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Stuck at home, a surplus of fresh spring vegetables was the start of many culinary adventures, but none so valuable as relaxing over the bounty with family
Jessica Steinberg's family: husband Daniel, sons Ziv (second from left), Lev, and Jessica at Ramat Rachel's cherry orchards, on May 20, 2020. (courtesy, Daniel Laufer)
Jessica Steinberg's family: husband Daniel, sons Ziv (second from left), Lev, and Jessica at Ramat Rachel's cherry orchards, on May 20, 2020. (courtesy, Daniel Laufer)

It was 11 p.m. and the two ducks were still steaming on the stovetop, a pot of rendered fat bubbling away on the last available burner.

We took a selfie of the scene, my sister, my brother-in-law, and I, with the ducks in the background, and sent it to our nephew and his wife. “This is so confusing,” she wrote. “Please explain,” he wrote.

Here’s the thing: it’s true that while our two families often eat together, we don’t generally cook together.

And given that my sister is a lapsed vegan, she doesn’t usually embark on projects like preparing antibiotic and hormone-free ducks.

My brother-in-law, Ira Skop and my sister, Beth Steinberg, with the ducks steaming on the stovetop (Courtesy Jessica Steinberg)

But the coronavirus has introduced some unusual projects, particularly in my southern Jerusalem community where we’ve been inundated with farm-fresh produce throughout most of this pandemic.

This onslaught of artisanal cheeses, boutique pickles, seasonal fruit, export-worthy greens — and ducks — has been the culinary silver lining to this surreal season, the result of farmers getting stuck with crops that are normally sold to hotels, restaurants, and for export.

It all started with asparagus.

Sagi Cohen, a farmer from Moshav Prazon up north, had a bumper crop of asparagus and fresh herbs with the corona shutdown in mid-March. A friend-of-a-friend got wind of his dilemma and offered to set up a WhatsApp group for Jerusalemites who could help cover his costs and benefit from some wildly inexpensive young shoots of the spring vegetable.

A few dozen of us bought the 1.2 kilo bundles of slender, fresh asparagus for NIS 50 that first time. That was before Passover. Given that asparagus usually costs NIS 28 for a bundle of about 20 shoots, this seemed like a coronavirus steal.

The small bag of herbs purchased from farmer Sagi Cohen during the coronavirus closures. (courtesy, Uri Lahav)

It blossomed from there. The next time, Cohen added huge bundles of basil, fresh springtime stalks of garlic, clusters of rosemary and thyme, sprays of sorrel, all driven south by Cohen, his wife, and daughter, and delivered to drop-off points throughout Jerusalem.

The Cohens were grateful to these good-natured suburbanites for buying their produce, but they were tough, too, never releasing any of their asparagus, herbs or salicornia (succulent, salty plant) until each and every customer paid their debt on Paybox.

At home, meanwhile, there were the simultaneous demands of the kids’ endless online learning, articles to write, the usual loads of laundry, meals and snacks to prepare, all while stemming bundles of basil, peeling cloves of garlic for confit, and whirring them into pesto or learning — as I did — to food process the garlic and mix it with a little olive oil before dropping it into ice cube trays to be used down the line.

It wasn’t exactly what Laura Ingalls Wilder experienced in “The Long Winter” (book six of “The Little House on the Prairie” series), during which she recounted twisting straw to feed into the stove, trying to keep their frontier home passably warm during a freezing Midwest winter when they almost froze and starved to death.

An asparagus frittata, thanks to the endless supply of the spring vegetable purchased from an Israeli farmer caught with a surplus during the coronavirus closures. (courtesy, Jessica Steinberg)

But I channeled that beloved family and their persistence into my own kind of “bonnet-head” fangirl experience during those long corona days.¬† We stemmed basil, tipped strawberries, turned CSA beet leaves and carrot fronds into homemade stock and made pomelo jam from the fruit of the backyard tree, alongside now-weekly batches of homemade challah and oven-baked pita (the latter two were my husband’s projects).

There was a budding community of asparagus customers, too. We only got to see each others’ masked faces on pickup days, keeping a safe two meters apart in the line outside the farmer’s station wagon, packed to the roof with plastic blue bags of produce.

But we posted pictures of our creations, discussed methods of preparation, and waited for the day when some of us could eat some of this goodness together.

In the meantime, my family feasted on Caprese salad, that fresh, composed platter of tomato rounds, mozzarella and basil leaves. Ditto for the grassy asparagus, which we roasted, laid across frittata, scattered over pizza, and cooked into pale, green soup. Week by week, the asparagus grew from skinny stalks to thick spears.

Gorgeous, dark pink peonies bought from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, when they could not export the flower to Europe during the coronavirus closures. (courtesy, Jessica Steinberg)

We bought bargain bunches of peonies from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion for three weeks running, a varietal called Sarah Bernhardt, with 10 of those blowsy, fragrant flowers in each NIS 50 bunch. My sons and I watched them slowly bloom, until the snowy blossoms became a bunch almost too wide to encircle with our arms.

There was more asparagus and herbs, several rounds of strawberries, artisanal pickles, a rumor of fresh blueberries that was quickly debunked as an urban myth, cherry-picking at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, and then the ducks, which would mark the second time we ate with my sister and her family in the slowly emerging aftermath of COVID-19.

The ducks, which cost NIS 135 each, made their way to my sister’s fridge and then over to my house, where we stared at them for some long minutes, trying to decide if we should cook one or both, whether to follow “The Cook’s Illustrated” recipe or the one in “Food and Wine,” augmented by some tips from a skilled home cook, whose Facebook posts we both faithfully follow.

Some 24 hours later, after steaming, carving, roasting, rendering fat (used to roast truly divine potatoes), and glazing, we dined on homemade challah, sourdough discard grilled za’atar pita (my brother-in-law’s corona creation), roasted duck glazed with a citrus sauce, and homemade cherry pie.

The duck? Tasty, but essentially poultry of another stripe. We all agreed it was probably not worth all the effort. At the very least, we wouldn’t steam it next time.

But sitting around the table outside, the weather finally turned pleasant, gathered together as we’ve done so many times before, we appreciated the meal and our family, in addition to all that culinary bounty.

If nothing else, the coronavirus helps you value moments and abilities more than ever before, and we’re hoping to savor that for as long as possible.

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