How Saffron Is Changing Afghanistan

rumi crocus photos

In 2014, best friends Kimberly Jung and Emily Miller were working toward MBAs at Harvard Business School, thinking about the next steps in their lives as civilians. After meeting at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, both had served tours in Afghanistan (Jung as a route clearance platoon leader, Miller as a cultural support team leader attached to special operations forces) and gained a deep admiration for the people there. So when they got a call from their friend Keith Alaniz proposing a business idea that might benefit those people, they were eager to hear more.

Alaniz, an in-country advisor to provincial governance in Afghanistan who spoke the Dari language, had met a local farmer who was growing amazing saffron—the most expensive spice in the world, beloved for the complex aromatic flavor and vibrant yellow color it brings to Middle Eastern and other cuisines. Unfortunately for the farmer, because of the war, “no one from abroad was willing to go to Afghanistan for it,” says Alaniz. And there were many others in his position: the whole country’s industry was in danger, despite producing some of the best saffron out there.

Alaniz realized that his, Jung’s, and Miller’s unique combination of military and business experience could open doors for these farmers. The three soon founded Rumi (named for the 13th-century Persian poet), a company that helps to grow saffron locally and sell it globally. Beyond doubling and even tripling the individual farmers’ incomes, Rumi is working to bolster Afghanistan’s agriculture in a big way: by unseating the opium crop. With an economy dominated by opium, an illicit drug that drives revenue for terrorist groups, the country badly needs a different crop to grow and export en masse. “Saffron is the perfect alternative,” says Alaniz. “It grows in a similar climate, and is actually more profitable for farmers.”

young crocus flowers

Now in its third year, Rumi partners with nearly 100 farmers, representing an unmatched foreign investment in Afghanistan’s agriculture. “What we’re doing is different from the aid donor community,” Alaniz explains. “As a for-profit business, we’re not handing over money. We’re reinvesting it back into the economy, encouraging development.” The farmers start planting saffron in late spring, tending to the crop for two seasons. Once the purple flowers open, in late fall, they’re harvested and transported to special facilities, where their bright-red stigmas—the base of the spice—are extracted, trimmed, cleaned, and dried.

rumi - spoon

Rumi reserves these production jobs for women, who also fill a number of managerial roles in the facilities. The company has, in fact, become Afghanistan’s largest private-sector employer of women, with 300 hired last year alone. “They’re the foundation of what we do,” says Jung. Discussing a trip during which she joined a group of women in the fields for the harvest, she fondly recalls, “We broke into a mini dance party to a Beyoncé song, and they sang all the words even though they don’t speak English.”

Jung attributes much of Rumi’s success to what brought her, Miller, and Alaniz together in the first place. “Veterans can make the best entrepreneurs,” she declares. “We know how to get things done: we were in combat with limited resources and missions to accomplish.” Billionaire Mark Cuban of ABC’s Shark Tank, a reality show in which entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to potential investors, recently agreed. Based in part on the strength of the trio’s military and business resumes, Cuban decided to invest $250,000 in Rumi, empowering the young company to keep growing—for instance, expanding their line of saffron products like spice blends and even teas. (Personally, Alaniz vouches for the benefits of saffron tea, while Jung recommends using the spice to make cream sauces for savory dishes.)

Just as importantly, Rumi’s success is tied to the extraordinary quality of their saffron. Although the best product is often associated with Iran and Spain, Afghanistan’s hot, dry climate and mountainous, yet fertile terrain make for perfect growing conditions. The result is quantifiable: international grading of the spice factors in crocin (the compound responsible for its color), and Rumi’s surpasses the minimum required content by nearly 25%. “People think of Afghanistan as desolate,” says Jung, “but its land and its people have so much to offer.”

Look for Rumi’s saffron in our recipe for Tomato-Saffron Risotto, or Seared Chicken & Saffron Couscous.

The Fight to Save Salmon


It’s nothing short of miraculous when your plane dips down through light cloud cover and Alaska’s Prince William Sound reveals itself. The Copper River roars through the clefts in the U.S.’s highest coastal mountain range until it ends in a wide delta. Bands of sandbars thrown up by all that water attract seals and sea lions that sunbathe before slipping off into the chilly suds. A bit farther out, the white flukes of humpback whales cut the waves while osprey and bald eagles dive, talons blazing. All of these hunters, including many humans among them, are on the lookout for fish.

The five species of salmon that return to Alaska’s rivers every summer bring with them the energy and flavor of the open ocean. The sockeye salmon is particularly distinctive: Colored a deep ruby red from the krill they feast upon in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, sockeye are lean and tangy with complex and layered flavors. It’s the sockeye’s specific, authentic taste and its connection to the wild ocean that has drawn fishermen to places like Prince William Sound. “I grew up in a small farming community in Minnesota,” longtime fisherman Mike Mahoney told me as he was gearing up for the beginning of salmon season in the tiny hamlet of Cordova. “I came to Alaska in 1996 because I wanted to see what the wilderness was like.


This family-run, coastal, small boat-style fishing life really appealed to me.” In high season Mahoney fishes the shallow bars of the delta single-handedly, dodging 15 foot breakers and skirting the shore with his zippy twin engine vessel the Dorothy G. Because this is such a valuable and productive fishery, five months of hard fishing is enough to see him through the year.

That Mahoney has been able to live this independent fisherman’s life for seventeen seasons is something of a miracle too. It reveals itself to be all the more miraculous when you consider that Alaska’s salmon fisheries were almost obliterated.

