Thousands of local cooks subscribe to Western New York's community supported agriculture farms, getting a bag of the freshest vegetables every week of the season.
Some buy into CSAs to support local farms. Others point to the savings over buying organic vegetables in supermarkets.
Christine Collins likes the challenge.
"That's my favorite thing about the CSA," said Collins, The News' July Cook of the Month. "I get to create new things every single week, and it's a challenge to use up what's in the bag."
This is the third season that Collins, a financial planner who lives in North Buffalo, has chosen Porter Farms in Elba. Because CSA customers buy a share of the crop, they also buy into the farmers' uncertainty.
Because of weather or other factors, Collins doesn't always know what to expect in her weekly haul. In that respect, figuring out what to cook each week isn't that different than her day job helping people plan their financial affairs, she said.
"Working with what you have to your best advantage, that's definitely what we do," said Collins, whose firm includes her mother, Mary Collins Sanborn.
Sometimes you have to learn how to save. Last summer Collins was overwhelmed with the amount of kale she got from the farm -- and she actually likes kale. "I eat a lot of kale in the winter," she said. "It's just not a summer vegetable to me."
Sadly, she had to throw some away. This summer her plan is to blanch it and pack it into freezer bags instead.
To arrive at the Savory Summer Beet Tart she crafted to share with her household and News readers, Collins had to guess at what she'd be getting, with some information from Porter Farms.
"My inspiration for this tart was the description of what would most likely be in the basket: beets, greens and scallions," she said. "I wanted to do something with beets, something not usually done with beets. Beet salad with goat cheese? That's not interesting and new."
Cooking dishes for friends, especially things that are interesting and new to her, has become a major source of relaxation. "Cooking and gardening are my two things where I stop thinking about everything else that's going on in my life. You concentrate on it."
Cooking pays off immediately, she said. "It's not like exercising, where you have to wait for a couple of months." She enjoys the positive feedback she gets from fiance Jason Schwinger and other guests.
Drawing on a playbook of French, Thai, Indian and Creole cooking moves she has learned along the way, Collins tries to keep calories and fat numbers down while improvising with the vegetables at hand.
Last year, friends who came over for happy hour were "making fun of me, because whatever was in the CSA basket was what they got," she said. "And I got enormous amounts of squash. So I had a squash series: squash gnocchi, squash pasta, squash risotto, squash creme brulee, squash lasagna. Never the same thing twice."
That doesn't mean all her improvisations turn out well, she admits. Once she set out to make avgolemono, the Greek chicken soup thickened with an egg-lemon mixture, for Jason, then her new boyfriend.
But she had only limes, and figured that was close enough.
It wasn't. "It's really different," Collins said ruefully.
He didn't get to become her fiance by being rude. "Um," he said, by Collins' account. "This isn't the best thing you've ever made."
> Savory Summer Beet Tart
3 beets, with greens
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large Spanish onion
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup goat cheese
1 15-ounce container part-skim ricotta
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 recipe tart crust, see below
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Clean beets, trim if needed, and lay whole on tin foil. Reserve greens.
Cover beets with salt and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Wrap tin foil around beets until they are fully covered.
Prepare crust, recipe below. Crust can bake at same time as the beets. Remove crust when half baked, about 10 minutes.
Put beets in dish in oven and bake for 30 minutes. Let cool, and cut beets into small cubes.
Thinly slice onion. Wash beet tops thoroughly, dry and cut them into bite-size pieces. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil into a large skillet and saute onion on medium heat until golden brown. Add beet tops and lightly saute for about two minutes, until wilted. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix well goat cheese, ricotta, eggs, salt, thyme and pepper.
Add goat cheese and ricotta mixture to prebaked tart pan, and top with roasted beets, beet tops and onions. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until filling is set and crust is golden brown.
While tart is in the oven, heat balsamic vinegar and honey in a small saucepan, stir on medium heat until it becomes syrup-like consistency, about 5 minutes.
Drizzle balsamic reduction over tart after it is removed from the oven.
> Whole Wheat Tart Crust
1/2 cup sifted barley flour
1/2 cup sifted whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup sifted white flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick of cold butter, or Smart Balance margarine
3 tablespoons ice water
3 tablespoons white flour, for rolling
Sift 1/2 cup each barley, whole wheat pastry and white flour into a bowl and cut butter into 6 or 7 squares. Use fork or pastry blender to incorporate flour into butter until butter crumbs are pearl-sized, like a regular pie crust.
Add ice water until dough appears moist and becomes one pastry dough ball. Let the pastry dough rest for one hour in the refrigerator. Dust dough with white flour and roll it out to fit tart pan.
Place dough in 10-inch tart pan with removable bottom. (You could also use standard 10-inch pie pan.) Bake as directed above.
Cook's note: This can be made the night before. You can probably use white flour for entire 1 1/2 cups if you have to, or use a store-bought pie shell.
Name: Christine Collins
Dish: Savory Summer Beet Tart
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to-instant meal: Minestrone soup
Guilty pleasure: Romeo & Juliet's pizza