When Laurie Haskett decided to support local farmers last fall through a program that provides her with a weekly box of fresh produce, she had no idea that braised greens would be her new favorite vegetable.
After trimming the greens grown at Sleeping Frog Farms southeast of Tucson in Cascabel, Haskett steams them in the microwave oven for two minutes, adds sautéed garlic, onions and pine nuts and tosses them with balsamic vinegar.
Haskett and her husband, Bob, are more adventurous in the kitchen after becoming involved in community supported agriculture - or CSA - at Sleeping Frog. Through the program, members support local growers by buying shares in the farms' output before the growing season starts. In return, members receive weekly boxes of produce and other goodies such as eggs or honey.
The Hasketts became CSA members when Sleeping Frog entered a partnership with Green Fields Country Day School, on the northwest side, where Haskett is an administrative assistant. During the school year, Sleeping Frog distributes boxes at Green Fields, as well as at a several other locations year-round.
Seasonal CSA memberships at Sleeping Frog cost $325 for 13 weeks, and the Hasketts split a share with another family.
"The produce is gorgeous," Laurie Haskett said. "It lasts two to three weeks, far longer than what you buy in the grocery store, because it was picked the day before."
She enjoys adjusting menus creatively to fit the seasonal offerings, and tries recipes suggested by the growers.
"It's great fun opening the box to see what's inside," she said. "Whatever I taste is seasonal - it didn't have to travel across the country to get to me, it doesn't have preservatives and it just makes me smile."
CSA, offered by a number of local growers, was developed in Japan in the 1960s, said Debbie Weingarten, who owns Sleeping Frog with her husband, Adam Valdivia, and friends C.J. Marks and Clay Smith.
"It's a way for small farmers to get capital at the start of the season when we need it the most," she said. "It's a way for the community to step in and say 'Local farming is important to us.' "
While the boxes are often stuffed with an abundance of seasonal gems, "we really are at the whim of nature. You have to be willing to take the time to be creative in your kitchen and try new recipes," Weingarten said.
Taking part in CSA is one way to bring the freshest produce to the table. The 75-acre farm in the San Pedro River Valley also sells produce at many Tucson farmers' markets.
Roxanne Garcia, market director at Tucson Farmers' Markets, organizes weekly markets at Jesse Owens Park, Oro Valley Town Hall and St. Philip's Plaza. The markets are in the process of changing its name to Heirloom Farmers' Markets.
She said buying locally grown produce, while sometimes more expensive, benefits the local economy and provides improved nutrition and taste. Vendors offer produce grown without pesticides and herbicides.
"Everything tastes so much better," Garcia said. "You have the added benefit of supporting local growers. And when you shop at a farmers market, you get to talk to the person who grew your food."
Among the 70 vendors at the weekly farmers market at St. Philip's is Walking J Farm, owned by Jim McManus and his wife, Tina Bartsch. The farm is near Amado, south of Tucson.
CSA members or farmers market patrons can find squash, kale, onions, garlic, carrots, beets, cabbage and herbs from Walking J, and - coming soon - tomatoes, bell peppers, beans, eggplant and cucumbers.
All produce is certified naturally grown.
"We grow outdoors in the sun and do everything we can to promote a diverse, healthy soil which equates to healthier plants and, in my opinion, healthier food," McManus said.
He said collateral damage from the current industrial food system - which includes swamping the earth with pesticides, shipping produce across country and storing it in warehouses to make it cost-effective - is "devastating."
"Food is the most important thing to individual health," McManus said. "Why anyone would want to skimp on that is unfathomable to me."
The tastiest benefit of buying locally is in the product, he said.
"The tomato is the best example," McManus said. "We grow tomatoes that ripen on the plant in the sun. You have a flavor profile that is really full, with all of the acids and sugars. The tomato you get at a grocery store is a hybrid, grown to change color and ripen in transport and to stand up through trucking, packaging and warehousing. It looks nice in the store but has very little flavor. It's a watery imitation of what a real tomato tastes like."
Eunice and Larry Park, owners of Larry's Veggies in Marana, sell produce at farmers markets and through CSA.
Right now they're growing onions, garlic, heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, squash, chiles, rainbow chard and kale on their one-acre farm. They use no herbicides or pesticides, relying on integrated pest management.
"We use ladybugs and garden spiders and garlic oil, which repels a lot of pests," Eunice Park said. "We also use organic chicken manure for fertilization."
She said vegetables "are pulled right out of ground and taken to market, and the sweetness and overall freshness are remarkable.
"We only take to market what the garden tells us to take," she added. "If that eggplant says 'I'm not ready,' that's the way it should be. People should only be eating those things that are ready."
Vegetarian Stuffed Zucchini With Brown Rice, Black Beans, Chiles and Cheese
• 8 small or 6 medium-sized round zucchinis (or use larger long zucchinis, cut in 3-inch lengths and hollowed out to make zucchini "cups")
• 1/4 cup crumbled queso fresco (or other grated cheese)
For the stuffing:
• 1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
• 1 cup thinly sliced green onions
• 1 can (4 ounces) diced green chiles, drained
• 2 cups cooked brown rice
• 1/2 cup sour cream
• 1 cup cheese of your choice, grated
• 1-2 tablespoons chopped chipotle chile (optional, for those who like more heat)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish or another size that prevents the zucchini from moving.