A hundred odd years ago, when Alaska was just a federal territory lacking any rights of statehood, fishing magnates from the continental U.S. established massive salmon-canning operations along Alaska’s bays and rivers. Very little thought was put into managing salmon for the long term: Nets a mile long and even permanent barricades stole away the majority of fish attempting to reach the shallow gravel beds upstream to spawn. With so few salmon able to reproduce, populations declined year after year until large portions of the fishery collapsed. In 1953 president Dwight D. Eisenhower declared Alaska’s salmon country a federal disaster.


But then something surprising happened. Alaskans wrested control of their fisheries from the corporations that were ruining them. They lobbied hard and achieved statehood. They banned large scale salmon traps and actually wrote into their new constitution an obligation to “manage, protect, maintain, improve, and extend the fish of the state.” Throughout the 1960s 70s and 80s teams of fishery biologists blanketed Alaska’s rivers and set up data collection points to determine how to keep populations stable over time. Today the state Fish and Game Department crunches the information acquired by all these observers and only allows fishing after the river in question has achieved “escapement goals”—when a necessary number of fish have made it upstream to reproduce. It is this intense, precise regulation that has kept salmon coming back year after year. Whole fleets of fishermen like Mike Mahoney can keep netting salmon every season in rivers all up and down Alaska’s coast, provided they clear out of the way during critical migration times and follow the rules set forth by the Fish and Game Department.

“There were a lot of forward thinking people who set up our constitution,” Mike Mahoney says. “They ensured that a small boat fishery like the one I fish in can exist.”


But for all that good management it’s taken a while for Alaskan salmon to catch on in the lower 48. That’s mostly because before the 1980s the main way wild salmon got to us southerners was in a can. Which in the end meant that fishermen didn’t waste much of their valuable time caring for their catch.

“There was a tradition of dry holds and plywood boxes,” retired Cordova fisherman R. J. Kopchak, says remembering the days when a salmon might sit in the hot sun at the bow of a boat for hours before it reached the cannery. But when buyers, first from Japan and later from Seattle, started asking for fillets instead of cans, the Copper River Fisherman’s Coop launched a quality control program that included bleeding out fish and immediately icing them. The Coop has since been replaced by other forward thinking entities like the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association that continues to improve practices. Today the flash frozen fillets that come out of Cordova when defrosted properly have a taste and texture that’s crazily close to the fresh.


The Copper River-inspired spirit of quality is gradually catching on in other parts of the state: down in Southeast in Sitka and Yakutat where trollers focus on giant king salmon for the Seattle fresh market; through the Kenai Peninsula that’s strong in silvery leaping cohos; in the massive sockeye dominated salmon heartland of Bristol Bay. In all these regions fishermen and processors are striving to make the frozen product as close as possible to the fresh, instituting a cool chain from net to processor and state-of-the-art flash freezing techniques that freeze fillets so quickly that ice crystals can’t form and ruin the salmon’s texture.


Meanwhile back in Cordova, The Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association along with the Cordova District Fishermen United organization have become not just models for how they protect the quality of the fish flesh they sell. They have also been leaders in safeguarding the environment that keeps all this salmon coming year after year. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground at Bligh Reef in 1989 and spilled ten million gallons of crude oil, Cordova fishermen banded together and agreed to use the billions of dollars in settlement funds to purchase thousands of acres of vital streamside spawning habitat and retire the logging rights on even more land. Today the fishermen fight on, against mining interests, against fracking that’s being considered on one of the Copper’s tributaries and even against designs to build a riverside road that would connect Cordova to the rest of the world. In the tiny two-street downtown of this village that is at once both rugged and crunchy if you see a bumper stick that says “No Road” you can bet that car is probably being driven by a salmon fisherman who certainly doesn’t want tourists or weekend warriors from Anchorage spoiling this special secret of a place.

“We make our living off catching fish,” Mike Mahoney says, “We still have this authentic commercial fishing economy here. A little bit of tourism is fine. But a road to me could bring in these unintended consequences that people just don’t see.”

At least for now Mike Mahoney’s salmon secret is safe. When a piece of his salmon ends up on your plate you get to be in on the secret too.

Can an American Parmesan Dethrone the King of Cheeses?


Parmesan cheese is at the heart of Italian cuisine, and the greatest of all of Parmesans is Parmigiano Reggiano. Chefs so devotedly seek out its intensely savory flavor and distinct, granular texture that it’s often called “the king of cheeses.” The Italian government has even trademarked its name and set restrictions for where and how the cheese can be made in an effort to protect its lauded reputation. So when you’re looking for a cheese to grate over a saucy tangle of pasta, there is no substitute.

The Schuman family believes they can change all that. “We think we can make a cheese to stand up next to the Italian greats,” says Allison Schuman, a fourth-generation member of the family-owned Schuman Cheese. Since 1945, when Allison’s great grandfather, Arthur Schuman, opened his small New York City-based business importing Parmigiano Reggiano, among other cheeses, the Schuman family has made Italian cheese their way of life. (Today, Schuman Cheese is the largest importer of hard Italian cheese in the U.S.) In 2006, they set out to make their own, American answer to Parmigiano Reggiano, which they call “Copper Kettle Parmesan.”

“Copper Kettle” is a reference to the traditional, large copper kettles used in Italy for centuries to heat the milk for Parmigiano Reggiano. Most Parmesan made in the U.S. is cooked in vats made of stainless steel, but copper conducts heat quickly and evenly, allowing better control during cooking. It’s also the secret to the Parmigiano Reggiano’s signature fruity and nutty notes. “There’s just a depth and layer of flavor that you don’t get in stainless steel,” says Allison.


