Thanks so much to Chef Shaya Klechevsky for this great guest cross-post from his blog At Your Palate. Shaya is a combination gourmet chef, food nerd and food writer. Shaya grew up in a home rich in diverse cultures; his mother, an Egyptian native, and his father, a Polish native, brought an interesting mix of food and flavor to every meal. After attending Brooklyn College, Shaya found his way to the French Culinary Institute at the International Center for Culinary Arts. Shaya uses his passion for good food and a healthy lifestyle to bring healthy, kosher, gourmet cuisine to his clients.
In a previously mentioned article, Attention Locavores: Community Supported Agriculture (aka CSA), I discussed the latest trend in local sustainability – the Community Supported Agriculture movement – where communities band together in support of a farm (or two) and are provided with a schedule of delivered seasonal produce. As such, I recently had the wonderful pleasure of getting to know Hilla Abel, a native Californian who made the trek to our cosmopolitan New York City.
Hilla Abel trained at New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute and now works as a personal chef, cooking instructor, and apparently the pioneer of establishing Jewish CSA programs in NYC! She was responsible for co-founding the first ever Jewish CSA in Queens with the Forest Hills Jewish Center. Below, is the riveting conversation I had with her:
At Your Palate: Hey Hilla! Ok, first, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? What do you do now? etc…
Hilla Abel: I grew up in California, and moved to New York just about 4 years ago. I work as a personal chef and cooking instructor, and I freelance as an optometrist as well.
AYP: That sounds so great! What brought you to New York? I mean, California has so much to offer, at least from a culinary perspective…the West Coast just seems to be a little ahead of the ball of adopting the latest trends in food and ingredients….
HA: I’m sure the Californian side of me is the part that is craving fresh food, and loves the creativity of cooking it. I moved to New York with my husband, who at the time was going to medical school here. It’s been great. I had always wanted to live in New York.
AYP: Nice! Tell me more about your personal cheffing. Where did you go to culinary school? How would you describe your cooking?
HA: I was trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute. It’s really a leader in the natural foods world, and it was so conveniently located here in New York. Currently, I work in personal cheffing and cooking instruction mainly in the arena of specialized diets and health-supportive cooking. Examples of my clients are gluten-free individuals, new moms, people with specific medical conditions, and so forth. It’s about food that’s both delicious and good for you.
AYP: That is so important in this day where unfortunately there seems to be an increase in food intolerance and allergies. The concept of natural foods is fascinating; can you tell me more about it?
HA: It all goes back to the adage “you are what you eat.” Many of us are so busy that we don’t think about how food fuels our bodies and sustains us. Natural foods include a wide variety of fresh and whole foods, while avoiding chemicals and processed foods as much as possible.
AYP: Is this limited to a vegan diet or does that include dairy, eggs and animal sources of food as well?
HA: It varies by the person. I am of the belief that no one diet is good for everyone. Some people do well on vegetarian or vegan diets, and other people don’t. So if you do include animal sources of foods in your diet, it is best to choose high-quality animal products in moderation.
AYP: That completely makes sense. But it seems as if it’s a reinforcement of good sense – everything in moderation!
HA: Agreed. It’s a good lesson for life.
AYP: I wrote an article about CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture and I understand that you’re involved in a Jewish CSA with a synagogue out in Queens. That sounds fascinating, and I’d love to know more about it. First of all, can you please explain to me what a CSA is? For example, how does it work? How does one start? What’s the experience of being a subscriber in one?
HA: One way to think of a CSA is as a system where members buy shares in a local farm. Each member pays ahead of time, which is when the farmer needs funds for planting and getting ready for the harvest. Then during the harvest season, members get weekly shares of produce from the farm. It’s a great way to support local farming, both by paying ahead of time, and also by paying the farmer directly without a middleman (like a supermarket). The advantages for the members are that they get very fresh, usually organic, produce (often picked that day or the day before) which has traveled only a short distance to reach them. It’s healthy, and it’s environmentally responsible. It’s also a great way to build community.
