As I mentioned in my last post, I have been a CSA shareholder for almost a decade now. I have learned quite a few things over the years! With the recent surge in interest in eating locally, more and more people are signing on for shares with a local farm. Admittedly, choosing to participate in a CSA is not quite as quick and simple as grabbing items off the shelf from the grocery store. For the minimal investment of time and effort that is required, I feel the rewards are well worth it!
Here are a few tips to make the CSA experience as enjoyable as possible:
1. Know the rules/requirements of your CSA.
While most CSAs work in a similar manner, there are slight differences from one farm to another. Make sure you know if you are supposed to bring your own bags to the pick up depot, or if bags/bins are provided by the farm. Familiarize yourself with cancellation policies if you will be out of town (most farms provide credit to carry over to subsequent weeks if they are notified in advance that you will be away, but don't give credit if you simply forget to pick up your share!)
2. Set aside time on share pickup day to "process" your share.
Not only will you need to go pick up your share (unless you are getting home delivery!) but you will need to do something with it once you've got it. CSA vegetables are usually dirtier than grocery-store vegetables, and they don't come packaged up ready to go in the fridge! I usually need to spend about a half hour sorting and cleaning our weekly share (I don't wash greens until I am ready to use them, but items like Swiss Chard I trim to make storage easier)
3. Make space in your refrigerator.
You will be receiving a large quantity of vegetables at one time - they are NOT all going to fit in your vegetable crisper (trust me!) I usually leave the bottom shelf of my fridge open so I have plenty of space to store my weeks' worth of veggies. You don't want to have to cram them into a too-tight space; that will crush delicate items such as greens, and they will decay faster.
4. Store everything properly.
Nothing is more annoying than having to throw out half a share's worth of spoiled vegetables (I speak from experience here!) I have had great success using large Ziploc freezer bags to store my vegetables in. They are large enough to accommodate the generous amounts of each veggie typically received in a CSA share, and I can easily see what's in each bag when it's in my fridge. Most items will stay fresh for at least a week when stored this way. I wash and reuse the bags, so it's been more than a year since I've had to buy a new box! If I know in advance that we won't be able to use up all our items that week (for example, if we will be out of town part of the week), I will freeze a few items (usually greens like spinach and chard) so they won't spoil. As a bonus, at the end of the season I have some local organic vegetables already stored in the freezer to see me through the beginning of the winter.
5. Prioritize your eating.
Each week, after I finish processing our share, I make a list of all the vegetables we have received. I put the more delicate items (such as greens) at the top, and the hardier items (like root vegetables) at the bottom. I then focus on using up the "top of list" items earlier in the week, so that nothing goes to waste.
6. Be willing to experiment with unfamiliar vegetables.
When I was new to the CSA experience, I was confronted with a lot of vegetables I had never eaten before - arugula, mizuna, Swiss Chard, and garlic tops to name a few. It was a bit intimidating at first, but I've learned how to prepare all these "strange" vegetables over the years. Most CSAs provide recipe suggestions for their shareholders. There are even some cookbooks out there written specifically for shareholders, such as Farmer John's Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables and many others focusing on seasonal vegetables, such as The Garden Fresh Vegetable Cookbook. I have gotten a lot of mileage out of a 25-cent copy of the Joy of Gardening Cookbook that I picked up at a yard sale a few years ago! If you get to know your fellow shareholders, they are likely to have some suggestions as well.
7. Enjoy your seasonal eating experience!
It is a real pleasure to enjoy the changing contents of my CSA share over the course of the growing season. I feel more connected to the whole process, and my kids (who were babies when we signed on with our first CSA) have always had a good understanding of what eating seasonally is all about.