The Practical Aspects of CSA
The Realities of Cooking From a CSA Share
I grew up in a small New England town where my grandfather was a farmer. I wish this were the start of a coming-of-age story about the inspiration for why I cook. But my grandfather died when I was a toddler and like many in the 1950's, my parents instead sought a suburban lifestyle in a single-story house that sat on a small lot with nearby neighbors and where the only animals were dogs and cats.
Yet my mother stayed a farmer's daughter and always reserved a small square of the backyard for a vegetable garden where she would grow tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers and carrots. Our town still had a few small farms and I have memories of tagging along with my mom on summer afternoons to make a ten-minute drive to farm stands to buy corn that would be on our dinner table that night. So while I had a suburban childhood, I always understood where our fruits and vegetables came from.
As I later became responsible for my own groceries and cooking, the notion of a farm became more abstract. I lived in big cities and was satisfied to have affordable ingredients and frankly paid no attention to where they were from. Even after I learned to cook, I knew that my mother's cooking always tasted better than mine. This was partially due to her great skill but what I didn't yet understand was how her meticulous ingredients made such an impact on flavor.
I have since learned to be vigilant about the food we cook. So when I first heard about CSA -- Community Supported Agriculture -- this seemed like a brilliant idea. Local farmers get income at the start of the growing season, when they need it most. And we get, directly from the farmer, organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables and other foods without any middlemen. But what would the experience actually be like? Could I make meals using ingredients that someone else would choose for me? Would I want to?
Mid-Season Perspective: CSA in New York City
The CSAs in New York City are coordinated by JustFood.org, a non-profit organization that this year has 57 CSAs across the five boroughs. As the umbrella organization, JustFood.org matches farmers with neighborhood-centric community groups, puts individuals in place to act as coordinators, finds locations for weekly distributions, and helps oversee the financials.
Since the principles and politics of CSA made sense to me, I had been eager to participate and this spring I joined the Columbus Circle CSA. We're now at week 14 in what will be about a 22-week season. How long the season lasts will depend upon the weather but history suggests that we'll go to early November. The cost for my CSA share was $444 (prices and shares vary with each CSA), which gives me six or so different vegetables every week -- this is called a full share -- and every other week I also receive a dozen eggs and some fruit (bi-weekly deliveries are called "half shares"). So the weekly cost is about $21.
The vegetables and fruits that we have received follow the growing season. At the start of the summer we got lettuces, cucumbers, broccoli and herbs. These were soon followed by green beans, beets, fava beans, Napa cabbage, corn, spring onions, Swiss chard and zucchini. Lots of zucchini. By late August we had our first tomatoes plus carrots, white and red onions and now, mid-September, we're receiving a bounty of tomatoes (both cherry and regular) and peppers. Along the way there were some unfamiliar items, like garlic scapes and purslane. And every week there were baby greens.
The fruit has been spectacular and I soon regretted only buying a half-share. At first there were berries and cherries, then apricots, followed by peaches. This past week a fruit half-share gave us a bag of pears, another of little green apples, and a box of beautiful yellow plums.
Sounds wonderful, right? But the details matter and the reality of cooking from a farm share is a little complicated.
- The quality of the food is superb. Amazing flavor, beautiful colors, and organic.
- The other CSA members are serious about their food and are committed to finding and buying great ingredients.
- The eggs have thin shells, deep yellow yolks, and great flavor.
- You are having a direct impact on a farmer's ability to have a stable business.
- While I did not purchase a yogurt, cheese, milk or poultry share, other CSA members have told me the quality of all these foods has been outstanding.
The first challenge has been the surprise of what we get. My CSA delivers on Thursday afternoons and we don't get any prior notice as to what's coming until either the night before or that morning. And even when we get a list, it's often inaccurate. This is not a criticism since the farmer doesn't know for sure what's coming until he starts putting food on his truck. But it is still a factor if you're trying to plan meals, menus and grocery shopping.
For example, last week our share included truly fabulous red peppers which I decided to roast and serve with feta cheese. I rinsed each pepper, put them on a rimmed sheet pan in a 400 F oven for about 40 minutes until they blistered, turning them once. After letting the charred peppers sit in a large bowl sealed with plastic wrap for about 20 minutes (this helped loosen the skin), I then peeled and cored them, cutting the peppers into thick slices. I slicked them with a little olive oil, added a generous pinch of my best French sea salt, and crumbled feta cheese on top.
Great, right? Except I didn't have any feta in my refrigerator so I had to do a second grocery errand to a decent cheese counter on a day when I had very little time.
The next challenge is quantities. Our vegetable share doesn't give us enough for a week's worth of meals and that means I have to wait until Thursday before I can finish buying groceries. I don't want to buy basics like garlic and onions not knowing if some might be in that week's CSA share. I can't always plan my week to do grocery shopping after the CSA pickup but since I can't be sure what's in any week's share, I'm shy to buy ahead not knowing if it's going to be included in that week's CSA delivery. It's a grocery conundrum.
The quantity factor also impacts how much you get of individual items. There were two weeks this summer when our share included beets. But we were only allotted two each and they were small. Beets are a favorite but let's face it: they're a mess to cook and I didn't see the point of going through all the trouble to cook two tiny beets. They languished in my refrigerator until I finally rediscovered them, shriveled, and then threw them out. Had I been at the Greenmarket and saw such lovely little beets, I would have bought a couple of pounds and been happy to make a deep red mess of my sink and manicure.
Am I whining? Well, I'm trying to be candid about the circumstances and factors that impact how we cook. Had I bought red peppers at my weekly Greenmarket visit I would have just added feta cheese to my grocery list, or bought it at the Greenmarket, or been able to stop at a nearby cheese store on the way home. But our CSA location is not near any other food stores so the feta cheese errand was a major detour. My alternative would have been to cook the peppers in a less flavorful and pleasing way and I frankly didn't want to compromise.
One of my core beliefs about successful home cooking is that it has far more to do with planning and ingredient buying than it does with time spent chopping and stirring, something the TV chefs and glossy magazines rarely, if ever, acknowledge. You can cook great meals every night but it requires skilled logistics. If you want to buy fish from a trusted fish monger, organic chicken from a great butcher, cheese by the piece at a cheese monger's instead of already cut and plastic wrapped at a supermarket, and local or organic produce -- and oh, you also want to get good values -- you need either lots of time or lots of planning. That's because our shops are not adjacent to one another, our days are full of surprises and delays, the closest market may be the most expensive, the subway gets stuck, the fish market is out of scallops by the time you get there, etc.
To add the weekly task of a food pick-up at the rear of a church on far West 57th Street every Thursday mid-afternoon (without forgetting your shopping bags) to retrieve a half dozen or so vegetables -- even if the carrots are the best you've had all year -- requires flexibility and commitment. So what I've finally come to understand is that whatever I get from my CSA share is a kind of bonus and so I do my best to fit it into my overall planning and shopping.
As passionate and principled as I am about cooking and great ingredients, life is practical and we must make choices. There may be some who will build their days and priorities around their daily cooking, but most of us cannot. At least not every day.
I sometimes think about my farmer grandfather and wonder what he'd think about all this trouble we go through to get food on our tables. I like to think he'd love to be part of a CSA. So I will keep trying.