I take part in a CSA. For those who don’t know the concept, CSA stands for “community supported agriculture.” I pay a farmer a lump sum at the beginning of the season, and every week I get a box of veggies. For the winter CSA I’m part of right now, I get veggies plus meat and cheese and eggs and honey and granola. I don’t get to decide what’s in the box; what I get is what the farmer has to offer. Since my farmer started supplementing the winter veggies with animal protein stuff, I barely have to shop for food at all. I can’t eat wheat and don’t really like most gluten-free breads, so the only grains I buy are rice and corn, which I get in bulk at the ethnic market. I don’t really have to use the grocery store for much of anything; I go to Trader Joe’s once a week or so for chocolate, coffee, milk and the occasional sundry item like peanut butter or those yummy GF toaster pancakes they have. Big supermarkets give me the creeps and I avoid them as much as possible. I’m very lucky that I don’t usually have to use them. I know most people are not that lucky, and while I really want to get out of the city, I dread the changes I’ll have to make in food choices. It’s strange to me that living closer to farmers leads to reduced access to fresh foods (Maebius talks about this from personal experience, and I’ve seen the same thing)

I eat mostly local organic food. Counting the money we already paid to the CSA, I spend maybe $250 a month to feed myself and my husband – I think that’s too much money and I could cut it down if I had to, but it’s not more than we can afford and we like luxury things like wine and chocolate. I like them too but could do without. If it was just me, I think I could feed myself an almost totally organic diet for about $40 a week.

I love my CSA. Some people might find it inconvenient to not be able to choose exactly what food they will have in the house from week to week, but I enjoy the challenge. We’re getting a dozen eggs a week right now, and that’s way more eggs than we can eat. This week I turned them all into pickled eggs, which keep for months. I’m learning about how to freeze eggs and will probably separate and freeze all of next week’s eggs. When the flood of eggs slows down – and it will – I should have plenty of eggs put aside for the future. I’ll also have learned about ways to keep eggs (anyone have any suggestions besides pickling or freezing?)

A CSA from a few years ago taught me to learn to like eggplant. I never used to like it at all. My CSA at the time started giving us a whole lot of eggplant, and I was left with no choice but to eat it, like it or not. So I experimented and read up on eggplant and came up with a few recipes that I liked. Now I occasionally get eggplant from the farmer’s market on purpose when it’s in season. I never would have bothered learning if I hadn’t been pushed into it. I know what to do with an inexpensive and easy to grow vegetable. It’s like having an expanding vocabulary.

Sharon of Casaubon’s Book has a post today about food that I found intriguing. She takes some “quick easy” recipes and actually makes them from scratch rather than with pre-made supermarket ingredients and finds, predictably, that these things are not actually quick and easy at all. Her point is that most of us don’t know how to prepare food; most “cooking” that we do actually involves combining one sort of prepared food with another. Aaron of Powering Down laments the same sort of thing – the idea that the way to feed people well is to give them more access to processed food that has been trucked in from elsewhere, rather than teaching them how to grow, cook and preserve for themselves.

There seems to be some kind of willful ignorance involved – saying “I’ve never eaten a turnip” or “I don’t know how to cook brown rice” with any kind of pride sounds the same to me as saying “I’ve never read a book.” It’s OK with me if you don’t really like turnips and will only eat them under duress, or if you had some bad experience with a turnip early in life and just can’t face them anymore. These things happen. It’s not OK if you refuse to even try eating the turnip because it didn’t come in a package or you are unfamiliar with the concept of produce. (The “you” here is in no way meant to implicate my readers in this kind of activity – it’s a completely hypothetical “you” constructed as a target aka a “straw man.” No need to leave defensive comments; I’m not actually talking about you. Unless you are “that guy.” Then I do mean you.)

It’s sad not just for the economic, environmental and nutritional costs as discussed by those other bloggers, but also for aesthetic and spiritual reasons. Cooking and eating should be an opportunity for intimate connection with the environment. If the Earth is divine, then food is direct link to the divine.We take other lives so that our lives can be nourished, and in our turn our own bodies will nourish others. We are part of the Earth and the Earth is part of us. When we are so far from our food supply that we can’t even say for sure what country our food was grown in (think to your last meal – do you know where all the ingredients came from? I don’t, and this is stuff I really try to do.) we are literally cut off from our most direct link to the Gods.

Since this is a post about food, here are a few recipes. I don’t really do “recipes” but what’s below describes how I cook. It was hard to write the chicken-soup recipe because I’m trying to write how to make chicken soup in a general sense, rather than describing a specific instance of soup making. It’s hard because I almost never make the same thing twice.

