Often times home cooks will be curious about what makes restaurant food taste different from home cooked food. This is actually a very interesting question, and there is no simple answer, but an answer a lot of professional cooks and chefs are fond of giving is some variation of “restaurants use more salt and more butter than a home cook would even consider using.” To be sure, if most laypeople saw how much salt and fat went into their restaurant meals they would be astounded if not totally aghast (a pretty typical French style vegetable puree in a “fine dining” setting will be equal parts by weight vegetable, butter, and heavy cream). However, if a restaurant is paying close attention to good sourcing, then I think that the difference that is most responsible for how delicious restaurant food can be is high quality, very fresh produce. If you’ve never had the privilege of eating a freshly picked tomato, fragrant juices still warm from the high summer sun, or an heirloom cucumber with all its complex aroma and satisfying crispness, or broccoli with a sweetness its impossible to find in the store, let me tell you, this kind of quality makes a chef’s job easy. It doesn’t even matter if you’re not that good a cook; the produce itself is doing 80% of the work.
Of course ,it's not always easy to find vegetables of this quality. You can go to the farmer’s market, but this is not an easy errand to run for many people (myself included), plus it gets very expensive very quickly. Not only that, but quality at a farmer’s market can be incredibly variable. Not just because of the practices of the farms themselves, but also because of handling. Unless you get to the market very early, most of what you buy will have been sitting out in the sun for hours. But there is another option. This year I decided to try a CSA.
For those who don’t know, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The idea is you purchase a share of the crop a farm will grow before the beginning of the season. This helps the farmer with up front costs like seed, equipment and labor. Then (usually) each week during the growing season, you receive a box full of veggies straight from the farm. In my case, the farm I got my CSA from even delivers.
Of course, it can be difficult for many people to shell out a big lump sum at any time, but if you can manage it, the per pound price is often substantially lower than if you had spent your precious time picking it all out at the farmer’s market. I’m getting a weekly share from Nichol’s Farm and Orchard in Marengo, Illinois. I pay about $75 a week (which is, yes, a lot, but I also got the most expensive share (buy quite a big margin) and I’m paying for delivery) so let's take a look at what I got this week.
The full share box, delivered to my doorstep. This is a half bushel in case you’re curious
‘Sweetness’ variety bi-color sweet corn
Yellow summer squash
‘Lewis’ variety green beans
Celery. This stuff does not mess around.
Baby artichokes (!!!)
‘Tequila’ variety purple bell peppers
Cherry tomatoes. Not sure of the cultivar, but they are exceptional
‘Red Thumb” fingerling potatoes
‘Supremo’ mini cucumbers. Incredibly delicious
Sweet banana peppers. Fragrance on these is next level
Armenian cucumber. Almost melon-like in aroma
Italian varietal eggplant
Will I be able to finish all this before next week’s share arrives? I hope so! But even if I don’t, I can give some away to friends and neighbors, helping to build community and feed the people I care about. Another nice thing about a CSA share is that you are compelled to work with things you might not normally select. For instance, would I have gone out of my way to buy baby artichokes at the farmer’s market? Probably not, but I’m super excited to try them out now that they are in front of me (I’m thinking as part of a fritto misto with lemon and black garlic aioli).
If you are ready to take the dive on your own CSA, but worry about knowing how to use all the products, don't miss our upcoming Farmer's Market Cooking Demo on Thursday, August 19 at 6:30pm at Lincoln Square. This demonstration class features an impromptu feast inspired by the Lincoln Square Farmer’s Market. Our chef will select the best, freshest ingredients at the market prior to class and will prepare a delicious meal including an appetizer, an entrée and dessert.
Want to take your food knowledge even farther? Sharpen all of your cooking skills in our Culinary Boot Camp where you’ll learn all you need to know to be confident and competent in the kitchen.