Activism

My Season in a CSA

Last year during the growing season, my family and I had the pleasure of eating produce grown by two dedicated, exceptional farmers: Michael Birch and Clare Schaecher of Mike and Clare’s Farm (this publication has previously featured them in our activism column here and here). As a CSA (community-supported agriculture) customer, we received a box of almost entirely organic vegetables (and occasionally fruit and herbs) once a week from June to October.

CSAs seem to be a growing trend of late, and I have been approached by many people who were curious about our experience and wondered if they ought to give such an endeavor a try. For myself, the CSA experience was extremely enlightening and joyful, and I will definitely be a repeat customer.

While I don’t want to climb up on a soapbox in this piece, I will say that escaping from our sick food culture is something that is becoming more important to me all the time (and if you don’t believe we have a “sick food culture,” read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or In Defense of Food, or put yourself in the shoes of parents whose young children died in the spinach-borne E. coli outbreak during 2006 or the ongoing peanut butter contamination crisis). Many choose to see the increasing frequency of food contamination outbreaks as nothing more than freak accidents or isolated incidents, but it is my opinion that they are an obvious symptom of the fact that our culture has turned food into just another product. And while I’m still guilty of eating plenty of junk food, I have nevertheless come to believe that we ought to know more about where our food comes from, and that the people who grow and produce what we eat should be accountable to us as human beings, not just customers. Given that what we eat is literally the very substance of our selves, shouldn’t food be more than just another opportunity for big corporations to make money?

Food production and shipment have also become a Green issue of late, and while this isn’t an area in which I can boast a great deal of knowledge, it is only logical that a pound of produce shipped to my local grocery store on a jet plane from New Zealand or Chile creates more of a “carbon footprint” than one that was driven to market over a distance of less than 100 miles by my friendly neighborhood organic farmers. Local produce is also obviously fresher, and therefore tastes better and retains more of its nutrients. There’s a reason why chefs—who care passionately about the quality of their ingredients—often make an effort to seek out and encourage local suppliers.

If, however, all of this strikes you as just hippie-talking, tree-hugging bologna, be aware that you don’t have to share my strong feelings about any of these issues to benefit from joining a CSA. Nutritionists generally agree that eating food that is as unprocessed as possible is beneficial to our general health and well-being, and the benefits of eating organic foods have become common knowledge. Even if you couldn’t care less about our “food culture” or the environment, there are several logical yet self-serving reasons why joining a CSA might be good for you.

For myself, the CSA box allowed me to reconnect with the joy and beauty that food can bring into our lives. Probably because I am also an avid gardener, these feelings have become intertwined with the idea that certain foods and tastes belong with certain seasons and times of year, and that there is pleasure to be found in these cycles and relationships. For example, after a spring full of bountiful but almost consistently green items in our box, the first bunch of carrots we received felt like a revelation. They were somehow more orange than store-bought carrots, brighter and more flavorful, and I can honestly say that I have never been that excited in my life about pondering what exactly I might create with such an everyday ingredient. This excitement over the weekly contents of our box spread to my two children as well, and as a mother, what could be more satisfying than hearing your offspring exclaim, “Oh good, we have more eggplant [or tomatoes, or squash, or what-have-you] this week!”

Seeing the happy but utterly exhausted faces of the two farmers providing this bounty for us each week also nurtured my growing feeling of respect regarding the items that arrived in our box, and it became more and more important to me not to waste any of it by throwing it away—seeing it in the garbage can started to feel like a betrayal of the hard work and love put into it by the people who grew it. (And again, not to get on my soapbox, but isn’t this how we should feel in a world where people are starving while we throw food away without a second thought?) In my quest to use everything that arrived each week, I became more and more creative and resourceful as a cook, skills that have proven useful now that I am trying to reduce my family’s food costs. This desire to eliminate waste soon spread to all the food that I brought into my home, leading to experiments both delicious and disappointing. (My older daughter claimed to enjoy the green tomato and apple pie that I dreamed up in November in order to make use of a shoebox full of green cherry tomatoes, but I myself could not stomach it, and I am no picky eater.)