The Schumans are the only cheesemaker in the U.S. using copper kettles for their Parmesan—just one of the differences that sets their Copper Kettle Parmesan apart. They also source the milk for the cheese from just four family farms in Wisconsin, each located about 50 miles from their facility. The short drive means the farms don’t have to drop the temperature of the milk to just above freezing for long periods of time to keep it from spoiling, an industry practice that can affect the milk’s flavor. Keeping the milk fresh also protects its naturally healthy bacterial activity, which gives the finished cheese added complexity.


Asset_3_PhotoCollageThe Schumans’ dedication to these methods is unwavering: just like Parmigiano Reggiano, their Parmesan is aged in wheels for over 12 months (14 to 18 months on average), and a group of cheese graders studiously tests the cheese, employing their “super palates” to ensure it meets the same rigorous standards as Parmigiano Reggiano. And the proof is in the Parmesan. In 2015, Copper Kettle Parmesan won first place among Italian grating cheeses at the American Cheese Society Competition. And as of April 2017, Blue Apron began exclusively sourcing Copper Kettle Parmesan for all the Parmesan in our recipes.

The Schumans are proud that their devotion to traditional methods is raising the bar for American Parmesans—a type of cheese that they think deserves a fan base of its own. “Our goal,” says Allison, “is for people to take a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano and try our cheese and be able to say, ‘You know what I actually prefer this one,’ and have it be ours.”

The Almond Brothers

Today, over 80% of the world’s almonds come from California—where John, Jim, and Joe Gardiner, tucked away in the fertile San Joaquin Valley, are working together across three locations to grow and supply some of the best.

Success in the almond industry certainly wasn’t foreseeable when the brothers’ grandfather started Gardiner Farms, where the almonds are grown today. Like many local growers, he invested in a different crop: cotton. But as the cotton boom of the early 1900s subsided, its prices fell. The San Joaquin Valley’s “holy grail” soil and rare Mediterranean climate (warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters) perfectly suited almonds, a harder-to-grow but more promising crop that virtually no one in the area had planted yet. In the 1980s, the brothers’ father risked the transition, planting their first orchards—and, in order to distribute the nuts, partnered in Treehouse Almonds, a wholesale supplier located 25 miles to the north.
GardinerBrosPortrait“That’s the evolution of a farm,” says John, the “introverted” middle brother, who lives on Gardiner Farms. Today, he oversees everything from the almond trees’ development to the late-summer harvest. “You have to think constantly about how to sustain it.” Sometimes that means adding a new crop. Sometimes it also means adding a new business.

As the almond crop took off, the Gardiners, like most growers, depended on beekeepers who rent out hives to pollinate their almond trees during the bloom. But confronted with an ever-greater need, the brothers, like their father before them, decided to take a leap. Four years ago, they took over United Honey Bee—a beekeeping operation and apiary where, by early spring, more than a billion bees rouse from their winter’s rest.


Jim, the eldest brother, “runs with the bees,” or tends to them at the apiary (the location of the hives) and transports them from place to place. In preparation for the bloom, he takes the hives to the farm and sticks around to make sure that every tree gets plenty of attention. “Bees are the key to pollinating almonds,” he says. “When it comes to, say, pistachios, a little wind will do it. But almonds need bees, and bees need almonds to build up their strength after winter.”


Once the trees have been pollinated and, months later, the almonds have been harvested (special machines shake them off the trees and then gather them up), the almonds make their way to Treehouse—and into the capable hands of Joe, the youngest brother. First, they’re hulled and shelled, then blanched, roasted, sliced, slivered, and more. Next, they’re shipped, along with house-made products like almond flour and almond butter, to well-known retailers around the world.

The beauty of this family-driven, three-linked supply chain is that it empowers the brothers to control, from beginning to end, the quality of their almonds. But John, Jim, and Joe strive for more than just quality—they also champion sustainability. One major challenge in growing almonds is managing water waste: using water responsibly in a state that faces frequent drought. But Gardiner Farms relies on ultra-efficient irrigation systems to protect the precious resource. The brothers also cut out waste around the almonds themselves. Once the edible kernel has been removed, the hull is used in cattle feed, and the shell burned for fuel.

“Sure, our almonds taste good,” says Joe. “But what makes them so special is this legacy that my brothers and I inherited. We want to continue what our grandfather started, and what our father added to it.”

And how often do the brothers actually eat almonds? “I constantly look for restaurant menu items that contain almonds. I eat them every day,” admits Joe. Jim adds: “Especially dark chocolate-covered almonds. Or homemade almond milk.”


The Magic of the Pixie Mandarin

From the very beginning, the success of the pixie mandarin was improbable. While pixies possess unforgettable flavor, they’re also really hard to grow—much harder than many other citrus varieties. And unlike most citrus, they reach peak flavor in spring, when shoppers are thinking about asparagus, artichokes and peas. But where many farmers would have only seen risk, Friend’s Ranch saw opportunity.

“Maybe we’re half-crazy, I don’t know,” says Emily Thacher, fifth-generation grower at Friend’s, a family farm located in California’s Ojai Valley, about 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles. “But pixies taste better. And we’re all about growing for flavor.”


In the 1960s, Thacher’s grandfather, Elmer Friend, planted pixies on a whim. He first learned about them through a family friend who had started growing experimental citrus varieties developed by the University of California, Riverside, one of the nation’s top institutions for citrus research. One of those varieties was the pixie—seedless, easy to peel and remarkably sweet, with less acid than other varieties, but just enough tang to keep you coming back for more.

Unsurprisingly, they’re popular with kids. Growing up on the farm, Thacher and her brother George definitely had their fill. Thacher recalls (or seems to recall), “We literally would eat all of them and nobody ever got any—because they’re so good!” In 1970, Friend became the first farmer in Ojai to start selling pixies from his fruit stand, and they proved so popular that he planted 10 more trees. Today, there are about 240 acres of them in Ojai, and pixies are marketed nationwide.

