Thursday, August 28, 2014

Vegetable Feature: Onions

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz
Shallots and Cipollini Onions

You may have noticed by this point—especially if you’ve been a Harmony Valley Farm CSA member—that we’re really into onions. Our belief is that year-round, daily consumption of onions is not only important for our health but also for the flavor profile of the foods we prepare. These two convictions guide what Farmer Richard refers to as “our onion line-up.” Over the course of the season, an onion in some shape or form (we include garlic, leeks and ramps in this group, too) is included in each CSA box and, if it’s market season, you’ll be sure to find an assortment of these on our stand. Health-wise, the benefits of consuming onions are undeniable. Research suggests that onions may prevent blood clotting, lower your heart rate and guard against cardiovascular disease. Nutritionally, the presence of vitamin C makes onions an excellent source of dietary fiber and folic acid. Meanwhile, they also provide you with healthy doses of calcium, iron and quercetin—an antioxidant compound that, in layman’s terms, helps ward off disease. For the sake of comparison, onions contain approximately three times the amount of quercetin than kale, a widely regarded super food! It’s important to note that the potential nutritional benefits are most present in strong onions, which have a greater concentration of sulfur compounds (these are the culprits that make you tear-up when slicing and dicing your onions). The good news is, however, that the nutritional benefits remain largely intact regardless of whether you’re eating your onions raw or cooked—though some research does suggest that the potential benefits may be more effective when onions are consumed raw. 

Onions growing on raised beds with silver mulch to deter thrips
A great deal of time, energy and passion goes into growing these almighty onions. Farmer Richard recently reminisced on the evolution of Harmony Valley Farm’s approach to onion production. Basically, onions are inherently difficult to grow. One of the major impediments is a tiny insect called the thrip, which is highly elusive even in the face of organic insecticides. Thrips leave the onions with miniscule holes, which create a pathway of entry for various types of bacteria, fungi and disease, not to mention that in a wet environment, onions may become water-logged which can lead to soft-rot. Faced with the double challenge of thrips and the discovery that many of his onions contained some soft-rot, Farmer Richard reached out to the UW-Extension which promptly advised him to begin growing his onions on raised beds (imagine mounded rows on which crops are grown). Essentially, this would cause water to run off, which would maintain a drier growing environment. Unfortunately, doing this would require not only the purchase of a large amount of equipment, but labor demands would also intensify as mechanically cultivating weeds becomes less manageable with this specific approach. Nevertheless, after much hemming and hawing, 15 years ago Farmer Richard made the leap and converted the entire farm to a raised bed system. Paired with the use of reflective, silver mulch to deter the destructive thrips, Harmony Valley’s onions couldn’t be happier.

 By the time they get to you, Harmony Valley’s onions have had quite the journey. They are the first seeds to be planted in the greenhouse, which keeps them from freezing in the cold of early February.

Once they reach a certain size, they are transplanted into the field. “Transplanting two acres of onions and shallots takes several days,” Richard reflects. Then consider that all of the harvesting, topping and cleaning that takes place is done by hand, without the help of any mechanized equipment. Industrial, highly mechanized farms in California produce shallots that are never once touched by a human hand. They’re cheap, but there is an element missing—what Farmer Richard calls the “hand-
manicuring” component. We forego mechanization when it comes to our onions because using machinery can, and often does, cause damage, which means we wouldn’t be able to provide you with the same high quality onions that we currently do.

Egyptian Walking onions with radishes
Depending on the variety, onions are either slow or fast growing. The first onions to be harvested in the spring—Egyptian Walking onions and Potato onions—are actually planted along with garlic in the fall. Scallions—both green and, as of this year, red varieties—are the next to arrive, followed by cipollini and candy onions, such as the Sweet Spanish onions we’ve had lately. These onions are
relatively fast growing, which means they tend to store for shorter periods of time. With the arrival of late summer, the farm crew will prepare to harvest what we call yellow and red “storage onions,” which, by this point,
Potato onions in the field
have been in the ground for a few months. While they take quite a while to mature, these are the onions that will carry you through the cold winter months and into spring.

Onions being harvested by Harmony Valley Farm crew
It’s time now to return to that one aspect of onions that we all dislike—the fact that they can be a major pain to work with. Their strong smell is renowned, and in fact Egyptologists believe that onions were often entombed with the dead because it was thought that their strong scent would prompt the non-living to breathe again. That certainly says something about the olfactory power of the onion! And then there’s the aftermath that comes with cutting into an onion. Slicing through an onion releases the sulfur compounds held within, which often results in teary eyes and runny noses. As Farmer Richard says plainly, “The crying is a little hard to love.” Given that the onion has been around since 2500 B.C, it is not surprising that there are countless theories on how to minimize this pungency. Some of the older, more odd suggestions include holding an extinguished matchstick in your mouth or clenching a wooden spoon between your teeth while slicing. Less strange, but nonetheless ineffective methods involve immersing or slicing onions under running water, or wearing protective goggles. What has been shown to work well is simply refrigerating your onions over night or for a few hours prior to working with them. You might still find yourself tearing up, but the impact of the compounds will likely be subdued. On the other hand, cooking and caramelizing your onions highlights the natural sugars that have always been there but have been masked to varying degrees by the sulfur compounds. So, the next time you hold an onion in your hand, do as we do—look beyond the tears and appreciate the onion for the highly nutritious, masterful vegetable that it is!