I also learned new skills as I tried, failed, tried again, and succeeded in preparing vegetables that were new to me on anything but a restaurant menu. One of the questions people asked me most frequently about our box was whether the things we received were all “usable”; while I had similar questions when we started out, I found the idea almost laughable by the end of the season. What exactly would render some particular unfortunate vegetable “unusable”? Certainly there were things I didn’t know what to do with, but when I faced those challenges, I found them ultimately to be a pleasure instead of a predicament. Now I know how to make delicious things with fennel, which I love, and my daughters enjoy crunching on raw kohlrabi and ask if there are more beets. Yes, sometimes we received more of something than we knew what to do with, but that inspired me to learn how to make things like sauces, soups, and casseroles with the excess (or to throw it in with ramen noodles or scrambled eggs when all else failed). I also found that having ingredients already picked out for me actually made menu planning easier; rather than trying to narrow down endless options, I only had to figure out what to do given the limited choices available to me. And the email updates sent to me by the farmers included recipes for some of each week’s produce, which meant that even in unfamiliar territory, I always had a place to start. By and large, I can honestly say that I became a better cook through the CSA experience, and that it taught me something that people seem to have forgotten nowadays: how to make the most of what you have in the kitchen.

There are of course some practical limitations for those considering subscribing to a CSA. Cleaning and preparing fresh vegetables obviously takes more time than popping some frozen peas in the microwave, so if you are someone who is frequently rushed at mealtime, you will need to plan ahead. For a single person it might be difficult to consume the contents of the box in just a week, although it seems to me that some kind of sharing partnership could easily overcome that obstacle, and many of the veggies can be frozen for later use. Lastly, if you travel a lot from June to October, during those times when you are away you will need to find someone willing to pick up your box for you and store it in their fridge until you can retrieve it. I found that offering such a friend his or her pick of the goodies inside usually turned that task into a treat, and in any case many people actually enjoy visiting the farmers’ market (which is where we received our box each week).

As you have probably gathered, I am now a firm believer in the whole CSA concept; in fact, I’m trying to work up the courage to invest in a chest freezer so we can start buying our meat from a local farmer as well. For those of you on the fence, I present below the list of what we received last season, and some of my notes about what I did with it, to inspire you to take the plunge. Please be aware that I am by no means a gourmet cook, or even a very good one. I’m also not a vegetarian or someone who would never cross the threshold of a McDonald’s. I’m just a person who sees this as one relatively small step in the right direction, not just for me and my family but for our culture as a whole and for our planet—and for many of us, that’s what activism is all about. If you think you might feel the same way, why not contact Mike and Clare (or another CSA farm) to learn more!

WEEK ONE
Spinach
Lettuce
Radishes
Baby kale
Arugula
Green garlic
Mizuna

The green garlic and the mizuna were yummy new experiences. Mizuna is a slightly spicy Asian green that my family never even got to try because I munched it all up myself. Green garlic can be used in all the things you normally use garlic for, but it’s also great for salads and is a staple of Asian and Indian cooking. I chopped it and added it to some pan-fried pork chops in the last minutes of cooking for crunch and color as well as flavor.

WEEK TWO
Pac choi
Tatsoi
Radishes
Sprouts
Mustard greens
Head lettuce
Salad mix or bunching onions

If you don’t know how to make greens, you should learn. They are very easy once you get the hang of it, and they can be superindulgent and bad for you (bacon grease, anyone?) or amazingly healthy and low fat (olive oil and lemon juice), depending on how you cook them. They are also generally cheap and are one of the world’s true superfoods nutritionally speaking. I like to chop them, blanch them for up to five minutes (depending on how tough they are), drain well and press out the water, and then sauté them with the flavorings of your choice. Curry powder is a nice addition. The sprouts were actually microgreens, a mixture of sunflower, pea, and buckwheat sprouts, and they were delicious (another treat that never made it to the rest of my family). Also, this week’s box introduced us to another aspect of the CSA: sometimes, even the farmers don’t know what you’re going to get until right up to the last minute, which I think is sort of cool. The farmers know what they’re doing, but in the end it’s still Mother Nature making the final call.