Drain the beans and rinse with cold water until no more foam appears. Let the beans drain while you prepare the zucchini. If you don't have enough round squash, cut a large, long zucchini into 3-inch lengths, or cut the top off round zucchini. Use a melon baller or a sharp spoon to scoop out the inside of the zucchini, leaving a thin layer of flesh next to the skin. Slice green onions and drain the green chiles.
Blot the beans dry with paper towels. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the beans, sliced green onions, diced green chiles, cooked rice, sour cream and cheese. Mix gently. Add chipotle, if desired.
Arrange the zucchini in the pan. Use a spoon to fill each zucchini cup with the stuffing mixture, pressing down to pack tightly. Cover and bake for 20 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and use a spoon to press about 2 teaspoons of crumbled cheese on top of each zucchini. Return to the oven and bake 30 minutes, or until zucchini is tender, stuffing is bubbling hot and the cheese is browned. Serve hot.
- Walking J Farm, adapted from kalynskitchen.com
Ground Beef, Tomato and Mozzarella Stuffed Zucchini
• 2 large zucchini or yellow squash, about 12 inches long (or about 8 round zucchini)
• 4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
• 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
• 1 green pepper, finely chopped
• 4-5 cloves chopped garlic
• 1 pound grass-fed ground beef
• 1-2 teaspoons kosher salt
• Pepper and garlic powder to taste
• 2 cups pureed tomatoes
• 2 cups sharp white cheddar or mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a skillet and sauté onions and peppers for 3-4 minutes, until just starting to soften. Add minced garlic and sauté about 1 minute longer, being careful not to brown the garlic. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.
Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of olive oil to the pan. Crumble in the ground beef, season with salt, pepper and garlic powder and cook over medium heat until the meat is well browned. Stir cooked onions and garlic into the meat. Add pureed tomatoes and simmer until the mixture has thickened and liquid has cooked off, about 10 minutes, and remove from heat.
While meat cools, cut zucchini into 2-inch slices, discarding ends. Use a sharp spoon or melon baller to hollow out a cup in each zucchini slice, leaving just over 1/4 inch of zucchini flesh. Be careful not to get too close to the skin.
Stand up zucchini cups on a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, open end up. Stir 1 1/2 cups grated cheese into the cooled meat mixture (it doesn't need to be completely cool), then spoon the meat-cheese mixture into zucchini cups, pressing down with the spoon and mounding it up over the top of the zucchini.
Bake for 20 minutes, then remove from oven and top each with remaining cheese. Return to oven and bake 10-15 minutes longer, until zucchini is slightly soft when pierced with a fork and cheese is melted and lightly browned. Serve hot.
Walking J Farm, adapted from kalynskitchen.com
Cinnamon Sugar Radish Chips
Serves: 2 to 3
• 10-15 radishes
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 2 teaspoons honey
• 1-2 tablespoons cinnamon sugar mixture (proportions: 1 tablespoon sugar per 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice radishes approximately 1/4 inch thick and place them in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for 30 seconds. Drain liquid, and transfer to a larger bowl. Add olive oil, honey and cinnamon sugar. Mix well to coat radishes. Spread evenly on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove from oven and turn radishes over. Reduce temperature to 225 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes. They will begin to shrink and crisp. Remove from the oven and serve. Try mixing them in with Greek yogurt and a spoonful of honey.
From the Pinch of Yum blog, via Sleeping Frog Farms
Summertime Watermelon Salad
• 4 cups cubed ( 1/2 inch) seeded watermelon
• 2 cups cubed ( 1/2 inch) peeled jicama
• 2 cups cubed ( 1/2 inch) peeled and seeded cucumber
• 3-4 fresh limes to make 1/2 cup lime juice
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
• 1 teaspoon salt
Mix together and serve. It can be refrigerated up to a day.
- from Roxanne Garcia, market director at Tucson Farmers' Markets (soon to be Heirloom Farmers' Markets)
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Where to Find farm-fresh produce
Looking for farm-fresh, locally grown produce in Tucson? Here's a sampling of area farmers markets.
Santa Cruz River Farmers' Market
Benefiting the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, 4-7 p.m. Thursdays, Mercado San Agustin, 100 S. Avenida del Convento.
U-Pick at Tucson Village Farm
A program of the Pima County Cooperative Extension and the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays, 4210 N. Campbell Ave.
Tucson Farmers' Markets
Changing its name to Heirloom Farmers' Markets, offers three weekly markets:
• 8 a.m.-noon Fridays at Jesse Owens Park, 400 S. Sarnoff Drive.
• 8 a.m.-noon Saturdays at Oro Valley Town Hall, 11000 N. La Cañada Drive.
• 8 a.m. to noon Sundays at St. Philip's Plaza, 4280 N. Campbell Ave.
Rincon Valley Farmers & Artisans Market
8 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays, 12500 E. Old Spanish Trail.
Contact local freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at email@example.com