Harvested onions in the greenhouse

Creamy Sweet Onion Soup
Recipe adapted from a recipe for Creamy Vidalia Onion Soup 
featured at

6 sweet onions (about 6 cups sliced onions)
3 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt, plus more to taste
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
½ cup heavy cream
3 egg yolks, beaten
1½ tsp paprika
Ground black pepper, to taste
⅛ tsp hot pepper sauce (optional)
2-4 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

1. In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions; saute until golden brown, about 10 minutes.
2. Stir in flour and salt and mix thoroughly. Gradually add chicken broth, stirring constantly. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes.
3. When onions are very tender, stir in milk and cream. Heat through. Remove ½ cup soup and put it in a small bowl. Slowly mix the egg yolks into the soup in the small bowl. Once the egg yolks are incorporated, pour the milk and egg mixture slowly into the remainder of the soup in the pan. Heat through, but do not allow the soup to boil.
4. Stir in paprika, black pepper and hot pepper sauce (optional). Serve hot, and garnish with chopped parsley.

Green Lentils, Rice and Caramelized Onion
Recipe borrowed from Salma Hage’s book The Lebanese Kitchen.

Serves 4
1 cup green lentils
4 Tbsp olive oil
5 small onions, sliced
½ cup instant (easy cook) rice, rinsed
2 tsp salt
½ tsp tround cumin
½ tsp seven spices seasoning*
½ tsp black pepper

1. Put the lentils in a pan, pour in water to cover, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a skillet or frying pan, add the onions, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes until caramelized. Add the rice and salt to the pan of lentils, replace the lid and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the rice and lentils are tender and the liquid has been absorbed.
3. Stir in the cumin, seven spices seasoning, pepper and caramelized onions and serve warm.

*Seven Spices Seasoning Mix: You can buy this blend of spices pre-made, or you can make it yourself (see recipe below). It is good to use as a seasoning for sauces, meat, grilled vegetables and more.

Lebanese Seven Spices Seasoning
5 Tbsp ground allspice
3½ Tbsp ground black pepper
3½ Tbsp ground cinnamon
5 Tbsp ground cloves
4 Tbsp ground nutmeg
4 Tbsp ground fenugreek
4 Tbsp ground ginger.
Mix the spices together thoroughly and store in an airtight container in a dark place.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Featured Vegetable this Week: Tomatillos

By Chef Caleb Crets

Tomatillos are covered by a paper-like husk.
Tomatillos resemble a green tomato, except they are covered by a paper-like husk. They are thought to have originated in South America. When you cut one open, you’ll see that they have a dense flesh with a lot of tiny seeds which allows them to spread like a weed if the fruit drops off the plant and is left behind. They are a plant of the nightshade family and have many names such as husk tomato or green tomato.

Honey bee attracted to bright yellow blossoms assists in
pollination of the tomatillo plant.
We start tomatillos in the green house before transplanting them to the field about 4 weeks later. In the field, we put stakes in between the plants to support them as they grow. Each week the crew “ties” the growing tomatillo plants to keep the plant growing upward and keep the plants off the ground. Each week they grow about a foot (That’s about 2 inches a day!) until they get to be massive plants over 6 feet tall with a mess of stems and leaves that make it feel like a tomatillo jungle when you walk through the field. They aren’t bothered by too many insects, but they do attract a big black and tan bumble bee which likes to collect pollen from the abundance of yellow blossoms. When it’s time to harvest, the crew picks by feel, looking for the tomatillos that have filled their husks.
Tomatillo plants tower over Luis 
Tomatillos are commonly used to make salsa verde, but they can also be used in other types of sauces, moles, soups, stews, marinades and salads. They can be eaten raw or cooked. You’ll find they have a tangy, fruity flavor and a soft, smooth texture when cooked. You may also notice they have a lot of natural pectin that helps to thicken the sauce. Tomatillos are best stored at about 50°F, but can be stored on your counter for several days or in a paper bag in the refrigerator. Remove the husk before using and wash to remove the sticky film on the fruit. If you aren’t ready to use your tomatillos this week, you can remove the husk and pop them in the freezer in their raw form.

Fried Tomatillo Frittata
Recipe adapted from Deborah Madison’s book Vegetable Literacy.

Serves 4
3 medium to large or 6 small tomatillos, sliced ⅓-inch thick
½ cup fine corn meal or flour seasoned with salt & pepper
3-4 Tbsp olive oil
6 eggs
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
2 Tbsp sweet onion, minced
2 Tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
Salt & pepper, to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. On the stove-top, preheat an oven-proof skillet over medium heat and add 2 Tbsp oil. Dredge the tomatillo slices in the cornmeal or flour and pan-fry until golden brown on one side. Flip the slices over and brown the other side. You want them golden, but not mushy. Remove them from the pan and put them on a plate lined with paper towels or a rack.

2. Wipe out the pan to remove the oil you used to fry the tomatillos in. Add the remaining 1-2 Tbsp oil and return the pan to the stove. Decrease the heat of the burner to low.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until they are a little foamy on top. Add the parsley, onions and cheese. Pour the eggs into the skillet, season with a little salt and pepper. Place the fried tomatillo slices on top. Shake the pan gently a few times to settle the eggs. Cook on the stove top for a few minutes until you start to see the eggs set around the edges. Put the pan into the oven and continue to bake until the top of the frittata is lightly brown and the eggs are completely set.

