CSA Survival Guide
Everything you need to know to survive and thrive in a CSA. How it works, what it's really like, what you can expect, how to store everything, and other tips for success. Fear not, intrepid cook. You can do this!
Recipe: Classic Hummus
Recipe: Jack's Artichoke-Olive Hummus
Recipe: Jack's Black Bean "Hummus"
Recipe: Herbed Goat Cheese Spread
Recipe: Garlic-Basil Ranch Dip
by Lynley Jones
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. You pay upfront for your share of an entire season's produce. In return, you receive a box or bag every week or two with your share of whatever the farm has just harvested. If you want to truly commit to eating mostly plants, especially those that are local and seasonal, a good CSA can be an extremely cost effective and delicious way to do it, helping farmers and the planet all the while.
Read more about CSAs (how much it costs, how it benefits farmers, etc.) in Week 2 - Summertime (e)Scapes.
The 10 Things You Can Expect From Most CSAs
Each CSA is a little different, but in general, they have these things in common:
1) You Don't Know What You're Going To Get
Unlike shopping at the store or farmers' market, you don't get to choose what comes in your CSA box. You usually get plenty of food, all fresh, local and seasonal, but you don't know whether it will include zucchini or corn or kale or tomatoes, all of the above, or none of the above. Each delivery is a fresh adventure!
2) But You Have A Rough Idea
As you get a feel for the seasonality of your area and your particular farm, you'll have a general idea of what to expect. With mine, I fully expect zucchini to show up at some point in August, and maybe also in July and September. Ditto for tomatoes. I know I'll be getting berries at some point in June and July, but as August turns to September, I expect to start getting apples.
3) The Food May Be Perfectly Imperfect
Sometimes you may get some things that are oddly shaped, or just not "supermarket perfect" in some way. And every once in awhile, among all that fresh, gorgeous produce, you may see something that's actually a little moldy, or clearly nearing the end of its shelf life. Just this week, this happened in my share. I got an extra box of heirloom tomatoes (yay), but when I opened it, a few of them were heavily blemished and at least two were moldy. How can that be when it's "fresh from the farm"?
When you join a CSA, you're not just a shopper, you're a solution. You're helping to improve our food system, and eliminating food waste is a big part of that. Astoundingly, in the US right now we throw away half of all the food we produce. Americans throw away more food than anything else - more than plastic, paper, glass or metal. This is largely because we consumers only want to buy food that looks perfect. (Which is understandable when we're paying Whole Foods prices for it.) But not only is this a horrible waste of resources and damaging to the planet, it's also downright heartbreaking, considering that 14% of Americans, including 1 out of every 5 households with children, don't have enough food to eat. Really.
So, back to my slightly moldy tomatoes: I have to confess to a little visceral annoyance when I first saw them. But my guess is that a few days before I got my CSA box, our farmer may have shipped those very tomatoes, which were then perfectly ripe and unblemished, to a grocery store, who may have rejected them simply because they already had enough heirloom tomatoes and didn't think they could sell more. At that point, our farmer had a choice - throw them in the garbage, or give them to us. The farmer made the right choice.
So, I got over myself, cut off the bad parts, sliced up the good parts and served them to my neighbors on gourmet veggie pizzas at a small backyard gathering over the weekend. My neighbors RAVED. They were delicious. (Here's one of the recipes.)
4) You Usually Get A Lot
Usually, each delivery is almost more than we can eat. Almost. I have to be very intentional about including the produce in every meal in order to use it up. And of course, that's the whole point.
5) But Not Always
Sometimes, especially at the beginning of the season, a delivery may feel a little skimpy. Remember, a farm is not a factory, producing a predictable quantity of widgets each week - at least, it shouldn't be. Real, natural farms, especially small ones, are subject to the whims of weather, bugs, critters, markets, aging equipment and illness and injury. In a CSA, you're partnering with a farmer for a season, not just buying a single box of produce. And some seasons are just naturally more bountiful than others.
