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Embrace the Harvest: Delectable Recipes Highlighting Your Local CSA Bounty

June 26, 2024

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Embrace the Harvest: Delectable Recipes Highlighting Your Local CSA Bounty

Discovering the Joy of a CSA Bounty

Ten years ago, my husband and I escaped the January cold and spent a week in Costa Rica. We stayed at a beautiful but rustic lodge on the edge of the jungle, where the kitchen staff spoiled us with scrumptious meals made from the many local foods. Every meal was served with large chunks of fresh, juicy pineapple, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Perhaps it was the surrounding rainforest or the sounds of birds, animals, and ocean waves on the beach that accentuated my pineapple-eating experience, but whatever the reason, I fell in love with fresh Costa Rican pineapples.

All vacations must come to an end, and we were soon home in snowy Minnesota. Still in that post-vacation glow, when I headed to town to stock up on staples, I was delighted to see that our local grocery store had pineapples on special. I bought four and looked forward to once again having fresh pineapple with every meal.

Embracing the Seasonal Bounty

All winter, we dream of these months when farmers market tables pile high with an array of vegetables, and CSA boxes get heavier and more diverse, boasting everything from kohlrabi to radishes. It’s no surprise then that I find myself eating a ton of vegetables lately, and not just boring broccoli-as-a-side-dish vegetables. I love pickled vegetables, and giardiniera is one of my favorites.

With its Italian roots, giardiniera is also known as sottaceti, meaning “under vinegar,” and is usually eaten along with antipasto selections like cured meats, various cheeses, and olives. The simple mix shows up on Italian beef sandwiches in some places, particularly in Chicago, and can be used in a muffuletta sandwich, a swoon-worthy creation that originated with Italian immigrants in New Orleans.

The bunches of radishes you might see on the tables at many farmers markets are almost too pretty to eat. The bundles of bright red or variegated purple, pink, and white look like happy balloons. If your experience with radishes begins and ends at the grocery store or buffet garnishes, then you might be surprised with the variety of colors, shapes, and flavors these little root vegetables can offer.

Preparing for the Growing Season

It might be hard to envision warm breezes and budding trees at the moment, but believe it or not, the growing season will be upon us before we know it. If you’re hoping to travel no further than your own backyard for juicy tomatoes or fresh basil this year, now is the time to start planning.

Whether you’re brand new to vegetable gardening or have a seasoned green thumb, whether you’re planting a couple of small barrels in your backyard or taking on a community garden, chances are you’ll need to buy or learn something this season. Fortunately, there are four gardener-approved resources that will help you every step of the way, from soil testing to selecting the right seeds and compost, to finally preserving your hard-earned bounty and saving seeds for next year.

Building a Healthy Food System

After such a deep winter, it was surprising to see almost a dozen people happily pruning trees in early March, wearing light sweaters and sunglasses, and most importantly, showing palpable joy in the task. For me, there was an extra level of happiness during the event since the workshop was Sandbox Cooperative’s kickoff for the “rent your own farm” classroom program that aims to provide farmland and resources for sustainability-focused workshops. Along with co-founders Libby London, Josh Adrian, and Jeny Lai, I envisioned a place where people working toward a healthier food system would have room to play and create – think of it as a farm-sized sandbox – and weren’t hindered by small classroom space.

Well-known farmer and author Joel Salatin once said, “Don’t you find it odd that people put more work into choosing a mechanic or contractor than into choosing the person who grows their food? Let’s change that.” There are many ways to create connections with local farmers, from shopping at co-ops to frequenting farmers markets that feature locally grown produce. But to really get to know the people who grow your food from seed to harvest, consider a community supported agriculture (CSA) share.

Discovering the Joys of a CSA

As I walk through the field, I observe the insect populations, the soil condition, and the health of the field. I notice the plants that seem to be stronger, more beautiful, or more resilient than the others and carefully make note of them. Each plant is cared for with a loving hand and a thoughtful mind because the field is not only filled with food for the season, it is filled with seeds – seeds that will grow food for future generations.

This is the first in a new SGT series exploring how the Farm Bill has impacted a single family’s farm. Take a moment to add your own points of interest by clicking here.

This is the final post in a summer-long series from a young farmer working as a harvest crew leader at Gardens of Eagan. I turned down seven farming positions at the beginning of the 2013 season. All across the United States, I’d submitted applications and received offers from California, New York, Vermont, and Minnesota. In January, I declined an offer to attend an elite apprenticeship program in California. Though this experiential learning position had been my dream since I could say the words “I want to be a farmer,” I couldn’t afford the tuition of three thousand dollars, plus housing, airfare, books, tools, and shared food expenses.

