This post is from KS contributing writer Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook, with photography assistance from her son Nicholas Efran, age 11.
Her advice and insights are always on point and so helpful, and I’ve enjoyed reading her thoughts for years. Now you get to enjoy her too! Welcome, Becca!
It’s dinnertime on a Wednesday, and you’ve just been handed 10 pounds of fresh, organic, locally-grown, assorted vegetables!
You’re eager to get some of them onto your family’s plates tonight and make sure you use every bit as wisely as you can before next week—when another load of vegetables will arrive—and you never know what kind of veggies they’ll be until you get them. How will you work your way through such unpredictable abundance?
My family has purchased a CSA share every year since 2001. It’s a convenient way to buy from a local farm, and the price is pretty good: For $24 a week, we get a half-bushel of produce, which often weighs more than 10 pounds.
Wait! What Is a CSA?
CSA stands for community-sponsored agriculture. It’s a way to commit to a whole season of eating plenty of fresh, local produce, and it’s a way for a small family farm to ensure steady demand for the crops throughout the season.
Buying a CSA share is like subscribing to a magazine. You sign up for a certain period of time and make one or a few payments. You receive a box of food each week—whatever’s ripe!
How do CSAs work? The details vary, but most CSAs are approximately like mine:
Every Wednesday, from June through November, Kretschmann Farm drops off crates of vegetables at selected locations in the East End of Pittsburgh. Our location is a detached garage 8 blocks from home—just slightly too far to walk while carrying the heavy crate! Our next-door neighbors, who also have a share in the farm, pick up our crate as well as theirs when driving home from work. Each wooden crate is labeled with the family’s name. Each family is assigned two crates, so we bring back last week’s empty crates when we pick up full ones.
The crate label also includes abbreviated notes on what we like and don’t like. The farmers try to throw in a little more of our favorites and less of our disliked items…but we usually do get something we wouldn’t have chosen to buy. This has greatly expanded the range of food we eat!
Of course, over the years we’ve learned what the farm typically grows and approximately when things are in season. Tomatoes, for instance, start around July first, become very abundant in August, and gradually lessen in September. We get lots of spinach and kale in June, then none until a second round in late summer, and kale continues into the fall.
However, even after years of experience, it’s hard to predict what veggies will appear in our crate each week. As the weather varies from year to year, some crops are earlier or later than normal. The farmers might choose to plant more or less of a certain crop because of its popularity last year, or they might try something new. Various blights and exciting farm accidents (most recently, a cylindrical hay bale that rolled across the hilly farm, crushing many plants!) also have an impact on the crops.
How Do You Use CSA Vegetables?
It’s a big shift from the habits we develop when cooking from ingredients we’ve selected in stores! We need to evaluate the veggies when they arrive, work out menus combining them with other foods we have, and preserve vegetables for later that we can’t use right away.
My menu-planning week starts on Wednesday night.
Usually I’ve planned a Wednesday dinner with a sort of wild card vegetable category, which we can fill in with our new veggies if we’ve got them in time and got something suitable; otherwise, we can use frozen vegetables. After eating that dinner, I plan meals at least for Thursday and Friday, sometimes for the whole week at once.
As a busy mom who normally works full-time outside the home (I’m between jobs right now), I’ve developed a basic strategy for approaching each box of vegetables. My partner Daniel cooks as well as I do, but he doesn’t like the planning—it works better when I make the plan and just tell him what to do! He works from home, so when I’m working, he cooks all of our weeknight dinners. Lately, we’ve been taking turns, or he chops the veggies and then I cook.
5 Steps for Evaluating Your CSA Share Veggies
1. What to swap or give away?
Although the CSA has taught my family to eat a number of vegetables we thought we didn’t like, there are some veggies we truly can’t/won’t use.
Beets and fennel, for example, upset my stomach, and nobody in the family likes them. We can’t eat large portions of lettuce more than once a week or we get digestive problems.
Meanwhile, our neighbors eat a high-protein diet and don’t have much use for starchy vegetables, but they do like beets, lettuce, and fennel. They prefer chard to kale, while we’re the opposite. So we often swap a few items with them, and sometimes I’ve given away veggies to other friends.
