How to pick a CSA plan that will suit you

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A community supported agriculture subscription, aka a CSA and "farmshare," is one of the best ways for eaters to form direct connections with small farms.

Participants become shareholders in one or more farms by investing early in the season and reap the rewards of that investment in the form of fresh vegetables and fruits and sometimes eggs, meat and more.

Food straight from small, local and often organic farms is invariably fresher, tastier and better for the environment than food that is grown on giant industrial farms, trucked to processing plants and distributors, and then trucked to grocery stores all over the country. It's also often affordable, and the dollars you spend are more likely to stay in the local economy.

Joining a CSA can be a revelation, but it is not a good fit for everyone.

If you join a CSA without being prepared for the commitment, you may wind up resenting your vegetables as an edible burden rather than reveling in their delicious bounty.

Don't pick your CSA without knowing the answer to the following questions:

• Where and when can I pick up?

• What happens if I go on vacation?

• What types of vegetables does the farm plan to grow?

• What else is/can be included in my CSA box?

The answers to these questions will help you find the program that is the best fit and you'll be much more likely to want to stick with that farm over the years.

Most subscriptions need to be collected on a regular schedule each week, whether from the farm or from a neighborhood drop-off point. If your schedule constantly changes, this requirement could be difficult for you.

You also need to be prepared to adapt to whatever comes in your box each week. Sometimes, hoped-for crops won't do well because of the weather or pests. Even if the weather cooperates, a box might contain only a few basil stems when you wanted to make pesto or only a pint of new potatoes when you'd planned on making potato salad for four. So if you're the type of cook that always starts with a recipe or an idea for a dish, then goes to the market with a grocery list, cooking with a CSA basket might be a challenge.

Many subscribers enjoy the challenge of getting inspired by whatever they get. It forces cooks to use their ingenuity to combine ingredients, minimize waste and really think seasonally, something that most of us have never had to do because grocery stores full of all-season produce are so readily available.

If you don't know what a vegetable is, ask; if you're not sure how it's best stored, ask; many farmshares have newsletters with ingredient information and weekly recipe suggestions. And anyone with Internet access can easily find an endless number of recipes for any given ingredient.

Take some time to think through the contents of your box soon after it arrives each week. Lettuce can easily be used up in salads; kohlrabi and turnips may take some extra planning. You may find yourself going to the grocery store just as often, but if you plan carefully and keep staples on hand you might not need to, especially if you choose your recipes carefully.

Whatever you do, find a way to get some local agriculture into your house this summer, whether from a CSA, farmers market, farm stand or grocery. Your diet, your dinner and your community will be the better for it.

Turnips with Dates

PG tested

Butter is the secret ingredient for making turnips irresistible. Ideally, use soft, moist dates that are dried on the pit, but any good-quality dried date will do in a pinch.-- China Millman

  • 1 pound young white turnips, peeled and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Salt and pepper
  • 6 moist dried dates, pitted and cut into small pieces

Boil the turnips in salted water until just tender and drain.

Heat the butter in a skillet and saute the turnips until they begin to color. Season with salt and pepper, add the dates, and cook through, shaking the pan and stirring.

Serve immediately. Serves 2 to 4.

-- "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food" by Claudia Roden (Knopf, 2000)

Beets and their greens with marjoram and pine nuts

PG tested

With many CSAs, you must realize, there are going to be beets. These are one of those vegetables that some people love and some people hate. But give beets a chance. And their greens, too, which are delicious. All you really need to do with either is steam and dress with a little salt and pepper, olive oil, maybe a little balsamic vinegar. And if you want to have beets like you've probably never had them, try this sophisticated recipe from Deborah Madison, who loves the marjoram pesto on beets and all kinds of other dishes and with good reason. You should have leftover pesto. Even if you hate beets, you might like it.

Marjoram Pesto with Capers and Olives

Deborah Madison tells you to make this in a mortar, but mine's not that big, so after starting it that way, I moved everything to a food processor.-- Bob Batz Jr.

  • 1 small slice country bread
  • 2 tablespoons aged red wine vinegar
  • 1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
  • Sea salt
  • 1/4 cup fresh marjoram leaves
  • 3 tablespoons drained capers
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons pitted green olives
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground pepper

Remove crusts from the bread, then soak it in the vinegar on a plate.

Pound the garlic with 1/2 teaspoon salt in a mortar until smooth, then work in the marjoram leaves. (This is where I transferred the garlic paste to a food processor and continued). Work in the capers, pine nuts, parsley and olives until you have a course puree. Add the bread and olive oil and work until the pesto is well amalgamated. Season with pepper, taste for vinegar and add a little more if you think it needs it. The pesto will be very thick.

For the beets

  • 2 small red onions, thinly sliced into rounds
  • White wine vinegar
  • 9 to 12 small beets, golden and/or Chioggia, including the greens (I used 3 large goldens, cut in half)
  • Olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • Toasted pine nuts for garnish

Toss the onions with vinegar nearly to cover and refrigerate until needed. They will turn bright pink.

Discard the beet stems and any wilted leaves, wash the remaining leaves and the beets, and steam the leaves until tender, about 5 minutes. Set cooked leaves aside to drain, then chop coarsely. Toss with a little olive oil and season with salt.

Leaving an inch of stems and tails on the beets, steam until a knife pierces them easily, about 25 minutes. Slip off the skins. Trim the tops and tails, quarter them and sprinkle with a little vinegar.

Toss the beets with the pesto (I used about half of it), leaving ample streaks throughout. Place them over the greens. Remove the onions from the vinegar and strew them over the beets. Garnish with the pine nuts and serve (it's good at room temperature).

Serves 4.

-- "Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmer's Markets" by Deborah Madison (Broadway, 2002 and 2007)

This easy recipe is a great way to enjoy one of spring's freshest offerings. And talk about a keeper -- a friend gave it to me more than a decade ago. The vinaigrette can be used to dress salads or other vegetables.

-- Gretchen McKay

Steamed Asparagus With Dijon Mustard Vinaigrette
  • 1 pound steamed asparagus, chilled
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Chopped parsley for garnish

Whisk together mustard, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper until blended. In a thin stream, add the oil, whisking constantly.

Toss chilled asparagus in vinaigrette and top with chopped parsley. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6.

-- Gretchen McKay


China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com; follow China on twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman.


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