Fall For Brussels Sprouts

Dave the Dog with this year's harvest

Dave the Dog with this year’s harvest

According to some, there is only one good way to serve Brussels sprouts – on someone else’s plate.  Dave the Dog disagrees, and will faithfully guard and gratefully eat any you send his way.  I just recently began to understand his perspective.

As a child growing up, Brussels sprouts were in the “no thank you” category in my house – the one dish my mother would allow us to politely decline.   While the overly processed, canned, and severely boiled Brussels sprouts of my youth were hard to stomach, the truth is that Brussels sprouts are a nutritious and versatile vegetable, abundant in both Vitamin C and Vitamin K and containing many antioxidants.

Aside from being good for you, I have discovered that fresh Brussels sprouts are delicious!  Brussels sprouts can be prepared using many different methods and they do not require many ingredients or skillful cooking to bring out their flavor.  If you are still in doubt, here are my two favorite ways to prepare and eat Brussels sprouts.

This first method is an almost sure-fire way to convert even the most reluctant Brussels sprouts eater to a raving fan:  Brussels sprouts braised in cream.  Here is a simple recipe for this amazing dish.  All I can say is that whoever first decided to try simmering Brussels sprouts in cream was a culinary genius.  For very little effort, you end up with a dish that melts in your mouth – and it even smells good when it is cooking!  Some of my favorite on-line reviewer comments of this recipe include “bewitching”, “self righteously easy”, and “makes the toughest man purr like a kitten”.

The second method is the most versatile – roasted Brussels sprouts.  This gloriously simply approach involves just tossing your cleaned and trimmed Brussels sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasting them in a 400 degree oven for 35-40 minutes, until the outside is caramelized with some burnt-looking edges.  (Editor’s Note: It’s best to try to get your sprouts to be the same size so they will cook evenly–halving or quartering the larger ones to be about the same size as the smallest ones should do the trick.  Depending on the size of your sprouts, or if you’ve halved/quartered the bigger ones, you may find they are done in only 20 minutes.)  Roasting Brussels sprouts brings out their sweet, nutty goodness and creates a wonderful “tooth” with a tender inside and slightly crispy outside.  There are scores of variations to meet your mood and your taste – try roasting with balsamic vinegar and honey, with garlic and pancetta, with bacon and mustard, and with other root vegetables.  Pretty much your imagination is the only limitation with roasted Brussels sprouts.  Some of my favorite on-line comments about roasted Brussels sprouts include “effortless,” “fell in love,” and “tiny nuggets of joy.”

So next time you see those great stalks of Brussels sprouts at your farmers market or in your CSA box, go with confidence and happiness that you are soon to enjoy this delicious fall treat!  Dave the Dog guarantees it!

More to try:

Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Lemon and Pecorino, Food52 (use any  NY aged hard sheep’s milk cheese to locavore-ize it)

Crispy Fried Brussels Sprouts with Honey and Sriracha, Food52 (use NY honey and a local hot sauce)

Oregano Brussels Sprouts, 101 Cookbooks (great photos of prepping the vegetable, if you’re not accustomed to it)

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Fall’s Royal Crop: Growing, Selecting and Eating Storage Squash

Erik Fellenz weighs red kuri squashWith names that tend toward the fairy-tale (Cinderella, Moonshine, Black Forest, Hubbard, Carnival) to the exotic (Rouge Vif D’Etampes, Musque de Provence, Kakai, Red Kuri) to the downright confusing (Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, NutterButter, Pink Banana), the thick-skinned storage varieties of the Cucurbitaceae plant family (which also includes summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers, decorative gourds, chayote, and luffa gourds) represent a diverse and flavorful food source for us in the Northeast.  Many of us are accustomed to paying rock-bottom prices for pumpkins and gourds destined only for carving and decoration, and buying canned pumpkin off a grocery store shelf (organic canned pumpkin is available in this day and age, a nice alternative for the non-DIYers among us).  A conventionally-grown or imported pumpkin creates quite a toll on the environment, and builds a perception that all thick-skinned squashes, whether for centerpieces, Jack-o-Lantern carving, or eating, should be a cheap food.  Squash may not be as precious as baby salad greens at the start of the spring, or those heavy 3-lb heirloom tomatoes at summer’s peak, but growing flavorful, ripe squash at a small scale, without conventional pesticides and fertilizers, and in our unpredictable climate zone, causes farmers to either take a loss to bring us these colorful fall favorites at our expected price point, or ask a large price for something we’ve come to expect to be cheap.