2. What needs to be eaten in the next two days?
Some veggies are best when they’re very fresh. Others can wait several days or even weeks without spoiling.
Prioritize the more fragile foods like:
- string beans
- ripe tomatoes
- bruised fruit
3. What can wait until later?
Anything that isn’t quite ripe yet can be set aside, along with these hearty produce options:
- green onions
- most herbs
- new potatoes
All of the above will last all week in bags in the refrigerator (use this trick for herbs), and a green pepper can be left at room temperature for a few days to see if it ripens to a sweet red or yellow. The following can also wait for you:
- winter squash
Apples, if they aren’t bruised, can sit in the fruit basket for up to a week; some varieties last longer than that. Onions, potatoes, and winter squash can be kept at coolish room temperature for several weeks.
4. What needs to be preserved?
If you have a whole lot more of something than you can use before it goes bad, maybe you can freeze it, dry it, cook it into a food that will last longer in the fridge than the raw version, or preserve it in some other way.
This is a very important strategy when you receive a CSA share just before going on vacation! One of my favorite tips from the farm newsletter is to roast tomatoes and then freeze them—not only are they delicious, but they take up much less space than raw diced tomatoes.
- How to ferment anything in small batches
- How to preserve apples
- How to dehydrate fruits
- Homemade Fruit Rolls with extra fruit
- How to dehydrate vegetables
- How to dry and save excess greens
- More ways to use CSA greens
- Using up all the zucchini
5. What’s the plan?
Having a plan makes you more likely to utilize all your vegetables and avoid leaving something to rot in the refrigerator.
- Plan what you will prepare for each of your main meals. (In my family, dinners are planned, while breakfasts, lunches, and snacks are more spontaneous.)
- Use a system for reminding family members of fresh foods they could include in spontaneous meals and snacks–ours is just a list headed, “EAT!” hanging on the refrigerator door!
- Plan when you will do any preserving. If you are going to swap or give away veggies to people you won’t see until later in the week, do something to remind yourself to bring the veggies to that meeting.
- Plan to Eat is a great resource, not only for making sure you do your meal plan, but even for finding new recipes for your veggies. You can search by ingredient in your own recipe box as well as in the KS group.
One Week’s Example – Our CSA Box
Here’s how we used our farm share in the last full week of July. This happened to be a week when we went away for the weekend, so my plan included a Wednesday wild-card dinner, then Thursday dinner, then Monday and Tuesday dinners. We did a little more swapping and giving away than usual.
Here’s what we got:
- green beans
- 2 tomatoes (firm texture, not quite red all over)
- 2 yellow summer squash
- 1 zucchini
- 4 cucumbers
- beet greens (or so I thought!)
- 5 green onions
I immediately set aside the lettuce, greens, and fennel to swap with the neighbors. After the two of them had done their own veggie evaluation, Abby came over with 2 more tomatoes and a yellow squash for us and said they’d take “anything else but basil.” When I offered her the “beet greens,” she pointed out that they actually were rainbow chard—which was obvious when I turned them over so I could see the multicolored stems. Swap accomplished!
I decided that the green beans, summer squash/zucchini, and at least some of the cucumbers needed to be eaten before the weekend. I used these for Wednesday’s wild card and Thursday’s dinner plan. I updated the EAT! list on the refrigerator door to remind us to eat the vegetables that would not be used in these meals or preserved.
We had so many cucumbers that I considered making Cucumber Salad, which preserves cucumbers for about a week…but we still had some of last week’s Cucumber Salad left, and I was feeling tired of it, so I emailed my friend Laura offering her a couple of cucumbers.
I decided to dry the basil. I’ve often dried other herbs by hanging them on the potholder rack next to the stove, but I’d never done this with basil, which is a lot damper than oregano, rosemary, thyme, or even parsley. Especially in the humid weather we were having, I wasn’t sure if this would work or if the basil would just be moldy when we got home after the weekend….
I had planned to make macaroni & cheese from a box (we bought a case of Annie’s when it was on sale at Costco) and a vegetable “wild card” side dish. Because this was a quick meal to prepare, I had time to evaluate the veggies before cooking and use some of them in this dinner. Daniel cut up all 3 summer squash, the zucchini, 2 green onions, and some of the parsley that we already had; I sautéed these veggies in olive oil with a little sea salt and white pepper.