6) There's a lot of dirt
My friend Kathy jokes, "the farmer gave me half his soil in my bag!" We don't realize it, but the produce in a grocery store is rinsed off multiple times before it gets to us. Every time the misting system goes off, or the store employee sprays water on the veggies, they're washing away the dirt. (And also maybe some nutrients, by the way.) Not only is this totally unnecessary, it's actually counter-productive if your goal is to keep things fresh longer. (See tips for success below).
7) And maybe some friendly Bugs
If your CSA farm uses organic or Integrated Pest Management farming practices (mine does), it's likely you'll see a few bugs (I do). Many bugs are actually beneficial (think ladybugs), so the farmer's goal certainly isn't to remove all the bugs, just to limit the destructive ones. If bugs bother you, you could leave the box outside as you bring the veggies in (the bugs are often in the bottom of the box). I only sometimes see them as I unpack on delivery day. They're usually pretty small, and I just escort them outside via my kitchen door and forget about them.
8) You Might Still Need to Shop a Little
In my CSA, sometimes we get spring onions, sometimes leeks, sometimes yellow onions - but sometimes no onions. About twice during the season we may get garlic. Some years we get parsley in every delivery, some years we get no parsley. In my kitchen (and I'm guessing maybe yours), these items are staples. So when I don't get them in my CSA, I run out to the farmers' market or store. (Ditto for mushrooms - not exactly staples in my kitchen, but a beloved food we almost never get in our CSA.)
9) You Might Need To Volunteer
Many CSAs are run on volunteer labor. Some have a core group or committee that handles most or all of the work; in some, the work is shared by all the members. In most, the volunteer work involves helping with sorting and other logistics at the delivery site, not at the farm. As glamorous and interesting as food writers (myself probably included) may make it sound, farming requires a certain toughness and work ethic that we volunteers often lack, as well as the skill that comes from long, sweaty experience. So your CSA volunteering experience might be more like mine - standing in the warm sun, greeting fellow CSA members at pickup, flattening and moving boxes, keeping veggies in the shade.
10) You Can Be Kind-of Lazy
Yes, you have to sign up, pay in advance and store and cook everything. Which may sound like the opposite of laziness. But stick with me. Here's what I mean:
When you belong to a CSA, there's much less need to gird your shopping loins with self-discipline before each trip to the grocery store. For one thing, your fridge is already so full of veggies, you actually don't need to shop nearly as often. Fewer trips to the store = fewer temptations.
And while you're there, you don't have to stalwartly force yourself down the produce aisle, filling your cart with obligatory veggies and worrying over organic vs. local vs. just plain cheap. You've already got them! In fact, you can just make a bee-line for the few things that don't come in your CSA, like milk or olive oil, and be done with it. So you're almost always in the 10-items-or-less lane, and done in a jif.
And you don't have to work too hard to eat more fruits and veggies. They're all over your kitchen. You just eat more of them.
And you don't have to actively force yourself, through the sheer power of your own will, day after day, to research recipes, plan elaborate meals, do all the shopping and cook more. Instead, it just sort of happens, organically (if you will), like this: You open the fridge and think, "Oh, I guess I should probably saute that spinach before it goes bad. Then I guess I could maybe toss it with some pasta. And I guess I'll grate that parmigiano-reggiano over it. Maybe sprinkle some red pepper on there too. Ok, I'll just do that." And voila, you've got an amazing meal, without a bunch of planning hullabaloo.
And if your CSA (like mine) doesn't use pesticides (most don't), you don't have to worry about washing them off everything before you eat it. You can just wipe off any visible dirt and pop it in your mouth. (More about this below.)
And if you're a parent, you don't have to spend all day saying no. If all goes well, your CSA will usually fill your fridge and larder with so much food that when your kids ask for a snack you can just hand them a carrot and be done with it. And you don't have to figure out some big plan to get your kids to eat more fruits and veggies. If that's mainly what's in the house, and you're mainly cooking the stuff you see in your fridge, it just happens.
See? Kind-of lazy.
11 Ways to Get the Most From your CSA (With Links and Resources)
Like anything new, it can take some time to get the hang of a CSA. Every week or two, you usually get a pretty big bunch of produce, some of which you don't know what to do with, and all of which you need to store in some way.
