Tag Archives: Food

Pesto Pasta Salad with Juliet Tomatoes

Pesto Pasta Salad

I had my first taste of Hillside Farms‘ baby Roma tomatoes last summer, at the beginning of my local food adventures.  The moment that first Juliet tomato burst in my mouth was an epiphany. It tasted like sunshine, sweeter than any tomato I’d ever eaten.

I had been skeptical about the locavore movement until then, but with that one bite I finally understood what the “eat local” hoopla was about. A year later, I’ve certainly bought into the local food movement. And my heart still pitter-pats every time I see Hillside Farms’ Juliet tomatoes in my Local Box.

If I don’t eat them straight out of the package, I enjoy using Juliet tomatoes in a simple pasta salad with pesto dressing. I almost always have goat cheese and the ingredients for homemade pesto in my fridge during the summer months, and this salad is one of my favorite things to cook on nights when Juliet tomatoes arrive in the Local Box.

This salad is as versatile as it is easy to prepare. I’ve added olives, chopped green onions, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, baby spinach, grilled chicken breast, and even chopped raw baby squash to this salad, all with good results. It’s a terrific base for whatever I’m craving along with those sweet little tomatoes from Hillside Farms.

Pesto Pasta Salad with Juliet Tomatoes (serves two as a main dish as written;  serves more if you stretch it by adding more veggies or meats)

1/2 lb. farfalle, penne, or conchiglie pasta
1 cup fresh basil leaves, packed
1/4 cup grated parmesan or Romano cheese
1/3 cup olive oil
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 pint Juliet tomatoes
4 ounces goat cheese

Cook and drain pasta according to package directions. Meanwhile, prepare pesto sauce by combining basil, grated cheese, olive oil, and minced garlic and one teaspoon of salt in a food processor. Pulse for about 90 seconds, until pesto is uniform in texture. Set pesto aside until the cooked, drained pasta is cool to the touch. After that, mix the pasta and pesto sauce in a serving dish.

Put the goat cheese in the freezer for a few minutes while you slice the cherry tomatoes in half. (Chilling the soft cheese makes much easier to break up later.) Add the sliced tomatoes to the dressed pasta, then use a butter knife to chip the cold goat cheese into the salad. Gently stir the finished salad to combine all the ingredients and chill it for at least an hour in the fridge before serving.

This post is sponsored by Greenling Organic Delivery and appears on their blog “Eating Out of the Local Box.”


Farmer Profile: Marissa Lankes of Boggy Creek Farm

6:00 a.m. at Boggy Creek Farm is a magical time. I was at the east Austin farm last Thursday at that early hour and the field in front of the house was as still as a picture. The usually-bustling farm stand lay bare while a full moon hung in the grey sky. Toesy the hen was one of the only creatures stirring before sunrise, her sisters fast asleep in the coop.

By 6:15 a.m. the moment had passed. Roosters crowed, dogs barked, cars honked and Boggy Creek Farm was waking with the dawn. I met farmer Marissa Lankes, 24, on her way into the farmhouse that morning.

“Time to check in with Carol Ann,” she said.

Marissa checks in with Boggy Creek Farm owner  Carol Ann Sayle nearly every morning in the farmhouse kitchen. The two banter and discuss the tasks at hand while Marissa fills her water jug and retrieves her Felcos from their hiding place in a drawer near the sink.

“She has to hide those shears here in the house or one of the men will take them,” explained Carol Ann. “They’re safe in that drawer with the sponges– no one else looks there.”

I didn’t ask, but I got the sense that Marissa learned to hide her favorite tool in the kitchen the hard way, and that this was one of many lessons she’d learned from mentor Carol Ann.

Marissa came to work at Boggy Creek several months ago and in her time there she was recently promoted from farm intern to one of two personal assistants who help Carol Anne with the seemingly endless number of tasks on an urban farm.

“The best way to learn how to farm is to work on a farm.” Marissa said. “It’s a double-edged sword, though, since most farmers don’t want to answer all these questions from a 20 year-old kid. Carol Ann isn’t like that, though.”

