NEWS FROM MARIQUITA: A CSA Journal

Recipe for success
America the melting pot? Probably not. America the soup pot? Maybe. What Andy's learned from his CSA is that pleasing 900 deliciously diverse individuals is a challenge but one that's not totally insurmountable.

By Andy Griffin

Farm-at-a-glance

Mariquita Farm
www.mariquita.com

Location: Land in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king; Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España, foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head vegetable packer
Range of crops: greens, root crops, tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year

May 12, 2005: It was common once to hear America described metaphorically as a melting pot. Now I hear people saying America is a soup pot. We’re still talking pots but the soup pot metaphor doesn’t conjure up an industrial setting where some new human alloy is being forged. Instead “America the soup pot” suggests a homey kitchen scene. Never mind the fact that a lot of Americans hardly cook anymore, people who use the soup pot metaphor wish to convey the hope that the our nation is a savory blend of distinct ethnic and cultural ingredients where each group contributes a unique flavor without losing its integrity and somehow the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But every metaphor has its limits.

I’m a farmer growing vegetables for a diverse community of subscribers so I have to think a lot about who these subscribers are and what they’re going to want to put in their pots. I’m also a 45 year old white male. My life would be easier if I could just grow the crops that I like to eat and fill the share boxes with the quantities and varieties of produce that I find harmonious. But it would be bad business to limit the appeal of our program to the people who eat like me when so many of my neighbors have very different habits and expectations.

My life would be really easy if my customers all shared my farm crew’s tastes. The people who work for me come from little farms in rural Mexico and they have plenty of experience growing corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, cilantro, chiles, cacao, vanilla, bananas, coffee and sugar cane. Half the production problems I experience would be eliminated if I could just tell my workers, “Do what you’ve always done, the way you’ve always done it, and I’ll pay you.” But farming doesn’t work like that. Subscription farming is a balancing act between the expectations of a heterogeneous community of subscribers and the limitations the local environment puts on crops and farming practices. Sometimes the environment is the easiest part of the equation to solve.

As near as I can tell the only common denominator among the 900 families and individuals that make up the body of subscribers my farm feeds every week is that they have a lot of education. Beyond that they come in all colors and stripes. Quite a number of folks have come to the CSA\ program because they enjoy cooking and can taste the freshness of the ingredients we’re offering. Other people join the CSA because they don’t cook (maybe don’t even know how) but wish to push themselves into learning new skills and habits. A sizable number of our subscribers are vegetarian or even vegan. Crafting a planting schedule that takes everybody’s diverse tastes into account isn’t easy. So what do we do?

The number one tool on our farm besides our tractor is our computer. Each week we email a newsletter out to our subscribers that tells them what’s coming in their box and offers suggestions on how to prepare it in a variety of ways. An unspoken set of guidelines helps us decide which recipes to include. First of all we put as few recipes that use meat in our newsletter as possible. Vegans and vegetarians may not make up the majority of our subscribers but why alienate them? Recipes that call for meat are easy to find for those who are interested and, besides, we grow vegetables and we want the recipes to focus on what our shareholders find in their boxes.

Simplicity of preparation is a virtue with any recipe. People don’t have a lot of time and we want them to be satisfied with our vegetables. If the recipes are too complicated some of our subscribers who look to the newsletter for help are going to be discouraged. My wife cooks a lot and she underlines any recipe that is fast, flavorful, and easy.

We also try to keep any outstanding ethnic holidays in mind. Arugula is a bitter green so if we can have it in the box around Passover for the Seder meal, we do. Once I counted back on the calendar 30 days from Easter and made a note to plant Easter Egg radishes so that we’d have pretty tri-colored radishes in the box for all the folks that worship the Easter Bunny. And the Persians like to use fava beans in a dish that is traditional to serve on their New Year so we try to accommodate them. To offer recipes from beyond the confines of our own experiences, we solicit from our subscriber base and from the chefs at the different restaurants we deliver to. An open mind is a good thing.

Then there the chile peppers.

I love chile peppers and so does my farm crew. Like some of my workers I ascribe curative properties to the chile and recommend lots of hot chile peppers to clear up colds, drive off hang-overs, and generally contribute spice and vivacity to salsa, pizza, soup, and life. But here I run into problems with America The Soup Pot.. A lot of Americans, it seems, don’t want chiles in their pot, period!

Since chile peppers are so versatile, flavorful, healthy, and easy to grow it, seems a shame not to put them in the share box. But some people do complain and it’s not possible to send out individually prepared boxes. So we compromise. A couple of times a season we include a few hot peppers in each share box so that people know we have them . Then we invite our shareholders to come to the farm and pick their own hot peppers. That way we satisfy both crowds.

Other vegetables that are easy to grow in our region but are a hard sell to the mythic everyman are eggplant, radicchio, and sorrel. My wife has an equation that’s based on her tastes: eggplant twice a season if they’re pretty heirlooms (some folks make a centerpiece out of them and forgo cooking the eggplants altogether), sorrel once a season, and radicchio once a decade. We used radicchio in our share boxes five years ago and Julia got tired of fielding complaints.

A lot can change in five years, though. I've noticed crops that were once seemingly forever locked in some ethnic closet, like fennel, mei quin choy and cilantro are finding wider acceptance. Maybe America is both a soup pot open to new ingredients and a melting pot. For my part, I hope those of us in the CSA movement can forge a new kind of consumer that wants to buy a wide range of fresh produce that has been grown in a sustainable way by local farmers for local consumers. Am I thinking outside of the pot?

Mariquita Recipes

Sorrel Soup

Chop the stems and leaves from one bunch of sorrel. Melt some butter and sweat some chopped onion or leek, then add the stems and leaves of the sorrel. Add a few cups of stock(vegetable or chicken) with a bit of salt and pepper to taste. To get fancier: you can add milk or creme fraiche or half and half and pureé this soup... It can be eaten hot or chilled.

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Princess Eggplant from Julia

I got this recipe from a couple different friends when I lived in China.

2 pounds smallish white eggplants
3 tablespoons peanut or safflower oil
2-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bunch erbette chard, washed and roughly chopped (it’s ok to leave water on the leaves)
1 bunch parsley or cilantro, chopped

Sauce
Mix together with a bit of water:
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon dark sesame oil
1 Tablespoon black bean sauce

CUT the eggplants into large-ish bite-sized pieces. Cook them over high heat in the oil, after 2 minutes, add the garlic and stir often, until the eggplants are mostly cooked through. Add the chard and mix in until it’s wilted some, about 1 or 2 minutes.

Add the sauce to the still-hot eggplant mixture.

STIR in the parsley or cilantro just after removing from the heat, serve with rice.

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Cilantro Pesto

1 clove garlic
2 T chopped toasted walnuts or almonds
1/2 c washed, roughly chopped cilantro
1/4 c olive oil
2 T grated Parmasan or crumbled feta cheese

Mince garlic to a paste in food processor or garlic press or bowl. Grind together walnuts and chopped cilantro. Add garlic paste, the oil, and the parmesan cheese and blend the mixture until combined. Boil the pasta with which you'll serve the pesto (ravioli recommended, but you could use anything). Reserve 1/4 c cooking liquid when you drain the pasta. Add the reserved liquid to the cilantro mixture (makes it smooth, and warms it for eating) and blend until smooth. Toss the pasta with the pesto and serve.


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