WEEK THREE
Napa cabbage
Purple-top turnips with their greens
Red romaine lettuce
Kohlrabi
Baby beets
Garlic scapes

The CSA experience really taught me how to use greens of all kinds, and I’m glad; I’ve always loved eating them but never really knew how to make them. The garlic scapes were another new experience; they didn’t look like the garlic I was familiar with, but they tasted mostly the same and could be used in many of the same ways. Garlic is really cool in that you can eat almost every part of the plant. Also, if you have never had kohlrabi, you should try it. If you have kids, they will love the way it looks (like green aliens). The taste is somewhere between celery and cabbage; it is quite mild and makes a great crunchy addition to salads.

WEEK FOUR
Kale
Baby pac choi
Kohlrabi
Greens (mustard or turnip)
Lettuce
Green garlic
Basil

We got a lot of kale in our boxes in the spring, which at first was a challenge. But once you figure it out, it’s very easy to make, is incredibly good for you, and has a wonderful taste (similar to spinach but with a little more bite). We also received a lot of kohlrabi, with similar results; at first I was stymied, but once I figured out that you can munch on it just like carrots or celery sticks, it was all good. For me, the herbs (basil this time) were sometimes a little redundant, as I have a very abundant herb garden of my own, but for a lot of people I think this would be a real treat, as the herbs available in the grocery store often look quite sad and bedraggled.

WEEK FIVE
Fennel
Cabbage
Potatoes or broccoli
Mizuna
Baby Swiss chard
Garlic scapes

Fennel is seriously delicious and not at all hard to cook; if you have never tried it, you should! It’s quite sweet, so children often take to it. I made a really delicious and simple sauté with fennel, apples, raisins, and carrots that was a big hit with the kids. Potatoes should never be hard to use, but one fast and delicious thing I make a lot is a simple potato salad with just chopped, boiled potatoes; chopped green onions; salt and pepper; and just enough mayo to hold it together. This takes maybe an hour start to finish, including a half hour to let it cool off in the fridge (less if you are a fast peeler and chopper). The Swiss chard was another vegetable that I had often enjoyed but not often cooked; it too is simple, nutritious, and delicious—and also pretty!

WEEK SIX
Kale
Green cabbage
Kohlrabi
Lettuce
Green garlic
Thyme

This was a lot of cabbage to eat (two heads), but only because not everyone in the family loves it as much as I do. It is simple to prepare; you can just cut the head in half, remove the core, then cut it into wedges and steam in about a half inch of water in a large frying pan. Don’t overcook it — just a few minutes is usually enough. It’s yummy and tastes like spring with sour cream and dill.

WEEK SEVEN
Carrots
Beets
Broccoli raab
Napa cabbage
Endive
Microgreens
Garlic

You’ve already heard tell of the carrots, but the carrot tops were a whole different story. They were so green and lush, it seemed terrible to waste them. I did some research on the Interwebs and was told that carrot tops are very high in chlorophyll (wouldn’t you think all green veggies would be?) and that they taste yucky and only rabbits like them. Bravely forging forward, I tasted some and found that they were not yucky, and in fact seemed to have very little taste at all, so I blanched some and added it (chopped fine) to our salads throughout the week — and I doubt we ever tasted it. I also added some to a meatloaf! It looked odd (green-flecked meatloaf?), but again, I don’t think you could taste it. This week’s box also gave us a glimpse into the inner workings of the CSA world. Said Clare in the weekly newsletter:

This week we’re taking you on a little farm tour. Your box contains a few vegetables from two other farms: Genesis Growers and Earth and Skye Farms. It’s not unusual for CSA farmers to buy-in from other farms for their box. Another farm might be growing a variety that you’re not growing, and buying-in gets it in your box (we’ll be selling some of our Red Russian kale to another farmer for this reason). If a crop failed or if your yield is down, it can help ensure that your CSA members still get a really nice box. It helps to support our farmer friends and gives them an outlet for extra produce. We’ve bought-in this week for pretty much all of these reasons. We chose this week because mid-July tends to be a rough transition time between vegetable-types — the leafy greens are gone, but the fruiting vegetables have yet to start firing on all cylinders. We’re also putting a lot of energy into garlic harvest (our whole garlic crop will be harvested over the next few days and then dried) and into tomato tying. Rather than scour the farm for every last bit of kale, we decided to save ourselves some time and worry and provide you with some gorgeous vegetables grown on nearby farms. Mike was also a little curious about the process. He went to each farm to do the pickup and came back singing with praise and new ideas.