Farmer Marissa Lankes harvests tomatoes

At Boggy Creek, Carol Ann keeps Marissa busy with a job description that’s as varied as it gets. Marissa helps ready the farm stand for market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, doing everything from making labels for the produce to picking extra cherry tomatoes to pulling earworms from tassels of corn. Four other days a week she tills, harvests and plants the fields; feeds chickens; pulls weeds; manages irrigation and handles myriad other tasks that make up farm life.

When we spoke on Thursday morning the first order of business was to harvest from the field the blush tomatoes and “scalders”– those delicate fruits burned by the sun before they were ready to pick. Marissa plucked tomatoes from the vines for nearly two hours that morning, a light load by her count. While I followed along she gave me a lesson in sustainable farming, tomato picking and the challenges of a beginning farmer in Austin.

Farmer Marissa Lankes picking tomatoes

Marissa got interested in farming in a roundabout way. She grew up in Detroit and studied fashion design in school, both at Michigan State University and in New York at the Fashion Institute of Technology. There she realized that what drew her most to fashion wasn’t the clothes, it was the self-sufficiency of making ones’ own clothing. Her interest in agriculture developed when she volunteered at the MSU Organic Student Farm, and now the self-reliance of farm life is what keeps her in the field. That, and the food.

In my first tour of the farm I nibbled on four varieties of tomatoes straight off the vine and tasted fresh okra, basil, sorrel and purslane in the field. Marissa had planted most of these delicacies, and she will nurture all of them through Texas’ tough summer. Although she is humble about her cooking abilities (mashed potatoes are her most ambitious dish), Marissa can spot the ripest tomatoes, the most tender okra, and knows exactly when Boggy Creek’s produce will taste best.  When we paused from picking tomatoes for a quick breakfast of green zebra heirlooms Thursday, she said that access to safe, healthy food is one of her favorite things about farming.

Heirloom tomatoes at Boggy Creek Farm

Another highlight is the variety of jobs she faces day-to-day. For example, after Marissa finished picking tomatoes on Thursday morning she went to cultivate a bed of squash in a field in front of the house. Along the way, she tidied up the tomatoes sitting on the farmhouse porch, visited the chicken coop, weeded a row of cucumbers and fixed several leaks in the nearby irrigation drip tape. (Apparently critters like squirrels love to use drip tape as a water fountain, and their teeth make holes in the hose.)

“There’s not really a routine here. You just see what needs to be done and do it. I like that,” Marissa said. “Sometimes people ask me how we deal with mosquitoes and ants. That’s like asking someone in an office how they cope with the fluorescent lighting.”

That’s not to say farming is without difficulties; there are plenty, Marissa said. One of the alarming facts about farmers is that they make very little money from farming. According to the USDA, in 2011 the average family farm will  earn just $11,174 of income from on-farm activities. In fact, the earnings of most family farmers in the U.S. are buoyed by wages from another job, held either by the primary farmer and/or a spouse (source). We didn’t discuss her salary at Boggy Creek, but Marissa expressed realistic expectations for her fortunes as a farmer:

“There’s no money in this,” she said. “No one’s making a living. No one’s getting rich. We don’t have health insurance, but then again, we’re also not getting sick.”

A decidedly more lighthearted challenge Marissa faces in farm life is finding gear that fits. Although there are more than 300,000 women farming in the U.S., clothing companies have been slow to adapt traditional products to this rising demographic. Marissa celebrated her recent birthday with a new pair of Redwing work boots, regarded in the farming world as top of the line.

“These are the most expensive thing I own, besides my car,” she joked. When I asked where she got them, she burst with laughter. “You’ve got to ask that of every woman farmer you meet. It’s impossible to find work boots that fit and I want to know where they shop!”

“I got these at the Redwing store here in Austin,” she continued, “and they had just one pair small enough to fit me– a men’s size five. Still, that’s better than most stores. You go in there and look at the women’s section and they’ll have these hideous gardening shoes and maybe some black chef’s clogs. Not a thing for farmers!”