Curried Squash and Wild Rice Soup

One large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed (roast the seeds with olive oil, sea salt, and sesame and munch while doing the rest of this. Yum. I love that winter squash comes with its own appetizer)

Two medium potatoes, cubed

Two small apples, peeled, cored and cubed

Lots of curry powder (I think I wound up using about a quarter of a cup, but I wasn’t measuring – I just kept adding until it tasted right) and a little bit of salt.

Enough water (covering everything enough that it can all move around while simmering, but not so much that it’s too watery). I would have used chicken stock but I’m currently out. Might be time to make more.

One can of coconut milk

About two cups of cooked wild rice.

Cook the wild rice separately. Bring the squash, potatoes and apples to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer. Add curry powder and salt. Simmer until everything is soft. Add the coconut milk. Use a hand blender and blend until smooth. Stir in the cooked wild rice. Eat.

This made a lot of soup because the squash was ginormous. If it had been a smaller squash I probably would have made some different choices. Actually, I probably would have roasted the squash and made some sort of stuffing with the wild rice, potatoes and apples instead of going in the soup direction. Anyone who can read can follow a recipe; you’re a cook when you know how to make something tasty based on what’s there.

How to Make Chicken Soup

1. Decide that you want chicken soup sometime in the near future. I like to do this on a Sunday afternoon so that I can take my time and enjoy it, and it gives me plenty of things to base a quick meal on later in the week.

2. Make a choice – do you want a) just chicken soup or b) several chicken-based meals?

1. If a., go to your local organic poultry guy and buy a few pounds of chicken backs and breastbones. Ask him to throw in a foot or two. This will cost maybe $2-$3. The Jewish grandma behind you in line will beam at you, because it will be obvious to her that you are going to make real chicken stock.

2. If b., go to your local organic poultry guy (or your backyard, if you are that guy, but then you probably don’t need me to tell you how to make soup) and select an appropriate bird. This will cost more. You will get less stock but more meat.

3. If you got a whole bird, cut it up and put the breasts, thighs and legs in the freezer (Google “how to cut up a chicken” if you do not know how to cut up a chicken or can’t figure it out for yourself. It’s not that hard as long as you have a good knife.) Make something else out of them later; they can be stretched for a several meals if you’re careful. One chicken a month can give us one chicken meal a week, which is all we really want anyway. Save the back, breastbone, wings, and neck for the soup. The giblets can go in too, if you like that sort of thing, or you can feed them to your cats. Innards are really good for cats.

4. Get out your big stockpot. Put your chicken bits (including the feet, if you have them) in the stockpot and cover with a whole lot of water – maybe 12 cups. Or more. Depends on how much chicken you have. If you got chicken bits from the butcher you can use much more water and freeze the extra stock. Leftover bits from one chicken make less stock and are really only enough for one batch of soup.

5. Turn on the heat under the pot. Add some salt and whatever spices you happen to like for the soup you have in mind. Go through your fridge for older-looking veggies, like that rubbery carrot that you meant to use but didn’t, or a lonely carrot, or some celery. Don’t use cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or cabbage – the long cooking time will make your stock taste sulferish. If you want these in your soup, add them later. Cut up the veggies and throw them in the pot. Peel five or ten or more cloves of garlic and add them, too. Put a lid on it. Once it all starts to boil, turn the heat down as low as it can go and simmer, covered, for a long time. A few hours at least. Your house will smell delicious.

6. Strain out the stock. Put the strained-out detritus in a bowl, leave the stock in the pot, and let it cool.

7. After it’s cooled for a while, decide how much you will need for your soup. If you’re going to use it all, let it cool even more until the fat floats to the top and skim it off. There are various uses for chicken fat (ask that Jewish grandma you met at the poultry shop) but I’ll leave that up to you. If you are not going to use it all, pour the extra into jars and freeze. Some people will tell you to skim the fat off the jars before freezing. Ignore those people. The congealed fat will form a layer that helps preserve the stock and keep it tasty. Skim the fat off only when you’re ready to use the stock.

8. Pick through the solids that you strained out – there will be chicken meat clinging to the bones. Pick out all the chicken meat and put it back in the soup stock. Compost the rest.* Prep your other soup ingredients. Soup is great for using up leftovers. Leftover rice? A baked potato? Into the pot. Add whatever veggies are in season – you used the old ones for the stock, but you should use some nicer ones for the actual soup. Peas and greens are nice in the springtime. Turnips and carrots are great in winter soups.

9. Cook it until it’s done. If some things have different cooking times, add them sooner or later (so if you’re using a turnip and some cooked rice, add the turnip early and the rice very late).

* I know they tell you not to compost meat scraps, and they are usually right, but cooked chicken bones do break down and will add nutrients to your soil. Just make sure to bury them deep in the pile so you don’t smell them.