4. Cut into wedges and serve as is or top with fresh corn relish or tomato slices.

Corn & Tomatillo Pizza with 
Fresh Tomatoes & Basil
by Andrea Yoder

Yield: 4 servings
15 ounces pizza dough (enough to make a 12-14 inch pizza)
1½ cups fresh corn kernels (from about 2 ears)
1½ cups tomatillos, large dice (husks removed)
3-4 Tbsp olive oil, divided
½ + ¼ tsp salt
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan or sharp cheddar cheese
1 tsp garlic, minced
2 tsp sunflower or vegetable oil
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
¼ tsp salt
8 oz mozzarella or Montery Jack cheese, shredded
2 small or 1 medium tomato, sliced thinly
½ cup fresh basil leaves, chiffonade (sliced thinly)

1. Bring dough to room temperature if it has been frozen or refrigerated. Preheat oven to 400°F.

2. In a food processor, combine fresh corn kernels, diced tomatillo, 2 Tbsp olive oil and ½ tsp salt. Pulse several times to roughly chop the vegetables and combine the mixture. The mixture should still be chunky. Do not puree it to a smooth consistency. Put the corn mixture in a strainer placed over a bowl and let set for about 10 minutes to drain off excess moisture. Once the corn has been drained, place the mixture into a bowl and stir in the garlic and Parmesan or sharp cheddar cheese. Set aside.

3. Heat a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add 2 tsp sunflower or vegetable oil. Once the oil is hot, add the mushrooms, onions, and ¼ tsp salt. Sauté vegetables until they are tender. Remove from heat and set aside.

4. Oil a pizza pan or stone with olive oil. Press the dough out evenly on the pan to about 12-14 inches in diameter. If you like a thin, crispy crust, press the dough a little thinner. Put the pizza crust in the preheated oven and par bake for about 10-12 minutes. Remove the crust from the oven and spread half of the shredded mozzarella or Monterey Jack cheese on the crust. Next, spread the corn & tomatillo mixture on the crust, taking it all the way to the edges. Top with sautéed onions & mushrooms and spread the remaining shredded cheese on top.

5. Return the pizza to the oven and bake until the crust is golden, and the cheese is melted and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and top with thin slices of tomato and basil. Cut and serve.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Salad Planting, Team Effort

Juan Pablo and Manuel, our Salad Planting
Team and so much more!

Let me start out by saying that we may call Manuel Morales Peralta (aka Caliman) and Juan Pablo Cervantes Correa (aka Pablito) our salad planters, but they plant a lot more than just salad greens. Their almost weekly plantings consist of radishes, cilantro, baby bok choi, baby kale, arugula and more! They have been the salad planting team for the past two years, and they have done a great job! They understand and participate in the entire process from preparing the beds for planting to irrigating and putting on row covers after planting and finally the harvest.
Weighing the seed to calibrate the salad
planter before heading to the field

Juan Pablo and Manuel
  calibrating the salad planter
They are very conscientious about each planting and pay attention to all the fine details. If we have a new lot of seed, they calibrate the salad planting machine to make sure we put out the right amount of seed. Machines aren’t always right though. They follow up in the field to make sure everything is planting at the correct rate. There is a lot to keep track of: seed depth, seeds per foot, rows per bed, planter settings, etc. They execute this process every week, complete with a full set of records and maps for our files.

So far this year they have done 17 plantings with a few more to go. There are a lot of steps in the process to get to the final product – a bag of washed salad mix packed into your CSA box. There are many people involved in making that happen, but we wanted to focus on these two gentlemen this week so you can get to know them better. They not only share a bond here at Harmony Valley Farm, but also at home in Mexico!

Juan Pablo always happy,
even when calibrating
the salad planter

Manuel and Juan Pablo making sure everything is okay before
moving ahead with planting. Notice the irrigation pipe in
background waiting to to be laid out in the field to water the
newly planted seeds.

So what is the deal with Manuel and Juan Pablo anyway? We have written a little about Manuel in a previous newsletter that included his brothers who also work on the farm. You can find that newsletter in October 17-19, 2011. At that time there were only 3 brothers here. However, we are happy to say there are now four Morales brothers working with us. That is it for the Morales brothers, there are no more, but there are a few sisters, One of which is a girlfriend to Juan Pablo! I will talk more about her in a moment. Manuel is married to a beautiful woman named Veronica with three boys at home. Eric is the oldest at 15, Manuel is 10 and Alexander is 5. Of course I asked the question, “Are you planning a child every 5 years? Maybe a new baby this year?” So, both Manuel and Alvaro (one of Manuel’s brothers helping to translate) shook their head and laughed a pretty straight forward no.
The Morales brothers: Manuel, Rafael, Jose Alejandro and Alvaro
Manuel lives near his entire family in the San Miguel area in Mexico. When back home he likes to go to the park and out to eat with his family and even dancing with Veronica. They have almost weekly meals at their parents’ house with his siblings and their families. I picture the Christmas chaos at my house and admire this family all the more. The genuine love and caring for not only their family, but the entire crew is admirable. They even invite Juan Pablo over for most of these dinners and he will go a lot of places as a member of the family. This brings me to, who is Juan Pablo?
Cervantes Correa brothers: Alfredo and Juan Pablo
So Juan Pablo is a single guy with his eye on Araceli Morales, a sister to Manuel. They have been ‘dating’ a few years now and Juan Pablo has been building a house in Mexico for when they get married, and no wedding before it is completed. Before you get too excited, there is no date planned yet, although I have been pushing for one. I was asked to go and of course I would love to attend that wedding. We will see when they actually set a date. I hear that the house is almost complete, just a few more windows and smaller framing work to finish it up. I started going through Juan Pablo’s family and found that each brother or sister has a whole story so I think I have them all with 7 siblings’ total. One of which, Alfredo, started working with us last year and is also ‘dating’ another Morales sister. The two families do like each other! One of Juan Pablo’s older brothers, Francisco, was killed in an accident last year at the age of 26. That was a hard story to hear, and for him to tell. His entire family is, in Alvaro’s words, ‘very religious’. They attend church together weekly and both Juan Pablo and Alfredo were helpers in their Catholic church in Mexico. Two of their sisters, Maria Carla and Alicia, still play piano, guitars and other instruments for their church at least once a week. Juan Pablo said they are actually there most nights. When in Mexico and not working on his house, Juan Pablo helps his father, Juan, with his business fixing tires in his tire shop.
One big family: Alfredo, Manuel, Rafael, Jose Alejandro, Alvaro and Juan Pablo

So now that I am not on the newsletter, I have a little more room to write. I have watched the way all of these six men interact with each other and it warms my heart to know that they truly care about not only each other, but the work they do as well.  I talked with Andrea and Richard about these guys and here are some of their comments.  

