Thinking outside the box: tips for success with a CSA

We subscribed to CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm boxes for 15 years, and it forever changed the way we cook. We didn’t go to the farmers’ market regularly back then and didn’t have much of a garden; later when we gardened more, we grew things for preservation (tomatoes and peppers for canning our own salsa, garlic for drying to use over the winter, things like that). Even in years with bad weather, we never were short on vegetables because established farms know to plant enough different crops that there was always plenty in the box. So we tried new foods, learned a lot, and continue to love fresh, local food!

We swapped the box a few years back for a regular visit to our nearby Saturday morning farmers’ market, where we usually meet friends for muffins, shopping, and conversation. For those who aren’t gardeners, can’t make a regular market day, or simply love the idea of subscribing to a farm, the Yarnstead family is going to reveal its secrets for CSA member success!

First, let me freely admit that this post is inspired by my frugal friend Melinda, whose CSA experience wasn’t a great one and isn’t something she’s keen to repeat. Despite that, I agree with almost everything she says in her post, so read on.

Second, thanks to my cousin Brenda S, about to embark on her second year as a CSA member, for some great discussion and feedback and good company over dinner. So without further ado, the tips:

1. Box pick-up: it’ll make you crazy if the time and/or location of your CSA pick-up are inconvenient. Close to your home or on the way home from work or school is often best. If the time is going to be a squeeze, you will be sorry halfway through the season when rushing around sucks the joy out of that fresh food. Trust me.

2. Share size: think about how you like to cook and whether this is the right time in your life for a new food adventure (we did have CSA boxes the years we had newborns in the house, but we had started four years before the eldest was born). Yes, the first year is a bit of an adventure, but I promise you it gets way easier after that. If you want a little less adventure, share a box with a friend (tip #1 still applies) or an easy-to-get-along-with neighbor (location matters for convenient sharing too). Some CSAs also offer smaller shares.

Also, do the math. Find a CSA share that makes sense for your family size and budget. Where we live, several major health insurers will pay for part of the cost for a CSA box under a healthy living incentive program. Since we have family coverage, we can get up to $200 back on the cost of a box. The last two years, we’ve gotten a $200 CSA market share instead (this means we get a card that we “charge” produce against at the farm’s market booth) so basically we are getting $200 of free food. If we got a regular box, we would get a rebate of up to $200. Check with your health insurance provider to see if this benefit is available to you!

3. Time: Cooking from scratch takes time, whether your veggies come from a store, the farmers’ market, or a CSA box. The difference with the box is you may get veggies you are unfamiliar with, so don’t choose a CSA with lots of exotic veggies for your first year.  Make it easier for yourself with a chart on your fridge! Write the list of veggies your CSA grows in the first column, and check off them in columns:  Good raw, Good to steam, Good to saute, Good to roast, Easy to freeze, Keeps a long time, Prep ahead, Good in tacos, Good with rice, whatever makes sense for you. I love me a list. Really fresh produce doesn’t need fancy or time-consuming preparation to make it taste good, so go ahead and keep it simple.

4. Meal planning: I hope your CSA will provide you with information on which vegetables keep longest (Linda Ly gives great info on storing vegetables in The CSA Cookbook). Use that info for meal planning, and look in the box before you decide what to cook each week! It’s easier to plan how to use the veggies first and fill in around them than it is to fit them in as an afterthought side dish. You’ll waste less that way, too.

5. Greens: The early part of the season in a northern CSA is full of greens! I love greens now. Come to think of it, I didn’t have spinach raw until I had a CSA box, and now a salad is one of my favorite ways to eat it. Salads are great and easy. Cooked greens (and you can include the radish and baby turnip greens if your veggies still come with them attached) are great sauteed in olive oil and garlic and/or onion with some salt; you can have them with rice, pasta, or just in a pile on your plate. Cooked greens can also be frozen for eating later, or blanch and freeze spinach to use in recipes in the winter.

6. Dressings and dips: For salads and raw veggies, keep some dressings and dips around. Get your favorites at the store, or make your own. Simple salad dressings are surprisingly easy to make. I found a great French dressing recipe on allrecipes.com. Short on time? You can never go wrong with olive oil and a little wine vinegar. Cream cheese mixed with chopped radishes is a great dip or sandwich spread.

7. Recipes and cookbooks: I love cookbooks. You can see some of my favorites on the top shelf in this photo. Well, you would see my cookbooks if WordPress could find the picture I imported. Sigh.  Get reacquainted with your cookbooks, and when your next gift-receiving occasion approaches, ask for How to Cook Everything, The CSA Cookbook (which I am cooking out of and loving!) , Salad for Dinner, or The Victory Garden Cookbook (organized by vegetable). If you haven’t accumulated this many cookbooks over the years, fear not. That’s why we have libraries and the Internet! I like allrecipes.com but googling “recipes for  ______” works well, too.

8. Substitutions: Don’t be shy about substituting one vegetable for another in a recipe. No, it won’t taste the same, but it will probably taste good! I’m talking leeks for onions,  beans for peas, carrots for parsnips, that sort of thing, not potatoes for tomatoes.

9. Prep ahead: Save yourself some time later in the week by chopping more onion than you need for that meal or washing and slicing carrots. What other things can you prep ahead? Most pre-prepped vegetables will keep fine in the fridge for a few days, sometimes more. Major exception: washing berries ahead = a mushy disintegrating sad berry mess.

10. Freeze extras: You may be able to make a double recipe and freeze some for later. Also, you can google “how to freeze ______” for directions on blanching veggies before freezing. Sounds like another chore, but it’s way easier than cooking anything and saves those veggies from a premature trip to the compost pile.

These tips will quickly become second nature, and I’d love some reader feedback as you go through your CSA season. You have great seasonal meals ahead with your CSA box!

3 thoughts on “Thinking outside the box: tips for success with a CSA

  1. Pingback: Five years of blogging! – Yarnstead

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