Summer Programming: The CSA Challenge

For the last two years, we've participated in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) box program. For those unfamiliar, a CSA works like this: you pay a farm in advance (sometimes in installments) for a weekly pickup of foodstuffs, for a set period of time, usually about 20 weeks, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on seasonal variations (tho a few, to their credit, run year-round). Each week you pick up a box of fruits & vegetables, with other things like grains, eggs, meat, honey or prepared foods like preserves added on (depending on what your farm in particular grows, or the farms they may be working in partnership with). And so it goes, until the time comes to an end for a season.

A CSA is a great thing for a number of reasons: it supports a local farmer, giving them cash up front at the beginning of a season when cash is tight, giving them the space to secure equipment, seed, or experiment with new things they may not have felt comfortable trying before (like a new crop or a new technique). It also brings you farm fresh produce weekly, and can be crazy substantial -- we've typically shared our boxes each year, alternating weeks, and found ourselves being able to use all the produce in about a week and a half time. So a full share, at the height of the season, can be generous. This is not to say there aren't ups and downs -- since you've essentially invested in the farmer for the season, if the season gets rough -- like a drought or extensive summer rains -- sometimes the box returns can be slim pickings. Sometimes, if you're not careful, you'll select a CSA that has an established crop preference (like ALL THE LETTUCES) -- tho that one is avoidable and most farms are forward about what they grow and don't. And the double edged sword -- sometimes you get produce you do not know about. And what can be both a challenge and a joy is finding out how to use it. 

We for one enjoy the ups and downs of the CSA model, and that's why this year, we're going to be documenting our experiences with it, and what we end up doing with our weekly bounty. We'll toss in some recipes, mention the retail value of our weekly drop, and throw around the highs lows and ostensible laughs of what happens when you suddenly end up with five pounds of rainbow chard. Hopefully you'll enjoy and come along for the ride! 

Ramping Up

No puns this time! (Besides, ramps are like, so last month.) 

So we've been quiet since the pop-up, and with good reason -- we sold a lot of product (like, all of our jams from last season, which is awesome), Stephen started a new gig working for GROWNYC, the greenmarket operators in New York City, and while spring has definitely sprung here in the northeast, nature can be a tease, and fruits of the spring-y sort -- cherries, strawberries, and other berries -- are still a few weeks out from being available. So while we've been baking plenty -- we're getting to test some flours as a part of the NY Regional Grains Project -- we're still waiting on delicious fruity things to come from the trees. So jams are out for a spell -- but only a spell. 

We've been experimenting with flavor combinations, and this year it'll be nice to have a depth as well as breadth of flavors. Not just cultivar-specific jams, but also more flavors within categories. Take, for example, strawberries. Not only are we going to have the awesome Seascapes from Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in August, but we'll also have Raritans from Norwich Meadows in July. Along with straight stawberry jams, we're also looking to have the return of the strawberry caradamom-saffron jam, a chamomile-infused strawberry, and if Bernard Ranches in California gets back to us in time, a Meyer Lemon Strawberry marmalade. And that's just strawberries. 

Pop-ups are coming back -- we're currently working on two: one hopefully for midsummer, and another for the fall to showcase the full new jam lineup. We're also talking to the wonderful folks at New Amsterdam Public Market to pop in once in their new season, as well as the group Made In LES, to host a cooking class or two during the season. Can't wait for those? You know that Diaspora also does events -- cocktail parties, planned dinners, a group cooking class or even just a birthday cake. If any of those interest you, get in touch at -- your respected source for all questions big and small. 

So worry not -- like the spring itself, we know we can be a bit of a tease. You'll see more of us soon. 

A Clockwork Cara Cara Orange

Winter on the East Coast can be (and thanks to this short-lived cold snap, still is) a bit dreary. Apples & pears, harvested back in October and November, have been cellared, and while some varieties may be awesome, most will be reaching the end of the operational awesomeness, their sugars converting to starches and the structure giving way to mealier, grainier textures. Most stone fruits and related crops are still a while off, and numerous warm snaps may have lead to early budding which, followed by a return to cold weather, may decrease yields of cherries and other fruits this year. In other words, we still have many weeks before we can access any solid local fruits (let alone salad greens and, dare i say it, tomatoes). 