My first year, I really struggled with the competing demands of handling so much produce at once (mine comes every 2 weeks, so it's twice as much!), while at the same time starting my business, parenting my little kids and just trying to keep household sanity. The next year, I shared my share with a neighbor, so the amount was more manageable. This year, I'm back to a full share, and at this point it feels like I'm in a pretty good groove.
So here are some suggestions to help make it go as smoothly as possible for you, compiled both from my own experience and from some CSA friends of mine:
1) Embrace The Adventure
Your CSA delivery day is not just delivery day - it's DELIVERY DAY!!! Put the entire season of deliveries in your calendar at the start, and embrace the event-like nature of the delivery. Approach your CSA box like you're opening a gift: Surprise! Look what I got!
2) Deal with The Unfamiliar (or disliked)
When I open my CSA box, I usually discover about 80% of what's in it is beloved and familiar. The other 20% is less so. Most of that 20% are things that I am familiar with, and kind-of like but don't love, so don't buy as often. Usually that 20% includes at least one new thing I am totally unfamiliar with. And every once in awhile, there may be one thing in that 20% that I simply don't like (for me: collard greens). In these cases, depending on my mood and level of busy-ness, I may try to find a new recipe to make it in a new way. I may freeze it to slip into a smoothie someday where I won't notice it. Or I may just give it away to a friend or neighbor who likes it.
My friend Jill says, "It's always fun to learn how to cook a new vegetable when you get something you've never seen before." And when I get things my family or I like-but-don't-love, I find new ways to cook with them, too. About 95% of the time in my house these days, all of this leads to a delicious newly-loved food, and the next time we see it at the store or farmers' market, we buy it. And then we've added another plant to our diet. (Examples of now-beloved recipes created from this category are here, here, here and here.)
And if we decide we just don't like something after all? No big deal. We might try it another way next time, or frankly we might just give away it to a neighbor.
3) Your family will come around
When I first joined our CSA, my husband was less than thrilled. Not only did this involve writing a big check upfront, but it also meant we had a refrigerator filled to capacity with vegetables, some of which were strange, and a lot of which were kale. My kids, who are not especially picky eaters, nonetheless also weren't fans of some of the particular unfamiliar things that came with our CSA. And, as I wrote above, the volume of each delivery was a challenge for me to process, especially at that time.
I knew this would actually save us money in the long run (see how the costs work for my CSA here) and nourish us with healthier foods, so there was no question it was good for us as a family. I decided I was in it for the long haul, and I persisted.
While I still hear the occasional grumble about a refrigerator full of greens, my family now eats just about everything I cook, and they usually genuinely enjoy it. Delivery day is no longer met with eye-rolling, or even grudging tolerance. Nowadays, I think my family may even privately greet each delivery with a tiny little bit of hopeful anticipation. They haven't quite made it all the way to enthusiasm, but I think they're on their way.
Change of any kind can be a challenge. I'm glad I stuck with this.
4) Fridge-Cleaning Can Be Party Time
This is the one I struggle with the most. The day before my delivery, there are about a thousand things I suddenly have to do that don't involve cleaning out my fridge. Yes, I write a list, and fridge-cleaning is written right across the top. But wouldn't it make more sense to start a load of laundry first? And don't the kids need help with homework? And wasn't there some dental work I needed done? You get the idea.
So, this is my latest plan: instead of a dreaded chore, why not make it a party? I'll grab a cold drink (beer) and wrangle the kids and/or husband (perhaps plying them with ice cream and/or more beer), and together we'll explore the contents of our refrigerator, seeing what leftover gems have been hiding behind the kale. Let's see, we'll think. Sliced tomatoes, grilled eggplant, several-days-old hummus, leftover steak... What could we make with that? (Hey, it's working already. Just writing that sentence is making me very excited! And a little hungry.) And then we'll make it all for dinner. And we'll call it Adventure Dinner! to congratulate ourselves on our intrepid refrigerator exploits (and because I once worked in marketing).