While squash indeed grows in our region, and is prized for its nutritious flesh that keeps within a protective shell throughout the winter, our Northeast summers are not ideal for this plant to bear and set fruit.

Challenges and Strategies for Growing Winter Squash:

More days in the field means more potential for pest infestations, disease-producing conditions, weeds taking over, and mammals to munch leaves.

Other crops (including those high-priced greens and tomatoes) can’t be grown in a squash field for the whole spring-summer-fall season, an example of an opportunity cost.

Plenty of heat and sun (temperatures in the 80’s during the day and 60’s at night) are needed for squash to grow well.  With 2014 providing an excellent example, it’s clear that our climate doesn’t provide that consistently.  Growers have some management options here, including black plastic, Biotella biodegradable mulch, or dark landscape fabric (all of these help with weed suppression, too), a well-sited field with southern exposure, and starting the plants in a greenhouse or cold frame to have them maturing for more of the hot days of the year.

Squash are susceptible to moisture-borne diseases, namely powdery and downy mildew.  Variety selection and air circulation are key for crops, but no grower is immune to poor weather.  While some growers will provide cucumbers a drier environment in a high tunnel, this is not practical for the area of space and amount of time (again, it’s an opportunity cost, this time with expensive infrastructure) the pumpkins and winter squash require.  Disease-tracking reports are available to help growers be aware of the movement of disease via tropical storms.  Yearly crop rotation and proper disposal of infected plants help the chemical-free grower avoid future issues with these diseases.  Organic producers must always be on the preventative side, planning management tactics into their production plans, rather than wait for disease and pest problems that can be killed via non-organic methods.  If you’re interested in being such a savvy producer (of more than winter squash), attend the October 21st workshop in Geneva, NY, which will feature a number of experts in organic disease management!

Squashes need lots of soil fertility, so a grower needs to build soil for years prior to a planting of winter squash, and any crop that follows squash should be one that returns nutrients to the soil (like leguminous cover crops), or at least does not require a lot of soil fertility.  This long-term planning, and heavy use of resources outside of the actual growing year for the squash crop, makes the cost of production even higher than most farmers calculate.Joshua Levine (13)

Squash plants are spaced out significantly in the field to allow the roots to soak up nutrition, and the vines spread out to absorb the 3-4 months of sunshine that go into ripening each hefty, colorful, knobbly, lovable fruit.  Weeds can populate the between-vine and between-plant space and cause serious competition.  Cultivation and tillage when the plants are young might be one option for controlling weeds, but hand labor or deciding to not weed are the late-season options for weed control.  Growers use mulch to reduce the areas of the field where weeds can catch sunlight and flourish, and there has been some research into no-till methods of growing squash.  Conventional squash fields can be sprayed with certain herbicides to kill grassy weeds, and organic farmers can’t take that option.

Ripe squash fruits are heavy and require lots of labor and proper conditions to move from the field to storage, and from storage to sale.  Fair labor and living wages for farmers and their crew mean that squash harvest is pricey!  Squash must also be “cured” for 7-10 days at 80 to 85 degrees, meaning a grower must hope for late-summer/early fall heat waves or use up high tunnel and greenhouse space for curing.  A good storage facility for long-term storage has temperatures around 50 degrees and 60% relative humidity.  Beyond that, there should be good protection from rodents and the stock should be checked regularly for signs of storage decay, which can spread.

