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Support local farms, cure boredom with these make-at-home meals

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"I made a big pot of chicken soup with lots of vegetables,” a friend wrote on the first day of the local shelter-in-place order. “But here I sit eating cheese puffs and ice cream.”

For me, black licorice and butter horns got me through the initial sea change. Soon, my desire to cook returned, as it always does. Cooking is not a chore to me. It is a calming, sensual activity I cherish. It’s a feeling I try to inspire in readers and students.

We are in one of the best places in the country to weather this virus outbreak, especially when it comes to what we eat. Just because we’re under orders to stay home, we don’t have to settle for foods we normally eschew. There are so many options for keeping our diet as local and fresh as possible.

Farmers markets and farm stands have been categorized as essential businesses, provided they practice social distancing and offer hand-sanitizing areas. Ours are open, though if you typically shop at the Santa Rosa Community Farmers Market, you should know it’s currently being held in the Farmers Lane Plaza at Bennett Valley Road and Farmers Lane instead of its traditional location at the Veterans Memorial Building east parking lot.

If you don’t relish the idea of being around other people, you might consider a CSA subscription and choose home delivery instead of pick-up, though you should decide about doing this sooner rather than later. In the past week, farms that offer subscriptions have experienced a dramatic increase in inquiries and memberships. Laguna Farms, based in Sebastopol, filled up over the weekend, and Singing Frogs Farm, also in Sebastopol, currently has a waiting list. Tierra Vegetables in Santa Rosa is currently accepting members.

Farm Trails (farmtrails.org) has added a Shelter-In-Place section to its website, where you’ll find a list of members offering delivery, take-out/pick-up and CSAs.

Some of our local ranchers have shifted from selling their meats at farmers markets to CSA programs. Green Star Farm (greenstarfarm.com) began the shift in January. They are currently offering eggs, chicken, goat, lamb, pork and sausage.

Visit heatherscustommeats.com.

Victorian Farmstead (vicfarmmeats.com), which operates a small butcher counter at Sebastopol’s Community Market, has dropped its $25 delivery fee for orders over $50. The company also offers several CSA options.

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Several farm market vendors have plenty of spinach right now. This dish has evolved over the years from one the late filmmaker Les Blank contributed to L. John Harris’ “Book of Garlic” (Aris Books, 1975) to this version. The primary difference between my version and his is that I use shallots instead of white onions. If you want to make it and don’t have shallots, feel free to use a white or yellow onion instead.

Baked Cheddar Spinach

Serves 4 to 6

1 ½ pounds fresh spinach leaves

2 ounces (½ stick) butter, preferably local and organic

3 shallots, minced

10 garlic cloves, pressed or minced

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

8 ounces aged Cheddar, grated

½ cup homemade or commercial bread crumbs

¾ teaspoon ground cayenne

2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley

Rinse the spinach in cool water; drain but leave some water clinging to the leaves. Put the spinach in a wok set over high heat and use tongs to toss and turn the spinach until it is just wilted. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt half the butter in a medium sauté pan set over medium low heat, add the shallots and cook until soft and fragrant, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more. Season with salt. Add the wilted spinach, stir, cook for about 30 seconds and remove from the heat.

Let cool briefly.

Season with salt and several generous turns of black pepper and fold in the cheese.

Transfer the mixture to a baking dish just big enough to hold it. Working quickly, toss the bread crumbs with the cayenne and parsley and spread over the top of the spinach. Dot with the remaining butter.

Bake for 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the size of the baking dish; things will cook more quickly in a wide shallow dish. When the bread crumbs are golden brown and the spinach hot and bubbly, remove from the oven and let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

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I have written about puer tea and its potential health benefits several times recently. In this recipe, I substitute puer for what is typically used in Japan, the source of this dish. If you do not have puer or do not like it, you can use any green tea, such as genmaicha, sencha or hojicha. You can also use a dashi broth or even a mild chicken broth. You can find the umeboshi paste, which adds a wonderful layer of flavor, in Asian markets and sometimes in the Asian section of our locally owned grocery stores. If you are a big eater in the morning, this makes a great breakfast, especially if you have leftover rice. But it is wonderful at any time of day.

Ochazuke with Puer Tea

Serves 2 to 3

1 tablespoon green or black puer tea (see Note below)

— Boiling water

3½ cups (from 1 cup raw) cooked sushi rice or risotto rice, hot

1 small raw carrot or golden beet, peeled and grated

4-6 ounces diced (¼-inch) cooked chicken thigh, 4 to 6 ounces cooked wild salmon, broken into small pieces or other cooked meat, mushrooms or tofu

— Small handful of thinly sliced wakame (seaweed)

2-3 scallions, trimmed and thinly-sliced

½-1 teaspoon commercial powdered wasabi

1 teaspoon umeboshi paste (pickled plum paste), optional

2 heaping teaspoons white or red miso

— Toasted sesame oil

— Handful of cilantro leaves, chopped, or several spearmint leaves, shredded

— Sriracha or other hot sauce

Brew the puer or green tea according to the instructions in the note at the end of this recipe. Set it aside and keep hot.

Divide the hot rice between large individual bowls and scatter carrot or beet, protein, seaweed and scallions over it.

Divide the wasabi, umeboshi paste and miso between the two servings, putting it on top of the rice. Shake a few drops of sesame oil on top.

Pour the tea over the rice, pouring in concentric circles so all the rice is moistened and the tea pools in the bowl. Sprinkle the cilantro over everything.

Use chopsticks to stir the mixture so the wasabe, umeboshi and miso mix with the tea.

Enjoy right away, with the hot sauce alongside.

Note: Puer tea comes from the Yunnan region of China. A local company, Pure Puer, sells high-quality, authentic puer at two local farmers markets (Santa Rosa Original and Sebastopol) and via their website, purepuer.com. To make tea for this dish, put the tablespoon of tea into a small teapot.

Pour almost-boiling water (205 degrees for black, 185 degrees for green) over it, immediately pour the water off and repeat this step. Fill the teapot with water, wait about 15 seconds and decant into a clean jar or teapot. Repeat.

Save these first two infusions for drinking. Use the third or fourth infusion, which will likely be the most robust in flavor, for the ochazuke; you’ll need about 1½ to 2½ cups.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The New Cook’s Tour of Sonoma” (Sasquatch Books, 2000). Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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