CSA: Foraging at Paisley Farm

Goodlifer: CSA: Foraging at Paisley Farm

One of the added benefits of joining a CSA is the ability to pay a visit to the farm where your food will be grown. Mine, Paisley Farm in Tivoli, NY, just decided to start a CSA this year. To introduce their members to the farm, the farmers, the land and each other they decided to organize a series of foraging excursions. This was very exciting for city folk like us, who have concrete, not soil, firmly embedded underneath the soles of our shoes.

We drove up from Brooklyn on a Saturday morning, it was a nice day and, since there was little traffic, we arrived an hour earlier than the intended starting time. The Kokas family were very welcoming and invited us onto the porch for breakfast. Our six-year-old companion was immediately drawn to the big trampoline in the yard, and teenager Julian showed some cool tricks, like backflips and bounces. I guess one thing you learn growing up on a rural farm is to entertain yourself. The children also help with day-to-day operations on the farm, as much as school and activities with friends allow. I don’t know if it is a coincidence, but Julian is the most polite, conversant and able 14-year-old I have met in a very long time, although, sadly, he does not want to be a farmer when he grows up.

Honey and pastries for breakfast.

Honey and pastries for breakfast.

Mike Kokas and Jan Greer lived in New York City for many years and bought the farm about seventeen years ago, before the kids were born. They grow produce for many high-end NYC restaurants, something that began when French chefs started coming over, demanding fresh produce that was not shipped in from across the country. Jan says that although they truly enjoy dealing with the restaurants, the CSA gives them a chance to grow produce for people who are not as picky about size, uniformity and shape. It is a nice way, she says, to get back to the roots of food and cooking — fresh food and spontaneous family-style meals instead of small, precisely measured portions.

As the whole group of foragers had arrived, Mike took us down to the forest beneath a hill, very close to the house, to hunt for morels. These mushrooms are very sought-after bounty for professional foragers since they fetch prices of about $35 per pound at high-end restaurants. Seems like a good business idea, pick up things for free in the woods, sell them to restaurants at 100% profit. Finding them, we soon learned, is not quite so easy. The color and spongy texture of morels make them meld into the leaf bedding very well, and you are competing for this coveted commodity with deer, who also happen to fancy the taste.

The coveted morels.

The coveted morels.

None of us found anything, but, thankfully, Mike spotted one right as we were about to leave. It had been hiding in plain sight, highly visible, sticking up above the leaves. Then, bam! There it was. It’s very important that you use a knife to cut the stem of the morel, this will preserve the mycelium and make it easier for another juicy morel to grow in the same place. One thing that kept occurring to me throughout the day was how amazingly my senses adapted to scanning the environment for new things. Suddenly, something that I never noticed before was everywhere. It is kind of like that moonwalking bear video, or seeing the face someone you miss dearly in every stranger on the street, or being on a diet and suddenly noticing fast food and ice cream shops on every corner.

There it was, the morel, hiding in plain sight.

There it was, the morel, hiding in plain sight.

We trekked back up the hill, stopping at the green house to pick up our foraging baskets, and packed in to the back of a white van. “Nobody wants to sit with me in the front?” Mike said, “there’s room you know.” It turns out that sitting in the back of the van with the back door open, watching the scenery as we traveled down dirt roads was just too much fun for us all.

The foragers, the farmer and the farm dogs.

The foragers, the farmer and the farm dogs.

Shovels and baskets in hand, we walked into the foliage of the forest to find a good ramp foraging spot. I don’t know if I was the only one, but I did not really have a clue what a ramp was, or what it looked like. Thankfully, Mike showed us the ways. Ramps grow in clusters, kind of like garlic, and they have to be dug up a bit with the shovel before they can be pulled out of the ground. You place the shovel fairly close to the ramp cluster and push it down with your foot to loosen the dirt. This is actually good for the soil since it releases nutrients, which make way for new ramps. Then you grab the leaves, pull the ramps up and shake off all the dirt.

A bit of manual labor and time spent in the woods is good for the soul.

Major digging action.

Gathering Ramps.

Gathering lovely Ramps.

In about an hour and a half, my six-year-old co-forager and I filled up a basket and a half of beautiful, dirty, smelly ramps (they have a reputation for being stinky, and they do certainly have a strong odor, but to me, they smelled divine). Mike yelled that one of the other guys had found four (four!) morels up on this hill over there and was happy to share his spot. We could almost smell the wild funghi sautéing on our stove and desperately scanned every inch of the ground, poking through the leaves with sticks. Still no morels, but we had lots of ramps and proudly carried our baskets back to the van.

