Friday, May 30, 2008

7 Tips for New Community Shared Agriculture Shareholders

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.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Learning to Embrace Leftovers

I am always surprised when someone expresses their utter disdain for leftovers. I have been a long-time fan of them, myself, for many reasons. Firstly, I can use them to help put together a meal faster than usual on a night where I don't have much time or energy. In addition, the wise and creative use of leftovers means that nothing is going to waste, keeping my grocery bill down! And I admit I feel more than a little satisfaction in creating something delicious out of items a lot of people might have just tossed in the garbage.

A few evenings ago, my husband was out at dinner time and my motivation for cooking for myself and my two boys was running low (sometimes it's hard to muster up my cooking enthusiasm when I know they'd be just as happy with a peanut butter sandwich!)

I rooted around in the fridge for a couple of minutes, and came up with: 2 baked potatoes (leftover from burger night), half a carton of sour cream, a few strips of bacon and a jar of salsa with a few spoonfuls left at the bottom. I also had some garlic chives poking up in the veggie garden. Inspiration struck and I came up with the following:

Spicy Potato, Bacon, and Onion Hash

2-3 strip of bacon
2 baked potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 small onion, chopped
2 tbsp canola oil
3-4 tbsp salsa
1/4 tsp each salt and pepper
sour cream and garlic chives for garnish

In a small frying pan, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove from pan. Saute the potatoes and onion in the oil until onions are tender and potatoes turn golden brown. Add salsa, salt and pepper and mix well. Crumble bacon and add to potato mixture. Cook for a minute or two longer. Spoon out onto serving plates and garnish with sour cream and garlic chives.

To round out our meal, I scrambled up some eggs and toasted the last few slices of homemade bread we had on hand. This turned out to be a deliciously satisfying meal!

I hope I've convinced you that leftovers are a good thing - they can be the springboard to a tasty, something-for-almost-nothing culinary creation.

Friday, May 16, 2008

RECIPE: Tex-Mex Shepherd's Pie

I was recently inspired to "spice up" one of my favourite comfort foods. The day I created this dish, it received rave reviews from my whole family. I'll be making this one often!

Time: under 60 minutes
Serves: 6-8


6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp canola oil
1 lb ground beef, chicken or turkey
3/4 cup salsa
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp each salt and pepper
19 oz can corn, drained
1/2 cup sour cream
milk (as needed)
1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese


1. Boil potatoes until tender (about 20 minutes).

2. While potatoes are cooking, in a medium frying pan, saute the onions and garlic in oil until they start to soften. Add ground meat and cook until no trace of pink remains.

3. Add salsa, cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper, and corn. Cook until hot and bubbly.

4. When potatoes are done, drain well and add sour cream. Mash until smooth (add a bit of milk if needed to get desired consistency).

5. Pour meat mixture into a greased 9 x 13 baking dish. Spread mashed potatoes evenly over top.

6. Sprinkle with grated cheese and place under broiler until cheese is melted and bubbly (5-10 minutes)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My Favourite Smoothie

It's time to dig out my blender - smoothie season is here! Now that the warmer weather has finally arrived, I am starting to crave refreshing, cold drinks again. I love smoothies for lots of reasons; not only are they incredibly satisfying, they are filling enough to serve as a snack, they are quick and easy to make, and the variations are as endless as your imagination (and the contents of your fruit crisper).

Here is my personal favourite:

Raspberry Coconut Smoothie
This is equally fabulous using strawberries!

Time: under 5 minutes
Serves: One large or two small servings

3/4 cup frozen raspberries
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 - 1/3 cup coconut milk

Toss all ingredients in blender and blend until smooth. Add more juice if necessary to get desired consistency.

It's easy to create your own "custom" smoothie by choosing different combinations of fruit and juice. For best results, at least 50% of the fruit used in your smoothie should be frozen to give it that characteristic thickness. Milk or yogurt can be used in place of the coconut milk.

Make homemade Popsicles by pouring the smoothie mixture into Popsicle molds. My kids can't get enough of these! At ages 8 and 10, they are able to do most of the prep work themselves and just need a bit of help pouring the mixture into the molds.

Money Saving Tips:
-Use the juice left over from canned fruit in your smoothies.
-Smoothies are perfect for using up over-ripe fruit!

Monday, May 5, 2008

The "Magic" Bread Solution - Refrigerator Bread Dough

Baking your own bread is one of the best ways I know to stretch your food budget. Our family can easily go through a loaf a day, and at over $2 a loaf even for the "cheap" bread, that eats up a major percentage of our monthly grocery budget. While making your own bread on a regular basis *can* be quite time consuming, there is a way to make from-scratch homemade bread without a lot of time or effort: Refrigerator Bread Dough! This is one of those golden recipes that feels like it changed my culinary life. I can easily have bread ready-to-go whenever I need it without feeling like I'm chained to the kitchen. If you've never tried making your own bread before, rest assured that it's actually pretty simple as long as you attend to a few key details. This dough is incredibly versatile and forgiving. I will be sharing lots of different ways to use it in the future, but let's get started with the basic recipe:

Whole Wheat Refrigerator Bread Dough

15-20 minutes

5 tsp active dry yeast
2 cups warm water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup mashed potatoes
1/2 cup canola oil
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 cups whole wheat flour
3-3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1. In a large bowl, combine the yeast, water, and sugar. Let stand 5-10 minutes or until yeast is thick and foamy. (Note: This is the most critical step for beginners! If you don't get a thick, foamy solution after 10-15 minutes, your yeast is not active - either it's too old or the water temperature was too hot or cold. You'll need to try again!)