Traditionally, the East Coast has received a respite from the winter fruit doldrums through the world of citrus; in the 1700's, it was sour oranges from Spain, sweet oranges and lemons from Italy and the Ottoman provinces, and limes from the Afro-Caribbean, and in the late 1800's, by icebox rail from California. Representative of plenty and richness in the New Year, oranges became occasional Christmas gifts (ever get one in a stocking?) and a generally active presence on middle-class tables during the winter season. (Jared Farmer, in his "Trees in Paradise: A California History", gives an awesome evaluation of American culinary and consumer preferences on the citrus.) The citrus club has only grown, as Texas and Florida jumped into the commercial game in the 1940's, and the Citrus Variety Collection at UC Riverside began to develop new cultivars and dig into the multiplicity of global varieties of citrus from blood oranges to Australian finger limes (mostly for geekiness, but also to keep the diversity of California commercial citrus crops highly competitive on the global market). 

The Cara Cara, by all rights, shouldn't exist. It's a spontaneous hybrid, a mutation derived from the Bahia Navel (itself a grafted cross between a Portuguese Sour and Valencia Sweet oranges) that found it's way to California in the 1980's. In this particular mutation, the fruit produces elevated levels of lycopene, a cartenoid that gives red grapefruit and blood oranges their deep hues and berry-like flavors (and tomatoes their deeply-hued flesh). The result is a navel orange with grapefruit-like qualities of slightly pinkish, juicy-sweet and bracingly bitter flesh with a firm, almost cinnamon-spicy zest.   While a great eating orange, it also has a multitude of culinary applications -- think in salads with avocado and pickled red onion, or mixed with other citrus into a raw compote for savory (ceviche) or sweet (tossed over pound cake and whipped cream). 

I have to believe that's part of the reason the marmalade itself is so versatile. It doesn't have the aggressive, almost tannic bitterness that a three-fruit marmalade would have, nor the cloying sweet-sourness that tends to come along for the ride. We've been taking samples and trying them out and thus far the marmalade itself lends to sweet dishes on its own -- toast, ice cream, the great Provençal dish of marmalade omelette with fresh chevre -- but diluted down by stock or as a component of a sauce, the endless dressing or savory uses of the marmalade could be legion. Duck l'orange comes to mind immediately, but dishes where bitter orange is used, like in some Persian, Moroccan, and Iraqi dishes (think braised lamb with cooked citrus juices and couscous) and a whole world opens up. It's a definite example of the way in which cultivar-specific cooking can be manifest -- we couldn't have necessarily done this with, say, Valencia oranges or generic navels; even Ruby Red grapefruit would have been too bitter, and the pigment dulls too much. The use of the Cara Cara was purposeful, intentional, and as a result, we get to offer you something a little more dynamic than you'd find on your average store shelf. 


It's a Date!

Have we spoken about the illustrious power of dates? 

While Diaspora Kitchen is dedicated to using the products of the Northeast, you could call us a little slutty. There are just a couple ingredients we use on the regular -- spices, sugar, and citrus -- that just don't happen to grow so well in the colder climes of New York and the surrounding areas. And so when we find an awesome farmer or grower somewhere in the continental US doing awesome stuff -- like the Bernards of Bernard Ranches in California, from whom we get our citrus, for example -- we will put in an order or two, or pack a suitcase full of the stuff to last us a while. 

Traditionally, in places like New England and the Mid-Atlantic, dried fruits of various types have had an illustrious if occasionally ignored history -- currants or raisins in Boston brown bread, dried fig or apricot in the fillings of hamentaschen, various dried fruits in the fillings of empandas or other savories of Latin American foods, or the presence of dried apples in the apple stack cakes of the Appalachia (though variations on a theme exist throughout the bluegrass and low-country American South, with combinations of dried apple, apple butter, and apple sauce taking on different importance in certain regions....I digress).

But dates are especially compelling. The fruit of the genus Phoenix dactylifera, it is botanical kin to the palm trees that dot Los Angeles streets. Whereas many of those trees are ornamental, date palms are specifically a distinct clade within the palms because they fruit (dactylifera meaning date or finger-bearing, from the Greek). While a number of cultivars exist botanically, an interesting point of date botany is the added distinction of not only the botanical distinction between trees, but also the harvest period of a given date palm. Some, like Barhees or the common Medjool date are picked specifically when young and "soft", when their sugars are soft and syrupy and not fully developed. Semi-dry dates, such as the Deglet Noor, are "ripe" when they have lost moisture and the texture of the fruit is firmer, less chewy and moist. Dry dates, like the rarely seen outside of Algeria Thoory date, are like little packets of sandy brown sugar, brittle packages that are only ripe when they have been on the vine long enough to wick off moisture and crystallize the sugars. That the species are distinguished based upon harvest cycle is unusual within most cultivated fruits. (They also tend to ripen much like grape clusters, where whole branches will ripen at the same time, though not necessarily bunches on the same tree.)