The master forager, who found four morels, while the rest of us found none, nada, zero.

The master forager, who found four morels, while the rest of us found none, nada, zero.

Before heading back to the farm, we got to pick some nettles. I have very bad memories of running through fields as a child, getting stung by these evil plants. But, since I hear they are great for making soup, I put on a pair of gloves, grabbed a knife and started collecting them. I still got burned, red stingy bumps forming on my arms. A resourceful member of the group gave me some crushed burdock to put on there and I suddenly remembered adult hands rubbing stingy child hands (mine) to make the pain go away.

Picking nettles.

Picking nettles.

Dressed for the occasion.

Dressed for the occasion.

The foragers with our bounty.

The foragers with our bounty.

Back at the farm, we took the obligatory group shot with our foraging bounty, all of us sporting proud smiles. Then, it was time to wash the ramps. If you have access to a high-pressure hose, you are in luck, because that will make it a lot easier to get rid of the dirt. I cleaned off mine at home in the kitchen sink, which worked fine, but obviously takes a bit more time. After cutting the roots off, it may be good to leave them soaking in water in the sink for a bit. Then, dry the leaves off with paper towels (I forgot this part at home, but it still seemed to work fine) to remove excess water.

Use a hose (or kitchen faucet) to remove all the dirt and debris.

Use a hose (or kitchen faucet) to remove all the dirt and debris.

Wipe off excess moisture with paper towels.

Wipe off excess moisture with paper towels.

You can either sauté the ramps whole, adding  a pinch of salt and olive oil (cheap oil, not the good kind, since the strong flavor of the ramps will overpower it). Adding some white wine towards the end adds flavor, and makes the kitchen smell divine. You need a pretty big pan, but the leaves do cook down, sort of like spinach, and it’s a good idea to cook on low heat if you do them whole, since the leaves cook faster than the bulbs.

Toss whole ramps into the pan with olive oil and pinch of salt.

Toss whole ramps into the pan with olive oil and pinch of salt.

A bit of white wine makes the kitchen smell divine and provides a nice round flavor.

A bit of white wine makes the kitchen smell divine and provides a nice round flavor.

Farmer Mike sharing some cooking wisdom in the kitchen.

Mike Kokas sharing some cooking wisdom in the kitchen.

Sautéed ramps, ready to eat.

Sautéed ramps, ready to eat.

At home, I cooked them separately, which just seemed easier in a small city kitchen. The flavor is definitely strong, the leaves are very spinach-like, but chewier, and the bulbs taste very much like spring onions, but stronger and with a hint of garlic. The next few days, I have a lot of recipe-hunting to do, to figure out what to do with all my ramps, but there will definitely be a quiche, a pasta, and for lunch today I thought I would try a ramp wrap. May be interesting.

Cleaning and cooking ramps worked just as well in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen (although I need a bigger pan).

Cleaning and cooking ramps worked just as well in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen (although I need a bigger pan).

The grand finale of the day was an amazing homecooked feast, which magically appeared while we were out in the woods. There was bread and local cheeses, blueberries, amazing eggplant focaccia, roasted asparagus, grapes, ramp & mushroom quiche, morel pasta, fresh ice tea and good wine. This alone was worth the trip and the money we paid. We came home with more ramps and nettles than we knew what to do with, but I spent a fun night in the kitchen figuring it out.

How many people do you know that have a crate of fresh asparagus in their kitchen?

How many people do you know that have a crate of fresh asparagus in their kitchen?

Pasta sauce made from freshly foraged morels. Yum.

Pasta sauce made from freshly foraged morels. Yum.

Mushroom & ramp quiche.

Amazing mushroom & ramp quiche.

Mike & Jan Kokas, owners of Paisley Farm.

Mike Kokas & Jan Greer, owners of Paisley Farm.

I think the best statement came from the six-year-old, who we brought to cultivate an appreciation for and knowledge of where his food actually comes from; “This is the best day of my life.” Maybe a slight exaggeration, but oh what good a bit of time spent reconnecting with nature can do for the human spirit.

For more information on Paisley Farm, the CSA and future foraging excursions, visit their website.

See more photos on Flickr

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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