Another idea is to throw an actual party, for family or good friends or neighbors - the kind of people you actually enjoy spending time with, and who won't judge you too harshly. That morning or the day before, you can pull everything out of your fridge and think, What can I make with this? Then make it and serve it to your friends. This time, they can bring the beer.
Of course, if you're much more disciplined than I am, you could just clean your fridge. Whatever works for you.
5) Involve Your Kids
Bring your kids to help at the pickup, and let them help you go through the box and store everything.
Talk about how each thing in your share came all the way from the farm to your home! Imagine with your children what your farmer may actually be like as a person: Is it a woman, or a man, or a whole family? How many helpers do they have? Do they live in a house like ours? Do they have any pets or other animals? Are they eating the same things from their farm for dinner tonight that we're eating? What's their favorite food? What do they do all winter when things aren't so busy? Then, see if you can find the answers about your particular farmer online. Maybe you can email them through your CSA, and maybe you can even arrange to visit the farm!
Ask each of your children to choose something from the box to be "their" special Veggie Of The Week. They'll help you decide what to make with it, maybe even help you cook it, and serve it to the whole family with pride.
Start a practice of saying "thank you" out loud to the farmers, or to the Earth, or to God, or to the Universe, as you eat each thing from your CSA. Maybe let your kids decide who they should thank each time.
6) DELIVERY NIGHT = SALAD For Dinner
Delivery day can be hectic. I have to make my way to the pickup location, maybe volunteer, lug the haul home, unload and store everything (plus, maybe tackle last-minute fridge cleaning I should have done the day before). And on top of all that, I have no idea what to plan for dinner, since I have no idea what I'll have to work with.
I've figured out that in my CSA, no matter what else I may or may not get, I know I'll be getting salad greens. So I plan salad for dinner that first night. The more of it we eat that night, the less I have to store, and salad greens will go bad faster than some other foods. And topping the salads with leftovers like meat, hardboiled eggs, cheese, radishes, etc. helps clean out the fridge. (Here's a classic Dijon Vinaigrette recipe you can use with whatever greens happen to show up.)
7) When You Think of Something, Make it
Don't wait for the perfect occasion. My friend Bonu says that if you're having the thought "I should make ________," you should just do it. She's right; invariably, when I wait, the perfect time never comes and things spoil. But when I just make it, it turns out now was actually the perfect time all along.
8) Feel Good About Being Generous
You may sometimes get more than your family can eat, or you may get gobs of something you just can't or don't want to use up (for me, that's happening with radishes right now). This can be a little stress-inducing, as we feel the weight of responsibility to use everything we get. (How can I possibly use up 52 radishes?) It might even feel wasteful, thinking the CSA should have known better than to give you so much. This is a downward spiral. Instead, view it as an opportunity.
Remember, in a CSA you're a solution, not a shopper (see Perfectly Imperfect, above). Text your neighbors or put the word out in your community's Facebook group to find someone to give your excess to. Leave it on your front porch for friends and neighbors to help themselves. Or even better, give it to a food pantry or soup kitchen. Here in Montclair, my surplus radishes are headed to Toni's Kitchen today, which has been feeding the hungry in my town with dignity since the 1980s.
9) Choose the CSA that's right for you
Some require volunteering, others don't. Some come weekly, others are every two weeks. Some offer fruits, vegetables, meat, cheeses, bread, eggs, honey, etc. etc. etc. Others are just vegetables. Some shares are enough for an entire family, others may be the right size for a single person or a couple. Some are all local, others include food from far away places. Some are all organic, others are not. Some even specialize in "ugly" produce in order to reduce food waste (see Perfectly Imperfect, above).
Ask around, and choose one you think will work for your family. Then try it out for a season. Some CSAs offer half-shares, which might be a good way to start. If it doesn't feel like the right fit, it might be that another CSA would work out better for you next time. Or maybe your CSA might be open to making some small adjustments. Be friendly, and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. But hopefully, this post and other resources will help you make the most of it.
