In Season

CSA Members Like a Challenge

Four vegetables and basil from the Sedgwick family's weekly CSA box are ready to take their place in a quickly assembled summer gratin.
Four vegetables and basil from the Sedgwick family's weekly CSA box are ready to take their place in a quickly assembled summer gratin. (By Dominic Bracco II -- The Washington Post; Styled By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick For The Washington Post)
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By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Midsummer is special for vegetable lovers. Coveted local tomatoes, corn and squash arrive along with eggplant, peppers, stacks of cucumbers, potatoes and green beans. Whether you're shopping at a farmers market or picking up a weekly bag as a member of community-supported agriculture, it's a pretty good time of year to buy local. Maybe the best.

When I checked with my fellow CSAers to survey what they like and dislike about their memberships, I assumed that such prime produce was responsible for their smiles, too. But I was way off the mark. Three factors rank higher: the challenges, surprises and close working relationship with the farmer to whom they have paid an up-front fee for a share of the harvest.

"We're continuing to enjoy the experience," says Winifred Conkling, a Vienna resident I've come to know from school events. She and her family joined the Potomac Vegetable Farms CSA in Vienna so they could track the source of their food and for the experience of dealing with the surprise of each week's bag.

For Conkling, some of the irritants of CSA life (unfamiliar vegetables, too much of one thing and too little of another) have been challenges she has taken on with enthusiasm.

"In the beginning, I didn't know what to do with all the greens. But now I find myself missing them if they're not in the bag," she says.

When my family's share included less than a pound of carrots, I bemoaned the small quantity; she served hers as a snack. Inundated with basil, I tried presenting the herb as a flower arrangement. Conkling made batch after batch of pesto and stored it away in her freezer for less-bountiful days ahead.

Jim Knoke is in his third year as a CSA member; he has few complaints about his take. Favorites at his house include potatoes and corn, but it's the produce the CSA has introduced to the family that he talks about.

"I had never seen Swiss chard or bok choy before we joined the CSA, and now they have become staples," he says. The Knoke family opted for the smallest share offered so they would not be overwhelmed.

Richard Hsu and his family joined the Fresh and Local CSA, owned and operated by Allan Balliett, a farmer in Shepherdstown, W.Va. As a stay-at-home dad who takes time off from the kids to volunteer at the CSA, Hsu helps organize his local drop at Carderock in Bethesda. His interaction with Balliett is part of his appreciation of the CSA experience.

"Allan is so honest and genuine. This guy gets up in the middle of the night and harvests the vegetables, stops to send us an e-mail so we'll know what to expect, then drives to Washington and spends the day making deliveries," Hsu says.

The Hsu family splits a regular share (designed to feed two adults most of their weekly vegetable needs) with another family, but Hsu's mother gets a shot at the goods as well. "Some of the stranger vegetables my mother, who's Chinese, runs off with and cooks for us, like the white bok choy," he says.

Hsu also likes the perks of CSA life. Balliett, like many CSA farmers, has agreements with other local producers, and members can order special items such as chickens, eggs and flowers.

No major complaints in my unscientific poll, but I realize the season is still young. Most CSAs run through October or the beginning of November. The real test is whether members will rejoin during the winter registration period.

As for me, a hectic and uneven summer schedule has provided the biggest hurdle to maximizing our CSA share. Since we signed up, the end of my sons' spring sports seasons has kept us running instead of cooking in the evenings. We've had three long weekends away; a spate of business trips has taken my husband out of town for days at a time. I've gotten pretty good at produce storage, and I'm also learning to turn almost everything into a salad or dish I can use for several meals.

The arrival of the summer produce season has helped out a lot. This past week, I took a squash, a tomato, an eggplant and an onion and turned them into a gratin I was able to eat for dinner and then make lunch out of the next day. The corn, sweet onion and some celery became the inspiration for a lobster and corn salad that I dressed with an herb-laden vinaigrette.

This week, I'll be on vacation. No vegetables will be awaiting my kitchen. I've notified my CSA, so my box will be empty while I'm gone. I'm hoping that in my absence the tomatoes grow fat on the vine and the corn stays sweet.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a former Food section recipe editor, can be reached at In Season column appears monthly.

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