WEEK EIGHT
Potatoes
Swiss chard
Green beans or string beans or French beans
Green onions
Chives
Garlic
Cherries

Green onions are an ingredient that I would never have considered purchasing for myself before signing on to the CSA box. It’s not that I had a problem with them; they just weren’t something that sprang to mind when I stared blankly at the produce display trying to think about what I felt like cooking that week. Now I find them infinitely useful — they can dress up just about anything and add a subtle kick to something bland. As for the cherries, they occasioned quite a little baking adventure for me (have I mentioned I’m not a good cook?). These were pie cherries, not the kind you eat raw, but there weren’t really enough to use them alone in a pie. I dug up a fresh cherry cobbler recipe on the Interwebs that sounded reasonable, although I was going to have to add some canned pie filling in order to have as much fruit as the recipe called for. I spent quite a while on the painstaking process of pitting the cherries (I’m sure there’s a machine for that, but it isn’t the kind of thing you’d find in my kitchen). The recipe had one step that didn’t sound right to me: once the batter was in the baking dish, I was instructed to pour the fruit mixture over it and not stir. I assumed the fruit would spread out on its own as I poured, but this was not the case; it stayed exactly where it landed. Trying to have faith, and being a good instruction follower, I popped the dish in the oven anyway only to discover when the timer went off that exactly what I thought would happen had happened: the fruit never spread out, meaning there were lots of very hard spots that were sort of like a fruit brittle. It looked burnt and hideous. But here is the best part: it was delicious, and I ate the whole thing myself, telling my family that it was burnt and no good and that they wouldn’t like it. It was a miracle with coffee in the morning. Said Clare about those adventure-spawning cherries:

The cherries come to us courtesy of Mrs. Osmund — Jody’s (of Cedar Valley Sustainable) mother. She had a cherry tree that was bursting with cherries and wanted to make sure that they didn’t go to waste. In step Mike and Clare, and we spend a few hours harvesting cherries and dodging wasps to bring you this wonderful treat. There’s something about how the cherry glows that makes me realize what a gift all of these fruits and vegetables are. They’re really amazing.

She was right — they were beautiful.

WEEK NINE
Summer squash
Carrots
Green beans
Potatoes
Kale
Basil
Garlic

Summer squash is ridiculously easy to cook (like, 10 minutes tops for a yummy sauté with garlic and olive oil), can be served with tomato sauce for a double-veggie punch, and is bland enough that kids often like it. It takes to just about any spice or seasoning you like to throw its way. It’s also excellent baked with eggplant and tomato sauce, like a sort of half-assed ratatouille. Green beans and potatoes make a great summer salad, especially with a hearty, pungent dressing. Said Clare of the beans:

When I close my eyes, I see green beans. An effect of too many hours harvesting them, no doubt. Mike says it’s a good thing — my brain is recalibrating itself to pick green beans more efficiently. Oh Mike. Oh green beans. But here they are!

WEEK TEN
Collards
Cucumbers
Summer squash
Beans
Kohlrabi
Potatoes
Garlic
Thai Basil

If you think collards are only for people below the Mason-Dixon Line, think again. They are simple to prepare, delicious, and extraordinarily good for you. And cucumbers! For me, in the summertime, there can never be too many. I grew them in my own backyard as well, so we ate them nearly every day — which was just fine by me. They will go with whatever you are making, even if all you do is slice them and add salt, and they make a great background for experimenting with homemade salad dressings. Next year I hope to be brave enough to make pickles!