Manuel is always upbeat and ready to go.  He is willing to do anything that needs to be done.  Some of his other responsibilities include, but not limited to: irrigation, planting cover crop seeds and loading trucks after hours and so much more!

Juan Pablo gives the biggest, most sincerely warm hugs and always has a smile and a giggle to share.  He has stepped up this summer and has taken over animal responsibilities. He has a gentle touch with each one of them.  He also helps in irrigation and harvest crews.

Bottom line is that we really appreciate these two men and all they have contributed to Harmony Valley Farm.  We are lucky to have them and look forward to many more years of them helping us out here!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Farm Feature: Naylor Organics

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz

Mike and Nori Naylor, Naylor Organics,San Joaquin Valley California.
“Insanely good.” According to Mike Naylor, these two words pretty much sum up the Goldline peaches you’ll find in your box this week. With a flavor similar to that of one of the earliest peach varieties—the Nectar peach—Goldline peaches have a sweet skin and a distinct golden suture running down the body. Mike, along with his wife Nori, run Naylor Organics, an organic fruit operation located in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Today, Naylor Organics is the only place you’ll find Goldline peaches in production. Originally grown by Mike’s grandfather, the arrival of each harvest conjures fond memories of Mike’s childhood. “This is my all-time favorite variety,” he states cheerfully, going on to mention that if he and Nori parcel down their operation once they near retirement age, the Goldlines would be the only peaches they would continue to grow. But that’s still a ways off yet, Mike assures me.

Goldline peaches from Naylor Organics
This year’s harvest of these Goldline peaches does, however, mark the close of another growing season for the Naylors. “Three months of insanity is now over,” Mike says with a sigh of relief. The life of a farmer is far from easy, but with the persistent drought conditions in California, everyday challenges become magnified. For Mike, a severely diminishing water supply translates to him waking up every three hours to check on and move irrigation. Fortunately for the Naylors, their well made it through this season, but Mike suspects they’ll have to have another one drilled soon. “$50,000 to have a new well drilled,” Mike adds. “And there go the profits.”

Considering the implications of shouldering the high cost of such investments, the issues Mike touches on in his most recent blog post become ever more pertinent. In “Why low cost organic produce is bad for small farmers” (read it at, Mike discusses the additional pressures that small-scale organic farmers face once the “big guy” operations come to the fore. Their ability to absorb high investment costs while also operating at economies of scale allows large-scale growers to produce at high volume. The end result is an excess of organic produce on the market, which can ultimately lower the prices that other farmers receive for growing similar goods. While Mike recognizes that the availability of low-cost organics plays an important role in increasing low-income communities’ access to fresh and healthy foods, he points out the inherent conundrum he—and other small farmers like him—is facing: farms like Naylor Organics “cannot continue unless the sale price exceeds the cost of putting [the product] in the box.” It is at this point that you might ask yourself how your organic food was produced, and if you’re able to afford it, opt for supporting the smaller guys, like Mike and Nori. (For an interesting discussion that touches on this topic, check out Julie Guthman’s book Agrarian Dreams: The paradox of organic farming in California.)

Fortunately for Mike and Nori, they have been able to shield themselves from these negative impacts thanks to Naylor Organics’ hard-won and well-deserved reputation for producing high quality fruit. A few years ago, they also began looking for ways to diversify their farm income, aware that they wouldn’t be able to farm full-time forever. This season marked the fourth year that they’ve offered a Farm Stay option for folks interested in visiting and learning about what goes into running a successful small-scale organic fruit business. Guests come, tour the farm and ask questions. If they don’t ask questions, Mike assures me that he is always more than happy to pipe in with any number of stories he’s collected over the years. After spending the night on the farm, they’re greeted by a “hardy farm breakfast” and additional opportunities for learning and exploring. Thus far, the Naylors have had guests from as far away as India, China, and South Korea, and from as close as 30 miles down the road. Reflecting on the impact the Farm Stay has had on both his business as well as his personal life, Mike says: “[This program] forces me to remember what all we do, and how much fun we really have.”

Although he and Nori will take off for a restful trip to the mountains once the end-of-the-season bustle calms down a bit, Mike extended a warm invitation to all of Harmony Valley Farm’s fruit share members, should anyone find themselves in his neck of the woods. In the meantime, bite into those scrumptious Goldline peaches and enjoy them to the utmost! They truly are something special.

Peach, Almond & Cardamom Clafoutis
Recipe borrowed from Clotilde Dusoulier’s book, The French Market Cookbook.

Clafoutis is a baked French dessert traditionally made with black cherries. This version of the traditional dish is based on the traditional concept, but Clotilde puts her own spin on it. This is a simple, versatile dish to make for dessert or even brunch.