We both laughed at the irony of Marissa, a former fashion designer, struggling to find work clothes that fit. Still, she said, she wouldn’t trade her work boots for office pumps any day of the week.

Near the end of our visit Marissa opened up about one of the biggest obstacles she sees facing young Austin farmers, the availability of affordable land.

“Our main concern is land. All the time, we’re like, ‘How am I ever going to get land?’ Some people are lucky and they’ll have family land, but otherwise it’s really hard. There’s just not that much capital,” she said.

A quick search of the real estate directory LandandFarm.com reveals that the starting price for a Travis County acreage like Boggy Creek Farm can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of course, that doesn’t include other farm start-up expenses such as irrigation, supplies, and labor. Marissa said that there are some Farm Service Agency grants available for starting farmers, particularly women, but it’s hard to get excited about taking on the risks that face beginners in their first years.

“Besides, I’ve got the best job in the world right here at Boggy Creek,” she said. “I’m never going to leave.”

Meal Plan 6/16-6/21

I did a little dance when I unloaded our Local Box this week. We got okra, peaches, basil and two kinds of tomatoes. It doesn’t get much summery-er than that. Rami and I made short work of the tomatoes and ate those in a sandwich already. The summer peas aren’t far behind– they’re made up in a salad in the fridge and I’ll be eating them as soon as I publish this post.

Here are the ingredients I’m working with:

Peaches – Caskey Orchards
Assorted Summer Squash – Massey Farm
Basil – My Father’s Farm
Mango – G&S Groves
Valley Girl Tomatoes – My Father’s Farm
Juliette Tomatoes – Hillside Farm
Summer Peas – Just Peachy Farm
Spring Onions – Acadian Family Farm

Here’s what I’m making:

Thursday: Tomato Sandwiches, Fresh Black-Eyed Pea Salad


Friday: Stewed okra and tomatoes, buttermilk biscuits

Saturday: Summer Squash Soup, sliced tomatoes with salt and pepper, peach cobbler (I’ll probably toss the mango in with the peaches)

Sunday: Vegetarian Penne

Monday: Picadillo (South American hash made with venison, onions, tomatoes, garlic, etc.), Tortillas

Tuesday: Leftover awareness night!

Breakfast: We’re on a toast and cream of wheat kick, embellished with homemade jams galore from the spring canning season and ATX Foodswappers

Cowpea Salad

I love cooking with cowpeas. They’re versatile and easy to work with, and undeniably pretty. I seek them out at summer farmer’s markets, and I rejoice when they arrive in our Local Box. Lucky for me, cowpeas are a heat loving crop that flourishes in Austin’s hottest months.

There are several varieties of cowpeas growing in Central Texas:  black eyed, lady cream, and purple hull peas are some of the most common. Cowpeas are usually removed from their hulls before they are sold at market, packed in snack-sized plastic baggies with about 1.5 cups of loose peas per package. All the varieties of cowpeas in Austin are recognizable by their pale color, kidney shape and the signature darkened “eye” at their center.

In my experience, each variety of cowpea can be used interchangeably in recipes. Lightly-steamed cowpeas can also substitute for cooked English peas or white beans in many preparations. My friend Megan at Stetted likes to eat them raw as a snack, and they are stewed with tomatoes and jalapenos in traditional Southern dishes.

The inspiration for this cowpea recipe came from Blue Star Cafeteria, a little restaurant in the Rosedale neighborhood of Austin. Among other things, they serve a terrific shrimp cocktail with homemade pea salad and saltines on the side. Pure comfort food. I order that dish every time we visit, and while I’ll happily share the shrimp, I save all that creamy pea salad for myself.

I recreated Blue Star’s pea salad at home substituting purple hull peas from Pleasant Hill Farm in Leander, Texas, for the green English peas they use at the restaurant. Like most good comfort food, this dish is straightforward to make and relies on good ingredients for its success. The most important thing to get right is obviously the peas– very fresh cowpeas are tender and have a creamy texture when they’re cooked. Minced red onion and red bell pepper give the salad sweetness and bite, and a simple mayonnaise dressing and cheddar cheese add richness.This salad is what I imagine eating at the church potluck of my dreams.

