in different colors; and grating beets is tiring, turns my hands magenta, and inspires bad, punny dialogue between me and Ryan (Me: I'm beat. Ryan: You're doing great, Hon.) I never wrote a blog post about this, so you'll have to take my word for it.

I now know what sunchokes, rutabega, celeriac, salsify, and rhubarb look like.

I think some foods taste best when eaten raw: raspberries, grape tomatoes, carrots, and strawberries.

I would be nothing without onions and garlic.

But most of all I have gained tremendous appreciation for the farmers, who deliver fresh and delicious produce week after week. I have learned that no matter how hard they work, sometimes the weather has other plans. Like last summer too much rain destroyed crops, and my CSA decided to delay deliveries for a few weeks to let the farmers catch up.

I know the feeling of wanting to catch up. But as long as they're growing food, I'm eating it, I hope, for many years to come.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Local Flavors

Happy Halloween! While people of all ages dressed up, went trick-or-treating, and ate candy, I dressed up in many layers, went canoeing and bird watching, and ate fried pickles. But I'll get to that part in a little bit.

This is the last trip of the season for Ryan's canoe and kayak rental business, and it's one of my favorites. The put in is in English Lake, Indiana, on the Kankakee, about 1.5 hours drive from Chicago. It was cold and windy, but the sun stayed out most of the time.

About 8 miles later, we took out at Dunn's Bridge and hightailed it before sunset to the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, where thousands of sandhill cranes gather for a few months in late summer and fall on their way south.

Every day around this time of year, these social birds fly into a massive swampy field at dawn and dusk, where they hang out, gets some drinks (of water), and go dancing - they perform a courtship ritual that involves bowing, jumping, calling, and flinging grass - as deer graze on the outskirts of the wetlands. For the rest of the day and night, the cranes leave the field to scavenge for such local delicacies as corn and insects.

The sights and sounds are awesome. As the cranes fly in they drop their skinny legs like airplanes lowering their wheels while the air vibrates with trilling calls. Ryan recently heard that The Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, who grew up in the area, modeled the call of the flying monkeys after the cranes. Even if it's not true, that's a good depiction of what the birds sound like.

By the time the sun dips behind the trees and the sky clears of cranes, we are ready to experience our own local delicacy - fried pickles from the Kniman Tap! Except for pizza, almost every item on the menu is fried, from jalapenos to perch to my favorite, curly fries.

Since I've gone on this trip a few times, I have learned a thing or two about eating fried pickles, so allow me to dispense some of my wisdom...

...Exercise extreme caution when biting into a fried pickle, because it's easy to inadvertently pull the pickle out of its fried outer layer with your teeth, leaving nothing but a hollow shell. So make sure to bite all the way through so you can experience the satisfying flavor combination that is fried and pickle.

...It is easy to show up ravenous after a day on the river and crane watching and consume numerous fried pickles in one sitting. I had three myself, in addition to some fried cauliflower, a fried mushroom, and a fried mozzarella stick before my hamburger and curly fries showed up. This isn't necessarily a bad thing at the time, but it can make for an uncomfortable drive home if you overdo it (which I did).

If fried everything isn't the sort of local flavor that you like, there are other options.

In fact Ryan came home after yesterday's trip with a dozen eggs, a bag of onions and potatoes, a jar of honey, and some pumpkins from a local farm. He saw a sign that advertised eggs and pulled over. It was easy as that to get a taste of the local flavors.


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