Piggly Wiggly celebrates 100 while we select a CSA

Date: 
05/19/2016
VegDisply

The Piggly Wiggly grocery chain celebrates its centennial, while many of us are choosing CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) over traditional grocery stores.

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Farmers market with more than vegetables

Grocery shopping retrospective
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first self-serve market; entrepreneur Clarence Saunders opened his Piggly Wiggly in 1916.

Prior to that you’d hand your local grocer your list of staples like canned goods, flour and soap and he’d pick the items from his stock behind the counter, bag them and ring up your bill.

Saunders provided a shopping cart, shelves stocked with pre-priced items and a checkout stand. In the 30s, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables were added to the mix creating the first supermarkets. The concept has been expanding ever since and self-serve now includes self-checkout, self-weighing and self-packing in the bags you probably brought yourself. 

Today we still bring our grocery list – mental or otherwise – to the market with the list of food items often based on recipes we’ve pre-selected. And, this being America, everything on that list will probably be available; has anyone ever gone to a market looking for a tomato and left empty handed? 

WaterMilRad

Watermelon radish

Going "off list"
I started going "off list" on a regular basis when I started going to local farmer’s markets in the early 90s. Since farmer’s markets are all about what’s grown locally and what’s being harvested right now, my meals followed the Midwest’s seasonal cycle: spring, summer, fall; respectively: leafy greens, veggies, tubers and melons. I still had choices within these seasonal limitations but my radical break in green grocery shopping came about in 2012 when I decided to consign the list-making to someone else; my farmer. 

Now, when I say “my farmer” I’m not speaking in landed gentry terms – my total arable land equals a meager 0.0220386 acres – no, I’m talking about Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, or as I like to call it, my rural, weekly CARE Package.

So this is the drill; I prepay my farmer (actually it’s a whole family of farmers) before the growing seasons starts –  literally, it’s seed money – they grow whatever they want and at harvest time I get a steady, weekly flow of herbs, fruits, veggies and roots. 

My weekly produce box changed the way I planned my meals with the produce, not my personal preferences dictating the menus; a kind of culinary tail wagging the dog. But up until recently, that’s how our relationship to food has been for thousands of years.

Now on Sunday – when I pick up my box - is like one of those Food Network shows where the ingredients are revealed at the onset and the contestant has an hour (or in my case, a week) to make a series of dishes or meals that will win over the judges.  

Did I say "changed the way I plan?" I think I may have meant challenge. 

Lovage

Lovage (source: Gardenology)

Right off, you don’t have a choice; it’s use it or lose it with another box coming in 7 days. Second, an unfamiliar item can slow you down a bit (my farmer likes to throw the occasional curve – lovage?) And finally, a sudden string of off-site meal invites can leave you with an overabundance of produce. 

So three years into this I’ve come up with a set of simple strategies that brings all this under control: 

  • Eat the delicate stuff like salad leaves and herbs first... 
  • ...but many salad leaves like mizuna, spinach or arugula can also be reduced to a pesto... 
  • ...or the herbs can be dried. 
  • When in doubt part 1: roast it or grill it. Yes, even cabbage. 
  • When in doubt part 2: turn it into a soup or a stew. 
  • Freeze it part 1: Anything that’s been cooked a long time (soups, stews) or chopped up fine and mixed with oil (pestos) can go in the freezer; since during processing you’ve already broken down the cell walls, freezing won’t further alter it’s texture. (Only industrial flash-freezing can retain the products texture – thank you, Clarence Birdseye!) I store my stuff in 1 or 2 cup serving sized containers – it makes for a quick, good meal. 
  • Freeze it part 2: Most scraps and trimmings (and the occasional item on the verge of spoiling) can be chopped up, zipped in a freezer bag and stored in the freezer. When you get enough bags (or when you need the freezer space) turn your cast-offs into a veggie stock. 

Recipe
This is a recipe I came up with a few years ago and it combines a few of the above principles. Unlike supermarkets, farmer’s markets usually sell fennel with the fronds still attached - lots of them sometimes; here’s one way to use those fronds: 

Fennel Pesto
Fennel fronds make a delicate pesto that requires a light touch in the choice of the other ingredients. Use only the fennel fronds and not the main stem connected to the fennel bulb. This stem doesn’t have much flavor and contains a lot of water which will dilute the pesto. For this recipe I roast the garlic bulb so the garlic won’t overpower the fennel. 

2 cups fennel fronds, slighty chopped

6-12 roasted garlic cloves

½ cup unroasted pine or pistachio nuts

½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano if you can

½ (or more) cups light olive oil

salt and pepper 

In a food processor add the fennel, garlic, nuts, a couple grinds of pepper, about a ¼ teaspoon of salt and about a ½ cup of oil. Process the pesto adding more oil as needed until the texture is a slightly thick sauce and the nuts have been reduced to tiny bits. Add the cheese and pulse to mix adjusting the seasoning along the way. Use with the usual suspects: on pasta, over veggies, on toast, etc. 

Sources

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Find a CSA or family farm in the Chicago Area or download the 2016 CSA guide: The 2016 Chicagoland CSA Guide

A number of farmer’s at your neighborhood markets offer CSAs. I use Radical Root Farm which I found at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market. By the way, CSAs are not just for veggies; meat and eggs have been added to the mix. 

The Sunday Logan Square Farmer’s Market started on May 15.

The Sunday Wicker Park Farmer’s Market opens its season on June 5.

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