About nine months ago, we defected from our CSA subscription. Community supported agriculture is a really awesome way of buying produce if you don’t mind eating kohlrabi all the time. We unfortunately do mind at great deal. Our CSA totally sucked the life out of us. Too many turnip greens and too much guilt. Have you ever noticed that when food people first subscribe to a CSA it’s like “OMG, best thing ever!” You start with all kinds of horn o’ plenty photos of the CSA bounty. Then you get real busy with Chez Panisse Vegetables, Plenty, and Tender: A Cook and his Vegetable Patch. “I’m Yotam motherfucking Ottolenghi!” you roar, and you dress those vegetables with yogurt and sumac. “I’m a bacon-studded vegetarian!” you shout, to no one in particular. You’re gonna use all those beet and turnip greens if it kills you, goddamn it! You subsist on beet and turnip green frittatas and quiches for a few weeks. You roast those beets. You shred them raw, and dress them with mustard. You eat so many beets it hurts. Like, actually hurts. You realize, somewhere about two months in, that you have some kind of digestive aversion to beets. You have literally given yourself irritable bowel syndrome from all the beet-eating, but you keep going. You slog through those long winter months. You like borscht, really! Lots and lots of borscht. You go on a trip at some point, and even though you try to prepare by “gifting” your friends your turnips (“MERRY CHRISTMAS MAN!”), a fridge full of vegetables somehow rots in your absence. Somewhere along the way, you start stockpiling kohlrabi, because you don’t know what to do with it. Inexplicably, it neither rots nor improves with age. Even when you figure out what to do with it, you discover that nobody actually likes kohlrabi. Except Kashmiris, apparently. Working your way through a battery of Kashmiri kohlrabi recipes, you begin to suspect that Kashmiris don’t really like kohlrabi either. Sometime in the spring, you become delirious over a tiny basket of strawberries. “Our strawberries came in!” you announce to your friends, who don’t understand why you had to wait until your CSA deigned for you to eat strawberries. Because you are drowning in guilt, and turnip greens, and ganth gobi, friendo. After a long talk with your spouse and your therapist, you decide to quit your CSA. You send a long, apologetic email to the farm. “It’s no you, it’s us!” you write, even though there was a half-rotten plum in the last basket, and the greens were full of mites. Your ears burn with shame. If anyone asks about your CSA, as just a year earlier you talking of nothing else, you sheepishly say that it was too many vegetables for just the two of you. “If we had kids, maybe…” you say, because people with kids obviously have all the time and energy in the world to figure out how to get their kids to eat a never-ending stream of kohlrabi and turnip greens. Then you go back to the farmer’s market and bam! There are fifteen new varieties of pluot since your last visit. And you don’t ever have to buy kohlrabi again, ever.
I bet you have a really amazing CSA that isn’t at all about turnip greens and guilt. I’m so happy for you.
The farmer’s market of our fair hamlet is rather underwhelming by Southern California standards—and by that I mean, it would still murder a green market most anywhere else. So we’ve returned to shopping at the Irvine Farmer’s Market at University Center on Saturday mornings, which remains, for my money, the best farmer’s market in Orange County for fruit and vegetables. My favorite fruit stand there is Arnett Farms of Fresno, where they have taken the hybrid thing to the extreme. I have a limited attention span for fruit, and I want the Forever 21 of farm stands. At last visit, Arnett had nine different varieties of pluot in every color imaginable, and we’re only at the beginning of stone fruit season. I realize I’m totally Columbusing here, but bear with me. My most exciting discovery this week is the cherrium, a cherry-plum hybrid. About an inch in diameter with a tiny stone, they are like everything I’ve ever wanted in a fruit: tart, sweet, firm, and mouth-poppable. I’ve devoured a giant bag in thirty-six hours, and I’m nervous they will be gone by next week. You should get some before they are gone, unless of course you are beholden to your CSA for your stone fruit selections. Now if your CSA has cherriums, I think you’ve hit the jackpot.
As transplants have likely attested since the beginning of time, the seasons (or, rather lack thereof) in Southern California take some getting used to. I grew up in the foothills in Colorado, where long summers and winters are slightly punctuated with a short, muddy spring full of snowstorms and a week of prime aspen viewing in the autumn. I was thrilled as an adult to discover the pleasures of spring and fall in places with four distinct seasons, including New York City, where I spent my college years. It was a shock, then, to move to California and find myself confronted with an endless procession of sunny, seventy-degree days, month after month, year after year.