Serves 8
⅔ cup almond flour*
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 Tbsp cornstarch
½ tsp ground cardamom
3 eggs
¾ cup milk (may substitute almond milk)
2¼ pounds fresh peaches
Crème Fraiche or Greek Yogurt (optional)

1. In a medium bowl, combine the almond flour, all-purpose flour, sugar, cornstarch and ground cardamom. Break the eggs into the bowl and whisk until combined. Pour in the milk in a thin stream, whisking all the while to incorporate.

2. Preheat the oven to 350°.

3. Pit the peaches, cut them into slices without peeling and arrange on the bottom of a greased 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish. (Alternatively, use individual baking dishes)

4. Pour the batter evenly over the peaches. Bake until set and golden, 30 to 40 minutes (20-30 minutes for individual dishes).

5. Serve slightly warm, at room temperature, or cold, with an optional dollop of crème fraiche or Greek yogurt. The leftovers also do well at breakfast.

*Note:  Almond flour can be made by grinding whole almonds in a food processor or blender until you form a fine meal.

Bonus Recipe: Our Vegetable CSA box this week contained Watermelon and our Fruit CSA box contained Grapefruit. We'd like to share our recipe that we shared in our CSA member newsletter

Watermelon & Grapefruit Agua Fresca
Recipe featured in Bon Appetit magazine, June 2012.

Serves 2-3
4 cups chopped seedless watermelon
1 cup fresh grapefruit juice
2 Tbsp fresh mint, chopped (optional)
Ice, for serving

1. Puree watermelon and mint (if using) in a blender until smooth. Pour into a large bowl and let stand for 10 minutes. Skim the foam from the surface and discard. Set a fine-mesh sieve over a large pitcher; line the sieve with cheesecloth. Strain the puree into the pitcher. You should have 2-3 cups of juice.

2. Stir in grapefruit juice.

3. Pour the agua fresca into two tall glasses with ice. Serve immediately.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Vegetable Feature: Eggplant

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz

It’s that time of year already—eggplant season! A member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, eggplant is indigenous to a vast region that includes northeast India, Burma, northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and southwest China. It is believed to have grown wild over this spread of land for the last 1500 years. As trade routes flourished, the eggplant made its way to Africa via Persian merchants by the 8th century and Europe by way of the Arabs by the 13th century. By the 1800s, Spanish explorers had introduced the eggplant to New World gardens. Being a member of the nightshade family, eggplants (along with tomatoes) were initially believed to be poisonous. Tales of the “mad apple” and the insanity that followed shortly after consumption ran rampant throughout Italy, while there was a general belief that eggplant caused leprosy, elephantiasis, thickening and blackening of the blood, or at the very least, an ill and bitter nature. English herbalist Gerarde, in 1597, warned: “for doubtlesse these apples have a mischeevous quality, the use thereof is utterly to be forsaken…Therefore is it better to esteeme this plant and have him in the garden for your pleasure and the rarenesse thereof, then for any virtue or good qualities yet knowne.” Unsurprisingly, the eggplant’s early uses remained primarily ornamental.
As eggplant made its transition from culinary aversion to culinary gem, varieties were developed that were significantly less bitter than their predecessors—some of which were too bitter to be palatable. We have chosen to grow varieties that we find to be very palatable and do not find them to be bitter. Bitterness in eggplant tends to be attributed to older eggplants that have been kept in cold storage and transported over long distances. If you ever find yourself with one of these, the bitterness can be mostly resolved by halving your eggplant, salting each half and letting the salt draw out the bitterness. This process can last from 30 minutes up to several hours, just be sure to blot the flesh of the eggplant before you begin cooking. If you cook the eggplant in your boxes within a few days after you receive it, you should not detect any bitterness and can likely skip over the salting step.

To grow eggplant invites certain challenges, most notably in the forms of the flea beetle and the Colorado Potato Beetle, both of which count eggplant among their favorite food sources. To combat this, we plant eggplant in double rows on reflective (think silver) mulch, which does a relatively decent job of deterring these insects. Farmer Richard says that by doing this, “We see the true beauty of the healthy eggplants without insect holes in the leaves.” The flowering plant features beautiful combinations of violet and yellow blossoms, and the Asian varieties of eggplant—which Harmony Valley Farm favors—boast firm white flesh that holds its firmness both after picking and cooking. Among our most dense varieties you’ll find the Listada and Dancer varieties. Listada is an Italian heirloom variety that can be used for grilling, roasting, or stewing. Purple Dancer is one of our favorite varieties because it produces very well, has a creamy white flavorful flesh, and is an “all-purpose” type of eggplant. We’re also trialing a new heirloom variety this season called Kamo—a Japanese gourmet variety with a dense flesh and an incredibly rich taste. Our Lilac Bride eggplant is perfect for slicing and including in a stir-fry, while our Green Thai variety is delicious in a milky Thai curry dish. Of course there is also the traditional Black Globe eggplant that shines in traditional recipes such as baba ganoush, eggplant Parmesan and moussaka.

When it comes to storing your eggplant, keep in mind that they are tropical plants that don’t favor the cold. You can keep them on your counter for a day or two, but they’ll quickly lose their moisture, which will lead to a less enjoyable eating experience. It’s best to use them within the first few days of receiving them. If you’d like to keep them around for a few days, wrap them well in a cloth or newspaper and keep them in the refrigerator. Oh, and look out for thorns, as some eggplant varieties have their own built in deterrents on the calyx.

