Friday, May 31, 2013

The Great CSA Experiment of 2013

I promised a post featuring some success stories from my job, and I still intend to write one, but this one's in my head now, so stay tuned.

Last summer, a friend and I signed up to join a CSA--a community shared agriculture program. This means that we paid a lump sum before the summer growing season to purchase vegetables directly from an organic farming co-op about a 3-hour drive away in the Lancaster, PA area. Each week, the farmers harvest whatever's ready and divide that harvest up among the shareholders, each of whom gets their own box. The share boxes are loaded up onto a delivery truck and arrive at a central pick up location, where we repack them into our own coolers or bags and return the boxes for use the next week.

Joining the CSA appealed to me for many reasons: it encourages eating seasonally and shopping locally, it supports small farms, and the produce--which is all grown organically--is as fresh as it can be short of growing it myself. The price is competitive, too--more than the supermarket but less than shopping exclusively at a Whole Foods-type store. There are, however, two drawbacks that made both of us think twice about joining again this year. First, the size of the share was awkward: the full share would have been way too much for a small family, but splitting the full share between us often resulted in amounts too small to use effectively (one week we each got half a baby cauliflower). Second, you have no control over what's in the box. The co-op sends out a tentative list earlier in the week with what the farmers anticipate harvesting, so you can plan your menus ahead of time, but sometimes substitutions are made at the last minute, and there will inevitably be times when your box includes something no one in your family will eat (for us, that's lima beans, beets, and most bitter greens). As a result, each week last year several items went into the garbage untouched (that and the reality of dealing with a high needs baby who left me with very little time to process the items that couldn't simply be roasted or eaten raw...).

This year, the co-op offered a solution to the first problem: a half-share option which would provide fewer but full-sized items each week, with a focus on kitchen staples over specialty ingredients (like garlic scapes, pea tendrils, and stinging nettles). As for the second problem, there is a swap box at the pick up site in which you can place a whole item that you don't anticipate using and (hopefully) walk away with an item someone else didn't want, but you  still have to get lucky when using this option.

We both decided to give the half share a try, and I have resolved to try and use everything in the box each week. I thought that blogging about the experience might help me keep my resolution, so I will be reporting each week about how I used the contents of the previous week's share. If you have any suggestions for recipes to try, I'd love to hear from you!

Week One was actually the first Saturday in May--the CSA does a staggered start at the beginning of the growing season, so I had a bit more time to process everything. Here's how it all worked out:

  • One bunch of the freshest asparagus I've ever had: this was a no-brainer--it was roasted in the oven as a side dish.
  • One head of green leaf lettuce was also a no-brainer: salads.
  • One bunch of radishes: I ate these raw. Steve doesn't care for raw radishes, but I like them.
  • One bunch of scallions and part of a bunch of mint went into a lamb casserole that was quite good but a lot of work.
  • The rest of the mint was minced and combined with vinegar, sugar and water to make British-style mint sauce. It was either that or dry it for tea. We like mint and lamb together, and I threw out the mint sauce we had in the fridge after the derecho last summer.
  • A bunch of kale--which we will get almost every week, if this year is like last--was chopped and put into a pot of sausage and kale soup. Soup is really the only way we like kale, and this one bore a slight resemblance to the Olive Garden's zuppa toscana. Pretty good.
  • We also got a bunch of mizuna, a bitter green which I swapped out for a bunch of thyme (in the full share). Some of the thyme went into a rabbit (yes, rabbit) casserole, some went into something else, and some is still in the fridge--but it's the only thing, so I did well this week.

Week Two--last week:

  • One head of romaine and one head of red leaf lettuce: more salads. Some still left, but it will all be used.
  • Two bunches of radishes: one from the share and one from the swap box as an exchange for collard greens, which we don't really care for except with Ethiopian-style spiced cheese, and that's a two-day process. On the advice of my friend, we tried them roasted with olive oil, salt, pepper, and some fresh oregano from the back garden. Not our favorite, but not bad, and Steve ate them.
  • One bunch of red spring onions: will be used together with the bunch that's supposed to be coming this week in a side dish.
  • A pint of strawberries: gone in a day and a half. Johanna seemed to like them, too, but I think they may have set off her reflux.
  • One bunch of lovely rainbow chard: the leaves were blanched, chopped, and substituted for spinach in a cheesy ham and pasta casserole, and the leaves were blanched and layered with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese as a side dish. The latter went into the freezer for later, or to take to a potluck.
  • This week's challenge item was a bunch of kohlrabi, a member of the cabbage family that tastes kind of like broccoli stems. I'd never tried it or worked with it before. I found a recipe for a kohlrabi puree that used both the bulbs and the leaves and served it as a base for the rabbit dish mentioned above. It was OK but had a much stronger flavor than I'd expected and took a lot of prep time.

As I was prepping the kohlrabi and throwing the stems in the garbage, I thought how nice it would be to find somewhere to take the scraps each week for composting. So my next challenge will be to find someone who does it themselves, or to find a community composting program.

Overall--some thyme and lettuce still left, but nothing else.