I usually find serving salads in vegetable cups to be a little extravagant for our weeknight suppers. However, I plated this salad in a hollowed out red pepper on a whim and I’m glad I did. After an hour of chilling in the refrigerator, the pepper added extra heat and sweetness to the salad, welcome flavors on a hot evening.

Purple Hull Pea Salad


Cowpea Salad (yields four side-dish servings)
1 1/2 cups fresh black-eyed peas, purple hull peas or lady cream peas
1/2  red onion
1/2  red bell pepper
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon peppper
1/3 cup finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese
Whole red bell peppers for serving, if desired

Bring to a boil three cups of water in a medium saucepan. Prepare the cowpeas by rinsing them and picking out any leaves or darkened, soft peas from the rest. Once the water is boiling, add the cowpeas to the pot and cook uncovered for six minutes. Drain the peas and set them aside to cool.

Mince the onion and red bell pepper. Grate the cheese, if necessary. In a large bowl, mix together the minced vegetables, mayonnaise, mustard and shredded cheese. Once the cowpeas are cooled completely, add them in too. (Remember, warm cowpeas will melt the grated cheese, so be patient and let them cool completely!) Season the salad with salt and pepper and refrigerate it for at least an hour before serving.

To make red pepper cups: shop for wide, regularly shape bell peppers with flat bottoms. Cut the top off each bell pepper and pull out the ribs and seeds. Fill the pepper cup it with salad. That’s it! Simplest fancy pants garnish ever.

This post is sponsored by Greenling Organic Delivery and it appears on their blog, “Eating Out of the Local Box.”

Sun Gold Tomatoes

Sun Gold Tomatoes

At first I thought I’d make a pasta salad with these sun gold tomatoes from Tecolote Farm. Then I ate one. And another one. And other one. And soon they were all gone.

Meal Plan 6/9 – 6/14

Is there anything sadder than tossing a slimy, spoiled head of lettuce into the trash? Of course there is, but that’s not keeping me from wallowing in culinary pity. I forgot my cooking at home last week because of all the food blogging activities in Austin (ironic, right?) and now I’m  dreading cleaning the uneaten, spoiled food out of my kitchen. Last week’s peaches on the counter are more brown than peach, and I can’t tell whether the beets in my crisper have farm dirt on them or something else. I’m procrastinating the monumental food-toss-clean-out by listening to music by The Moldy Peaches, and by looking forward to the week ahead.

We’ve got new, non-moldy peaches, blueberries, and two kinds of tomatoes in the kitchen, and I’ll be able to get cooking with those just as soon as I make a little room. Here’s what’s in the Local Box this week. Thanks to Stephanie for putting all the hyperlinks for the farm websites.

Peaches – Caskey Orchards
Blueberries – Berry Best
Yellow Onion – Gundermann Acres
French Carrots – Gundermann Acres
Large Cucumbers – Acadian Family Farm
Valley Girl Tomatoes – Fruitful Hill Farm
Golden Cherry Tomatoes – Acadian Family Farm OR Tecolote Farm
New Potatoes – Gundermann Acres
Red Beet Bunch – Acadian Family Farm

Here’s what I’m planning to cook:

Thursday: Homemade tortillas with picadillo, a traditional South American hash made with venison, onions, peppers and squash.

Friday: Potato Chickpea Curry, Rice, Carrot Halwa

Saturday: Picnic! We’re having our favorite tomato sandwiches, potato salad, icebox pickles, and molasses cookies. Hopefully Rami will make sun tea. He learned how a few weeks ago and since then our large mason jar has had a new flavor of sun tea in it every few days!

Sunday: An informal group of food bloggers and tweeters, including me, are meeting at SWAD on north Lamar for a late lunch at 2 PM. There’s no invitation or formal guest list, so please join us if you want to! There are 8-10 of us planning to go so far.