Nutritionally, eggplant contains fiber, potassium, manganese, copper, vitamins B1 and B6, folate, magnesium, and niacin. Eggplants also contain phytonutrients, which are useful for fighting free radicals—basically, these nutrients keep you healthy by protecting you from germs, fungi, bugs and other threats. By itself, eggplant is extremely low in calories. Its flesh, however, is exceptionally good at soaking up anything you might pair it with—cream, olive oil, any type of sauce or seasoning. One of my favorite dishes which really demonstrates this unique feature of eggplant is Stuffed Eggplant with Lamb and Pine Nuts by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. The recipe can be found in their cookbook Jerusalem: A Cookbook, or search for a variation on The combination of lamb and eggplant seasoned with cumin, sweet paprika and cinnamon is perfect for a cooler summer evening.

Because eggplant has spread to many parts of the world, you’ll find it to be a part of many different cultures including Indian, Italian, Chinese & Japanese to name a few. Eggplant can be grilled, broiled, roasted, steamed, stir-fried or stewed. Recipes often instruct you to peel the eggplant.  This step often can be eliminated if you are eating a fresh eggplant. It is best to eat it fully cooked, and you can tell an eggplant is cooked by the softness of the flesh. The flesh should become very soft, tender & silky. If it is still sponge-like, it needs to be cooked longer.

Although you can find common varieties of eggplant in the grocery store year-round, the true season for us in this part of the world is short, which means time is fleeting. After you’ve taken a few minutes to admire the beauty and the nutritional value of your eggplants, dive in and try a few new recipes!
Green Thai Eggplant
Lilac Bride Eggplant
Dancer Eggplant
Listada Eggplant
Black Globe Eggplant

Eggplant & Tomato Salad with Walnuts
Recipe originally featured in Food and Wine magazine, June 2011.

Eggplant & Tomato Salad with Walnuts
Serves 4
1 pound eggplant, sliced lengthwise into ½ inch thick slices
Jalapeño, quantity to your liking
Vegetable oil, for brushing
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp chopped cilantro
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, minced
2 to 3 medium tomatoes, cut into ½-inch dice
1 small sweet onion or red onion, thinly sliced into rings
1 Tbsp chopped walnuts or 1 Tbsp walnut oil

Grilled flatbread or pita bread, for serving

1. Preheat grill. Brush the eggplant slices and the jalapeño all over with oil and season with salt. Grill the eggplant over moderate heat until nicely charred and tender, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer the eggplant to a work surface and let cool. Grill the jalapeño, turning until charred and almost tender, about 4 minutes. Peel and seed the jalapeño, then finely chop it. Start by adding about ⅓ to ½ of the jalapeño to the salad. You can always add more if you like. Cut the eggplant into ½-inch dice.

2. In a large bowl, combine the cilantro, vinegar and garlic. Add the eggplant, jalapeño, tomatoes and onion. Season with salt and pepper and toss to combine. Garnish with the walnuts or walnut oil and serve at room temperature with grilled flatbread.

Note: The salad can stand at room temperature for up to 1 hour in advance to allow the flavors to come together. This salad makes a delicious summer accompaniment for grilled steak or chicken. It can also be put in a pita bread pocket and topped off with feta for a quick lunch.  

Eggplant “Meatballs” in Tomato Sauce
Recipe adapted from Domenica Marchetti’s book, The Glorious Vegetables of Italy.

Yield: 4 to 5 servings
1 pound eggplant (1 large or 2 to 3 medium to small)
1½ to 2 cups dried bread crumbs
2 large eggs
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ tsp fine sea salt
2 oz Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated (may substitute any other hard, aged cheese)
1 Tbsp minced fresh basil
1 Tbsp minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
Unbleached all-purpose flour for dredging
Vegetable oil for roasting & frying
3 cups fresh tomato sauce, heated to a simmer in a saucepan big enough to hold all the meatballs

F r eshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese for serving

**NOTE: These can also be formed into a patty to make a tasty vegetarian burger that can be eaten as a sandwich with thin slices of onion, tomatoes and a balsamic mayonnaise spread.

1. Heat the oven to 350°F.

2. Cut the eggplant(s) in half. Lightly coat all sides of the eggplant halves with vegetable oil. Place eggplant halves cut side down in a baking dish. Bake for about 1 hour, or until the skin is crinkled and collapsed and the interior is completely tender. Remove from the oven and let set briefly to cool. Once cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh onto a cutting board and discard the skin. Coarsely chop the flesh with a Chef’s knife. You should have just over one cup of eggplant.

3. Put the eggplant flesh into a large bowl and add 1½ cup bread crumbs, eggs, garlic, salt, cheese, basil and parsley. Fold everything together gently but thoroughly with a wooden spoon or spatula. If the mixture seems too wet and doesn’t hold together well, mix in a few more bread crumbs.

4. Spoon about 1 cup of flour into a shallow bowl. Have ready a platter lined with paper towels, waxed paper or a baking rack. Using your hands, form the eggplant mixture into golf ball-size balls. Dredge the balls in the flour and place them on the prepared platter. Press down on them gently to flatten them just a bit. You should end up with about fifteen 2-inch eggplant meatballs.

5. Pour enough vegetable oil into a deep frying pan or cast-iron skillet to reach a depth of at least ¼ to ½ inch. Place over medium-high heat and heat the oil just until it shimmers and a tiny ball of the eggplant mixture sizzles gently when you place it in the oil.

6. Working in two batches, add the eggplant meatballs to the hot oil and fry until golden-brown on the bottom, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn with a spatula and fry the other side until golden-brown, 2 minutes more. Continue to rotate the balls every couple minutes until they are nicely browned.