AYP: I love that! I think it’s so great to be able to combine one’s desire for locavorism without having to give up their desire to also consume organic products. As I’m sure you know, many supermarkets that offer organic produce usually aren’t locally farmed, so until the advent of the CSA or shopping at farmers markets, being both locally sustainable and organic was always a difficult choice for people to have to make. How does one’s subscription or involvement in a CSA help build the community? What happens at the weekly deliveries?
HA: Absolutely. It’s the best of all worlds. It’s something you can feel good about for lots of reasons. It’s completely different than going to the store to buy food. The produce is picked up in a central location, which in our case is a synagogue, the Forest Hills Jewish Center. There are volunteers who staff the pick-up each week, to greet the other members as they come in and make sure the distribution goes smoothly. Everyone is required to volunteer this way. It’s a small commitment, but it can also be fun, because people meet each other. Our CSA will also have fun and educational programs, such as cooking classes, a trip to the farm, a Jewish text study as well as other related programs which provide another opportunity for people to get together in the context of the CSA.
AYP: What a wonderful way to integrate Judaism and Jewish values into what seems to be so clearly a very “Jewish” thing to do! Do you know in advance what kind of seasonal produce to expect over the course of the year? And if so, do you also provide ideas and options for cooking or preparing the fresh ingredients? The reason I ask is because it seems that one of the most notable criticisms of a CSA is that often, one’s share in the CSA offers up so much that people don’t know what to do with their excess or surplus. The art of food preservation is rarely practiced in the home anymore, and is much more commercially available as a product in and of itself (pickles or jams, for example).
HA: We are fortunate to be working with a really wonderful farm. They grow an amazing variety of produce, and they post a harvest schedule online so that people have some idea of what to expect. They have also been doing this for quite a number of years and have modified their crops based on feedback from their members, so it’s a great selection. As for what to do with the produce, that’s the fun part! We will print our own newsletter every week that members receive at the pick-up which will have recipes on it. The farmers have recipes on their websites as well. As far as surplus, we are offering both full shares and half shares so that each member can decide what size share is best for his or her household. We really don’t want any of the food to be wasted. Interesting also that you mention food preservation, because one of our share options is a one-time 20 lb tomato share for people who want to can or freeze their own tomato sauce. And we’ve had some takers on that! I’ve noticed a bit of resurgence in canning, but maybe that’s just the kind of people I hang out with!
AYP: It really seems as if you guys thought of everything and found a way to really make the CSA work for your community. I also am impressed that the synagogue is involved and is including their input and support as well. As for the resurgence in canning, I think it’s a combination both of the kind of people you hang with and a result of the current economic times.
HA: Indeed we are fortunate to have a very supportive synagogue, as well as a wonderful group of enthusiastic volunteers.
AYP: Let’s not forget that food preservation methods were discovered/invented because the abundance of food we have today simply did not exist. Also, certain ingredients and foods were only available seasonally, not like today where you can buy any ingredients you want 365 days out of the year.
HA: I think there is also an increased interest in buying seasonal food. When you buy seasonally, you realize that there are some delicious foods that are worth holding onto, so pickling, canning and jams make sense.
AYP: I think it’s also really smart that the subscribers are also required to volunteer in the process, I think it really helps forge a connection between you and the earth. While you may not be the one actually doing the planting, you are directly supporting an industry and culture that brings you immensely closer to nature. I think it really helps to make the “you are what you eat” philosophy feel very real for people.
HA: Definitely! The CSA model is wonderful in many aspects, which is why it is becoming so popular.
AYP: What have been some of the experiences or feedback you have received from the CSA members?
HA: Our group is brand new, so we are just gearing up for our first season. We get our first taste of the harvest June 2nd, but several of our members have been CSA members elsewhere, and they are enthusiastic supports.
AYP: What made you think of bringing the CSA to the Forest Hills Jewish Center?