10) Make the Most of Online Resources
Here is a list of tried and true resources recommended by my CSA-member friends, along with some of my own faves:
www.Epicurious.com (recipes from edited publications including Bon Appetit and Gourmet)
www.SeriousEats.com (well-researched whys, hows and recipes from Ed Levine, J. Kenzi Lopez-Alt and others)
www.AllRecipes.com (recipes aggregated from across the web)
www.SmittenKitchen.com (seasonal recipes and engaging writing from blogger Deb Perlman)
www.StillTasty.com (My friend Colleen says it's "the best website that specifies best storage techniques for produce.")
...and of course www.AdventureKitchen.com :)
My friend Alexia recommends the "Google and Tweak" approach: "I google vegetables and see what sites/blogs it leads me to. I had never used daikon radishes a couple of years ago, and I ended up with a delicious Korean (I think...?) chicken/daikon dish... Basically I get "inspiration" for recipes out of my comfort / knowledge zone. And I always tweak based on what I have."
11) Gather Essential Cookbooks
These cookbooks, compiled from my CSA friends' recommendations and my own, are great resources for deciding what to do with seasonal veggies, the kind you'll go back to again and again over the years:
My friend Lisa says "Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbooks are great for spicing up veggies. His recipes can make a mundane carrot dazzle!"
9 Tips and Tools to Store and Use Produce LIke A Pro
The first thing I do when that big box of nature's glorious goodness comes into my kitchen is take everything out and put it on the kitchen table. This may sound obvious, but sometimes just looking at a full CSA box can feel a bit daunting. Laying it all out so you can see everything can help it seem more manageable. You'll be able to group things together, and decide on a plan of attack. Like this: Ok, I got 8 tomatoes. I'll bring tomato-basil crostini to that party this weekend, and we'll have tomato sandwiches on Monday.
Here are nine more tips for processing and using the produce in your CSA each week, compiled from my own experience and my CSA friends:
1) Use the flimsy stuff first
Save the sturdy stuff for another day. For example, spinach won't keep, but cabbage, cauliflower, beets and carrots will. If you're not sure, you can look things up at StillTasty.com, or just learn through experience as you go.
2) Keep Some sort of Dip On Hand At All Times
On delivery day, wash and cut up whatever seems dippable: carrots, snow peas, celery, broccoli, sweet peppers, etc. (If you like to dip wet things like cucumbers, it's best to cut them up the same day you'll eat them; they'll spoil quickly.) Keep dip and cut-up veggies front and center in the fridge for folks to grab for quick snacks.
3) Use salt, vinegar, lime/lemon juice, sugar, spices and/or cooking to lengthen shelf life
Modern cooks don't always think this way, but all of these things were actually invented by our ancestors to keep food from spoiling. So for example, if you get more cucumbers than you can eat, stick half of them in a jar with salt and vinegar - they'll last longer as refrigerator pickles than as raw cucumbers. (Ditto with tomatoes - a bowl of Pico de Gallo lasts much longer than a bowl of diced tomatoes. Try it.) Fruit lasts longer once its baked into a pie or made into jam than it does fresh. If your eggplant is nearing the end of its shelf life, but you still haven't figured out what you're going to make, just slice it up and grill it, and stick it back in the fridge. By cooking it, you may add another week to its shelf life, by which time you'll figure something out.
4) Use thermometers for your refrigerator and freezer
"Life begins at 40" is not just a feel-good aphorism for us middle-aged people, it's also a warning about food spoilage. When things warm up to 40 degrees or more, bacteria begin to thrive, and food spoils. Refrigerators are intended to keep food between 33 and 39 degrees - that is, above freezing, but not warm enough for bacteria to grow rapidly. (Freezers are intended to be kept as close to 0 degrees as possible.)
The temperature in our refrigerators can easily get into the 40s, especially in the summer, or in any house with kids who like to stand with the door open to see what there is to eat (ahem). With a thermometer, you'll be able to see how warm your fridge is, adjust the settings to get it back in the zone, and keep food fresh longer. (And at less than $10, they will quickly pay for themselves.)