7. Transfer the eggplant meatballs from the frying pan onto a rack placed in a baking dish. Bake the “meatballs” for 10-15 minutes at 350°F. Remove them from the oven and either serve immediately with fresh tomato sauce and cheese to garnish, or freeze them. When you are ready to reheat them, take them directly from the freezer and place them on a cookie sheet. Reheat in the oven until they are fully warmed.

Indian Eggplant and Onion Dip with Pita Chips
Recipe featured in Bon Appetit magazine, December 2010.

Serves 6
2 pita rounds, cut horizontally in half, then cut into wedges
2 Tbsp olive oil, divided
1 pound eggplant
1¼ cup chopped onions
1-2 unpeeled garlic cloves
½ tsp red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp chopped fresh mint
1 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
¼ tsp garam masala

1. Preheat oven to 475°F. Arrange pita wedges in single layer on rimmed baking sheet; brush pita lightly with olive oil. Bake until crisp, about 4 minutes.

2. Cut eggplant in half. Brush all sides of the eggplant with 2 Tbsp oil and place halves, cut side down on a baking sheet. Drizzle onions and garlic with 1 Tbsp oil and toss to coat evenly. Place onions and garlic on other half of sheet.

3. Roast vegetables until browned and tender, about 30 minutes.  Peel garlic. Scoop out pulp from eggplant and transfer to food processor along with the onions, peeled garlic and red wine vinegar. Puree until almost smooth. Transfer puree to bowl; mix in mint, cilantro and garam masala. Season with salt and pepper; serve with pita chips.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Featured Item of the Week: Melons

by Andrea Yoder

Some of the melons grown at Harmony Valley Farm

Melon and watermelon season is finally here! Every year we watch and wait for just the right time to start picking melons—too soon and they won’t be optimally flavorful or sweet, wait too long and we might lose them. Over the years we’ve carefully selected varieties of melons we’ve found to be the most productive, disease resistant, sweet and flavorful varieties that we can grow in our valley. We select smaller varieties that are most appropriately sized for packing in your CSA boxes. In the case of watermelons, our preference is to grow personal-sized seedless varieties. So, here we are in the middle of the season and it’s time to start bringing in the melons. The information that follows will help you identify each variety so you know what you’re eating! You can also refer to the pictures in this week’s “What’s In the Box” email to identify the melons you receive this season.

Sun Jewel Melons:  This is a small melon with a foot-ball shape, bright yellow rind with white stripes and slightly ridged. When you cut it open, you’ll find white flesh that is crisp and sweet. This melon goes well with other fruits in a fruit salad, can be pickled and eaten as a condiment, or you could wrap it with prosciutto and enjoy it as an appetizer.

Sun Jewel Melon
Sweet Sarah Cantaloupe:  Sweet Sarah has a lot going for her. Sarah melons have a more smooth, finely netted rind. The flesh is a typical orange cantaloupe color and has sweet flavorful flesh. We like the flavor of this cantaloupe because it is consistently tasty and doesn’t have much of the “musky” flavor other cantaloupe varieties may have.

Sweet Sarah Cantaloupe 
French Orange Melon:  This is one of our prized varieties that has developed a following over the years. These small melons are a cross between a cantaloupe and a French Charentais melon which is known to be more aromatic. French orange melons tend to be smaller than the Sweet Sarah melons, have a more coarsely netted rind, and sometimes have slightly green striping on the exterior. The flesh of a French orange melon is deeper orange colored, deliciously sweet, and very aromatic.

French Orange Melon
Green Japanese Cantaloupe (aka Ichiba Kouji, it’s Japanese name):  This is a new variety we trialed last year and found that we really like it! It comes in a little later in the season after the Sweet Sarah and French orange melons are dwindling down. The exterior of this melon resembles a Sweet Sarah, but you’ll find the flesh to be honeydew green, smooth and sweet. This is a very flavorful melon that we think you’ll find to be very likeable.

Cantaloupe Horchata
Recipe borrowed from The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman

“The unusual thing about many Mexican fruit drinks is that the seeds are included; they’re blended, so you don’t realize this until you watch them being made, but this is the reason for their wonderfully intense flavors. This procedure works well for cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, or other melon varieties.”—Mark Bittman.

Serves 4
1 ripe cantaloupe (about 2 pounds)
¼ cup fresh lime juice, more as needed to taste
2-4 Tbsp sugar, to taste (will depend on the sweetness of the melon)
2 cups water

1. Cut the cantaloupe in half; scoop the flesh, seeds and liquid into a blender. Add a couple tablespoons each of lime juice and sugar, along with 2 cups water. Blend until very smooth, adding a little more water if necessary.
2. Taste and add more lime juice or sugar if you like. Serve immediately over ice, or refrigerate for up to a couple of hours before serving.

Melon Sherbet 
Recipe featured on

Melon puree with honey and milk makes a delicious sherbet.
Serves 4-6
1 pound of juicy, extra-ripe, orange-fleshed melon
2 Tbsp mild flavored honey (may need more or less depending on the sweetness of the melon)
½ cup whole milk
Generous pinch of salt

1. Cut the melon flesh from its rind and puree in a blender. You will need 2 cups of puree.

2. Add the milk and salt. Now you want to sweeten to taste. If your honey is in a solid or crystallized state you need to dunk the jar in a bowl of warm water until it is liquid again. This way it will mix easily with the rest of the ingredients. Start by blending in 1-2 Tbsp of the honey and taste. If you think the mixture needs to be sweeter, add more honey. Keep in mind you want the honey to bring out and complement the flavor of the melon, not overpower it or make the sherbet too sweet.