WEEK ELEVEN
Broccoli
Potatoes
Green beans
Cucumbers
Zucchini
Tomatoes
Onions

They say if you leave zucchinis on the vine and they get too big, they aren’t good for anything but bread. Our newsletter informed us to let the farmers know if we wanted one of those “whoppers,” so I got one and made my first zucchini bread. Yum! One of the loaves did involve a sad failed experiment, however: everybody told me not to add raisins, and everybody was right. Instead of adding sweetness, they added the flavor of burnt raisins. Yick. Oh well, it was worth a try.

WEEK TWELVE
Swiss chard or broccoli
Green peppers
Tomatoes
Cucumbers
Zucchini
Green Beans
Scallions
Parsley

Summer tomatoes are more like a religion to me than a food, I love them so. There are obviously one million things you can do with them, but I tend to slice them in thick, steak-like slabs when no one else is home and devour them with a lot of sea salt and maybe a little balsamic vinegar. All mine! If by some chance you feel you have “too many” tomatoes (which to me sounds like saying “too much love,” but whatevs), you simply must learn to make your own tomato sauce. It is surprisingly easy and, once you’ve done it, you will never want to eat the jarred garbage again. Here is my own recipe, which I share with you out of the goodness of my heart. Please forgive the lack of any reasonable measurements or cooking times, etc. This is how I cook, and I can’t explain it any other way.

Peel, seed, and rough chop as many tomatoes as you like or can lay your hands on or need to get rid of. Peeling is easy: dunk the tomatoes in boiling water for a few seconds and the skins will slide right off. Seeding is more difficult and will drive you crazy. Just keep reminding yourself that that’s the worst part, and that it will be over soon, and that it’s all worth it in the end. Try to save as much of the juice from the tomato disassembly process as possible. You can use a strainer to do this, but unless you have a fancy food mill, it’s going to take some work.

Meanwhile, chop some onions and garlic and sauté with olive oil in a large pan or pot. When they are soft, add the tomatoes with their juice along with whatever spices you like; I use oregano, thyme, basil, a few bay leaves, and salt and pepper. I use a lot of the spices. Let this come to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for a while.

When the mixture seems to be coming together, mash everything (right in the pan) with a potato masher. You will probably need to repeat this step periodically throughout cooking, depending on how chunky you like your sauce. Add just a little balsamic vinegar and a little honey. I can’t say how much because it will depend on how many tomatoes you have used, but a little goes a long way with these ingredients and it’s obviously easier to add more than to take it out, so go easy. These are my up-until-this-point secret ingredients, and I swear they make all the difference. You should taste your sauce throughout the cooking process and adjust the spices and seasonings as you deem fit.

You may need to adjust the thickness of your sauce depending on your taste, how it’s all turning out, and how much you’re hoping to produce. You can add water if you want to make more sauce or if you want to loosen it a bit; if you do this, make sure you allow time for the sauce to cook down and thicken a bit. You can also add chicken stock, although I don’t like to go overboard with this because you want it to taste like tomatoes, not chicken. If the sauce isn’t thick enough you can add some tomato paste or some canned tomatoes, but I hate doing this; it seems like cheating. Letting the mixture simmer for a long time on a low flame will also thicken it considerably.

You can add all kinds of veggies, either chopped or pureed, to this sauce; peppers, zucchini, and eggplant are all obvious additions. This is just the basic recipe and really allows for a world of tinkering. Also, this seems to keep for a long time in the fridge, and should freeze well too.

WEEK THIRTEEN
Tomatoes
Kale
Potatoes
Zucchini
Cucumber
Basil
Garlic
Serrano peppers

Between the box and my own garden I had a surfeit of peppers and tomatoes (I know I said there’s no such thing, but there are only four of us!), so I continued my quest to make the world’s most delicious tomato sauce. I am now permanently spoiled for the jarred stuff.

WEEK FOURTEEN
Swiss chard
Eggplant
Tomatoes
Green beans
Zucchini
Summer squash
Cucumbers
Thyme
Garlic

Our newsletter offers us a bunch of suggestions for hiding eggplant in foods if we don’t like it, but how possible? It is actually quite bland in flavor and can be made deliciously sinful (breaded and fried) or very healthy (baked with zucchini in tomato sauce). But if you are among the haters, here is a good trick: sauté or bake it, then puree it and add it to tomato sauce. You won’t taste it and it stretches out the sauce considerably.