There’s also some easy homemade mac and cheese and similar recipes – that you can add any sort of veggies to! – in Better Than a Box, Katie’s massive eBook with tons of cooking tips and instruction along with the recipes.
I also sliced 1 cucumber as an alternative side dish, knowing that our 11-year-old Nicholas usually does not like this kind of squash thing. Market Pantry Table Mix, the salt-free seasoning blend that is Target’s house version of Mrs. Dash and our 2-year-old Lydia’s favorite “seezning,” was very tasty on the squash.
I handed off 2 cucumbers to Laura, leaving just 1 to wait out the weekend in our crisper drawer.
We made one of our family’s favorite dinners: Tangy Honey-Apricot Tofu, Salty String Beans, and rice. This used up the string beans, as well as giving us plenty of Real Salt for enduring the hot, humid weather! It’s possible to use green onions in that recipe, but we had a Vidalia onion from a bag I’d bought on sale about a month earlier, so we prioritized that.
I hung up the basil to dry. In addition to the new bunch of “regular” sweet basil, we also had Thai basil from the previous week, which appeared to be still good, so I hung that up too. I removed the flower stalks to increase air circulation among the leaves.
For my lunch, I used up the last of the hummus from a batch I’d made to take to a party the previous Saturday. (This was instant hummus with extra olive oil and tahini, sprinkled with paprika and parsley.) I spread it on whole-grain bread, topped it with leftover squash and a few leaves of Thai basil, and baked it in the toaster-oven. It turned out very well. If you like your sandwich bread crispy, though, you’d want to toast it by itself before you put the damp hummus and squash on it.
We had some carrot sticks in the refrigerator that Nicholas hadn’t eaten in Wednesday’s day camp lunch and had stashed in a glass jar in the fridge. They still looked good, so I packed the remaining cucumber slices into the jar and included it in the bag of snacks I brought on our trip. In a weekend when we ate somewhat more white flour and less fiber than usual, it was nice to have some raw veggie snacks! (We ate them all by Saturday morning.)
After getting home from our trip, we had leftovers of the tofu-and-string-beans meal and the squash for dinner.
After the weekend, the Thai basil felt dry and crisp, but the sweet basil just felt limp and still somewhat moist. More time needed! Make sure that any herbs you want to store long-term are totally dry, like crumbling in your hands dry.
Daniel made Masoor Dal (Indian lentils) with carrots and rice. He cut up the last (and largest) cucumber to go with it, but we ate just a few slices each—which was good because the cucumber had a starring role in the next night’s dinner, as well!
The tomatoes were finally ripe, so Nicholas and I enjoyed our first Tomato Toast breakfast of the summer, with cilantro that our neighbors had said we could pick from their yard.
For dinner, I cooked buckwheat soba noodles and made Spicy Peanut Sauce. (Yes, my kids enjoy spicy food! I’m so glad.) We made noodle bowls with bite-sized pieces of cucumber, carrot, and green onion, garnished with pickled ginger.
I meant for us to use the Thai basil in this—it was my inspiration for this meal—but we totally forgot it! Oh well. When I remembered it later in the evening, I decided it was dry enough that I could pick the leaves off the stems and crumble them into a baby-food jar for storage. There will be more Asian meals in our future!
What was left at the end of the week? About half of the carrots, 2 green onions, and the dried basil. I left the sweet basil hanging for another week, but after that I felt it was dry enough to add to our half-empty jar of dried sweet basil.
So, that’s a typical week of CSA veggie management using my 5-step strategy! My strongest motivation is avoiding the sadness I feel when some perfectly good vegetable turns into a slimy mush because we didn’t get around to using it. Although it can enrich our compost heap, I hate seeing that its little planty life was wasted along with our money and our farmers’ effort. We visited the Kretschmann Farm a few years ago, and having met the farmers and being able to picture the fields makes me all the more determined to use this good food wisely.
Disclosure: Plan to Eat is an August sponsor of Kitchen Stewardship receiving a complimentary mention in a post.