Embracing the CSA Experience

By Nicole Spiridakis, I stared at the box brimming with vegetables, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Unidentifiable greens, tiny round potatoes, a clutch of dirt-dusted perfectly red radishes, a small container of wild strawberries – all this bounty was mine if only I could figure out what to do with it.

For an urbanite such as myself, being connected to a farm brings a bit of the country into the city. It reminds me that there’s a vast acreage out there, not bound by concrete and tall buildings, helps me to eat with the seasons, and brings home how important it is to know the source of my food. Welcome to cooking from a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share. You might not always recognize every item in your weekly box, but it’s almost certain to inspire.

I ventured into a CSA subscription years ago when I lived on the East Coast, prompted by my brother who was working on an organic farm in Virginia. His farm didn’t run a CSA, but others in the area did. I loved the idea of supporting a small local farm, and I saw it as a complete win-win situation for both the farmer and myself. The farm received a reliable weekly income, and I received incredibly fresh, organic produce that cost less than a trip to the supermarket.

One bonus of CSA cooking is that I have learned to cook vegetables with which I was previously unfamiliar, like chard and kabocha squash. A hearty dinner of beans and greens, shredded and sauteed kale paired with white beans and a lot of garlic or spring onions, has become a staple. Some farms also offer eggs or contract with local producers to include fresh cheese or even milk in the weekly share.

The Spirit of Community in a CSA

The concept of Community Supported Agriculture was introduced to the United States from Europe in the mid-1980s and has built in momentum and popularity, especially during the past decade, particularly for those living in cities or suburbs without gardens. According to the US Department of Agriculture, data collected in 2007 indicated that 12,549 farms in the United States reported marketing products through a CSA arrangement.

A CSA share typically is provided weekly, with pickups or deliveries on a designated day and place or at the farm. One Bay Area farm used to arrange for the weekly pickup at a San Francisco restaurant. You could grab your box and have a cocktail and a chat with the farmer who had brought in that week’s haul.

That spirit of community is what motivates Lisa Moussalli, who along with husband Ali, owns Frog Bottom Farm in Pampin, Va. The Moussallis run a 200-share CSA and sell at two local farmers markets. She said, “Frog Bottom’s aim is to grow honest, delicious food and provide families with most of their staple vegetables with enough diversity to keep things interesting.”

Embracing the Surprise and Adventure of a CSA

What certainly keeps things interesting is that a CSA share involves a perpetual element of surprise. You don’t always know exactly what you’re going to get because while the farm you’ve signed up with might email or post a potential weekly produce list online, the farmers themselves won’t know what’s perfect for picking until they’re in the fields, which can leave you wondering what the heck you’ll do with all those mystery greens. It’s almost always an adventure.

Many farms include recipe suggestions for what to do with an abundance of herbs, lettuces, yams, or those mysterious greens, so you’re not left bewildered by how to incorporate them into dinner. The Moussallis include recipes on their website to help customers plan meals around the weekly share. One for a “massaged kale salad” has me rethinking my own approach to the vegetable.

If you want to dip a toe in the CSA experience but worry that you won’t use up your weekly vegetables, you could go in with a friend. It’s easy to swap and mix and match, so nothing gets wasted. Moussalli said a typical share, costing $25 per week, is enough to feed a family of four. Frog Bottom also offers half-shares, as do many farms.

The Joys and Challenges of Cooking from a CSA

What I love about getting the bulk of my fruits and vegetables through a CSA share is that it challenges me. “Okay, this week I have a lot of squash and chard, so how can I use them up in interesting ways? Should I bake with the peaches or just eat them in long, juicy slices? I try to hold off a mad dash to the store to get mushrooms. Maybe I can just do without when I have so many other things from which to choose.”

Of course, everything tastes so much better when it’s eaten within a few days of being picked. Cooking from a CSA forces me to cook outside my comfort zone, to try new things, to experiment. It also saves me money because I force myself to cook mainly from the weekly share, augmented with staples such as bread, cheese, beans, and dried goods, and the occasional trip to the farmers market, until I use up everything.

Then there is the concept of investment that goes beyond the monetary. I truly care about the farm I’ve contracted with and worry whether the spring rains will delay the tomato planting or how a particularly dry summer will affect the overall harvest. For an urbanite such as myself, being connected to a farm brings a bit of the country into the city. It reminds me that there’s a vast acreage out there, not bound by concrete and tall buildings, helps me to eat with the seasons, and brings home how important it is to know the source of my food.

Embracing the Abundance

In a CSA, all our customers are regulars, Moussalli says. “We really love getting to know people over the course of one or more seasons.” A strong local food culture and especially a CSA is a powerful tool for building strong and caring communities.