Dates are little miracle workers in the Diaspora Kitchen. Besides being great little snacks, they also do beautiful things in baked goods, adding moisture to cakes & cookies while converting in the oven to little brown nodules of sweetness that are both tasty and mildly beguiling, Think of them as that girl in every high school romantic comedy who isn't visible but always gets good lines -- you don't always know they're there, but you like what they add to the equation. Chopped up in mandelbrot-style cookies, they make for sweet little accents alongside almonds or hazelnuts. In Persian-style lamb stews fragrant with cumin and black limes, they help elevate the sweet unctuousness of lamb abreast of the savory spices. And in our particular favorite, we mix them up with our Honeycrisp Apple and Seckle Pear compote and place it in shortcrust hand pies, where they convert into liquid brown sugar, buttressing the flavors of apple and pear, while acting as a foil to the pepperiness of our quatre epices blend. 

Want the recipe? It'll be coming in a day or so! 


Taking the Leap

[Note from Steve: This was written back in January on my professional blog over at Terroirism. It sort of gives some good background as to my professional life till now, and some of the things that drive our mission here at Diaspora. SSW]

A New Year seems like a good time as any to begin with an introduction (also, this has been a post a long time coming): Hi, my name is Stephen Wade. This blog was started as a way of distilling some of the work I was doing as a masters student at NYU's Department of Food Studies into more easily decipherable, legible, and less jargon-tastic pieces of short-form essaywork. Inspired too by my work in the world of specialty coffee and urban planning, the blog Terroirism was a melange of topics and covered a lot of ground in a lot of different capacities, albeit inconsistently and with gaps in time. (Realization: unless blogging is your professional life, your actual professional life gets in the way of writing occassional. Quelle shock!) 

I graduated with my Masters back in July, having written a thesis that was one part business plan and one part review of food hubs & institutions that mimic their capabilities. The thesis was an amalgamation of work not just in the program, but also professional consulting I had done (and still, on occassion, do) under the name of this very blog. The business plan element was a long time coming, something that I have had visions for but have always put off; coffee I have long jokingly defined as my abusive relationship, and my purpose of getting a masters was, in part, to get me back into the world of public policy, advocacy, and other work that I have done for a multitude of other organizations in volunteer andinternship capacities, yet never gotten the opportunity to work in. That's where I always felt I could do the most good, and the reason why I kept doing research papers, presenting at conferences, and doing things that were on the career-track for that line of work.

That line ends now. Or rather, is being recast. Part of what got me in my research was that food hubs take on a number of forms. And some of the restaurants and cafes where I have had the pleasure of working (or spending inordinate amounts of time at) fulfilled many the functions of food hubs, directly and indirectly. They were restaurants and classrooms; community spaces and coffeeshops, distribution points for CSA's and processing facilities for farm produce. Places like Charlie Hallowell's Pizzaiolo in Oakland, Jessica Koslow's Sqirl in Los Angeles, or Matthew Dillon's Sitka & Spruce group in Seattle all had elements of this at play, and all reflect their respective geographies. And they all play a role in my thinking about next steps. 

Ari Weizenberg, of Zingerman's, writes about how new businesses come from a process of good vision planning but also good mission statements. His method for going about this talks about the need to start from content (the who's, what's and why's of what you do) before moving to the composition and contrast of what you do -- the physical, material and structural things you will be building. This was an amazing exercise, and a conceptual framework I have used with clients before. It was crucial in setting up the business plan I assembled in my thesis, and as such, was useful once more when I sat down to reconceptualize the blog, but also my larger goals of which it has always been a part.

Terroirism is still going to be the home for a lot of content regarding urban planning, community economic development, and sustainable agriculture. Those are topics both near and dear to my heart, and are still professionally relevant moving forward. There'll still be thoughts on coffee and elements of the specialty coffee industry. But as one professional relation once told me, my visions and interests are too big to be constrained by sticking to coffee. And while it has served as a good medium for me to talk about a number of topics, there is a time to be moving on professionally within it. 