WEEK FIFTEEN
Broccoli raab
Mizuna
Tomatoes
Cucumbers
Green beans
Peppers
Potatoes
Sage

Our newsletter suggests making a sage and butter sauce; if you have never tried this, it is exquisite over cheese ravioli. Just melt unheard-of amounts of butter and simmer chopped sage in it for a while. Voilà! You are now ten pounds fatter, but happy as a pig in shit.

WEEK SIXTEEN
Eggplant
Collards
Edamame
Tomatoes
Squash
Mizuna
Mushrooms

My kids love both edamame and mushrooms, and what was in the box wasn’t enough to go around — how awesome to have your kids fighting over veggies! Our newsletter revealed that the mushrooms were a special treat bought-in from a Wisconsin farm because our farmers’ stand is next to theirs at the market and they wanted to give us a taste of one of their favorite things.

WEEK SEVENTEEN
Delicata squash
Swiss chard
Arugula
Endive frisee
Tomatoes
Eggplant
Peppers
Basil
Sage

That sage and butter sauce thing? Turns out you can make something very similar with winter squash that turns into pasta sauce and is amazing. Here’s Clare’s recipe (from the newsletter, natch):

Peel, seed, and cube your delicata, cook up some minced onion and garlic in some butter, toss the squash in with some sage and after a couple of minutes a glug of broth and cook until the squash is easily pierced. Maybe top it with a little cheese.

I don’t think I’d ever tasted that flavor combination before, and it was wonderful; I wanted to make the whole thing again the next day. Seems you can’t go wrong with squash, sage, and butter.

WEEK EIGHTEEN
Beets
Celery
Broccoli raab
Green peppers
Eggplant
Tomatoes
Mizuna
Parsley
Apples

Lots of people say they don’t like beets, which I just can’t understand. The standard beet recipe (around Chicago at least) seems to be to use them cold in a salad with goat cheese and walnuts with a vinaigrette dressing. Obviously this is delicious (hello! goat cheese! enough said!), but beets are way more versatile than most people realize. You can boil them, roast them, eat them hot, eat them cold. I like to make a salad of beets, beet greens, apples, celery, maybe lettuce if it needs more body, goat cheese if I have it, with a vinaigrette. Everyone knows apples can be eaten in the raw, but do you ever make sautéed apples? If you add the tiniest bit of brown sugar at the end, kids think this is dessert: suckers! As to the origin of these particular apples, Clare wrote:

A couple of months ago, Mike got an email from one of our friends at the market, Tom from Earth First Farms. Tom grows organic apples in Michigan and was “renting” out trees — Tom would assign a tree to a customer, and the customer would get whatever the tree yielded for the year. Mike and I were intrigued, so we signed up and we’re getting the apples on Sunday! We think they’re golden delicious (Mike can’t remember!), but whatever they are, we picked them because they’re good for fresh eating and hold up to baking. Organic fruit growers are few and far between because it’s really hard to grow fruit without pesticides. We like fruit, bugs like fruit, and bugs have easier access. Tom does a fantastic job and he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. 

WEEK NINETEEN
Carrots
Kale
Arugula
Summer squash
Eggplant
Peppers
Garlic
Pie pumpkin

The pumpkin yielded the one failure of the season that truly disappointed me. I tried to bake it like winter squash and it came out bitter. I’ve made winter squash a million times, and the newsletter said to do the pumpkin the same way. What went wrong? Was it just a bad pumpkin? I suppose I’ll never know.

WEEK TWENTY
Celeriac (aka celery root)
Swiss chard
Beets
Bell and Serrano peppers
Scallions
Green tomatoes
Garlic
Butternut squash

The celeriac was something new for me; I cubed it and used it in soup, where the taste was completely lost. This was kind of a bummer, as I wanted to see what it was like, but everyone liked the soup so I suppose that counts as a success. The green tomatoes ripened just fine on the counter and served as a farewell for the season to one of my truest loves. See you next year, tomatoes that taste like tomatoes! I’ll be right here waiting for Mike and Clare to send some more my way.

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