The trick to CSA-share cooking is to embrace what you get. Ingenuity is key, and imagination is necessary. Too many greens? Make soup or freeze for later consumption. An abundance of carrots? Pickle ’em. Fruit and tomatoes can be sauced, jarred, canned, turned into jam. And if you’re blessed with a pint of just-picked blueberries, eat them slowly out of hand and wonder what will be in your box next week.

Talking With The Farmers

Following are excerpts from an interview with Lisa Moussalli, who along with husband Ali Moussalli, owns Frog Bottom Farm in Virginia. The Moussallis met while working on organic farms in the area and have been steering Frog Bottom for three seasons. Moussalli estimates the farm provides about 200 full CSA shares during a season that runs from June to Thanksgiving. The couple also sells produce at two local farmers markets that run from May to October.

How long have you been running your farm? Any specific main crops?
This is our third season here at Frog Bottom. We grow a wide variety of vegetables and a few small fruits, and this year, we’re adding eggs from pastured chickens and also pastured pork. We planted a large blueberry patch this spring, and hope to put in a small orchard this year as well, so fingers crossed, in a few years, we’ll be selling those berries and some stone fruits as well. Our approach is to grow honest, delicious food – to provide families with most of their staple vegetables with enough diversity to keep things interesting.

How do you sell/distribute your produce? How important is the CSA program to the overall business of the farm?
Our CSA is the heart of our farm – it’s by far where most of our income comes from. The market scene within reasonable driving distance of our farm now is much younger, and it’s not producer-only. The markets are fun and lively with a really nice mix of vendors, but they’re not yet strong enough to fully support our farm. We added the CSA to our business out of financial necessity, bearing in mind the lower population density here and the newness of the farmers market scene. I was also very, very eager to add the CSA to have a part of the business where relationships were central. Market days are always a blast, full of energy and work and laughter. But with my education and nonprofit background, I was really missing the authentic relationships that were at the heart of my old work, so I was very ready for this new step.

How does the CSA share work?
Well, we look at what’s ready out in the field, having done intensive crop planning over the winter based on our projected CSA membership, our knowledge of how our land yields, and what the weather is typically like throughout the growing season, and we put together the best share we can for the money people have paid. We run our pickups market-style – all the food is in bins and bunches on a long table or two, with signs in front of each item telling members how much to take. We give some basic cooking suggestions on the signs right there at the pickup, and then offer more detailed recipes via our farm blog and our Facebook page. This year, we’ll also try more emails, perhaps some forums on the website, and simple printed recipes at the CSA pickups and markets.

What goes on during the winter at a farm?
Our first season at Frog Bottom, we offered a two-month winter CSA, and that was a real challenge. November was fairly mild, but in December, things turned very cold, very fast, and we got two big snows. Root vegetables were frozen in the ground, the row cover over our greens was covered in a foot of snow – really exhausting. Our son was only a few weeks old, so I couldn’t help in the fields at all. Our second season, we decided to nix the winter CSA idea but extended our regular season by a month, to go up to Thanksgiving. This worked well, and we anticipate this is how we’ll keep doing things. This year, we’re contemplating a winter CSA, but it’ll look a bit different – perhaps just three or four pickups, perhaps every other week. Or perhaps we’ll sell through an online market in the winter. Real-time online sales are a logistical challenge for farmers who often don’t know how much is available until they’re out there in the squash patch with a bushel basket in hand.

Every winter, we rectify our books and do our taxes, do major equipment repairs, work on farm infrastructure projects (irrigation, outbuildings, animal housing, roads, fencing), buy new equipment and supplies, and spend a lot of time doing crop planning and seed orders. We also take a few wonderful weeks to visit our families.

Why do you run a CSA, and why do you think it’s important?
Well, it’s no understatement to say that without our CSA, we couldn’t make a living as farmers. But we’ve come to love much more than just the financial security it affords. One powerful thing about the CSA model is that there’s very little waste. When you sell at market, it’s always a gamble – you have to take more than you think you can sell, and variables like the weather or other events in town on the same day can change the day’s earnings by 50% easily. But in the CSA, you know who you’re growing for. We do intentionally overplant, expecting that we’ll lose some of our crop to drought, disease, insects, and other pests. But we have a pretty good idea of what to expect out of our land, and since CSA members make up such a high percentage of our total customers, we just know how much to plant.

After working so hard to seed and tend and weed and harvest and sort and clean and pack all those vegetables, it feels good knowing almost all of that food is going into people’s bellies. Also, in a CSA, all of our customers are regulars. We really love getting to know people over the course of one or more seasons.

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Thornapple CSA: A community-driven initiative championing sustainable agriculture. We connect members with fresh, organic produce, celebrating the bond between land and community.

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