By Miche GenestI picked up my first Solvest Inc. CropBox subscription order of fresh, local, hydroponically grown greens on January 23 at Baked Café in Whitehorse, located a 10-minute walk from my house (convenient!). For the uninitiated, the CropBox System is a portable, hydroponic greenhouse system, entirely contained in a sea can, developed by Vertical Crop Consultants, an American company based in North Carolina. Solvest Inc., a Whitehorse- and Yellowknife-based company that sells custom solar energy systems, is the Canadian provider and distributor of the CropBox system.
Solvest Inc. has a particular interest in the viability of the system for growing fresh greens in remote northern locations. The company installed its first CropBox unit in Whitehorse in the spring of 2018, and is tweaking the system for optimal production in cold climates. And they are selling the crops — fresh lettuces, kales, chards, herbs — produced in the unit to Whitehorse residents and some restaurants on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. I am a brand new subscriber.
A couple of other subscribers arrived at the cafe at the same time as I. They clearly knew the ropes — one had a clutch of breathable string bags with her and the other a small cooler. (Customers are asked to bring their own bags or containers and transfer their order from the company’s refillable boxes at the pick-up point, part of Solvest Inc.’s effort to be a zero-waste operation. ) Next time I too will bring a cooler, easier than bags because you can lift the whole clump of greens out of the box and put them into the cooler, which insulates the greens if you’re transporting them in cold temperatures, and then sort them at home.
The smell of the fresh greens when I opened the box was intoxicating — pungent, sweet, peppery — a complex blend of fragrances emanating from basil, dill and arugula that was utterly uplifting at five o’clock on a winter afternoon. This first box contained butter lettuce, rainbow chard, and the arugula, Thai basil, Genovese basil (the classic pesto basil), and dill that were causing my nose to twitch. The total weight was 400 grams; though the mix of fresh greens varies from week to week the weight remains the same, and so does the price — $15 for 400 grams. That amount is calculated to be enough to feed one or two people. Tarek Bos-Jabbar, who coordinates the CropBox program and operates the unit in Whitehorse, harvests greens such as chard, lettuce and arugula by cutting leaves from the plant.
With herbs, he generally harvests the entire plant, with the root plug attached. Once you get the CropBox order home, there are a few things to sort out. If the herbs come complete with plug, theoretically you can place them in a jar of water and they’ll continue growing. I haven’t yet tried this, but a Whitehorse friend who has subscribed to Cropbox since December reports anecdotally she hasn’t been successful at keeping the herbs going; they tend to wilt fairly soon.
My herbs came without a plug. I cut a couple of millimetres off the ends of the Genovese basil and dill stems and stood them in cold water, but they wilted in a few hours. I think the old trick of refreshing herbs and greens in ice-cold water, and then wrapping them in a tea towel and putting them in a re-sealable bag in the fridge is the way to go. The lettuce I treated this way is still crisp and crunchy, six days after pick-up.
There were a few wilted leaves among each crop but those went straight into a bag in the freezer and, once the bag fills up with other vegetable ends and trimmings, will contribute to vegetable, fish or meat stock. Nothing wasted! (Well, except a bit of dill. See below.) The flavour of the greens fulfilled all the promise of the first smell: from-the-garden fresh, and to my palate, more intensely alive than the basils and arugulas and lettuces I bring home from the supermarket. This is the crux of the matter: the flavour. In winter, the flavour of greens grown elsewhere and brought up the highway just doesn’t compare.
Here’s a quick rundown of what we did at my house with our first CropBox order, with a rough calculation of number of servings.
Butter leaf lettuce and arugula: Half the lettuce and all the arugula went into a mixed salad that fed three people at supper, with seconds all around (just for interest, the protein was elk smokies and the starch, sourdough buns).
Thai and Genovese basil: On the second day after pick-up my husband turned both basils into pesto, in order to catch the herbs at their best. The pesto was more than enough for 250 grams of linguine, which again, served three people (with no accompaniment except extra grated Parmesan and black pepper).
Rainbow chard and dill: I used all of the chard and a third of the dill in a Colcannon, along with eight large baking potatoes, one large onion and three cups of cheddar and Parmesan, mixed, for a Robbie Burns supper. The dill is not traditional in Colcannon and neither is the chard but it worked; my visiting sister, who is a fine cook, said it was superb. Our Robbie Burns supper was cancelled due to illness, so I froze two-thirds of the Colcannon for later consumption; there are at least 12 servings in the freezer. The remaining third fed three people at two meals and there is still some left over.
The remaining dill: I bought a cucumber in order to make tzatziki with the rest of the dill, but I didn’t get to it on time and the dill wilted and then rotted in its jar on the windowsill. Entirely my fault. And a lesson for next time. (See section on storage, above.)
Genovese basil stems: The stems were packed with flavour, so I made a basil simple syrup for use in cocktails and anything else I can come up with.
The remaining lettuce: Salad, to come in the next couple of days; there’s enough left to feed two of us one serving each.
In conclusion, I’m in. I have a small household, so the amounts seem to work for me. Still, it remains to be seen whether we will subsist on greens from CropBox alone for the winter (there are options for ordering more frequently), or whether we will need to augment. But I’m excited about what might be coming in tomorrow’s box, and the culinary possibilities that will open up. And I like that this one $15 investment in 400 grams of greens contributed to dishes that fed many mouths — well, the same three mouths — many times over many days. That is, 26 separate servings of very different dishes. And that’s not counting the cocktails that will emerge from the basil syrup. Ultimate conclusion: Two green thumbs up. (Sorry.)
For information on how to subscribe to the greens program in Whitehorse visit cropboxcanada.ca > Click here to view the recipe for Colcannon