Yet one always finds new ways of tracking these things. Despite this terrible drought, a few seasonal markers have still come to pass this year, my favorite being the spring flowering of trees, species quite exotic to this pine tree forest bred lady. The purple blossoms of jacaranda trees now carpet our street, and a nearby block boasts the most beautiful flame of the forest that I’ve ever seen. I take a special detour on my way home every day to marvel at its primeval good looks.
Surely the most unpleasant seasonal symptom here is the arrival of the Santa Ana winds. They howled into town quite unseasonably yesterday, and the resulting mix is ninety-degree heat, clouds of dust, and total desiccation. We’re used to seeing them in the ‘fall’, when memories of our relatively temperate summers are scorched out by these desert winds. Sweaty and parched, I needed a reminder today of how beautiful things were last week and thought you might too, so here’s the photographic evidence. Hope you are staying cool, dear reader, wherever this finds you.
Are you guys still following Monsieur Bigoudis’ photos on flickr? Just because I fancy myself a decent photographer nowadays (snort) doesn’t mean that you still shouldn’t be looking at the real deal on a regular basis. In particular, I’m loving her work from a trip to Japan this past spring:
Sigh. I have such a totally rose-colored romance about Japan, likely the result of watching Sans Soleil a few too many times. It’s totally at the top of my travel wish list, no thanks to M’s gorgeous images of her trip.
My girl also recently clued me in to a little YouTube gem: Wim Wenders’ documentary about the people who make the wax food replicas that decorate many of the entrances of restaurants around Japan (and Japanese restaurants the world over). Too too cool.
Hope you are having a great weekend, sweet reader. Let’s hook up for ramen later, yes?
MC, a good friend from my time California, has relocated to Chicago for the past two years. Despite my best intentions, I hadn’t managed to spend any time with him despite our relative geographic proximity this year. This was remedied when he drove out to the lake during our stay, both to escape the city heat and for a long awaited catch-up. B had never met MC before, so I prefaced the visit with the two most important things I know about my friend: (1) He likes Steely Dan better than anybody has liked Steely Dan, like, ever, and (2) He judges the quality of SoCal Mexican places by the quality and quantity of the escabeche on their salsa bar. Jalapeño to carrot ratio, spiciness level, container quality — the guy can tell you everything you want to know about every taco bar in the greater LA area.
It’s a great thing when you can fall back into step with a friend after not having seen them for years. One of the things that bums me out the most about the current state of my life is the feeling that all the people I like best seem to be scattered to the four winds. MC and B got along famously, supporting yet another iteration of my fantasy where all of my friends move to the same city and we live a blissed-out life together. I’ve always been a “family that you choose” kind of gal, and wish that all the folks that my good fortune has brought into my life could all be together somehow. But until we all meet again in Valhalla, visits like last weekend will have to suffice.
A decidedly well-mannered houseguest, MC arrived bearing the perfect gifts for Clarence. A pack of Daisy Cutter Pale Ale from the Half Acre Beer Company in Chicago was a delightful surprise, as was the paper-wrapped submarine sandwich smuggled across state lines from Bari Italian Subs. But far and away, the best gift he brought (and a strong contender for the Best Hostess Gift Ever Award) was this:
Do you guys know about giardiniera? I sure didn’t until this year. It’s no surprise that my escabeche-loving friend is also an appreciator of this amazing stuff. The consummate condiment of the Italian population of the greater Chicago area (and everybody else with a brain), this combination of pickled hot peppers, olives, bell peppers, carrots, celery, cauliflower, garlic, and the occasional mushroom is the ultimate addition to virtually any sandwich. As MC so rightly put it, something totally alchemical happens when giardiniera meets mayonnaise.
I was introduced to the stuff immediately upon my arrival in the Windy City last fall. B talked dirty to me the entire flight back to the states from Paris about our first meal on our native soil: Portillo’s Italian Beef with giardiniera. Like the French dip sandwich of your childhood (but better), Chicago’s famous Italian beef sandwiches get their verve from the crunchy, spicy, tangy, salty taste of giardiniera. The stuff is fantastic on any kind of deli meat sandwich. MC recommended that we try putting it on a pizza with some Italian sausage, which sounds like a really excellent goal for the future.