Further resources:

Enjoying and Eating Winter Squash:

pumpkins groupNow that you know the ways that your local farmer is working to bring you these great foods, you’re probably in the market for a few good techniques to prepare these squashes.  Some are better for certain applications, and your best bet is to ask a farmer about how watery/dry the flesh is, and how sweet/savory the flavor.

To roast small squash (Delicata, Acorn and Carnival varieties), you can split them stem-to-end, scoop out the flesh, and rub them with just a little fat, salt and seasoning (see below for ideas).  For larger varieties, peel and cut the squash into chunks or slices and massage with the oil and seasoning combination, then bake until tender.  Bake halves on a tray (line with parchment or foil, or just embrace the scrubbing you may need to do later) cut-side down in a 400 degree oven until you can pierce the skin with a fork and find soft flesh underneath.  Make a whole batch of roasted squash, and see all the ways that it can feed you.  Intact but cooked-through and chilled squash pieces even work well in salad, and any amount of cooked flesh can be dumped into simmering broth, then pureed into soup.

The drier fleshed squashes can be sliced very thinly and added to skillet sautees and even stir-fries (make sure they get good browning in a hot pan with oil, and that they cook through).

All squash will steam up nicely, cubed, sliced or chunked.  Keep an eye on it to keep it from disintegrating (use it for soups and better-than-potato mashes if you end up with too-soft pieces).  Pile some cooked beans and salsa atop, dress simply with olive oil, or add to a pasta dish.

A pressure cooker (assuming it’s the right size) makes quick work of halves and quarters of squash.  Just 10 minutes atop a steam insert is really all it takes.  Add some strong herbs into the steaming water for a lovely infusion of flavor.

Try these flavor combinations with squash:

  • olive oil, black pepper, garlic paste, and rosemary
  • sesame oil, maple syrup, and miso paste or soy sauce
  • butter, crushed fresh or dry sage, thyme and honey
  • olive or sunflower oil, crushed hot pepper or chile powder, cocoa powder (not cocoa mix), smoked paprika
  • coconut oil and curry powder or garam masala blends of spices
  • “Pumpkin Spice” mixes tend to include cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves; they go well with butter
  • finish any of your squash dishes with chopped and toasted nuts or (appropriately) pumpkin seeds or something creamy

Make your own pumpkin puree (via Local Kitchen, the key is straining out lots juice from the cooked flesh, then it will act much like the canned type, but with local flavor!)

Variety guide (Co+Op)

See the ode to winter squash (and all Cucurbitaceae) in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy.

Tips for cutting the tough and dense raw fruits abound on YouTube: Soften the skin in hot water (Down to Earth Organic & Natural), navigating the butternut shape (Chef Tips), Use the microwave (CHOW)

More fun recipes: Pumpkin Spanikopita (Local Kitchen), Butternut Squash and Kale Beef Stew (Girl Meets Paleo), Red Kuri Creme Fraiche Pie (Co+Op), Roasted Winter Squash Salad (101 Cookbooks)

Discovering Joy, Community, and a Healthier Self through Local Food

Sondra Gjersoe is one of the friendly voices you may hear when you dial our general office line.  She’s the Administrative Assistant for NOFA-NY, and when she’s not answering general inquiries, she coordinates Sponsorship and Advertising opportunities, the Locavore Challenge, the Farmers Pledge program, the Neighborhood Farm Share program and so much more!  Here’s her tale of becoming a Locavore.

About a decade ago, I had a bit of a revelation. I had reached an all-time low, the end of a long term relationship, dissatisfaction in my job, a loss of self-identity and self-worth. I would go to work, come home, shut myself off from the world and sit in front of the computer fiddling around until I was so tired I’d pass out. My sedentary lifestyle took its toll on me physically; I reached my heaviest weight ever, and began to have heart palpitations at work when I was moving quickly. This was different from the Sondra I knew I could be.  I come from a long line of mariners (ask me how to pronounce “Gjersoe” the proper way).  My Scandinavian heritage and childhood upbringing instilled in me a great love for the sea, a frolicsome friend full of joy, laughter and mirth… I go there when I’m happy and my spirit longs to be wild and free.  At that dark time in my life, just like other periods of struggle or quiet reflection, I was longing to feel grounded, longing to be reminded of the roots I had forged in my community and longing to share in the creation of new growth.  I knew I had to be willing–nay, eager–to put forth the effort to make positive changes to improve my health, and the pathway seemed to involve connecting to the earth and growing anew.

