Photo by Andreae Prozesky
This summer, for the first time in many years, I’ve been getting weekly organic vegetable bags from a local farm. Community-Supported Agriculture is probably old news to many of you, but for anyone else, here’s how it goes: in the spring, you buy a share of your CSA crop, paying up-front for your season’s worth of whatever the farm produces. Your payment goes toward all of the seeds, supplies, labour and whatnot that the farm requires. Then you get tasty, fresh vegetables (and some fruits, and berries and herbs and such) through the summer and into the fall.
The wonderful thing about this system is that you’re getting excellent local organic produce for a fairly reasonable price, while at the same supporting good environmental stewardship and labour practices.
The challenging thing about it is you have no control over which particular vegetables you get, and you may have no idea what to do with them.
But this is not at all a bad thing. I would never have tried Swiss chard if I hadn’t ended up with CSA baskets full of it about ten years ago. It’s now one of my favourite vegetables. Normally, I never buy snow peas, because they’re always lashed to a black Styrofoam boat with two layers of cling-wrap, wilting in their own misery. Now, for weeks, I’ve had more snow peas than I’ve eaten since I was a kid (in a friend’s back yard, with gluttonous abandon), and I’ve been compelled to make delicious, black-bean-sauce-laced stir-fries as a result. Garlic scapes are so obscure a vegetable I’ve never even seen them in a grocery store, but earlier in the season I binged on them and lament the fact that their days are gone and I won’t have any more until next year.
Despite my best intentions when opening up my basil-scented, leafy green veggie bag each Tuesday evening, I often don’t manage to use up my veggie share over the course of the week.
Sunday and Monday nights are usually mad scrambles to find the best way to eat up any languishing vegetables. The lettuces and other salad greens, herbs, and edible flowers are easy to work with: toss with oil and vinegar and devour—checking first for any little buggy or sluggy friends who may have made their way out of Portugal Cove hiding along the ribs of my Romaine.
Braising greens like kale, chard, and beet tops, that haven’t made their way onto a plate are blanched and frozen for winter. I’m sure I’ve talked about blanching greens a million times, but just in case: clean and chop your greens, removing tough ribs and stems. Dunk them into boiling water for about a minute (two minutes for really big, tough ones like kale), strain them out into a big bowl of ice water, pat them dry with a tea towel, and put them into freezer bags with the air squeezed out. Nothing to it. Extra green beans, fava beans, cauliflower, broccoli, and the like get the same treatment.
But if I want it all to end up in my bowl instead of in my freezer, I either make some kind of veggie-packed pasta, or turn to my new standby: risotto. For years I scoffed at risotto as having some kind of early-1990s restaurant-chic tackiness to it, but I know now I was wrong. Risotto is so deliciously silky and comforting, so easy and so versatile, it’s the perfect veggie-user-upper. Even children like it, although, if you have children who are old enough to be suspicious of anything too foreign-sounding, you might want to call it “cheesy rice with vegetables.” If you’ve never made it before, and have been under the impression that risotto requires hours of endless stirring, let me assure you that it’s only twenty minutes, half an hour, max, and it’s well worth it. The reason for all that stirring is this: when the grains of rice rub up against each other, their starchy outer layer sloughs off, and that turns into the smooth, glistening sauce that holds the whole thing together.
It’s a beautiful thing. The stirring is quite meditative, really, and watching the grains of rice change from tiny, hard little things, through oil-glistening translucency, to their final, pearlescent state is pure magic.
And, even if it’s not magic, it’s delicious.
Summer vegetable risotto
1 to 1 ½ litres stock (vegetable or chicken)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped finely
3 garlic cloves
2 cups risotto rice (Arborio and Calrose are easiest to find)
½ cup white wine, Vermouth, or additional stock
3 tablespoons butter
In a large pot on the back burner, bring stock to a simmer. Reduce heat to low.
In a medium Dutch oven over medium heat, sauté onions in olive oil until translucent, about three minutes. Add crushed garlic and sauté one minute more. Add rice and cook, stirring, until a few grains begin to pop. Add vegetables and stir to combine.
Add wine, stirring constantly until wine is absorbed. If your rice or vegetables begin to stick to the bottom of the pan, turn the heat down. Add one ladleful of stock and stir, scraping the bottom, until the stock has been fully absorbed. Continue to add stock, one ladleful at a time, stirring between additions so that it is fully absorbed. This will take about twenty minutes altogether, and you may need more or less stock depending on how absorbent your rice is. Towards the end of the twenty minutes, begin tasting your rice; it should be cooked al dente, soft but with a slight bite at the centre. Italian rices like Arborio naturally maintain a bit of a bite, while American rices like Calrose cook a little softer.
Stir in fresh herbs, if using, and Parmesan cheese. Add salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste. Just before serving, add butter and stir through.
Serve with an additional sprinkling of herbs and Parmesan, if you like.
It occurs to me—and I have no experience to support this—that you could probably replace the Parmesan with some light miso thinned out with wine or stock and a generous sprinkling of good-tasting nutritional yeast, and swap the butter for some more good, fruity olive oil, and have a delicious dairy-free dinner. I don’t think you would get away with calling it risotto, but that’s no matter. If you try this, leave a comment and drop me a line and let me know how it turned out, okay? Leave a comment here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.