Mezzetta (you know, ‘Don’t forgetta!) makes a kind of passable version of the stuff that I’ve seen in grocery stores outside of the Midwest. Here in Indiana, our fridge is never without a jar of the Dell’Alpe’s hot giardiniera relish, which I slather on grilled cheese sandwiches and mix with the yolks of my devilled eggs. You can also get a pretty fantastic giardiniera on your sandwich at the Potbelly chain, which sells a delicious, if overpriced, version in jars at some of their locations. But MC knows his stuff, and Bari’s giard’ is the best one around. He advises to give it a rough chop if you are putting it in a sandwich, and to go whole hog should you want to sprinkle it on a pizza. This jar is coming with us to California next week when we move as a memento of our year of giardiniera eating.
Get some if you can, dear reader. And whether your summer includes this Midwestern heat or not, hope you are staying cool. Sing us out, Steely:
Confronted with the possibility of another sweltering week without air conditioning in Bloomington, we gleefully packed up and headed north for a week to that hazy zone on the Indiana/Michigan border where B’s parents’ live. Ostensibly we were cat-sitting while they were out of town, but mainly we were taking advantage of their lovely lakeshore digs. There’s something about being alone in your parents’ house (or in this case, my boyfriend’s parents’ house) that always feels like playing grown-up. This was an especially pronounced feeling last week, as we channeled middle-aged retirees, cruising around the lake on the family pontoon boat with beer cozies in hand. We wore shorts and tucked our shirts in. We waved at the neighbors and gossiped under our breath. We crashed local potlucks bearing makeshift fruit salads. We yelled at tourists that rode their jetskis too close to shore, and muttered obscenities if other boats broke the ‘no-wake’ rules after dark. In short, we gave one possible version of our future selves a serious test drive, and I’ll admit it was pretty awesome.
The Michiana area is made up mostly of farms, so we took advantage of the bounty of local produce and stuffed ourselves stupid with sweet corn, Michigan blueberries, and some of the sweetest heirloom tomatoes I’ve eaten in years. The best local farm stand is Diamond Acres Farm (located on Kamp Kosy, south of Cassopolis, Michigan off the M-62 just past the high school, open 10-6 everyday) and we found ourselves there almost every day. The sweet corn is in full force already, and we happily grilled a few ears every night alongside venison steaks we lifted from B’s dad’s personal hunting cache. The peaches from Diamond Acres weren’t ready just yet, but I brought them home with me, hoping that they will soften up in a paper bag so that I can satisfy my seasonal jones for peach-cobbler.
On days when we didn’t want to fire up the grill, we ate enormous, delicious breakfasts at the local Amish-run bakery, Farm House Bakery and Restaurant (59573 White Temple Road, Vandalia, Michigan, 49095, 269.476.9668). Farm House Bakery makes of one of the fluffiest, yummiest cinnamon rolls I’ve had in a long time, and you can opt for one instead of toast with most of their breakfasts at no extra charge, making a believer out of even the most skeptical patron of this religiously-inflected restaurant.
We also frequented our beloved Vlasicak’s Meat Market & Smokehouse (63490 M 62 South, Cassopolis, Michigan 49031, 269.445.8763), home of the world’s best beef jerky. Seriously, dear reader, this is literally the most amazing beef jerky I’ve ever eaten, and this is coming from someone who probably knew the word pemmican before I knew the words Mama or Dada. We smuggled Vlasicak’s jerky to France, give it without a trace of irony as gifts, and keep an inordinately large hoard in our refrigerator at all times. Needless to say, jerky and Michigan IPA’s make for an excellent pontoon-boat cruising combination.
On our final day at the lake, a neighbor came over to deliver a bowl of chicken salad, “Just in case you kids were getting hungry.” Later that day as we drove by some family friends, they invited us to a hog roast at the local camp. Our friend M was visiting from Chicago, and he was incredibly charmed by all the rural hospitality. The three of us went to the roast, ate our fill and then some, and listened to oldies covers played by a local band, the adorable Misspent Youth of South Bend, Indiana. While I had hoped for a spit-shot, by the time we arrived everything had already been expertly butchered. You’ll just have to trust me that it was a pretty swell way to spend an evening.