Monday: Vegetarian Borscht, beer bread, peach crisp

Tuesday: Leftover Awareness Night!

CAFB Hunger Awareness Challenge: A Follow Up

A few weeks ago I shared some snack recipes as part of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance Hunger Awareness Blog Project benefiting the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB). I promised a three-part series in that first post, and I didn’t deliver. This is just post number two, and I’m way past the deadline. Sorry about that. I’ve stewed about this for weeks now, and I wasn’t ready to share this piece until today.

Before I embarked on the AFBA Hunger Challenge, I assumed that poor people shopped at grocery stores because they didn’t know about farmer’s markets. And that they didn’t cook from scratch because they were lazy. (I am crying as I write this because it is mortifying to admit how judgmental and naïve I was.) Lucky for me, the staff at CAFB used this challenge to teach the facts about the real face of hunger. For example, over 80% of CAFB beneficiaries are not homeless, and many are children. I also learned that nearly 50% of Americans will be on food assistance at some point in their lives, many because of circumstances beyond their control.

Through my research of the SNAP (food stamp) application process I discovered that my husband and I are just a few thousand dollars above the annual income threshold for food stamps. And if we chose to have children now, we would definitely need government assistance to help feed our family.

I’m ashamed to admit that I never used to think that someone on food stamps could be just like me, but now I know better. People in poverty aren’t stupid and they don’t need my advice. They do need support from their communities–including access to clean, healthy food– to succeed against the odds which are often stacked against them.

I originally intended to write for this challenge about how SNAP clients could use food stamps to buy safe, healthy foods from local farmers via community supported agriculture (CSAs). In the CSA model, local farmers deliver baskets of affordable, healthy food directly to consumers. There’s no middle man, so prices for CSA produce are often lower than those for equivalent products at grocery stores. The neighborhood delivery part of CSAs helps end food deserts, and CSAs benefit local economies by keeping food dollars close to home.

CSAs seem like a no-brainer solution in the fight against hunger, and according to the USDA, “many SNAP licensed firms have incorporated CSAs into their business portfolios.” However, not a single CSA program I contacted in the CAFB service area accepts food stamps as payment. (I reached out to thirteen farms and local organic delivery services and counting.) When I asked Greenling Organic Delivery, the CSA-type business that sponsors my blog, whether they plan to expand their payment options to include SNAP benefits, they said “not at this time.” I was tearful and angry after that phone call, and it has taken me over a month to work up the courage to talk about it publicly.* Hopefully I won’t lose them as a sponsor if they read this post.

When I called to talk with farmers about their CSAs and food stamps, I simply asked whether or not they would accept SNAP benefits as payment. Now I’d like to ask “why not?” As it stands, this is a glaring inequity in our local food supply. I am lucky to have the means to eat well. Much of the focus of my blog– eating good food made with local ingredients– is born out of my privilege. As I become aware of this, my thinking about food and hunger changes.

The poor do have a personal responsibility in eliminating hunger, but so does the community. As part of Austin’s food community, we food bloggers must acknowledge barriers that stand between healthy, local foods and families in poverty. We need to demand fair policy from our politicians and fair treatment from our food producers so that everyone in Central Texas can eat as well as we do.

*Edited 6/8/11 to add: Since I first published this post, Mason Arnold, the founder and owner of Greenling, left a comment to explain that no vendors can accept SNAP payments online. That restriction knocks out Greenling and most of the other large CSA and CSA-type businesses in Austin, who accept payments (either monthly or weekly) via credit card over the internet. 

Lisa Goddard, a staff person at CAFB, sent me a lengthy email with lots of information about the barriers that exist for non-grocery stores to accept SNAP payments. They are numerous, and much more complex than my initial research lead me to believe.

I  hope to write additional posts that explore the relationship between poverty and access to local food. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has not yet returned my calls requesting information about this issue, so I really appreciate Mason and Lisa’s input as I continue my research. Thank you, Mason and Lisa!