When the first tree went in the ground, Friend couldn’t have imagined this level of success. As he knew, the researchers who had developed the pixie had their doubts about its commercial viability. The trees must grow for seven to eight years before any fruit begins to appear at all, longer than other varieties of citrus. Even more challenging: pixie trees are “alternate bearing,” which means that once they do start to bear fruit, they only bear a significant amount every other year. “This year a lot of our trees have three or four hundred pounds of fruit on them,” says Thacher. “Next year, the same trees will maybe have 10 pounds.” And like all varieties of citrus, the fruit takes an entire year to grow.


Outside of Ojai, there was also a fair amount of skepticism to overcome among potential customers, who thought that spring meant the end of citrus season—even in sunny California. But pixies are harvested from March through May (sometimes June). Thacher recalls that people would approach her family’s stand at farmers’ markets in Los Angeles, shake their heads emphatically and say, “No, no, no… tangerine season is done!” And in turn, she would respond, “No, no, no… taste these!” Slowly but surely, Friend’s built a loyal following, which is why, today, Thacher believes that folks who still think of citrus as a wintertime fruit need to start expanding their horizons.

Friend’s philosophy of growing for flavor is most apparent during harvest, when Thacher and her family taste and re-taste the fruit from every tree as the season progresses (and the fruit gets sweeter and sweeter). If it doesn’t taste good, they don’t pick it. Which leads to the truly remarkable aspect of pixies: consistency. Pick up a bag of pixies, and you’ll discover that just about every single one of them tastes equally good.

The quality of the fruit depends heavily on having the ideal climate. Pixies develop the best flavor when long, hot days are punctuated by cool nights. Even in the winter in Ojai, it’s not unusual for daytime temperatures to get up to the mid-80s, then plunge at night. That marked difference in temperature is what develops the ideal balance of sweetness and acidity.

Blogs_Pixies_Asset2Pixies, like any other citrus, start out as tiny green specks inside of blossoms that emerge in the spring (the same time fully grown fruits are picked). But very few actually make it through summer: only one out of every 400 blossoms turns into fruit. “When the fruits are about the size of a frozen pea, a lot of them fall off in June and that’s when the tree decides which ones it’s going to keep,” says Thacher. This is called June drop. “If there’s a bad wind or a heat wave in the early season, a lot of the fruits will drop before they’re able to mature.”

By December, the fruit will have reached picking size, but it’s still green-skinned and difficult to peel. As winter progresses and the temperature drops below 50 degrees at night, the trees reabsorb chlorophyll to conserve energy for the spring, and in turn, the fruit begins to blush orange. By March, it’s finally ripe enough to pick, and the cycle begins again.

All throughout the year, Friend’s has to take on not only the usual duties of caring for fruit trees—fertilizing, watering, pruning—but also hazards unique to California, including wind, wildfire and gophers (or a diabolical combination of all three).

Luckily, they’re not doing it alone. Today, there are about 53 farms growing pixies in the Ojai Valley. They’re small, family-run operations; the smallest one is just half an acre, while the largest is a modest 30 acres. Most are part of the cooperative that Thacher helps run, the Ojai Pixie Growers Association. It provides packing services, helps growers market their fruit and, most importantly, fosters a sense of community.

“We’re all friends and we all work together to make sure the fruit gets sold,” she says. “It’s a daunting task in a year when we have lots of fruit, but we have a lot of fun doing it.”

Colin Leggett, Sweet Potato Guru

Ten-year-old Colin Leggett says there’s one ingredient he would never, ever eat the orange tuber without: brown sugar. And no, he’s not just talking a spoonful or two of the sweet stuff. He says that he’d pour an entire cup over the split potato, still steaming after having been just pulled from the hot oven.

“I’d maybe add a little butter,” he says, “but brown sugar is my secret ingredient.”

As the oldest son of Brent and Sue Leggett, the husband-and-wife team behind the first-generation Leggett Farming Partnership in Nash County, North Carolina, Colin’s been more than just a life-long sweet potato enthusiast—he says he’s been a sweet potato farmer for just as long, “since he was one or two.” While his family grows cucumbers, soybeans, peanuts, tobacco, and cotton, sweet potatoes are his personal favorite. He not only likes to eat them, but also help them go from a tiny slip (a sprout that’s grown from stored sweet potatoes) to a leafier sprout to the brown-sugar-topped creation on his dinner plate.

Asset_4_FamilyPortraitSo during harvesting season from May until mid-July, Colin ventures out on the land, where he’ll do everything from drive around on the family’s John Deere tractor to chat with some of the field workers. He mentions one friend in particular, Julio, though he says he likes to “talk about whatever” with anyone he may run into while walking around the farm. When it comes to taking on any chores that his dad may ask him to do, like check out the sprouts or carry around gear, Colin says he likes it all—so much that he’ll often spend all day on the farm. During a long day of work, to keep his stomach from rumbling, he’ll snack on his farm’s peanuts, pop a sucker in his mouth, or chew on gum; when it’s a scorching hot summer day, his mom says he’ll be sipping on water to keep himself cool and hydrated, but Colin chimes in with a different preferred thirst-quencher.

“I drink Gatorade,” he says definitively—it’s perfect for replenishing electrolytes when you’re outside all day, breaking a sweat. But like any young boy, he says he’s happiest when he’s not working too hard and getting too sweaty, as that gives him more time to ride around on his four wheeler.


