BUSHWICK — She may have grown up collecting vegetables from her family's garden, but chef Heidi Boston is still confounded by the produce that shows up at her current Bushwick workplace from a local rooftop farm.
Kale and bok choy are just the beginning — she's never even heard of most of the ingredients that arrive at the Salvation Army soup kitchen.
"Last week they brought this spicy lettuce, and I'd never tasted lettuce like that," Boston said of Boswyck Farms, a hydroponic (water powered) garden that brings the Salvation Army weekly shipments of vegetables throughout summer.
"That's when I experiment — it was great. I didn't have to put much seasoning on it."
Boston's improvisation, combined with the innovative farm's donations, make the Salvation Army the most popular soup kitchen around, regulars said.
"We take our groups to volunteer at different kitchens around," said Elizabeth Magloire, an organizer with Heritage Human Services, which works with people with disabilities in Brooklyn.
"They all want to come here because they get to eat the meal. They know the food's best here."
The farming education company started donating vegetables to the Bushwick kitchen more than a year ago. The veggies benefit the hundreds of weekly diners and the experience opened Boston's eyes to agricultural and culinary creativity, she said.
"I'd never known you could have a farm on a rooftop. They'll bring produce in bags and you can still feel the heat of the dirt — it's that fresh," she marveled. "Last week I ended up putting black beans and pineapple on the spicy lettuce... It must have been a hit, because it was all gone."
For Boswyck Farms' leaders, their donations aren't just a chance to spice up Boston's ingredients — they're a return to the way agriculture is supposed to function.
"Throughout most of farming's history, the people in the community were the major recipients of the food farmers were growing," said Boswyck's operational hydroponicist Alex Middleton.
"But in modern day times we don't have that, so people have become disconnected from where their food comes from. We're giving food to people who need it, but also connecting a community."
Vegetables the farm donates include green sorel, yellow and pink Swiss chard, kale, and a wide variety of lettuces — including Flashy Troutback and summer crisp Cherokee (both kinds of romaine lettuce) and Green Oak Leaf (a kind of leaf lettuce), Middleton said.
And Boston, 58, gladly faces the challenge of whipping up unexpected meals for up to 130 people daily on her own or with just one other cook.
"The food from the farm is amazing...Whereas in supermarkets you never know what goes on in the back, some stuff is half-dead and other stuff is half-wilted," she said. "I slice up all my ingredients I already have ahead of time so I can do everything before I have people knocking on the door. At 12:30 they want to eat!"
Boston only has one rule for her diners, which her mother enforced to her as a child. "You have to try everything once," she said.
"One guy was saying 'I never knew you could put strawberries on a salad,' and he loved it. I didn't know what to call the dish last week so I called it 'Health Salad,' and they all really ate it."
Recently Boston has realized cooking fresh food has brought her closer to her own sense of purpose.
"The pastor who brought me here said 'I feed people in spirit and you feed people by hand.' Maybe that's my ministry," said Boston, who first connected with the Salvation Army while attending church at a former center in Downtown Brooklyn.
"I'm so grateful for the people at the farm. We serve everyone in our own way."