In that spirit, Terroirism is also going to become a home to document and talk about the day to day development of Diaspora Kitchen & Provisions, the pop-up element to a much larger project, that of establishing the business I laid out in my thesis work. I think smart businesses can integrate the goals of sustainable agriculture into their business models, and not only be profitable for themselves, but for their communities and employees as well. Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and Rainbow Grocery both uphold that fact in very different ways. And while coffee is still a stimulating professional field, I need to begin actually working on applications of my other interests and goals within other fields I consider myself to be a growing and learning professional within. Coffee cannot, as of this time, remain my sole source of income nor can waiting for policy jobs to pick me up be a rational course of action. 

It was also in this spirit that a decision to remain in NYC has become personally important. When I left SF in 2010, I realize in retrospect I did so without putting up much of a fight and without following all my options. Being 23, sort of lost and at that point unemployed an trailing in kitchens was neither going to pay way in SF, and there was a lot of pushback from my parents that I had neither the confidence nor heart to protest. I left a lot in SF and I still regret that particular choice to not dig my heels in and commit. After over two years in NYC, and having split a professional life that has one eye cocked towards the west coast for some opportunity that has yet to avail itself, I've built up too much of a community, too many good people and see to much change that can happen in NYC to leave just yet. NYC has many of the same problems as the Bay Area -- a place I still look to and feel as my spiritual home -- and many things that it lacks, especially where food sustainability issues are concerned. If I can do work in this field -- this wide open space where all these things come together -- and make it here, then, well, you know how that old ditty goes.

Here's to 2014, everyone. Time to take that jump. 

Finding Focus in a Lifetime of Histories

As we've attempted to make moves with Diaspora, I find myself re-writing business plans, excel spreadsheets, and affirming both visioning exercises and mission statements to help focus the core values of the business, both to make it more holistic, as well as to provide the root of the systems that will make it work. But the one sticking point is when I continue to evaluate menu development, and recipe testing, I find myself somewhat flummoxed. 

Creating a menu of things that reflect culture or background require you to dig deep -- to go back into time and memory and relive experiences, places, things that have stuck with you. Meals sit in memory, memories beget contexts, and that thing that you were reflecting on when you had that bite of something you found phenonenal suddenly comes rushing back. It's first times and last times, moments you think will happen another time and never come again. It's times that were magical because of who was behind the wheel at a given restaurant, or a certain time of year. They are whispers, sometimes sweet, sometimes sad, and there is never a time when you can seperate the dish from the context. 

Finding coherence in memories and whispers of taste can be a challenging proposition. I draw the lists of endless meals and dishes and divine the things that bring back floods to mind: The mel-y-mato at Cesar in Berkeley. My dads brownies/the brownie at Du-Pars. The lumberjack cake at Frances. Roasted pluots and noyeaux ice cream at Pizzaiolo. Apple dumplings made by a fellow resident in the Stebbins Hall co-op at Berkeley. Bakewell slice in the UK. Trazee peaches from Peacock Ranches. Vickis Tarocco blood oranges from Bernard Ranches. 6-hour long lunches at Aunt Mina's in Tel Aviv, finishing with mint tea, Turkish coffee, home-made schnapps, and baklava, small cookies, and most likely a pound cake of some sort after 13 previous courses (the original tasting menu endurance test). New York crumb cake from Seattles Best in LA. Kanelsnegls in Copenhagen. The babka and various sand cookies of a long-forgotten Jewish bakery in Studio City where there now stands a Panera. The white truffle hazelnut macaron at Pierre Herme in Paris. And let's be real, anything to step foot out of the bakery at Tartine. Deeply caramelly steamed puddings from The Robin Hood, our Van Nuys, CA British pub. Foccaccia with red onion "bruscetta" from our local Italian white tabelcloth joint Spumonte, also in Studio City. 

Things like this lend a lot of the mind, and its easy to get lost in fogs of forgotten moments, unlocked feelings for peoples and places where I am not nor ever will be again. It's nice to know my sense of recall is working, and that indeed there are moments of food that permeate strongly through time. Perhaps it's the red wine -- Broc Cellar's 2012 Vine Starr Red Zinfandel, as awesome as the last two vintages I've had the pleasure of having -- that's leaving me a little unfocused in all this listing and reminiscing. But without these memories, the use of personal and cultural history can become an empty, hollow thing, without attachment or purpose. It can become rote, or deeply cynical, or worse, both. A menu, ultimately, reflects much of this. And so focusing on the past is as much attempting to find inspiration as it is to root it down to something meaningful, prescient, and much more powerful.