And through his 10 years of experience, Colin’s become somewhat of a sweet potato guru. While his family also grows the popular Beauregard variety, their number-one type is Covington, which is ideal for slow-roasting, pureeing, and mashing. There’s no one way to pick up one in the field and know that it’s the perfect one, Colin says, but the best ones have smooth, light red-brown skin, are about as long as your hand (so around six to eight inches long), and are about three or four fingers wide.

But ultimately, there’s really only one way to know if the sweet potato is a winner: by eating it, whether it’s simply roasted and sugar-topped or mixed into his mom’s pillowy biscuits that he loves.

While Colin says he knows he wants to be a farmer when he grows up because he’s loved it his entire life and finds the prospect of growing and making money off of “sweet potatoes and watermelons” to be an exciting one, he has a few thoughts for other kids who may be interested in farming but might not know too much about it—the main thing being that growing something you can eat and sell is not only rewarding, but fun. In a more practical vein, he also brings up the importance of safety; when you’re working around large machinery and sharp tools, you can never be too careful.

“Don’t get in the way,” Colin says. “If you know what you’re doing, you’ll be safe and have fun.”


And, when asked about fun sweet potato facts, Colin has a few of those, too. “Dogs love them,” he says, bringing up his chocolate labrador retriever named Tip, even though Tip isn’t getting Colin’s specialty baked sweet potato with the cup of brown sugar. He also notes that North Carolina grows the most sweet potatoes “in the whole world,” though his mother jumps in to say that she’s pretty sure it’s just in the United States. Colin doesn’t seem too phased by the correction, though; regardless, he says “that’s a fact that city people wouldn’t know.”

Meet Italy’s Most Passionate Tomato Farmer

August in Italy: businesses are closed, cities have emptied out, towns are deserted—everyone is at the beach. Everyone, that is, except for tomato farmers in the Campania region, Italy’s tomato capital. Here, in late summer, trucks loaded with the vibrant, just-harvested fruits crowd tiny, one-lane streets. And at the center of it all is one third-generation farmer, wearing an easy smile and a straw hat to block out the sun—but nonetheless deeply tanned from hours in the fields—and covered from head to toe in tomato pulp. Meet Giuseppe.

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Giuseppe Napoletano and his family have been growing tomatoes in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius for over 60 years. For the last 20, they’ve owned a canning facility. During harvest season, Giuseppe splits his time between his own fields, where brightly-colored tomatoes dangle like jewels from acres of green vines, and the canning building, where he and his 85-year-old father spend hours inspecting crates of tomatoes—and getting coated in pulp as they do. (Nearby, you’re sure to find Giuseppe’s 14-year-old son Davide watching intently.)

“My family says I work too hard,” says Giuseppe, who wakes at 5am during the harvest and rarely gets to bed before midnight. “But it’s important for me to oversee every step of the process.” That includes sorting shipments, running the equipment and hand-inspecting every single tomato that he cans.

“You need to meet Giuseppe to understand the passion he has for tomatoes,” says Joe Cristella IV of Cento Fine Foods, which partners with Giuseppe to bring Campania’s tomatoes to customers worldwide.

Tomatoes can present challenges for farmers. They’re especially sensitive to extreme temperatures and can be damaged easily (one reason why all of Giuseppe’s tomatoes are hand-harvested). Thanks to a few significant ecological advantages, however, Campania offers farmers extraordinarily fertile land—which produces extraordinarily delicious tomatoes.

Tens of thousands of years ago, two major volcanic eruptions from Mt. Vesuvius covered present-day Campania in a layer of volcanic ash, which, over time, enriched the soil with vital minerals and nutrients. The region also has a mild climate (perfect for temperature-sensitive tomatoes) and a high water table, keeping the ground so moist that, often, farmers don’t even have to water their crops.

Alone, any of these factors would be an agricultural boon. Together, they make Campania a grower’s paradise. San Marzano plum tomatoes, famously produced in the region for centuries, are known for their elongated shape, meaty texture and spectacularly rich flavor. And most tomato farmers in the region are happy enough simply to grow such a fine product. But Giuseppe’s enthusiasm for tomatoes has always pushed him further. Not only does he grow, can and (of course) cook tomatoes—he invents them, too.

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A few decades ago, Giuseppe was curious to see if he could cross a San Marzano plum tomato with a kind of cherry tomato from South America that had one notable trait: its bright yellow color. “I partnered with a local seed company,” Giuseppe explains. “It was my idea to develop a yellow tomato—but in the size of a long San Marzano tomato.”

For the next three years, he took to the field, using a natural pollination process to combine both varieties and create a new hybrid. “The first year, the skin wasn’t yellow; it wasn’t uniform,” he explains. “It was in the third year that we achieved it—the smoothness and total yellow color.” And Giuseppe’s yellow tomato isn’t just notable for its stunning hue. It also has a distinctive, delicious sweetness, which mellows out the fruit’s acidity.

“At first, no one believed in this yellow tomato,” Giuseppe says. But that didn’t deter him. As soon as he’d perfected it, he wasted no time in heading to food shows around the country, demonstrating the best ways to prepare the yellow tomato—like quickly stewing it with capers and a pinch of oregano into a bright sauce for cod, or simply slicing it raw and sprinkling it with Pecorino cheese for an easy snack.

“The first time I met Giuseppe, he told me the yellow tomato was going to be big,” recounts Joe, who tasted the sweet fruit in a risotto Giuseppe prepared. “And every year since, I’ve heard about it from him. It’s something he’s very—extremely—passionate about.”

