I’ve long been a devoted farmers market shopper. I’m also someone who appreciates control, at least in the kitchen. So I’d never taken the plunge into community-supported agriculture, what most of us refer to as CSAs. That changed once our local markets reopened to comply with health regulations in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Out went shoppers poring over tables of overflowing produce. In came prepackaged boxes, which I now purchase on a week-by-week basis, and limited grab-and-go items.
I’m not the only one who pivoted, according to the co-owner of Spring Valley Farm and Orchard, the source of my box. Eli Cook estimates that more than 90 percent of the business he and his wife’s, Misty, farm has been doing in boxes is from first-timers. The Cooks had never done a CSA-style system before, so they quickly scrambled to build it out from scratch. They went from zero customers to several thousand in just a few weeks.
“We’ve gotten a ton of really good feedback,” Cook says. “A lot of it is people enjoy the challenge of seeing what they got and what they can do with it.”
Part of the challenge is ensuring you can use everything in a timely, delicious way. Here are some tips.
Unpack everything. “Knowing what you have on hand is the first step to not feeling like you’re overwhelmed,” says chef, farmer and author Abra Berens, whose cookbook “Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables” was one our top picks of 2019 (and was just nominated for a James Beard award). “My family always calls it vegetable triage.”
At the very least, take everything out of the box so you can start to inventory. Cook says you should make sure to separate ethylene-producing produce (apples, bananas, melons, stone fruit) from ethylene-sensitive ones (cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, greens) to keep the latter from accelerated ripening and therefore rotting.
Transfer food to airtight containers as needed, and put it in the right place, whether that’s your fruit or vegetable bins in the fridge or a cool, dark place for your onions and potatoes.
Focus on what needs to be eaten first, such as berries, more delicate greens and asparagus. Storage crops (potatoes, onions, apples) and heartier greens (kale and spinach) can wait at least a few days. Ditto tomatoes and zucchini. If you notice something is already less than ideal, try to use it right away, Berens says. Wilted greens can be revived in cool water for a salad that night, and apples you might not want to eat out of hand can go into pie or a fruit compote, she says.
Prep some ingredients to last. If you’re worried about food going off before you have a chance to use it, go ahead and prepare them to have some staying power. Roasted root vegetables can be stashed for future use in grain bowls or on salads. Quick pickling is an option, too. Berens endorses her mother’s strategy of tossing some sliced cucumber and onions in an airtight container with some vinegar and lightly salted water. If you’re inundated with herbs, greens (especially kale or arugula) and even ramps, make a big batch of pesto, which can keep for a week in the refrigerator and much longer in the freezer.
You can also blanch vegetables (boil briefly and dunk in ice water) so that they can be frozen. Check out our primer here.
Don’t feel like you need a new recipe or dish for every item in the box. This is where it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by a whole pile of produce. Your goal is not to make seven separate meals with a ton of other ingredients that you may or may not have on hand. That’s why it’s important to think of easy ways to prep (as above) vegetables that can be repurposed. And if you only have the energy and resources to roast with salt, pepper and olive oil, that’s fine, too. Berens recommends using condiments to jazz up simply cooked items. Think spicy chile oil, chimichurri or romesco sauce, a tahini dressing.
Berens says you should also consider employing your favorite recipes but seeing where you can make easy substitutions, aiming for ingredients that have a similar texture and density.
Get familiar with dishes that are flexible. There are plenty of meals that can help you use whatever you have. Lately, I have been making a lot of hash with any potatoes (small white or sweet) that show up in my box, as well as apples and the perennial pantry staple onion. Fried rice and stir-fries are infinitely adaptable, too. Similarly, I’ve found that these Curried Singapore Noodles With Stir-Fried Veggies are easy to make with a variety of vegetables. I threw in asparagus the other day when even I had reached my limit on roasted spears.
If you don’t want to go so far as a full-on dish, Berens says there are plenty of cooking methods to play around with. I talked about roasting above. Berens says “poaching is really underutilized” and suggests including onions, garlic, wine and, if you want some richness, butter in the liquid. Just try to do one type of vegetable at a time for even cooking. In summer especially, she suggests grilling vegetables and tossing them in a vinaigrette while warm, which will allow the dressing to sink in and flavor the interior. This also works with roasted or poached food.
And if you’re really stumped or stuck with a bumper crop of odds and ends? “Worst-case scenario, you can always make a soup out of it,” Berens says. Start by sauteing whatever of the standard mirepoix (onions, celery, carrots) you have, plus garlic and another aromatics you want. Add the diced vegetables and broth (or wine or water), cook until soft, and puree, which Berens says makes the soup feel fancier than something you just threw together. Pureed vegetable soups freeze very well.
Whatever your approach, remember to go easy on yourself and have fun when unpacking and using your farm-fresh produce. “Some people say they feel like it’s Christmas,” Cook says. “I think you just kind of have to embrace what’s in your box.”
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