CSA Box Extravaganza

I am a huge fan of Community Supported Agriculture.  Usually during the dead of winter when no one is seriously thinking about fresh produce, you sign up for a subscription.  Depending on where you live, you might have a variety of choices.  Because we live in Chicago—with lots of farms within 90 minutes of us and a profusion of city-dwellers who provide a stable market for farmers—we have lots of choices.  Some offer only vegetables, but most now offer both fruits and vegetables.  Almost always, CSAs are organic (or in the arduous process of earning organic certification) and local (or try to be as long as the seasons permit). 

We have belonged to a CSA of one sort another since 2003.  The idea is that you sign up for a “share” before the farming season and then you get to share in the glory of bounteous produce with good crops and also share in the risk in cases of bad yields.  Actually, the boxes we’ve gotten have almost always been full—too full.  Our current membership is only quasi-CSA in that we are not dealing with a particular farm but a service that draws from many area farmers.  It is true that winter seasons are much less local.  Having made a New Year’s resolution one year to eat better produce, we signed up with this service in January.  Our first box included a red pepper from Israel.  Hardly local.  However, it was still good to eat all organic goods—which were local when possible—and then spring and summer made me glad I stuck with the service.

Most people belonging to CSAs will tell you that the best part of receiving their weekly boxes is turning all the goodies into dishes that you did not think you were going to be eating (kohlrabi slaw, roasted kale, sautéed sunchoke).  On the other hand, some of these boxes can be a bit overwhelming.  Each box we get typically includes 3-4 different types of fruits and 6-8 different types of vegetables or herbs.  Fruits are easy because we can just eat or juice them.  But there’s just the two of us in our household, and it’s become something of a challenge to figure out how I will use up every single vegetable in my box.   Yes, comparisons to Iron Chef are inevitably made by CSA shareholders.

Since we had a successful week with our latest box, I wanted to share with you how we got through the following items in our box: Peppers, Mini Sweet Peppers, Curly Kale, Roma Tomatoes, Parsley, Spaghetti Squash, Romaine Lettuce, Edamame.

Some tips:
1)   Make Sunday dinner a major event:
Try to plan at least one big weekend meal that will use up as much veggies as you can while they are freshest.  We typically cook a multi-component Sunday dinner, and that’s really the best time for us to make a dent in our box.  Last Sunday, we roasted on the grill a chicken (rubbed with cinnamon-cumin-cayenne garlic rub), and we sautéed some curly kale with red onions, garlic, and red chile flakes.  We cubed Yukon gold potatoes (from last week’s box) and a red pepper, and roasted them in the oven.

2)   Embrace Vegetarianism:
Understand that at least half of your work-week meals will be simple and vegetarian: no multi-course meal on a Wednesday after a long day of work.  We try to eat only 1-2 days of meats, and we studiously stick to our Meatless Monday mantra.  It helps though if no one is grilling a steak nearby.

3)   Experiment with new ways of cooking:
Many CSA-type boxes include easy recipes.  Though they are not always very specific with details (how much, how long, what heat, etc. are questions you must answer yourself), you can get some general idea about how you might cook a particular item.  Wednesday, I stuffed some Italian Frying Peppers (also from last week) with cheeses and parsley and then made a mini sweet pepper-garlic sauce.  Thursday, I roasted my first spaghetti squash parmesan.

4)    Expect to eat a lot of salads: 
By the end of the week, you are throwing everything you have together in a bowl and calling it a salad.  Thursday’s salad consisted of romaine lettuce, arugula, parsley, roma tomatoes, and radishes (from two weeks ago!).  Toss the veggies with some homemade Caesar dressing, fresh croutons, and parmesan.

5)    Go simple:
Sometimes, the simplest preparation is the best way to showcase fresh produce.  While I enjoyed everything this week, my favorite might have been the edamame that I steamed and sprinkled with large salt flakes.

As you can see, I’m not always successful with every box, and there is a good amount of carry-over to the week after.  But I consider it a challenge met when I am able to go through all the different items in the box.  Of course, it starts all over again with another box this Friday…  


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