3. Pour into an ice-cream maker, and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Store in the freezer.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The New Face of Hunger

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz

This week, we return to our discussion of National Geographic’s “Future of Food” series. In the most recent article, “The New Face of Hunger,” Tracie McMillan—author and Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University—examines the shifting demographics of poverty in the United States. She begins with a powerful statistic: today, one out of every six people living in the United States does not have enough food to eat. What does this mean, exactly? To be “hungry” or “food insecure” means that a person or family, at some point over the course of the last year, did not have enough food to eat. According to McMillan, many who experience hunger today “face not a total absence of food but the gnawing fear that the next meal can’t be counted on.”

Throughout this article, McMillan highlights the various forms poverty takes in our country today, challenging readers to confront their preconceived notions of what poverty “looks” like, of where poverty exists. Hunger is found not only in pockets in bustling inner cities—it persists in suburbs and in rural towns, as well as in urban centers. Amongst the poor, you’ll encounter a wide array of individuals—retired schoolteachers, farmhands, undocumented immigrant families or recent college graduates. Yet unlike the images of hunger captured during the Great Depression, the faces and material possessions of today’s poor may not so easily betray their lower socio-economic status. Vehicles, furniture, and electronics bought under installment plans and clothes found at rummage sales make it possible for families to maintain the appearance of a middle-class existence. Yet the picture McMillan paints is one of families living on the edge—not yet destitute, but only one unexpected bill or illness away from even harder times. In many cases, “pocketing food from work and skipping meals to make food stretch are so common that such practices barely register as a way of coping with hunger and are simply a way of life.”

Cuts in the amount of five billion dollars to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the fall of 2013 very likely exacerbated the effects of poverty for many families over the last year. (SNAP, the successor of the Food Stamp Program, is a federally funded program that provides low- and no-income persons and families with food-purchasing assistance.) As families’ SNAP benefits decline, household budgets become even more constricted. McMillan reports that in 2013, average monthly SNAP benefits amounted to $133.07 per person. Broken down, this amounts to less than $1.50 per meal. At this point, the paradox of poverty in the U.S. becomes ever more visible, as households tend to purchase inexpensive processed foods that are filling but not nutritious—eating habits which may ultimately contribute to such maladies as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. “For many of the hungry in America, the extra pounds that result from a poor diet are collateral damage—an unintended side effect of hunger itself,” McMillan explains.

Families who spoke with McMillan seemed to share a similar experience. Each month, with the replenishment of their SNAP benefits, they often splurge on fruits and vegetables, knowing that as the days and weeks go by, fresh food will have to be foregone for less expensive processed foods. Typically, by the end of the month, families’ benefits have run dry. It is at this point that they often turn to food pantries, where they are most likely to find non-perishable yet highly processed food items to hold them over until the beginning of the next month.

During the 1980s, a few hundred food pantries and other emergency food provisioning services could be found across the U.S. Today, there are over 50,000. What explains this massive increase in emergency food services? In her book Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, Janet Poppendieck, long-time Professor of Sociology at City University of New York, discusses how food pantries and similar services have taken the place of consistent and targeted public policy aimed at addressing the root causes of poverty. Essentially, food pantries are stepping in to provide a safety net that otherwise may not exist.

Unfortunately business is good for most food pantries these days and our community is no different. When we talk with representatives of the local food pantries we regularly  support, they report that the numbers of families they are serving monthly continues to rise. In an effort to prevent perfectly wholesome produce from going to waste, we donate weekly to our local pantries. Rose, a volunteer at the Living Faith food pantry in Viroqua, comes to our farm every Tuesday afternoon to pack up extra vegetables we may have had from the week before. In 2013, Rose took over 10,000 pounds of produce back to the food pantry in Viroqua where it was distributed to community members. We also support the Wafer food pantry in La Crosse, Wisconsin when we have more than the Viroqua food pantry can distribute. Last year we donated 4,643 pounds of produce to the Wafer food pantry. While these numbers are not negligible, our local food pantries are small in comparison to other areas of the country. The amount of food they distributed from our farm represents such a tiny sliver of the need in this country for access to fresh produce for those who may need support from a local food pantry.

Laurel helps Rose pick up extra produce for the Viroqua Living Faith food pantry. 
Ultimately, McMillan and Poppendieck argue that “the root problem is the lack of jobs that pay wages a family can live on, so food assistance has become the government’s—and society’s—way to supplement low wages.” While families can try to supplement their SNAP benefits and spread their limited incomes by growing, foraging for, and canning fresh foods, doing so requires time, know-how, and other resources that they may not have access to. Fortunately, grassroots efforts aimed at addressing these obstacles have begun to increase. In Madison, one example can be found in FairShare CSA Coalition’s Partner Shares program—a cost-sharing initiative that provides financial assistance to low-income households interested in participating in a CSA program. Meanwhile, a Kickstarter campaign for Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day, a cookbook that Leanne Brown created with SNAP participants in mind, recently set a new Kickstarter record.

In closing, McMillan cautions that the impacts of bottom-up efforts such as these will likely remain limited as long as federal money disproportionately favors commodity crops over “specialty crops”—the term given to fruits and vegetables. McMillan reports that in 2012, the federal government allocated approximately $11 billion to subsidize and insure commodity crops such as corn and soybeans. Meanwhile, $1.6 billion was directed towards fruits and vegetables. What do these policies have to do with SNAP recipients? McMillan points out what you may already know: “[These] priorities are reflected at the grocery store where the price of fresh food has risen steadily while the cost of sugary treats like soda has dropped.” As it is, families are faced with spending more for less if they choose to pursue healthier food options. This simple fact illustrates just how broken our system is.

Read more about the "Future of Food" on National Geographic's food channel.