Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Woes of a CSA Subscriber

Beckie, this one's for you.

When you sign up for a share in a CSA(Community Supported Agriculture) Farm, in addition to fresh, delicious, local produce, you are signing up for work. It forces you to develop a totally new way of preparing food for your family. Here are the main challenges I’ve faced in my relationships with CSAs followed by my strategies for dealing with them. I don’t have it all figured out but I’ve made progress and I’ll keep at it until hopefully one day I will always know just what to do with the produce that shows up and never throw any rotten produce away.

One of the things CSA subscribing does is challenge the conventional wisdom that gave us grocery stores. I think that deserves challenging. So with all the struggles you face as a CSA subscriber consider the whys of everything – there are some really important answers to those questions and I’d like to see people think through those for themselves. Don’t just take what the grocery store or the farmer says and accept it—think about it for yourself.

Common Challenges For CSA Subscribers

I Don’t Like _______. What Do I Do With It?
Most CSAs offer you a weekly share of whatever they harvested that week. Which means you get what they give, no more, no less. If you don’t like something in the box that week, your problem.

What’s With All The Beets And Kale?
I don’t know why but most of the CSAs I know offer lots of beets and kale, regularly. Maybe they are easy/cheap to grow and underappreciated. I’m sure it’s different for every growing region and each one probably has its own “beets and kale” type of vegetable that grows well and isn’t terribly popular.

Where’s The Fruit?
Fruit seems to be scarcer in most CSA boxes. Probably depends on where you are living and what grows well there. I think fruit is more challenging and expensive to grow, harvest, store, and deliver. But oh, organic farm fruit is the food of the gods – so worth the trouble and expense.

I’ve Never Heard Of _______. What Do I Do With It?
We are so used to the standard array of fruits and vegetables at the grocery store that it can be overwhelming when all these unusual plants start showing up in your box. Organic family farmers seem to have a special love for the underdogs that never make it into the US grocery system. It’s important to know that the produce that has made it is usually chosen for things like how little it bruises and how cheap it is to grow. Taste and quality are almost always sacrificed.

My CSA Lifestyle Strategies
I’ve been using CSAs for 5+ years. I have much to learn but here’s what I know today.

Strategy 1: Cook Your Way Through it All
When I have plenty of time (ha ha, who ever does?!) or I'm really in a cooking mood I spend a couple hours with my cookbooks, recipe files, and online searches to find recipes that will utilize all the beautiful and strange things that arrived in my box this week. I am always on the lookout for a good cookbook or recipe that emphasizes produce. Here are my favorite resources for this:

Cooking Light Salads
In Season
Mediterranean Kitchen
Williams Sonoma: Vegetables
Mariquita Farms Recipe Database
Giada De Laurentiis recipes 

UPDATE 6/2/12 I started using Pinterest and have a board for  Feeding My Family with recipes and more cookbooks I love.

Strategy 2: Try a Custom Order
Some farms grow certain things all year. Find out if yours does and see if they will let you have a weekly custom order of things you know you will use. For the last year I had a standing order of lettuce, potatoes, avocados, apples, bananas, and carrots.  Now I'm back to the seasonal box and it's so exciting to see what's in it each week!

Strategy 3: Work With More Than One Farm
Most local, organic, family farms grow a limited number of items. More and more I’m seeing small farms band together for CSA purposes. My local CSA, Klesick Family Farm, sources out organic produce from several farms, including some in Mexico. So I get a lot more fruit and things like bananas, avocados and oranges that just don’t grow here. If there isn’t a combo CSA in your area, talk to a few of the farms and see if you can facilitate something.

Strategy 4: Order a Double-Share of Fruit
My family never seems to have too much fruit. Whatever shows up in our box, we eat in a few days. If your CSA offers fruit, ask for double or triple the normal share of fruit.

Strategy 5: Go Raw
The vast majority of fruits and vegetables can be eaten raw. Wash, peel, and cut up whatever you’ve got, set it on a platter with some dip and chances are it will be gone by the end of the day. For fruit I like peanut butter and honey mixed together or vanilla yogurt and honey as dip. For veggies I like hummus or ranch dressing. You can also grate or dice fruits and vegetables and toss them into a green salad.

Strategy 6: Use Master Recipes
Most fruits or vegetables can be prepared in one of the following ways. When you don’t know what to do with something in your box, try one of these. A basic cookbook can get you started. I suggest working on one of these preparations, say soup, until you find your favorite version and get good at making it. Then you can move on to roasting.

Pasta Salad
Basically all you need is cooked pasta, chopped and blanched veggies or fruits, and tasty dressing. You can add cheeses, herbs, sauces, and other condiments to fancy it up.