Slowly but surely, Giuseppe’s hard work has paid off. Today, there’s a small but growing demand for his yellow tomatoes worldwide. They are especially popular in Japan, where their flavor and texture make them a favorite to quickly cook into a delicate sauce for fish. They’ve even become a local hit in nearby Naples. “It’s trendy to serve them on pizzas,” says Giuseppe. “And we have some pastry chefs who make a yellow tomato tart with them.”

cento yellow tomatoes

In 2017, for the first time, Cento will be sending Giuseppe’s yellow tomatoes to the United States, every single one of them destined for Blue Apron boxes. And the future looks equally bright—or black. Giuseppe is currently at work developing his own “black tomato,” with skin “ the color of eggplant.” (“Very high antioxidant levels!” he exclaims.)

Red, yellow or black, Giuseppe’s favorite way to eat tomatoes is in a dish called “paccheri con pomodoro,” which he describes as “big, flat rigatoni, with tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and basil.” Farmers in the region have been eating it for generations—a simple celebration of a fruit essential to the local economy and culture.

It’s a heritage Giuseppe is proud to be a part of.  “I come from a farming family,” he explains. “I love the product. And I love the land.”


Where In-The-Know Fish Lovers Get Their Goods

It’s 10 o’clock on a Friday morning. On a hushed, industrial street in Greenpoint—a booming neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York—there’s a pretty long line for… something.


The line spills out of a narrow steel door on the side of a squat brick building. It contains a patchwork of people, young and old: most keep to themselves, holding cell phones and to-go cups of coffee, while others chat in English and Polish and Russian. Almost all of these people are smiling from ear to ear.

They’re waiting for fish—that is, some of the best (and best-priced) smoked fish available. For just five hours every Friday, Acme Smoked Fish Corporation, one of the country’s biggest, most respected producers and wholesalers of smoked fish, opens that steel door and sells directly to the public. It’s a unique pop-up shop, hosted right in the place where all the fish are cut, brined, dried and smoked.

Because they rely exclusively on word of mouth, “Fish Fridays” are still a bit under the radar, even though the tradition is actually 25 years old.

“Back in the day, Fish Fridays were just a way for us to unload extra inventory,” says Adam Caslow, co-CEO and a fourth-generation operator of Acme.

But the business as a whole has even deeper roots than that. It all began in 1905, when a Russian immigrant named Harry Brownstein (Caslow’s great-grandfather) settled in Brooklyn and started buying and distributing fish from local smokehouses. By the time of his death in 1969, his family was devoted to the growing operation, which had just earned its first supermarket chain customers.

Today, Acme supplies not only supermarket chains like Whole Foods, but also high-end shops and eateries that specialize in smoked fish, including Barney Greengrass, Zabar’s and Sadelle’s—all New York City institutions themselves.

So what’s the big deal, really, about Acme’s smoked fish?

In their hot and cold smoke rooms, Acme smokes high-quality fish—already cut, brined and air-dried in separate rooms—with smoke generated by burning real wood chips. For most of their items, that’s all there is to it. The natural flavor of the fish, be it the ever-popular salmon or a specialty species like trout, takes beautifully to the flavor of the smoke.

Salmon is dry brined, or rubbed with a mixture of salt and sugar to season each cut before smoking.

Acme does offer a few extra flavors, like pastrami spices and lemon-pepper. One of the newest additions is honey-maple: in one room, thick slabs of salmon are brushed with the syrupy mixture, giving them a beautiful golden sheen.

After all is said and done, the smoked fish is sliced thinly with a special machine, wrapped tightly in layers of paper and handed over to one eager customer after another.

At half past 10, a young boy in line asks sheepishly, “Does it smell inside?”

“No, it doesn’t smell at all,” an older man, possibly his grandfather, reassures him. Then, after a beat: “Well, maybe a little.”

The distinctive smell is one that many New Yorkers, and perhaps now tourists, actually relish. It hangs in the air inside, where one long table is set up for these fleeting hours. Behind the table, a few employees take orders, calling out the occasional “Good to see you again” and “You’re here early!”


At the far end of the table, where samples are offered, one customer holds up a translucent-thin slice of smoked fish to the overhead light, as if examining a hundred-dollar bill. Apparently satisfied, she tears off a piece for her friend and stuffs the rest in her mouth.

“In salmon, the oil gives you a nice sea-saltiness,” says Adam, describing what sets different species’ flavors apart, as he looks over the samples. “Then there’s something like trout, which is already smoky—so it takes particularly well to the smoke. It reminds me of being in the mountains or woods.”

The main distinction between salmon and trout, he goes on, is the difference in smoking temperatures. Trout is hot smoked: the high-temperature hardwood smoke both flavors it and cooks it through, lending it a multidimensional (but not especially fishy) taste.

And Adam’s favorite way to eat smoked fish?

“Me? Well, I do love it on a bagel with cream cheese, onion, tomato.”

Where smoked fish is concerned, tradition reigns supreme. Even with decades’ worth of change in the neighborhood and, by extension, the scene at Fish Fridays, few things are better than smoked fish on bread.

By 11 o’clock, the line out the door is longer than ever. But, as Adam points out, most people don’t mind waiting: it’s part of the experience. Still, he sometimes thinks about changing the setup of Fish Fridays. If they don’t do something new, won’t people stop coming?


Behind the now-mobbed table, an energized employee rings up three pounds of smoked whole salmon (a Fish Friday special). Watching with a twinkle in his eye, one older customer says, “I see business is bad,” to laughter. “How will you survive? I’m worried about you.”

Look for Acme’s smoked trout in our recipe for Smoked Trout Tartines with Romaine, Cucumber & Radish Salad, and learn more about the company here.


Cranberry Chili

Cranberry harvest_CapeCodSelect

The problem with being a fourth generation cranberry farmer from Cranberry Country, Massachusetts—the southeastern part of the state that is pretty much covered in bogs—is that you, unfortunately, get typecast.

