Thursday, August 7, 2008

CSA cooking class

Dear students of the CSA cooking class,

I can't wait to meet you all and to cook with you today. This is the first time I am offering a class on cooking from a farm-share (a.k.a. CSA), so it will be a learning experience for all of us. What's so special about this class? It's the mystery. Since the CSA box arrives 2 hours before you show up at my house, not even I know what we are going to cook. But there is something I do know about this class. I know that as soon as you get here, you'll ask, "Do we get the recipes for what we are making today?" In all my other classes, the answer would be "yes," but this class is the exception. Not only do I not know what recipes to print for you, I think that the recipes would be a distraction. The goal of the class is to learn to cook with what you have and to improvise. That being said, I think there are all kinds of resources that would be useful to anyone subscribing to a CSA or thinking about it for next year. Here is my brain dump on the subject.

What is CSA?

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a great way to get local, seasonal produce. You pay an up-front fee to a farm and get a weekly box of freshly picked produce during the summer and fall.

When to subscribe to a CSA?
In winter. That's right -- you have to start thinking about your farm-share at the time when eating a ripe tomato seems as impossible as flying to the moon. Some farms sell out of shares by the end of winter.

How much does it cost?
It depends on the farm. In New England, the prices for the season subscription (June - October) range from $400 - $650.

How to find a CSA in your area?
Here is a list of CSAs in Massachusetts

If you are not in MA, just Google: "town, state CSA"

I subscribe to Brookfield Farm CSA. They are located in Amherst, MA, but deliver in Cambridge, Newton, Lexington, Arlington, and Jamaica Plain.

How to clean and store produce?
That's probably the biggest hurdle you'll have to jump over when it comes to cooking from a CSA. Real farm produce is extremely dirty. Salad doesn't come pre-washed in a bag. But the taste will more than compensate for the work you'll have to do to get the grit out of your veggies.

I strongly suggest you get yourself a salad spinner. It makes it a cinch to wash and dry all the herbs and leafy veggies. I like OXO good grips spinner. Just don't put it in the dishwasher (no matter what OXO says). I once did and it got warped.

When to clean produce
I have a slight disagreement with the recommendation I've gotten from the farmers to store all produce dirty, and clean it right before cooking. If you have unlimited time to spend in the kitchen, sure -- you can clean your veggies as you need them. But most home cooks don't have this luxury, so we need to make this process more efficient. I clean all my vegetables the day I get the box. If you don't have time to clean everything, at least do all herbs and leafy produce. This way you only have to get the salad spinner out once. Just make sure that everything you clean in advance is dried very thoroughly. Moisture can promote spoilage.

How to clean leeks
Leeks are the only vegetable that I don't clean until I am ready to cook them because it's impossible to get all the grit out of leeks without chopping them first. Here are instructions on how to clean leeks.

How to clean herbs and leafy greens
I wrote a post a while ago on working with herbs (cleaning, storage, and cooking tips). The same cleaning and storage tips apply to everything green and leafy. I wrap each cleaned and dried leafy vegetable in a dry paper towel, then place in a labeled, large plastic shopping bag, and store in the fridge. Stored this way, leafy produce lasts 1 week with no problems.

Fridge or room temperature?
I find that not only leafy greens, but most produce (carrots, eggplants, zucchini, summer squash, beets, leeks, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, etc) will last best in the fridge. I keep them in unsealed plastic shopping bags. Keeping the bags open (or even poking a few small holes in them) allows the ethylene hormone, produced by ripening produce, to escape. This slows down spoilage.

Tomatoes are an exception to the refrigerator rule. Do not refrigerate your tomatoes or they'll turn mealy. Store them at room temperature, stem side down (this way, they stay fresh longer).

Garlic, onions, shallots, and fall root vegetables (white potates, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, and celery root) are not hurt by refrigeration, but they'll last just fine at room temperature in a dark, dry, cool place for several weeks and sometimes over a month, so there is no reason to take up your fridge space with them.

Menu planning
I try to use up the fragile leafy greens and corn as quickly as possible, because they last worse than other veggies. If I got some extremely ripe tomatoes, I try to get to those sooner rather than later. Other than that, I cook whatever inspires me first. Try to make a rough plan of what you'll cook each day to make sure you don't run out of veggies or have any leftovers before the next share pick up.

Master Recipes for common and obscure produce
Grilled Corn (it's a tuna post, but there is a grilled corn recipe in the end)
Swiss Chard
Whole Beets
Watermelon Radishes (works with any radish)
Zucchini Risotto
Mashed Celery Root
Tomatoes Confit
Honey Garlic Grilled Eggplant
Cole Slaw
Scallion Spread
Braised Collard Greens
Rutabaga or Sweet Potato Fries
Butternut squash soup

And there is always

Now I am off to pick up the CSA box for class. Happy cooking to all :)



Tantra Flower said...

I tried, unsuccessfully, to locate a farm share local to me. Luckily a wonderful family farm has set up a stand about two blocks from my house. They have the sweetest, most delicious red bell peppers for 99 cents each! My CSA inquiry was met with a blank "huh?" type stare, but stopping by there is convenient so I'm not too disappointed.

I'm dying to know what was in your "mystery" box.

Helen said...

Hi Tantra Flower,

It's great that you have a local farm that grows such delicious produce :)

Here is what was in our mystery box:
Sweet corn, Beets, Carrots, Eggplant, Scallions, Red Kale, Basil, Lettuce, Radicchio, Tomatoes, Hot Peppers

We made a tomato feta salad, a beet orange salad, a corn risotto, and an eggplant bean stew.


Trevor said...

Yay for CSA's.

My only concern is the carbon miles involved with a Western MA farm delivering to the Boston metro.

Anonymous said...

Awesome sounding class. Too bad I don't live closer. Have fun! How's the baby?


Helen said...

Hi Paz,

So good to hear from you! Sammy is doing great. She is 13 months and is getting ready to walk :)


Anonymous said...

I like to cook very at home. Greetings from Poland.
Cool fun. Like me. Thanks.