Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Getting the best from your farm share

Are you new to CSAs? If this is your first season in Community Supported Agriculture, welcome! A farm share is a great way to eat locally, and support a local farmer.

In case you haven't heard of a CSA before, this is how it works: you purchase your share of the season’s harvest from a farm offering shares, paying in advance so the farmer can prepare to serve all of his or her shareholders. There are meat, poultry, egg, dairy, and even fish CSAs in the Pioneer Valley, although the most common sort of farm share is a weekly supply of seasonal vegetables. Most are harvested for you, and some are even cleaned, while other crops are available as a pick-your-own arrangement.

Think of your weekly shares of fresh produce as a kind of game show: you’ve already bought them, and now the clock is ticking. Your challenges as a farm share owner are to enjoy these vegetables while they’re fresh, to eat them all week long, and to use all of the vegetables you bring home.

Here are some tips for getting the best experience from your farm share, early in the season.

1. Go green.

Most farm shares include lots of greens: some that you eat raw—salad greens—and some that you eat cooked. Cooking greens range from the delicate to the robust. They can all be sauteed, steamed, and added to soups and stews. If you have a recipe for a delicate green like spinach, you can substitute a similar green, like chard or callaloo, with very little difference. Collards and kale, both hearty cooking greens, are likewise interchangable.

Use delicate greens first, and plan to use heartier greens later in the week. Cold spots at the back of the fridge can burn greens. Store unwashed greens in plastic produce bags, kept tightly closed and stored in the produce drawer.

2. Start with a salad.

All summer long, expect to get salad greens in your farm share. It may be loose, or in heads. There may be different kinds of salad greens, ones you've never seen before. You can even eat a little bit of a salad green right out of the bin to find out if it’s very bitter, spicy, or strong, before deciding whether to take some home.

Try mixing a handful of an unfamiliar salad green in with your usual selection. Every few days, wash a big batch of salad greens and spin them dry. Use loose greens before heading lettuce. Store the washed greens in a sealed plastic bag in the fridge, and make them the base of not just side salads, but whole salad meals.

Our version of “chef salad” is at its simplest, sliced boiled eggs and bacon over salad greens. In their season, we add cucumbers and tomatoes from our share. You can add croutons, avocado, cheese, sprouts, roasted seeds, nuts, and any vegetable you can eat raw. Cold leftover sliced chicken, steak, pork loin, and salmon are all good over salad greens and dressed with your usual favorite salad dressing.

3. Try something new.

It’s healthy and fun to try new vegetables. If something new to you seems appealing, take enough to make so everyone in your family can try it, but not so much that you’re stuck with it if it’s not a hit. Ask farm workers how to prepare an unfamiliar vegetable, or write the name down and google it when you get home.

4. Only take what your family likes to eat.

You may take everything allowed in your weekly share, but there’s no reason to take what you already know your family doesn’t like.

5. Freeze some for later.

If you eat with the seasons, strawberries and asparagus are nearing their season’s end, but you can always freeze some to enjoy later. It’s not always more cost-effective to freeze produce that you purchase; rather, take advantage of opportunities to turn your share investment and sweat equity into convenience food for later. Hit the you-picks and freeze berries and green beans. Take some extra cooking greens from the “all you can use” bins, to blanch and freeze for next winter and spring.

6. Only take what you can process.

t’s tempting to pick as many strawberries as your family can use all year. Delicate produce has to be processed quickly, before it degrades. Another factor to consider is the relative value of your currently available freezer space against the value of the produce you’re considering freezing. Do you have room for four month’s worth of blanched kale? Maybe this will be the year you learn to can tomatoes. If so, start with a small batch and make sure you have everything you need to tackle a larger canning job.

7. Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.

That's what the old chicken farmers used to say, and it applies to produce, as well. You may have been counting on getting enough tomatoes to make a truly heroic amount of marinara, but the potato blight could destroy your farm's entire tomato crop. Strawberries can be abundant, and then rained out in a day. That's the nature of sharing risk with your farmers.

8. Just roll with it.

You leap into action when a crop is abundant; the other direction to flex is toward a backup plan for when there is little or nothing of something you've come to rely upon. Be glad you are not a subsistence farmer, and can go to the market, or pull something out of the freezer.

Accept bounty with gratitude, and losses with grace; these are the strategies for enjoying your farm share this season.
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