Spend some time finding a vegetable based soup recipe that you really like. Add whatever veggies you have on hand that week. Leave it chunky or puree if you like. I find the following ingredients make a great flavor base for any veggie soup: potatoes, bacon, pesto, tomato paste, and Parmesan.

Start with fruit and liquid. Bananas and oranges make a great flavor and texture base. I use water for my liquid but you could use juice or milk too. If you have a good, high-powered blender, it’s easy to slip some carrots and spinach in and no one will ever know. Frozen bananas or berries make it frothy. Sweeten with honey, sugar, or maple syrup as needed. If fresh mint shows up, this is a great way to use it.

Roasted Veggies
Wash, peel, and roughly chop whatever you’ve got on hand. Spread it on a foil/ parchment lined baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Bake at 425 until tender (maybe 25-45 minutes?) Serve roasted veggies alongside meat, mix it with hot pasta or rice and herbs, or puree for soup.

Strategy 7: Get into a Routine
I’ve developed a lot of habits or routine’s that incorporate produce into my daily life. If it’s not part of my routine it won’t happen for more than a week or two. We eat pretty much the same things every week, which makes it easy. I don’t spend a lot of time these days thinking about what we’re going to eat.

First and foremost – process your produce the day it arrives. Get a lettuce keeper and some of those plastic containers designed to lengthen the shelf life of produce. They really work. I try to wash, chop, and dry my lettuce first. I keep it in the salad spinner in the fridge and it stays good for several days. Wash, peel, and chop anything you intend to roast, puree, or otherwise cook. Put asparagus and herbs stem side down in a tall glass or jar of water in the fridge, like you would cut flowers – but don’t wash them until you are ready to cook them. Wash, peel, chop or grate things you will use in salad or eat raw with dip. Don’t do any of this with fruit or tomatoes. Just wait until you’re ready to eat them. But things like potatoes, zucchini, squash, carrots, leeks, celery, broccoli etc. will do fine if you clean and cut them and keep them in the fridge, especially in those nifty produce containers. And you will almost certainly use them if the hard part is already done. This is the best way I know of to eliminate rotting produce in the fridge.

Then you need a daily meal routine.

We eat fruit for breakfast almost every day. In the summer it could be in the form of a smoothie or alongside toast. In the winter it’s probably mixed into oatmeal.

For lunch we have sandwiches or soup, with raw fruit, veggies, or green salad.

For dinner we have one of the following accompanied by steamed, roasted, or souped veggies: pasta, rice and beans, polenta, bean tacos, soup and salad. Seriously, we just rotate through those same dishes over and over. I vary the flavoring here and there and make other things on special occasions but this is what we habitually eat.  These are things we all like, I can make without thinking, I feel good about feeding my family, and they go pretty well with veggies. It has to be simple if I’m going to do it regularly.

Strategy 8: Learn What to Do With Beets and Kale.
Or whatever it is that shows up regularly in your box. Just this year I learned how to make Kale chips. What a revelation! They are so yummy! And easy! Wash and dry the kale. Tear it into chip-sized pieces and lay it out on a foil/parchment lined baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Bake at 425 until crispy but not burnt, 10-20 minutes.

Now I gotta figure out what to do with beets…I should try roasting.

With some farms you can say, no beets for me thanks, and they will exclude them from your box.

Strategy 9: Keep Complimentary Ingredients in Your Fridge or Pantry at All Times.
If you know what flavors you really love with veggies and you keep them around all the time, it’s easier to bring a new veggie into your repertoire. Things with salt, fat and intense flavor tend to compliment veggies well. When I use them as condiments, and make veggies the star of the dish I see no problem with the fat or salt content. I try to keep bacon, Parmesan, olive oil, butter, sun-dried tomatoes, sea-salt, olives, tomato paste, pesto, nuts, and my favorite French vinaigrette around. With these I can make tasty salads, pasta, soup, rice, and polenta.

So how is it going with your CSA box?


Amy said...

Jen, I loved this post!! I have tried a food co-op in our area and I like it. But there was a few things that I did not know what to do with. Can't wait to see you guys in a few weeks!! Have fun in Paris!

Jennifer said...

Thanks Amy! Can't wait to see you too. I'm really looking forward to Paris too:)

Pugsley said...

I remember a stand off at the dinner table as a child and it involved beets. Now I am in love with them! Raw, they are good grated in salads or juiced with carrots and apples. Pureed, cooked beets are really sweet and babies love them--you can also color rice (pink rice) with water from boiling or steaming them. I usually just boil them whole, or steam, like a potato and peel when they are cooked. slice and season. Roast in foil in the oven. My mom taught me how to pickle beets, if you're interested--it's easy, just cook and store in vinegar, sugar (organic), and water. These are good on salads or just alone. Last time I subscribed to a CSA it seemed all I got was eggplant, one vegetable I don't care too much for. I prefer local farmers' markets, but I might try it again in the future.