How to Get the Most Out of Your CSA

This week I'm ensconced at a conference in scorching Austin, Texas. It also happens to be when many CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms in my area are kicking off their season. So in lieu of writing something of my own, I asked Kate McDonough, author of The City Cook, a recent book on cooking at home in the city, to share some of her tips on cooking from a CSA box.

What's a CSA? It's really the only way city-dweller and participate regularly in a local farm's harvest aside from shopping at a farmers' market or a farm stand. It's basically a co-op system in which the buyers provide capital upfront for the farmer to plant the farm. You are in essence a shareholder in the farm.

If that doesn't inspire you to cook, I don't know what will.

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The City Cook (Simon & Schuster, 2010) is a straightforward approach to cooking more at home, aimed specifically at people living in small spaces in urban settings. From how to set up your pantry and get the best meat from your local butcher, to recipes and an appendix you'll actually use, this book holds your hand through that messy break-up with take-out and leads you to the light of cooking more at home.

You can see why I love it.

5 Tips for Getting More Out of Your CSA Share

By Kate McDonough, Author of The City Cook: Big City, Small Kitchen. Limitless Ingredients, No Time. More than 90 recipes so delicious you'll want to toss your takeout menus and Editor of TheCityCook.com

The first time I purchased a CSA membership I smugly congratulated myself for a case of culinary doing good while doing well. I could feel good about supporting a local farmer because by pre-paying for my fruits and vegetables the farmer got income early. And I'd do well because every week I'd get really wonderful ingredients.

While both of these were true, once the season started I got humbled. I hadn't anticipated the challenge of planning meals around what the farmer harvested instead of what I wanted to cook. Or how to work with a share's uneven quantities (Parsley? Again? And what am I supposed to do with only these two small beets?). And having to spend more of my grocery budget filling in the ingredient gaps for essentials like onions or garlic. And then there was the boredom: weeks of zucchini and yellow squash when what I really wanted was red peppers and tomatoes.

CSA newbies can get discouraged by expecting the same food we'd buy at the farmer's market but delivered in a different way, only to find that it's more like having to cook from what we grow in our back yards. Certainly for the urban home cook who has never grown a potted tomato plant, this is a radical concept.

But we shouldn't give up nor feel enslaved to a box of vegetables.

Here are a few ways I've learned to enjoy cooking from a CSA share:

1. Most of us usually plan a menu, sketch a shopping list, and then buy our groceries. That's because we cook from the recipe, not from its ingredients. With CSA cooking we need to start from the opposite direction, planning your meals after you pick up your share. At first this can seem limiting and even annoying. But all it really means is cooking with what's in season, and it's a good habit to have even without a CSA share.

2. View a week's fruits and vegetables in both major and minor recipe roles. For example, one of the most common CSA complaints is that shares include lots of lettuce; more than you can eat before it rots. That's easy to happen if we only use lettuce in a salad. But if you add it to pea and lettuce soup, or make lettuce wraps, or add it to stir fries, you can quickly use up that lettuce.

Likewise that other CSA bounty: zucchini. Use it with pasta or in risotto, in gratins and lasagna, shredded into fritters, in a sweet tea bread, or in soup. One of my favorite uses for the uniquely tender and sweet zucchini that comes in my CSA is raw in a simple salad with curls of Parmesan and a squeeze of lemon juice and drizzle of olive oil, served in a way that Italians call zucchini carpaccio.

3. If you get something in small amounts, treat it as a kind of garnish. For example, those two small beets can be cooked and cut into matchsticks and tossed with a salad. Or store them carefully because next week you may get more, as often a crop will arrive gradually and the first time you get a little of something may be a prediction of more to come. Be supple.

4. Freezing and canning can be a solution but unless you have a huge freezer or lots of storage space for all those glass jars, think about which ingredients make sense to preserve. Plus if you're going through all the effort of pickling and canning, you may need to buy more of an ingredient than your share will provide as I found to be the case with both strawberries and sour cherries. Also you can freeze foods both raw or after they're cooked. For example, that overload of zucchini can be shredded and frozen, but it may be a better idea to make zucchini and rice soup or loaves of zucchini bread and freeze those instead.

Being used to buying my produce in more "normal" amounts, I wasn't prepared for my share's uneven quantities, from tiny to huge. But it's the harvest that determines how much you get. So your week's share may include beautiful basil, but not enough to make a full portion of pesto. That means you need another use for those two stems of fragrant green leaves, such as adding them to Caprese salad with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Or else make your pesto by supplementing your CSA basil with more bought from the farmer's market.

Be ready for your share to increase as the summer goes on. At the start of most CSAs, the first deliveries can seem skimpy. But by the end of the harvest, things will be coming at you in full force and you'll go from one shopping bag to three. This may be the best time to do your freezing and canning.

5. A final choice: give it away and share. Make jars of red pepper jelly, bake a spicy pumpkin bread, or share some cold borscht made with golden beets and a sprig of CSA dill. Or simply hand over your eggplant overflow; its amazing flavor just may inspire a future CSA member.

• For more from Kate McDonough, check out her book, The City Cook: Big City, Small Kitchen. Limitless Ingredients, No Time. More than 90 recipes so delicious you'll want to toss your takeout menus and her website, TheCityCook.com

(Images: Dana Velden)

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Sara Kate is the founding editor of The Kitchn. She co-founded the site in 2005 and has since written three cookbooks. She is most recently the co-author of The Kitchn Cookbook, to be published in October 2014 by Clarkson Potter.

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