Produce-ing out of the box

Even reclusive people — homebound due to a pandemic — can go stir-crazy.

I’ll admit, as a recluse, I was likely not as opposed (though still as discombobulated, mentally) by the imposed exile to which we had surrendered in March. I’m fortunate I can work from home (and am rarely bored here), and I don’t need to go out and mix it up with other human beings to feel…human.

But, still, weeks into the pandemic, I was looking for an excuse to get out (safely) and get a change of scenery. This excuse came in the form of a box — a produce box!

Larry’s Produce, located in the nearby Suisun Valley, is a farmstand (and even a ”you-pick-it” operation) that is open from June to December every year. The seasons bring with them the chance to gather summertime fresh ears of corn and watermelon through pumpkins and gourds in October. Their season kicked off a little earlier this year. Given the pandemic and interactive restrictions, Larry’s produce boxes in early spring offered a chance to “you-pick-it-up,” providing business for themselves and area growers and an easy and welcome opportunity for folks to get fresh produce gathered for them. 

During the early weeks of the pandemic, when people either considered grocery shopping iffy or risky or cleared grocery store shelves to stockpile for the long wait, Larry’s offered pre-packed produce boxes, full of seasonal items. You ordered and reserved a box online, and you could go pick up your box on a designated timeframe and day. 

Suisun Valley is farm-y, quaint, and it was still green from winter and spring rains when we went to get our first box in late April. The jaunt, only 20 minutes or so from home, was like a breath of fresh air (literally) and Larry’s well-organized, well-staffed drive-through process (they even put the box in the car for you), made it a swift, but uplifting little getaway. 

We didn’t know what would be in our box (nor the four other subsequent boxes we ended up getting over the next months), but upon opening it, you realized you really got your money’s worth. Basics like onions, potatoes, lemons and apples were alongside artichokes, mushrooms, mangos, blackberries,  watermelon radishes, a bouquet of herbs and even a container of uncooked rice. Oh, the possibilities!

And the needed fridge space! One tip Larry’s offers — and I would also emphasize for anyone ordering produce boxes or gathering large bunches of things from farmers’ markets— is to make sure you have cool storage ready and available for your produce items. They are fresh and should be used as soon as possible, but if you can’t get to them right away, they should be stored in the refrigerator (I had to ready my fridge and make some room).

Also, another tip is…get ready to make plans for your produce. It won’t last forever. This is somewhat a pressure, but mostly fun. Once opening the box, the mind turns over all the things one can make, somewhat under the gun and nudging the bounds of creativity, similarly, but only slightly on par with a “Chopped” basket.

I explored all sorts of ways to use what was within (and this is a overview of four different boxes)…we got potatoes (Idaho and sweet), onions (scallions and yellow and red), sweet bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, cilantro, parsley, a bouquet of thyme, rosemary and sage, bags of spinach and leafy greens, romaine lettuce, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, artichokes, fennel, broccolini, cauliflower, carrots, watermelon radishes, baby turnips, button and portabella mushrooms, a whole pineapple, mangos, apples, strawberries, grapes, blackberries, blueberries and an array of stone fruit.

It would be easy enough to make a huge salad (veggie or fruit) or a pot of soup or smoothies (veggie or fruit) or just do some juicing that would take care of the bulk of one’s produce box, and I did do some of that, but I also tried, to come up with a range of varied completed main dishes, salads, sides and desserts.

[]Sometimes, I did try to maximize a variety and large amount of the produce for one dish (that would cover a few meals), like when I roasted potatoes and other veggies for a breakfast hash. Another time I roasted a large amount of the box (including a whole head of cauliflower) for a pot of soup.

But I also stuffed artichokes for the first time (a slow, sensory process to make and eat), improvised a mushroom broccolini rigatoni, added zucchini to the potatoes in a Spanish omelet, chopped and mixed tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, lime juice and more for a fresh mango salsa, and satisfied my summer need to pickle by brining some colorful watermelon radishes as well as snowy white baby carrots for crisp and refreshing refrigerator pickles, seasoned with herbs.

I wouldn’t forget dessert! Since my favorite desserts do include fruit, I delighted in a bounty of items to use and made a number of goodies bursting with fresh fruit, from a blackberry-apple galette to pineapple crisp, stone fruit (peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums) crumble, and a long-desired tryout — cherry clafoutis, featuring dark cherries — that even inspired me to buy a new cherry pitter.

I even made a cool summer drink, by using a ginger root for infusing a simple syrup to sweeten a “citrus-ade” flavored with oranges, lemons and limes.

Many of these items were made of simple recipes or no recipes (I’ve shared here links to a few of the recipes I used). Sometimes things come about with no plan. Sometimes the decision of what you get is taken out of your hands, and in the case of a produce box, where the selections are made for you, it’s a little nudge to try a veggie or fruit that you might not normally get (how often do you go to the store and get a mango?) or make something you have never made before. Pleasant surprises, challenges — and the short trips to find them —  are welcome.

Support your local farmers’ market or farmstand. To read more about Larry’s Produce, check out their site: https://www.larrysproduce.com

Links to recipes:

If you want to try stuffing and baking the unique and flavorful artichoke, you’ll find a great recipe here: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/baked_stuffed_artichokes/

Looking for a way to pickle that’s simple, customizable and does not involve water-bath processing? Here’s an informative blog post on quick-pickling: https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-quick-pickle-any-vegetable-233882

You’ll find a yummy recipe for easy Cherry Clafoutis (it’s essentially a pancake batter poured over cherries then baked into a custard-y cake) on David Leibovitz’s website: https://www.davidlebovitz.com/cherry-clafoutis-recipe/

I found a delicious crisp/crumble topping recipe I adapted to top my stone fruit crumble from Claudia Fleming’s “The Last Course” (Random House: 2001):

Stone Fruit Crumble

  • 1-1/4 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon ground walnuts
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
  • 1-1/2 pounds stone fruit (plums, nectarines, peaches), pitted and quartered (6 cups).
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon

Heat oven to 375°. Whisk together the flour, walnuts, 1/4 up granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and salt.

Stir in the melted butter with a fork until the mixture becomes crumbly. Make sure the crumbs are less than an inch, so they are not too large.

In another bowl, stir together the stone fruit, remaining 1/4 sugar and the lemon juice (you can also add a dash of cinnamon as well). Spoon the fruit into a buttered 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the fruit. 

Bake until the fruit is bubbling, about 50 to 55 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

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