What's in My CSA Pick-up?

Photo credit: Ben Minkler

Every Thursday afternoon, I drive to a warehouse space tucked away out of sight in a shady looking industrial area next to the railroad tracks. I go to meet my ‘connection.’ I bring an innocuous-looking green bag and make my way discreetly to a shady area against the building. Ah, there’s the stuff I need, the stuff I’ve been craving. I look around to see if anybody is watching. My source tells me to help myself because this stuff is primo. I mean like, grown within a few miles of town and picked that day.

These organic vegetables are the best I’ve ever seen!

This is my weekly habit, and I can’t get enough. It’s my CSA pick-up, and it keeps my family eating local, seasonal produce for most of the year. "CSA" stands for "community supported agriculture." It’s a great way to support your local farmer. You pay the farmer a set amount of money at the beginning of the growing season, and then, throughout the summer (and sometimes throughout the spring and fall and even winter), you get to pick up a load of freshly picked veggies once a week. You never know what you’ll get, or how much. It all depends on what kind of a year the farmer is having. Your pick-up may be impacted by droughts or floods, hail or early frost, but many small farmers wouldn’t make it in the business without this community investment.

For my part, every week, it’s like I’m getting veggies for free because they are pre-paid, and I love the surprise and challenge of figuring out what to make out of my haul. However, using all the vegetables without letting anything go to waste has always been difficult for me. I hate having to throw a bag of tomatoes or a bunch of kale into the compost pile because I forgot to use them before they got too old. Therefore, this week, I challenged myself: Use every single veggie item in my CSA bag, without throwing away a single thing.

MY CSA bag

In order to complete my mission, I first had to plan. I laid everything out on the dining room table. This is what my CSA bag contained:

5 stalks rainbow chard
Bunch of kale
Bunch of collard greens
3 Japanese eggplants
2 yellow onions
1 head of garlic
3 Roma tomatoes
1 bag of small tomatoes
3 yellow plum tomatoes
1 large slicing tomato
1 small bag of assorted sweet peppers
4 large red bell peppers
1 small head of Chinese cabbage
5 yellow potatoes
6 red potatoes
1 dozen eggs
1 herbed focaccia

Next up: menu mapping

This involved a long Saturday morning drinking coffee with coconut milk and reading cookbooks. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it. I not only marked recipes that included the ingredients I already had, but I marked those I know I will want to make in the future when, for example, the fall squashes begin to come in, or next spring when we get peas and Asian greens and asparagus.

After a quick trip to the co-op to buy the ingredients I would need to finish the recipes I chose (a jalapeno, some vegetable broth, cream and butter from a local dairy), it was time to start cooking.

First up: Saturday brunch

 (Who says brunch is just for Sundays?) With a dozen beautiful brown local eggs, obviously eggs were on the menu. I sauteed some of the chard and kale with one of the onions, two cloves of garlic, one large bell pepper, and 4 small tomatoes. I added eight beaten eggs and served this colorful dish with buttered slices of herbed focaccia (about a quarter of the loaf). Served four.

After this fortification, I dumped all the leftover vegetable trimmings into the compost pile and kept going.

Next on the menu: soup

For the soup, I chopped the remaining chard and collard greens and half the kale, and sauteed them in olive oil with three cloves of garlic. I added six of the small sweet peppers and a jalapeno pepper I already had in the fridge. Next, all the Roma tomatoes, the kernels cut from three remaining ears of sweet corn from last week’s pick-up (bonus points!); half a box of organic vegetable broth; a can of garbanzo beans; and a handful of chopped fresh basil from a friend’s garden. Salt, pepper, simmer until dinner (I could have also put it in the slow cooker).

While the soup simmered, I shredded the cabbage, drizzled it with apple cider vinegar, olive oil, and toasted sesame oil, a few dashes of soy sauce, and a handful of toasted sesame seeds. I packed this into glass jars and refrigerated it. For dinner, we had big bowls of hot soup with crusty slices of focaccia (another quarter loaf) and sesame coleslaw, along with a chicken from a local farm that I roasted for the meat eaters in the family.

On Sunday morning

I made a smoothie for breakfast using coconut almond milk, protein powder, 1 cup of frozen blueberries, and the rest of the kale. All greens officially used.

For Sunday dinner

I put a roast (from a local grass-fed beef farm) in the slow cooker with white onion slices, the rest of the sweet peppers, two cloves of garlic, and the rest of the red potatoes, quartered, plus a liberal dose of the oregano I had dried from a pick-up earlier in the month.  All sweet peppers officially used. I turned the slow cooker on high. Four hours until dinner.

Next, vegetable moussaka. First, I cooked and mashed the remaining potatoes with some olive oil. In two casseroles (one to serve, one to freeze for later), I layered eggplant slices, zucchini slices, a tomato puree cooked with brown lentils, and the mashed potatoes, and baked it until the mashed potato topping was golden brown. I plated the roast and arranged the slow cooker vegetables around it, then drizzled the meat juices over the top (fortified with a splash of Madeira wine and a dab of butter). Our hearty dinner: Moussaka, roast, a big salad, and the rest of the focaccia, buttered and toasted and sprinkled with the last two cloves of garlic, minced

Let’s see, what’s left? Just four eggs. A simple crème brulee for dessert took care of those.

Monday morning

I realized with pride and a little disappointment that I didn’t have a single item left. Not one veggie. Not one egg. Not one slice of bread. The only thing I’d thrown into the compost pile was the vegetable trimmings. Nothing wasted, leftovers for the week, and I did it all in two days.

This is what local eating looks like. Take an hour to plan, an hour to shop and organize, and devote some of your weekend time to cooking, and you’ll see it’s not difficult at all to prepare simple wholesome foods like soups, casseroles, eggs with vegetables, and smoothies, using all local foods. These kinds of foods are quick, easy, and don’t take much culinary skill. They are budget-friendly meals and they taste far superior to anything made with out-of-season vegetables at the grocery store. None of the dishes I made were complicated or any more time consuming than going out to a sit-down restaurant. They are all customizable for seasonal vegetables, and I know the money I’m spending on food stays right here in my own community.

If you don't already participate in a CSA, why not give it a try? Challenge yourself to use your entire CSA pick-up, or farmer’s market basket, or co-op shopping bag full of local produce. Find recipes, in cookbooks or online, that use as many of your local, fresh ingredients as possible. Make big batches of food and freeze the leftovers. Because wasting these tasty local, organic vegetables is a crime—or it should be!

What will be in my CSA pick-up next week? Not knowing is all part of the fun. Will there be eggplant? Rainbow chard? Blue potatoes?  Brussels sprouts? A truckload of corn? Whatever it is, I’m ready. As soon as my “connection” shows up again, I’ll gather my cookbooks, pour myself a cup of coffee, and start planning.

Tags: eating local