Monday, July 11, 2011

CSA 102: How to make a CSA work for your family

The question posed was whether or not it was cheaper to join a CSA to get organic produce. The answers ranged from "absolutely" to "absolutely not" and as we dug deeper into the topic, it became clear that working with a CSA and making it an economical option was an acquired skill. I don't think many of us really looked at it that way even though all of our advice for the original poster (and "absolutely not" posters) pointed directly to that statement. Go figure.

But it is. So here's what you should know (and do) to make the most of using a CSA (or a co-op for that matter--since the challenges are similar; but I will use the term “CSA” here).

Your first year, it would be ideal if you could find a CSA with pickups that are 1) very close to your home; and 2) on a Friday evening or Saturday (preferably morning).This not only makes it very convenient for you (which means you’re less likely to just skip a pickup) but it also means you’re picking up your food at a time when generally, you have time available to give some thought to what you received and how to use it without being rushed.Worst case, you have the time to store it properly so it doesn’t spoil.

If they offer a half-share, start with that; but realize that you may not get enough of any one thing to make a meal out of. This is okay if you’re willing to work to combine vegetables to get enough to suit your needs. Or use it as a “sampler” with no expectation of it fulfilling your needs in terms of a meal as opposed to using it to learn about the vegetables themselves. I’m not sure this is a great option because it becomes to easy to put off using it if it’s not going to be part of a meal. Better yet, see if they offer a bi-weekly pickup. If it’s only weekly, see if you can partner up with another family and alternate pickup weeks.

Get a good vegetable book. It doesn’t need to be a cookbook. A good vegetable growing book with pictures will be just as useful to you as a vegetarian cookbook. You need to identify what you have! Often, a cookbook won’t show you a picture of the vegetable in its whole, harvested form. That’s not going to help the newbie produce eater. Make sure it includes pictures of kohlrabi, multiple types of squash, bok or pak choi, kale, spinach, and different types of greens (I’ve yet to see one with komatsuna, but that would be a great book). Leaf through it and get to know the vegetables whether you have them or not—because at some point, you’ll run into them. Actually, there's an AWESOME book called "The Visual Food Lover's Guide" (which includes information on how to buy, prepare and store over 1,000 types of food--very awesome)

You CAN get yourself a vegetarian cookbook if you’d like, but there are recipes abound on the internet. That being said, if you’re not one who has time to sit down at the computer on the weekend, a vegetarian cookbook is the thing to have. Maybe two or three if you’re not an internet person. Sometimes, the vegetarian cookbooks are more likely to give you recipes for the less common vegetables because vegetarians don’t have meats to fill their plates and are therefore sometimes more inclined to stretch their boundaries outward from the more commonly eaten veggies. One I like (that uses all the “different” veggies) is “From Asparagus to Zucchini

Take a look at what you’ve received, and then take some time planning out how to use it. The first year, this could take quite a bit of time. But each subsequent year, it gets MUCH, MUCH easier. The majority of foods you get will not change drastically and you will now have the prior year’s recipes to fall back on (and build upon for the following years). If you get your food on Friday night or Saturday morning and it literally takes you a few hours over the course of the rest of the weekend to figure it out—this doesn’t mean you’re failing or this can’t work for you. It means you’re learning something you didn’t know before and it will take a few rounds of this to become fluent in “using fresh produce you don’t recognize at first glance yet”. There’s a difference. And there IS a learning curve. You won’t be fluent the first year. It’s like learning a new language. You’ll be functional at the end of the first year. But each year that you take it on, you’ll get better and better.

Having a plan to use your food is critical. This is critical to your food not going to waste. It is also likely to be the most time consuming part of your weekly experience in the beginning.

Have a stash of “go to” recipes that can use pretty much any vegetable. Are you opposed to eating stew in the summer? Hope not! What about frittata or quiche? Stir-fry? Soup? I have a recipe that I use for pretty much any leafy green: heat some olive oil in a large pot with a lid, add some garlic (minced, sliced—whatever) and let it brown for a minute, then add my washed, cut greens and coat them with the oil. Put the lid on the pot and lower the heat. In about five minutes, the greens are “wilted” (still a bright green, but really soft). I make just about everything like that—including collards.

Get yourself some Debbie Meyer Green Bags... and USE them. This has saved me many times because without question, my food has lasted significantly longer. The trick is to use a paper towel to wipe out any built up condensation inside the bag to prevent the water and cool air itself to cause spoilage. Read the instructions: they say NOT to clean your food before putting it in the bags!

If you're not accustomed to working with fresh produce to begin with, you may have an extra challenge. Working with fresh produce isn't the same as frozen or canned. If nothing else, the frozen/canned kind is at minimum already cleaned and chopped up. That alone is a time eater most people don't account for. And it may annoy you. Now, you might think that it’s a good idea to just clean and chop the food when you get it—on the weekend (when you have time), but the reality is that if you wash your food and put it in the fridge, it will spoil faster because of the water left on it. Lettuce might be easy to get around on this point because you can wash it, spin it (yeah, salad spinners actually DO have a purpose in life) and then put it in a bag lined with dry paper towels and leave the bag open in the fridge. But other things are not so easy. I think if you sit and plan what you’re going to eat this week and know that it will be eaten in the week, you could go through and cut up the things that are likely to take the most time. For me, this is stuff like kale and chard—because I remove the stem/vein and chop it into smaller pieces. Normally, I do this right after I wash it and right before I’m going to use it. But as I think about it, you could cut it all up, put it in the fridge, and wash it just before use.

Last, but not least: if you can’t figure out how to use it, figure out how to preserve it. Most things can be washed, cut up, and either frozen or cooked a bit before freezing. A good site for how to preserve countless food items is the National Center for Home Food Preservation (which will also tell you when something isn't suitable for freezing, and why).

This should make your first year manageable, and encourage you to take on a second year--knowing they will get easier as they come!

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