I eased into it, did some research on nutrition and started changing my diet, incorporating fresh organic foods rich in vitamins and nutrients that boosted my mental health. I began to visit local farmer’s markets and discovered a rich tapestry of life, a community coming together.

So much inspiration can come from a box of vibrantly colored "lunchbox" peppers.

So much inspiration can come from a box of vibrantly colored “lunchbox” peppers.

I would often strike up conversations with the farmers, learning more about their lives, their passion for farming. There was a sense of coming together and sharing and I found myself filled with inspiration. I started doing things that brought me joy again; cooking new dishes, sewing, yoga, and I bought myself a bike and started cycling.

SondraCycling

The weight flew off, my muscles strengthened, and the feel-good endorphins kicked in.  I was living again, laughing, appreciating the abundance around me. I realized that though the source of the change started within me, I fueled that power to change with healthy, delicious food rooted in a community both vibrant and welcoming.

Stir FrySharing recipes and ideas was important at the start of my locavore journey.  My wok became my best friend as I began to eat more healthy, so I thought I’d link you to a garlic chicken stir-fry recipe.  That said, I don’t worry too much over recipes–technique is more important than what can look like lengthy ingredient lists.  [Editor’s note: if you want more recipes and technique guidance, Serious Eats will walk you through all the ways to maximize flavor while you choose which local and organic produce and meats to use as the star players].  I prefer to play “mad scientist” with what’s available and seeing what I come up with.  It’s part of the fun of taking ownership over my healthy lifestyle.

Surprising Sweet Corn – Fresh Today, Frozen Tomorrow!

Corn from Maple Slope Farm August 2014

Fresh Corn from Maple Slope Farm

Sweet Corn!  We hope for it to be knee high by the 4th of July, but it’s now tall and tasseled and ripe for the picking and enjoying, be it steamed, grilled, roasted or raw.  There is no bad way to eat fresh picked sweet corn.   There is no such thing as too much sweet corn.  There is only sadness when sweet corn season ends.  Well, I have found a way to enjoy the late summer taste of sweet corn all year round, and you can too.

Fresh sweet corn is very easy to freeze, and this is the time of year when I buy in bulk to assure my winter supply.  Just shuck the corn, remove the silk, and scrape the kernels off the cob using a sharp knife.  Put the kernels (along with any “milk”)  into the freezer container of your choice – I like to use 1 quart sized freezer bags, and I put the kernels from 2 ears in each bag.  Then just pop the containers into the freezer, and you are done!  When the dark winter hits, you can use the frozen corn in any recipe that calls for corn – and it almost as good as fresh summer corn when simply steamed and served with some butter, salt and pepper.  It is like summer in a bowl for sure!

One of my favorite and most surprising recipes for fresh or frozen sweet corn is Sweet Corn and Herbes De Provence Risotto, a recipe from chef Cat Cora that I found on the Food Network website.  There is something very soothing about the process of making risotto, even for a marginal cook such as myself.   Anyone can stir a pot, after all!  It can be made using either the chicken broth as in the recipe, or you can use vegetable stock or even plain water if you prefer.  It requires a handful of ingredients that are easy to keep on hand (or substitute with local versions–a dry NY white wine, a hard sheep’s milk cheese from one of our awesome farmers) and is delicious with either fresh or frozen corn.  This dish is particularly wonderful with a side of a lightly steamed, bitter greens like Swiss chard, spinach, or beet greens, which really compliment the sweet “pop” of the corn and the flowery notes of the Herbes de Provence.  Leftovers also freeze well!

For many more tips and ideas for freezing your produce, see our earlier post on this very topic.