Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Almost Like Home Grown

We have been participating in a CSA since the middle of March.  I wanted to publish this post back in April or May, but I have had a series of technical difficulties.  On top of that, our family entered one of our super busy parts of the year.  In the meantime, I have lost the original pictures I had planned for this post, so I've had to find some newer ones.  With out further delay, I present my early experience with a CSA.  Depending on where you live, there is still time to get involved if my experience interests you and you wish to find a CSA to try for yourself.

If you aren't familiar with the CSA acronym, you might be like me and pause to look it up on your favorite internet search engine.   Or you could keep reading in hopes that I will disclose the full meaning of those initials.  Either way works.

I first read a blog that talked about CSAs a few years ago.  Then I read another one and another.  I decided I wanted to know more.  First, what is a CSA?  CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  Second, how does it work?  Participants pay a fee to a local farm and get fresh produce in exchange.  Third, why does it matter?  For me, I liked the idea of fresh, homegrown produce but I am unable to grow enough on my own.  I like to have greater variety than what I can successfully grow.  I began thinking through the pros and cons, but did not immediately act because the cost seems significant and would require some financial balancing.

Last summer, my sister (who blogs at joined a local CSA.  With her photography schedule she wasn't always available to pick up her produce, so that job fell on my family.  At first we picked up her items just to be helpful, but by the end we looked forward to getting a peak at her box to see how her produce compared to what we were growing in our garden or finding at our farmer's market.  We drooled a bit at some of the items she got.  (I hope she washes her produce before she eats it.)

Through the winter my husband and I continued to tweak our grocery budget.  As spring came around we decided we wanted to participate in a CSA.  We agreed that we would still plant a garden (the tiller is fixed and the ground is prepped - we are way ahead of last year!) and we would still shop at our Farmer's Market.  But what we hoped to accomplish was to supplement with less grocery store produce. We realized we would receive produce we had never tried before and we wouldn't be able to customize quantitities.  My previously unadventurous husband was willing to try this, even a little eagerly.  We agreed we were willing to try whatever we received and if we didn't care for something or got too much of it we could always share it with someone else.

Before I share some of things we have tried, let me share some tips on trying new things.  My husband and I were both fortunate to have mothers who were very good at using whatever they had available to make meals for the family (and they did it without the internet!).  Find ways to use what you can, but if you have too much of an item, consider freezing it to use later.  There are many websites dedicated to walking you through food storage issues.  The Ball Blue Book:  Guide to Home Canning, Freezing & Dehydration is one excellent source of information; it can be found almost anywhere that you can buy canning and freezing supplies.  (Ball is not paying me to endorse their book; I mention it simply because it has been a family favorite for generations.)

If you are unsure how to serve an item, the internet can be a helpful resource.  Should I eat this raw or should I cook it?  Can I eat the leaves too or just the root?  You can type in the food item and find all kinds of articles to help answer your questions.  Many CSAs will include recipes with the produce to help you out.  The library is another good resource to help you learn how to use new foods.  And since this post is primarily about produce, you should know there are many good vegetable recipes included in gardening books, food storage books, picnic books. lunch packing books, etc.; don't limit yourself to cookbooks.

Lastly, when learning about a new food, don't forget the wisdom of your mothers and grandmothers or other older women.  I have learned much just by observing others.  Pay attention and ask questions.  Most homemakers I know are eager to share things they have learned.

To help you see exactly how this CSA has been working for us, I'll walk through what we received those first weeks and how we used it.

Weeks 1 & 2: We used some spinach in a Breakfast Egg Bake.  We kept the potatoes for later.  We used lettuce, carrots, radishes, microgreens, parsley and spinach for a large Easter Dinner salad.  We recieved maple syrup too.  I used that to sweeten tea or to quench an afternoon sugar craving :-)

Week 3:  We used spinach and microgreens in sandwiches and wraps along with meat and cheese for our lunches.  We used some Pac Choi leaves in a rice and veggie dish.  We used a combination of greens for a taco salad.  Since this wasn't our traditional lettuce, I prepared the salad for the girls and put the greens between the chips and meat/cheese.  They didn't comment on the greens being different and they ate most of them.  Success!

Week 4:  I made a huge salad with remaining salad mix from previous weeks, parsley, Salanova red lettuce, spinach, flowering mizuna tops, pea shoots, sunflower shoots, microgreens.  I served with a homemade Caesar dressing that a I got from a newspaper recipe, written by Three Many Cooks.  (That reminds me, I should check out their website again; they have lots of good recipes!)  Anyway, my youngest enjoyed the salad and dressing so much she asked for more!

In week 4 I also used pac choi stems and parsley in a ham and bean soup, and added some parsley to a potato dish.    I made a Mediterranean Chicken Bake (a recipe I found in a health magazine called "Better Nutrition").  The recipe called for spinach, but I was out so I used the Swiss Chard that came in the CSA.  I also used CSA garlic.  Later in the week I used the leftover Chicken Bake and various other leftovers in a dish I called "Dump Chili" (dump in a bunch of leftovers).

Week 5:  We roasted white potatoes, purple potatoes and turnips.

For lunches we had Pita Salad Sandwiches.  I toasted the pitas and spread cream cheese in them, then filled them with salad and a little dressing.  Another yummy lunch from that week was leftover rice with spinach and an over easy egg.  I pureed some of the spinach and swiss chard and used it in soup.  The color is obvious, but the texture is less offensive for my picky eaters.  We also used swiss chard stalks, spinach, garlic, radish greens and turnip greens in a stir fry. We have received two small packages of popcorn that I hope to try soon.  The kernels are too small for our air popper or we would have tried them already! 

Weeks 6 & 7:  We continue to get a good variety of lettuce mixes, radishes, sunflower sprouts, micro greens and now kale too.  We have made several big salads to serve on Sundays and then we use the leftovers throughout the week for sandwiches or lunchbox salad meals. We also added wraps to our lunch menus:  tortillas, meat of choice, salad greens - sometimes cheese or mayo too. We have had roasted potatoes and turnips again.  I even learned how to roast them in the crock pot - I love the internet for easy-to-find recipes!  Another time we had roasted sweet potatoes. 

We received some kohlrabi.  My husband and I aren't sure we've ever tried kohlrabi before. We tried a bite raw just to see what we thought.  It wasn't bad.  We thought it was like a mild radish.  The rest we sliced up and added to a One-Pot Chicken and Spring Vegetable dish.  We used carrots in the chicken dish as well as cutting some carrots to eat raw.   I made Kale Chips and everyone tried them - most weren't fans, but we'll keep trying.  I used honey we received in banana bread and sun tea.   We received some fresh mint that we also added to the sun tea.

I hope this gives you some idea of how a CSA works and helps you decide if you might want to try one.  It's not too late.  Do a CSA search and a list of local options will come up.  If it's not for you right now, maybe this post will inspire you to try something new from your local farmer's market.  We all know that vegetables are healthy, right?  If your veggies are organic and local that boosts their nutritional value, so find some local veggies - you might be surprised at how much you like them.

Chicken kabobs featuring onions and peppers served with grilled asparagus.

Lunchtime salad using leftover meat, lettuce, onions, carrots, radishes and spinach.  I also added some canned corn.

We have been experimenting with grilled pizzas.  Yum!  These feature CSA onions and peppers.  Another time we included CSA fennel and fresh tomatoes.

  I hope you have been inspired to try something new.  What new veggies have you learned about this summer?