5) Remove the Leafy Greens From Roots and bulbs
The greens that come attached to carrots, beets, radishes, kohlrabi, and the like are edible, but if they're kept intact, they'll continue to suck up nutrients to keep themselves alive. This means your carrots or beets will quickly soften and go bad, having given all their goodness to the greens, rather than saving it for you. So cut the greens off as soon as you get them. Then you can enjoy eating both the greens and the roots or bulbs.
6) Use your vegetable drawers the Right Way
If you have two vegetable drawers, count yourself lucky! Set one on high humidity, and the other on low humidity. Then, store each thing in the drawer that will prevent its unique type of spoilage. Things you want to stay crisp (lettuce) go in the high humidity drawer. Things that you can envision turning moldy (peppers) go in the low humidity drawer.
7) Use your freezer
You can freeze almost anything for later use in soup, stock or smoothies. I use Ziplock freezer bags: put it in, zip it almost closed, squeeze all the air out and close it the rest of the way. I seal the bags up as flat as possible, so I can stack them more easily in the freezer, and with more exposed surface area they'll thaw quicker when I need them. Carrots, celery, onions of every kind, fruit, vegetables and hearty greens can all be frozen and either used to make soup next winter, or dropped into your smoothie next week. If it's about to go bad, just stick in in a bag and put it in the freezer.
8) Prep lettuce greens for storage right away
My friends use a variety of approaches to do this. Here's what has worked for me: I take the heads apart and wash and spin dry all the leaves in batches (I usually also have to lay them between paper towels to absorb the remaining water). When they're really dry, I remove the paper towels (which I later reuse for cleaning) and put the lettuce in Ziplock freezer bags, flattened with all the air squeezed out, and into my high humidity vegetable drawer if there's room (if not, they frankly seem to do perfectly well anywhere I can stash them in the fridge). They last at least a couple weeks, maybe longer. I'm actually not sure, because once they're all washed and ready, we usually use them up quickly in salads, but I've seen them still going strong after 2 weeks.
On the days I'm just too pressed for time to do this, I stash the intact heads of lettuce, unwashed, in the high-humidity vegetable drawer, standing vertically if possible, and not in plastic. They may wilt slightly this way, but they last at least a week before spoiling. Later in the week as time permits, I wash and store them as described above.
9) Don't wash other things
This is where your CSA produce has a huge advantage over the supermarket. It hasn't been washed! Water contains bacteria that speed spoilage, and the moisture itself creates an environment for bacteria to thrive in. Also, the dust and dirt from the farm can actually slow spoilage, and may be beneficial to our gut flora (the healthy microbes that live in our guts). You can shake off the loose dirt, but don't wash your eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, kale, green beans, cauliflower, etc. until you're ready to use them. (And even then, don't go crazy. Just brush them off or give them a quick rinse to get rid of any unpleasant dust or grit. Assuming they were grown without pesticides, anything else won't hurt you, and may even be good for you.)
Do whatever works for you and your family. None of these suggestions is written in stone.
Want to wash your eggplant on Day 1 so you're more likely to use it later in the week? Go for it.
Will it preserve your sanity to order dinner in on delivery day? Be my guest.
Try different approaches, and figure out what works best in your home. Any way that works for you, when you're in a CSA you're a solution. And that's always a good thing.
I hope this guide has been helpful! Anything I missed? Have more suggestions I should include? Email me (lynley at adventurekitchen.com) and let me know.
My deep thanks to Bonu deCaires, Lisa Davies, Alexia de Fays, Kathy Maloy, Colleen Martinez and Jill Montague for their contributions to this piece.
One of the easiest things to do when you have lots of veggies in the house is to whip up a quick dip and just eat them raw! Here are some of my favorites:
And without pictures...
Created just last week, addictively good and thrown together in about 5 minutes: Garlic-Basil Ranch Dip
Originally created for a Make Your Own Lunch class I taught in a local elementary school, great as a sandwich spread or veggie dip: Herbed Goat Cheese Spread
From my friend Jack, a huge hit with kids and grownups alike: Jack's Artichoke-Olive Hummus
Another one from Jack, no chickpeas, but with black beans and other delicious spices, it's hummus-esque: Jack's Black Bean "Hummus"
Next Week: Gorgeous Greens
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