2. Add mashed potatoes, oil, egg and salt. Mix well.

3. Gradually add the whole wheat flour, stirring until well combined.

4. Slowly add all-purpose flour as you begin to knead the dough. Knead for 5-8 minutes, adding flour as needed, until dough is smooth and elastic (it should no longer feel sticky).

5. Place dough in a large bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Place in fridge.

It's all done until you're ready to use it! The dough will complete its first rising in the fridge and will keep for about a week. There is enough dough for 3 loaves of bread.

To make loaves:

Time: Hands on prep:5 minutes shaping
Waiting: 1 hr rise, 25 minutes baking

1. Divide dough into three equal portions. You don't have to bake all three loaves at once, so if you only want to make one or two loaves, return the remaining portion or two of dough to the bowl, cover and store in the fridge; dough will keep for up to a week from the day you made it. For each loaf you're making, roll out a portion of dough into a rectangle, approximately 9"x12".

2. Roll up, starting at longer edge of dough. Pinch seam together to seal. Turn seam side down. Tuck edges of loaf under (so that the loaf is the same length as the baking pan).

3. Place loaves in greased loaf pans. Place in a warm location and cover with a clean kitchen towel. Let rise 1 hour or until doubled in size.

4. Bake at 375 degrees F for 25 minutes or until loaf sounds hollow when tapped.

5. Cool on a cooling rack for 5-10 minutes, then remove from pan to finish cooling.


-Buy yeast and flour in bulk to keep the cost as low as possible (bulk yeast can be stored in the freezer)

-This is a great way to use up those leftover mashed potatoes you might have in your freezer if you've been keeping up with your Sunday Night Fridge Cleanout

-I don't usually have enough leftover mashed potatoes to keep up with the demand for bread dough, so I'll cook up a big batch of potatoes, mash and freeze in 1 cup portions to have on hand for dough making

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Speed Up Your Baking with a Baking Station

Baking from scratch rather than buying store bought is one of the key ways you can reduce your grocery bill. A lot of people opt for the "convenience" of store bought because there seems to be a prevalent misconception that baking requires a lot of time and effort. If you're making a wedding cake, maybe it does, but everyday baking can certainly fit into a busy cook's schedule if you have your kitchen set up to facilitate it.

The key to keeping baking as effortless as possible is to make sure you've got everything you need in the place you need it. I have one area of my kitchen established as my "Baking Station" and it is the main reason why baking happens around here so regularly.

Here are the elements of an efficient Baking Station:

1. Countertop: This needs to be a nice clean counter that is kept free of clutter! Clearing clutter off the counter can take more time than doing the actual baking, so be vigilant about this one. If you can, establish your Baking Station close to the fridge, so all your perishable ingredients are close at hand.

2. Cupboard storage: The cupboard should ideally be either directly above or below the designated Baking Station countertop. This cupboard should contain all the dry ingredients used for baking (flours, sugars, other grains, baking soda and powder, cornstarch, cocoa, chocolate chips, coconut). I also keep extracts (vanilla, maple, peppermint, etc), molasses, corn syrup, and canola oil here.

3. Spice drawer/cabinet: Spices should be kept handy to the Baking Station since you'll use them often. I have mine in a drawer immediately under the countertop. If you're going to use a wall-mounted cabinet or rack, it should be hung right above the Baking Station countertop. You can also keep your spices right in the Baking Station cupboard if that's more convenient. Wherever you choose to keep them, they should be easily accessible and WELL LABELLED!

4. Small equipment and tools: You will need knives, forks, spoons, wooden spoons, rubber spatulas, metal spatulas, measuring cups (for both wet and dry ingredients) and measuring spoons. These should all be within arm's reach of your Baking Station, so you don't have to move to get anything. I have a wall-mounted unit with little "buckets" from IKEA. They have a great selection of inexpensive wall-mounted organizers for the kitchen that are perfect for a Baking Station.

5. Large equipment and tools: Larger items like mixing bowls, mixer, baking pans and cookie sheets should all be nearby. A cupboard directly above or below your Baking Station counter is ideal. Make sure it's not cluttered in there so you can easily grab out what you need.

It doesn't take very long to get a good Baking Station put together, and it's well worth the effort! I'm willing to guarantee that you'll bake more often, and with far less hassle, once you've put together a well-organized Baking Station in your kitchen.
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