Make the Most of Your Summer CSA With These Veggie-Life-Extending Tips

With a little planning and some creativity, you can say good-bye to spoiled, unused local produce.

(Photo: TheBittenWord.com/Flickr)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

It’s happened to all of us: You open the fridge and see bags of unused produce. Sitting. Waiting. Slowly decomposing. Not only this week’s community-supported agriculture share but last week’s as well—almost completely untouched. This time of year, the height of the CSA season, the food can begin to pile up pretty quickly.

The thought of adding what’s in your fridge to the 40 percent of food that’s wasted in the U.S. annually is enough to make you turn away from the farmers market and hit up the drive-through instead. Why pay for a CSA share if you can’t possibly keep up with the box of produce week after week? What’s a busy locavore to do?

Plenty, say the chefs, educators, and farmers who deal directly with this conundrum every year.

“Active food preservation is a really different relationship to food than the modern eater has to supermarkets, where everything is always available all the time,” says Mary Alice Reilly, food hub and food access coordinator for the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project in Massachusetts. “Shareholders who have bought into a CSA are not only buying into local sustainable foods but also into the timeline in the fields,” which doesn’t always reflect our dinner expectations, she adds.

Taking a few simple steps—and planning ahead a bit—can help us use up the food our farmers work so hard to provide.

Cook It Up—and Eat a Little of Everything

“Most people don’t have a problem using up tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn,” says Julia Shanks, coauthor of The Farmer’s Kitchen: The Ultimate Guide to Enjoying Your CSA and Farmer’s Market Foods, which she wrote to address this problem. “It’s the other stuff.”

Weirder crops, such as kohlrabi, can confound a home cook. But just because something is unfamilliar doesn’t mean we can’t—or shouldn’t—enjoy them, says chef Charles Ziccardi, assistant teaching professor of culinary arts at Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management.

Shanks’ book and Ziccardi’s classes aim to make cooking with CSA vegetables easy for busy people, showing them how to use even the strangest produce. Ziccardi says an egg frittata is a great, simple way to use up an array of vegetables from your share—just sauté the veggies, fold them into beaten eggs, and bake.

Know How to Store It

Food received directly from a farm will have a longer shelf life than supermarket produce, but proper storage can extend the life of food even further. As Ziccardi puts it, “some things tolerate plastic bags, and other things don’t.”

Ziccardi recommends sealable bags or containers for leafy greens and herbs, which are more airtight than plastic and expose the food to less moisture. Placing a paper towel in the bottom of the container will help soak up any excess water, delaying decay, he says.

Many herbs can be stored at room temperature in a small jar of water, like cut flowers, for optimal shelf life, Ziccardi says. And please, please, please don’t refrigerate your tomatoes.

Go Outside the Box

Ronit Ridberg, of the food hub Capay Valley Farm Shop in Northern California, suggests getting creative with certain foods to make sure they get used. Besides the obvious solution of canning, bruised or soft fruit, for instance, can be pureed into sauces or compotes and drizzled over pancakes or stirred into yogurt. Basil, she adds, is not the only green veggie that makes a great pesto: Cilantro, arugula, and even radish greens and flowers also take well to the preperation and are great in a fresh summer pasta.

Ziccardi says a sauce made from sautéed zucchini, eggplant, onion, and tomatoes can be made in large batches and eaten cold, served over pasta or fish, added to scrambles with eggs, or eaten on its own for a quick homemade lunch.

Gainesville, Fla., CSA manager Shelley Rogers says she encourages members to make simple “refrigerator pickles” out of extra beets and cucumbers and sauerkraut from excess cabbage. Most veggies can also be juiced or blended into smoothies or cold soups. (Ziccardi recommends blending over juicing, as juicing often removes too much fiber from the vegetables.)

Give It Away

Why not spread around the excess of your local bounty? That’s what Regina Bernard-Carreno, an assistant professor of black and Latino studies at the City University of New York, is doing with the small CSA she organized in New York City. She has been giving an item or two from her share to neighbors who can’t afford a share or are skeptical about joining. “Kind of like a ‘try before you buy,’ ” she says. “For those who can afford something, I make some items available for a low cost—way less than if they were a member of their participating CSA or attempting to purchase from the organic big guys.”

Freeze It

Can’t use it or give it away? Techniques for preserving produce are numerous, but the simplest is probably freezing.

“[Freezing] is an underutilized way to quickly preserve food and enjoy beautiful summer flavors year-round,” says Amber K. Stott of the Food Literacy Center. “Canning can be overwhelming and equipment-intensive. Throw fresh berries or whole tomatoes directly into Ziploc freezer bags and pop them into your freezer.”

Green, leafy vegetables freeze very well when blanched, Ziccardi says. To do this, drop the greens in salted boiling water for 10 seconds, moving them immediately to an ice bath. Drain the greens, pat dry with towels, and lay them out on a pan with parchment paper or into a freezer bag to be frozen.

The general rule of freezing, Ziccardi says, is simple: “If you freeze something that’s fresh, it’ll thaw fresh.” The longer you wait to freeze a vegetable, the less fresh it will be when you thaw it out.

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