“People know that if you’re having dinner at our house, it’s probably going to have cranberries in it,” says Patrick Rhodes. Patrick is the latest in a long line of cranberry-growing, and cranberry-loving Rhodes’ who have been raising the tart, acidic treats since the 1940s. Like most folks, sure, they have cranberries on their Thanksgiving table. But the Rhodes family is so enamored with the little red berries they grow, that they eat them at pretty much every meal.

“I’ve already had cranberries twice today,” says Patrick on an October afternoon, at the height of harvesting season at his family’s Edgewood Bogs. He uses them as a tart addition to a morning smoothie, and he makes them into a spread for lunch sandwiches (because cranberries are high in pectin they congeal quickly and easily into spreads and jellies.) But where the Rhodes family stands apart is their commitment to their cranberries even at the dinner table. Imagine cranberry chili. Imagine cranberry chicken parm. “They add a bit of tanginess,” says Patrick. And he’s quick to remind anyone who will listen that his family’s chili is a two time winner at the Martha’s Vineyard Big Chili Festival. So there, don’t knock it till you try it.

But what the family is really known for, the cranberry recipe to end all recipes, is Patrick’s mother’s cranberry squares. We haven’t tried them, but we’ll take their word on that.

Look for Rhodes family cranberries in the Pork Meatballs with Beet & Cranberry Agrodolce, and learn more about their bogs (and their cranberry squares) here.

The Best Wine Requires a Master Blender

Remember the last time you uncorked a great-tasting bottle of wine? Sure, the vineyard probably deserved some credit for growing tasty grapes in the first place. But the real star behind every wonderful red or white is a winemaker who’s skilled at blending—the art of mixing and matching lots of grapes, batches of wine or both. Blending wine is simple in theory, and most winemakers are plenty good at it—but to achieve perfection in a wine, you want winemaker Helen Keplinger in your corner.


She is the undisputed master at selecting and blending grapes. It’s why we knew she’d make a perfect—and perfectly food-friendly—red and white just for Blue Apron Wine.

Blending is basically the same as an Italian grandmother combining just the right amounts of beef, pork and veal to make her awesome meatballs. Or think about baking a strawberry rhubarb pie. Strawberries bring the sweetness; rhubarb the tartness; and usually some lemon juice and orange zest bring acidity—but the pie only tastes good if you get the proportions exactly right. Same goes for wine, whether it’s a ten-dollar Dolcetto or a $1,200 bottle of Bordeaux. Almost every wine is blended to achieve great flavor and balance—just like a meatball or a pie.


So, let’s say you’re the winemaker of a Napa Cabernet that’ll cost $500 per bottle. Your first job is to crush the grapes and ferment them in a large tank. A few weeks later, you’ll siphon the wine into several oak barrels for aging. Several months after that, you’ll taste, analyze and select the best barrels, then blend them together in a tank. At this point, the wine might be missing a little finesse, so you may blend in, say, a few gallons of Merlot to give the wine that extra dimension of flavor or aroma you’re seeking. Only then do you bottle the wine and collect the five bills for each one.

Guess who made $500 Cabernets like this not so long ago? Helen Keplinger.

She worked for some of the biggest names in Napa before she set out on her own. The blending skills she mastered making those wines went into her special Vermillion red and white for Blue Apron Wine (available here until September 16 for far less than $500). But for us, she didn’t simply select a barrel of this or a barrel of that. She searched far and wide for special vineyard plots, and selected from them grape varieties no one else would think to blend together.


Helen’s journey to create the Vermillion red and white wines involved logging 1,200 miles on the road each week, visiting the vineyards as often as possible in the few months before harvest to ensure the grapes would be picked at the right time. She put in all those hours behind the wheel before the work of blending even began! The Vermillion red wine is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Petite Sirah from vineyards separated by about 180 miles. The Vermillion white is made of seven different grape varieties from multiple vineyards spread across the reaches of Napa and Sonoma.


Next time you sip an especially flavorful, balanced wine that pairs well with dinner, think about the hard work the winemaker put in getting the wine to taste just right. Then taste your Vermillion red and white—you won’t have to ponder how much harder Helen worked to get her blends tasting just right. It’ll be obvious from the very first sip, with or without grandma’s meatballs alongside the wines—perhaps even enlightening if you uncork the red with our Lamb & Beef Feta Burgers, and the white with our Chicken & Fresh Basil Fettuccini.



From the Ground Up: The Story of a Dazzling Purple Pepper aka the Islander Pepper

By now, it’s no secret that we harbor deep affection for offbeat and unique produce. (Petite, fairy tale eggplants? Check. Dazzling striped, rose-hued lemons? Check.) What’s more, we learning about the farms that are growing them. That’s why we love the islander pepper, a stunningly-purple (and sometimes yellow, orange, and red!) pepper.

The Multi-Colored Islander Pepper

Similar in taste to a green bell pepper, the islander pepper is a perfect choice in dishes where its versatility can help build complexity and depth of flavor—and where its unique color can really stand out. The islander beautifully violet straight off the plant. As it ripens, it matures to a deep ruby red. You can eat Islander peppers that are fully purple or streaked with yellow or orange—nature’s very own tie-dye effect.

Growing islander peppers provides fantastic benefits for farms. Picking the pepper earlier in its life cycle, when it’s still purple, cues the plant to grow another pepper. This signaling makes islander peppers a high-yield crop, and allows each plant to produce more fruit per season than a red or orange bell pepper plant.

