Andreas Winsberg is used to growing things. The son of a farmer — David Winsberg of East Palo Alto’s Happy Quail Farms that started the craze for pimientos de Padron in California — he’s been helping his dad plant those prized Spanish peppers and sell them at the San Francisco Ferry Building farmers market since he can remember.
Now, it’s this 25-year-old’s turn to germinate something special of his own.
In late-March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit full bore in the Bay Area and shelter-in-place restrictions took hold, he created Farm Box, a weekly curated farmers market box that customers can get delivered to their door or pick up at the Ferry Plaza farmers market on Saturdays or the Menlo Park farmers market on Sundays.
Farm Box was developed by 409 + Co, a design agency that Andreas founded with fellow 20-something alums of Pennsylvania’s Haverford College, Stephen Davis and Jessie Lamworth.
They didn’t set out to do this. But realizing just how complicated buying groceries and food was about to become for people, they rose to the challenge to build out a new web-delivery business to help small-scale, local farmers, whose goods are so perishable, reach more customers.
“Seeing what my dad was going through, and fearing that the farmers market might shut down, was the impetus,’’ Andreas says. “We’re not in it to get rich, but to help farmers and others who need the boost now.’’
His first step was to email a survey to a list of Happy Quail Farms customers to see if they would even be interested in such a service. That first week, he got 30 orders. It’s now grown to about 50 orders weekly, with most customers opting for contactless delivery to their home.
Farm Box also allows folks to make monetary donations that Andreas and his team then use to buy other farmers market produce that’s donated to Food Runners, the San Francisco non-profit that feeds the needy. Bay Area residents have generously donated about $400 each week, enough to purchase 200 pounds of just-picked oranges, peaches, avocados, and other fruit and veggies for the hungry.
For each weekly Farm Box, Andreas and his team reach out to small farmers at the Ferry Building and Menlo Park farmers markets to choose the items included, many of them specialty ones for which you’d normally have to trek to San Francisco. Andreas generally pays full price for them in order to help farmers maintain a viable income.
“At the Ferry Plaza, Swanton Berry Farm’s strawberries would normally sell out by 10 a.m. But when we carry them in our box, you’re guaranteed them,’’ Andreas says. “We try to create a diverse box each week. We wanted to replicate what my family would buy at the farmers market each week, so it’s lettuce, blueberries, and just a good mix of stuff.’’
The large Farm Box, enough for a family, is $55; a smaller box that would feed one or two people is $35. Customers can add items to their boxes for an additional cost, including Acme bread, Rolling Oaks Ranch eggs, Wise Goat Organics kimchi, and of course, Happy Quail Farms paprika. The fee for Saturday deliveries of the Farm Box is $20. Some customers split the cost of delivery by getting together with their neighbors to order boxes that are dropped off at one residents’ home for the others to come retrieve.
Customers have until just before noon on Thursdays to order that Saturday’s Farm Box. One nice feature is that at the start of the week, Farm Box lists what each box will contain, so you can start planning ahead of time how you might want to use each item.
This is as lean of a start-up as it gets. Because Andreas’ co-founders live across the country, he’s been the one who actually packs all the Farm Boxes with help from his girlfriend, Sofia Tieze, who came to visit during spring break and was supposed to return to the East Coast to finish grad school at Yale until shelter-in-place quashed that. At the start, the couple organized all the boxes, and drove around the Bay Area each Saturday from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. to deliver everything.
They’ve since been able to hire another person to help with deliveries. And they’ve added Pantry Farm Boxes, comprised of staples such as flour, walnuts, raisins, and honey, that can be shipped nationwide.
“A lot of these family farms have seen me around since I was 4 years old – even pre-birth if you count my mom going to the farmers market when she was pregnant with me,’’ Andreas says with a laugh. “It’s so cool being able to help them now.’’
Last week, Andreas invited me to test-drive gratis a large Farm Box that was delivered to my door, brimming with cauliflower from Green Thumb Organics, cherries from G.L. Alfieri Farms, nectarines from Kashiwase Farms, pluots from Twin Girls Farms, avocados from Brokaw Ranch Company, carrots from McGinnis Ranch, butter lettuce from Oya Organics, broccolini from Oya, summer squash from Balakian Farms, portobellos from Far West Fungi, Thai basil from Everything Under the Sun, and celery from Green Thumb so bountiful with leaves that it was as lavish as a wedding bouquet.