HA: The other CSA in the neighborhood is immensely popular–they filled up all of their spots weeks ago. So it seemed clear that there was enough demand in our neighborhood for another one. I thought of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, where I am a member, because I had heard the successes of Tuv Ha’Aretz, which is a network of Jewish CSAs run through an organization called Hazon. Through them, I realized that the values surrounding a CSA are very Jewish, and that a synagogue is a logical place to host a CSA.
AYP: Definitely sounds logical Are there different kinds of CSAs?
HA: While all CSAs support local farming and community-building, there are some variations in the missions of different CSAs. Some, for example, are more politically active than others. Some are more focused than others on providing access of local organic food to low income people. Since a CSA is a community organization, it is up to the people involved to make it what they want it to be.
AYP: That is interesting. Can you give me an example of a politically active CSA?
HA: There is a lot of room for political activism surrounding food. Fighting against genetic engineering is one example and a cause that many people feel strongly about. Joining a CSA is one way to avoid eating genetically engineered food and supporting the businesses that produce it.
AYP: I personally don’t know how I feel about genetically engineered or modified foods. Israel, for example, has made huge and amazing progress in the way of genetically manipulating certain kinds of produce with rave results. One such is the Israeli tomato called Desert Sweet which is hugely popular in Europe (and is I think the largest importer of Israeli produce). But, that’s neither here nor there . Are there CSAs for non-produce foods? Like dairy products or meat?
HA: Yes, that’s common. Produce is the main thing, but many groups offer eggs, meat, and value-added items like jams and pickles. Our group, for example, had a pre-Pesach cheese share from a kosher-for-Passover gourmet creamery.
AYP: Wow! So cool. I’m surprised that CSAs haven’t been around sooner! It just seems so logical. In terms of cost, do you find that CSAs are more economical? Taking into consideration quantity and quality of the food one receives.
HA: I think it’s a great bargain. Ours comes out to about $20 per week for a full share. When you consider the freshness, the quality, and the variety and uniqueness of the items, it’s definitely worth it. Many of the items are much more interesting than what you would find in the store. Plus it is gentler on the earth.
AYP: What kind of much more interesting items do you receive?
HA: Garlic scapes, chiogga (two-toned) beets, Chinese broccoli, kohlrabi…those are some of the interesting ones. Not everything is necessarily so obscure. There are plenty of basic items too, like potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, etc. However, even with some of those, the variety is more than you would usually get at the store, for example, twelve different varieties of potatoes over the course of the season.
AYP: Oh wow! I’m getting excited about it! I mean, as a chef, stuff like this just excites me!
HA: It is exciting! It’s really fun to get your box every week and look through it.
AYP: Well, Hilla, let me just say that I’m so glad to hear that someone brought CSAs to the Jewish/Kosher world here in NYC. Something that seems so logical, but took so long to get here, is finally making its mark. I’m sure you and your co-founders are pleased with the outcome. I applaud your efforts and thoughtfulness, and I am so eager to see how the Forest Hills community takes to and grows through their experience with the CSA.
HA: It’s a very exciting project. Actually, we are the first Jewish CSA in Queens, but there are two others in Manhattan, if your readers are interested in those. The Hazon website lists them, as well as all of the Tuv Ha’Aretz locations across North America and in Israel.
AYP: That’s great!! I’m sure there are interested readers.
HA: Thank you for bringing this topic to your readers. Anyone who is interested in learning more about our group can visit us at www.fhjc.org/tuv.html. I can also be reached at hill…@hotmail.com.
AYP: Fantastic! Thank you so much!
The Forest Hills Jewish Center CSA program is administrated through Golden Earthworm Organic Farms, located in Jamesport, NY. What’s particularly nice about Golden Earthworm Organic Farms is that, while a young farm (established in 1996), it was started by a chef (also a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute) who has a passion for sustainable agriculture. You can’t get any better than that!
This article was re-posted with permission from the author, Chef Shaya Klechevsky of At Your Palate.