Islander Bell Pepper Plant

When our Farm Partnerships and Innovation team began talking to Sunny Harvest, a cooperative of Amish family farmers located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, about growing islander peppers, it was with this key bit of information in mind. “The islander pepper is great for both the farmer and our customers,” says Katie Frouman, our East Coast Farm Team Manager, who works closely with Sunny Harvest. “Since farmers can pick them earlier in the pepper’s life cycle, it’s allows us to send a really unique, new pepper that’s better for the plant’s productivity.”

For Sunny Harvest and John Glick, an Amish farmer and Sunny Harvest’s coordinator, the islander pepper was also an opportunity to grow something new, but with encouraging familiarity. “The farmers that are growing the islander peppers have been growing green bell peppers for the last 3 or 4 years,” says Glick.

Sunny Harvest Farm

When Frouman and Alison Grantham, Farm Partnerships and Innovation’s resident agroecologist, visited Sunny Harvest in April of this year, they collected samples from 17 of the cooperative’s farms for a set of soil tests that our team was carrying out on partner farms nationwide. Conducted by the Cornell University Soil Health Team, the tests pinpoint physical, biological and chemical indicators of soil health. This includes the level of both macro- and micronutrients present in the soil, its pH level, and other factors that might affect growth in the upcoming season.

Crops at Sunny Harvest Farm

For some of the farms Blue Apron is partnering with, and many in the Sunny Harvest cooperative, these soil tests are allowing farmers to get a better glimpse into what’s really at work beneath their crops. Some of Sunny Harvest’s farms are also strengthening the health of their soil through cover cropping, a traditional technique where grass or grain crops are planted to replenish soil nutrients and prevent soil erosion.

Sunny Harvest Crop Varieties

And it’s not only Sunny Harvest’s islander peppers that are benefitting from these soil tests. Farms like Kubecka Farms and Reeves Farms, both in New York, are growing these exciting purple peppers for the first time, all with the added visibility and security that taking a closer look at just a little bit of soil can provide.

That’s why we’re so excited about these islander peppers—they’re so much more than just another beautiful vegetable. They’re a product of searching out great benefits for both the health of a farm and the taste of the produce it grows. They’re just a small piece of the work to create a sustainable food system.

Blue Apron Purple Bell Pepper Instagram

A Fairy Tale Eggplant with a Happily Ever After

With their miniature form and gorgeous violet-and-white skin, fairy tale eggplants are just as dreamy they sound.

About the Fairy Tale Eggplant

These tiny fruits aren’t just cute. There’s even more to this specialty variety than meets the eye. It’s also incredibly fruitful and resilient, two big wins for farmers (and we mean that quite literally: the seed has brought home an All-America Selections vegetable award).

As for the cooks? Fairy tale offers a delicious, delicate flavor and delightfully creamy bite. Compared to a large purple Italian eggplant, fairy tell eggplants have a softer more tender skin. Plus, this palm-sized eggplant is a breeze to prep for sautés, stir-fries, grilled dishes and more.

Fairy Tale Eggplant Plant

How to Cook Fairy Tale Eggplant

Of course, all eggplant is a culinary high point of summertime. In its advance from its native South Asia, this nightshade (a relative of potatoes, tomatoes and peppers) has inspired a number of classics across a variety of cuisines. For instance, there’s the Italian classic: cheesy, saucy eggplant parm, in which the eggplant is sliced and breaded. From the middle east, there’s creamy baba ganoush, where eggplant is puréed and combined with lemon and tahini. In France, eggplant gets along beautifully with a medley of other seasonal veggies in ratatouille.

Italian eggplant is the most familiar variety, but there are many others worthy of our attention, like raja, graffiti and—drumroll, please—fairy tale.

Different Types of Eggplants
Say Hay Farm in Yolo County, California

Our Favorite Fairy Tale Eggplant Recipes

Cod & Fairy Tale Eggplants with Tomatoes & Pearl Couscous

A Sicilian favorite, eggplant caponata typically combines the summer vegetable with tomatoes, currants or raisins, capers, nuts, and more.

Cod & Fairy Tale Eggplants with Tomatoes & Pearl Couscous

Quinoa Tabbouleh & Fairy Tale Eggplants

Served with toasty pine nuts, hearty tabbouleh and a zesty Greek yogurt sauce, we think you’ll find this dish, well, enchanting

Quinoa Tabbouleh & Fairy Tale Eggplants with Toasted Pine Nuts & Yogurt Sauce

Summer Vegetable Tostadas with Fairy Tale Eggplant

In this recipe, crunchy, pan-toasted tortillas provide the platform for a wealth of seasonal produce—including creamy eggplant and crisp bell pepper 

Summer Vegetable & Queso Tostadas with Fairy Tale Eggplants & Spicy Crema

Fairy Tale Eggplant & Spinach Flatbreads

To make these satisfying, vegetarian flatbreads, we’re layering on a trio of tasty toppings: creamed spinach, sautéed eggplants and tangy feta cheese.

Fairy Tale Eggplant & Spinach Flatbreads with Warm Green Bean & Tomato Salad

Fairy Tale Eggplant & Mozzarella Pizza

This seasonal pizza showcases melty mozzarella and eggplants.

Fairy Tale Eggplant & Mozzarella Pizza with Blistered Cherry Tomatoes & Summer Squash

Fresh Cavatelli & Spicy Corn with Eggplant

We’re tossing tender cavatelli with creamy mascarpone and a spicy-sweet duo of corn and fresno pepper. For our vibrant side, eggplant gets a pops of flavor from sweet-tart currants, basil, and briny ricotta salata.

Fresh Cavatelli & Spicy Corn with Fairy Tale Eggplants, Currants, & Ricotta Salata