Andreas also threw in a couple add-on items, including Star Route Farms baby eggplants (1 pound for $6), his dad’s first of the season Padron peppers, and his dad’s extraordinary wild strawberries.
The latter are a premium item that come at an eyebrow-raising price — $17 for 4 ounces, about a big handful. If you have never tried fraises de bois, though, you owe it to yourself to experience these teeny wild berries at least once. Slender, and no bigger than the tip of my pinkie nail to the first joint, these are unlike any other strawberries. My husband was standing more than three yards from me when I first opened the container as I stood on my porch, and even he could smell their intense fragrance. They are as pungently fruity on the palate as a Jolly Rancher, but all-natural, of course. They taste and smell of strawberries to the 100th power, along with raspberry, rose petal, and rosé wine combined.
While I might bake with other strawberries, it would be a crime to enjoy these fraises de bois in any way except au naturel. Don’t even wash them, which can slightly diminish their flavor. Just gently wipe them off, if need be, and then simply pop them in your mouth to savor their explosive taste and long finish.
Some of the other items, though, I did cook. The eggplant, mushrooms, Thai basil, and celery leaves got stir-fried with chewy, thick udon noodles for a fabulous near-vegetarian dish (except for the fish sauce, which you can omit if you prefer) that tasted meaty because of the mushrooms and eggplants. If you don’t have udon noodles, you can use spaghetti or most any noodle.
I borrowed a trick from colleague and friend Judiaann Woo, an Oregon marketing consultant and gifted home-cook. She cuts up eggplant, sprinkles with salt, and lays the chunks on a paper towel-lined plate that get microwaved for 10 minutes. This softens and shrivels the eggplant, giving it a head start in the cooking process, and curbs their tendency to become a sponge for oil once you stir-fry them.
I flavored the dish with an easy mix of soy sauce, sesame oil, mirin, fish sauce, and spicy chile bean paste, as well as garlic and ginger. It’s a hearty noodle dish grounded with big earthy flavors and a hint of spice. A shower of Thai basil and celery leaves lifts it high with a fresh flourish.
I have my eye on the other stellar ingredients in my Farm Box, too. Those sweet cherries? See on Wednesday what I do with those gems.
Stir-Fry Udon Noodles with Eggplant, Portobello Mushrooms, Thai Basil, and Celery Leaves
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon mirin
Pinch of granulated or dark brown sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons spicy chile bean paste, Sriracha or gochujang, to taste
For rest of dish:
1 pound of baby eggplants or other eggplant, cut into large dice
Scant 1 teaspoon kosher salt
16 to 20 ounces udon noodles or spaghetti
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch coin of ginger, minced
Vegetable, canola or peanut oil, as needed
3 portobello mushrooms, stems removed, dark gills scraped away and discarded, caps cut into large dice
2 green onions, green and white parts, sliced thinly
Handful of Thai basil leaves
Handful of celery leaves, rough chopped if large
In a small bowl, stir together all sauce ingredients. Set aside.
Sprinkle eggplant with salt, then arrange on a paper towel-lined plate. Microwave for 10 to 11 minutes, until eggplant starts to shrink and soften. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add udon noodles or spaghetti. Cook according to package directions. Drain. (Note: If using udon or other Asian noodles, rinse them under cold water to remove excess starch and prevent them from turning gummy.)
In a large wok over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon of oil. Stir-fry portobellos until caramelized and tender, about 4 minutes. Remove to a plate.
In the same wok, add another 1 tablespoon of oil. Over medium-high heat, stir-fry the eggplant, about 6 minutes until the pieces turn quite soft. Add garlic and ginger, and continue cooking, stirring frequently, for another minute. Add 1 tablespoon of the sauce, and stir to combine.
Add mushrooms back to the pan, along with the noodles. Pour in remaining sauce, and toss to coat everything well and heat through, about 2 minutes. Add green onions, Thai basil leaves, and celery leaves. Turn off heat, and give it a final stir.
Divide among four large bowls, and enjoy.
From Carolyn Jung
Coming Wednesday: A Sweet Treat with Cherries