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The Crisper Whisperer: 10 Secrets for Making the Most of Your CSA

You may know Carolyn Cope as Umami Girl. She stops by on Tuesdays with ideas on preparing the abundance of fruits and vegetables you might get from your CSA or the market. —The Mgmt.

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[Photograph: Carolyn Cope]

As more and more of us join CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), the question of what to do with all that produce looms large. CSA membership can be a wonderful, rewarding experience, putting you in direct contact with the source of your food, giving you a say in how and what is grown, and providing an easy way to contribute to your local community. Best of all, even if you work in a cubicle all day and only dream of escaping to the country to start your own working farm, you can still head home to a meal made with beautiful, fresh local foods any day of the week.

But as the season wears on, the sheer magnitude of freshness delivered by a good CSA can start to overwhelm busy people with regular (or perhaps spectacular!) lives to lead. The good news is that with a little weekly preparation and planning and a few simple strategies, you'll rarely have a week where you can't use or freeze your whole haul.

1. Make a routine of a little weekly planning

Many CSAs send out an email newsletter in advance of pick-up day or provide a flyer on the day-of that describes what's included in that week's haul. Take a few minutes to read any storage and usage suggestions and a few minutes more to think about how and when you'll use each ingredient. As a general rule, plan to use tender greens and any fruits and veggies that look like they were picked on the seriously ripe side early in the week. Roots, bulbs and squash tend to last quite a while, so save them for later in the week.

2. Wash and prep all greens before putting them away

Beets, carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, and lots of other roots, bulbs and stems you'll receive from a CSA come with edible greens attached. Immediately separate the greens so they don't continue to draw moisture out of the rest of the veg. Fill a large bowl or salad spinner with cold water, add leafy greens, and agitate them to remove sand and dirt. Wait a minute to let the debris settle to the bottom, then pull out the greens, dump the water, and repeat until the greens are clean. Dry thoroughly in a spinner or with towels and store until ready to use. If you're short on fridge space, consider cooking down your greens by either parboiling or sautéeing them before storing. If you've already planned out your veg use for the week, you'll know whether this makes sense or not.

3. Identify what you can eat raw, and go for it

If you're anything like me, it can be a challenge not to overcomplicate everything from child-rearing to radish-eating. Still, it pays to keep it simple, especially if you're anticipating a particularly busy week. Sometimes the best approach to using up your CSA haul is to sprinkle it with salt and start taking bites of it. You'll know when it feels right. Don't be shy.

4. On the other hand, cook your lettuce

When I started managing and writing about CSAs, I expected most of the WTF-style questions to be about the more unusual produce, like kohlrabi and Salad Burnet. But the most common complaint I hear is, "I am so tired of salads. WTF am I supposed to do with all this lettuce?" The surprising but simple answer is, you should cook it. Firmer lettuces such as Romaine can be stir-fried, braised, grilled, or puréed and added to soups and sauces. Cooked lettuce is surprisingly delicious. I'll include some recipes in this column throughout the season.

5. Know how to improvise and where to look for help

Speaking of unusual produce, one of the most rewarding aspects of CSA membership is the exposure to new and different foods it provides. Even if you've been a member for a few years, there's a good chance you'll be tasting or cooking a new vegetable at least once or twice during the season. Of course, the element of surprise can also be intimidating if you're not in the habit of cooking off the cuff.

Learning to identify flavor affinities is one of the most valuable culinary skills for a CSA member. Plus, it's an important step toward starting to think like a chef, and how fun is that? Your best resource in this regard is your taste buds. Take a little bite of every food you get that's safe to eat raw, and over time you'll develop confidence in your flavor-matching abilities. There are some great resources available to guide you in your education. If you're willing to invest in a book, The Flavor Bible (which I've mentioned here before, but I really can't get enough of it) won't let you down. There are some great free resources online, too. My favorite is Chow.com's ingredient pages, which list flavor affinities at the bottom of each entry.

6. Greens, eggs, and pan

Okay, so it doesn't have quite the same ring as Green Eggs and Ham, but keeping that ditty in mind will feed you many a night during CSA season when you're long on leaves and short on time. Chop up and sautée just about any green in some olive oil with a little garlic, crack a few eggs into the pan, beaten or otherwise, and cook until set. Sprinkle with some cheese if you like, and you've got a delicious dinner.

7. Preserve fruit for the short term

If your fruit is starting to look a little dicey, take the hint. Spend 15 minutes dicing up the good parts, discarding any major bruises. Cook the diced fruit in a pot with a couple of tablespoons of sugar for just a few minutes, until it starts to soften up and release its juices. Let cool and then store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week. Serve by itself or spooned over yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream, pancakes or waffles. This method works well with stone fruits, berries, cherries and, later in the season, apples and pears.

8. Make your fridge a little colder

At the risk of taking some flack on the energy consumption front, it's amazing how much time a few extra degrees will buy you. If you find your refrigerated produce beginning to spoil before the week is out, try turning down the temperature a notch or two. We started doing this when we switched to raw milk, and I noticed our veggies going practically cryogenic on us. We haven't looked back since.

9. Freeze

All fruits, all greens, tomatoes, beans, peppers, and even potatoes can be frozen raw for use later in the year, when you'll be thrilled beyond belief to see them. Some people suggest blanching first to cut down on bacteria and cooking time after defrosting, but it's optional. Spread out your produce on sturdy baking sheets and put in the freezer until frozen so it won't stick together, then store in the freezer in airtight plastic bags or reusable containers.

10. Pesto is your best(-o) friend

Look beyond basil. Then look a little further. Just about any herb and even some green vegetables like broccoli, asparagus and spinach can become a delicious pesto-style sauce when combined with nuts, oil, garlic, and grated cheese or some of the above. Pesto freezes beautifully, too, so you'll be thanking yourself mid-winter for a little bit of foresight and elbow grease in the warmer months.

Finally, a couple of bonus tips. If all else fails, start a compost pile. At least you'll be putting your waste to good use. Instead of dying a slow death under the weight of silent veggie guilt, you'll become the instant envy of all your friends. And remember, breathe. Though it may be the last thing on your mind in the middle of CSA overload, the world really does need your carbon dioxide to grow more plants.

What about you? How do you make the most of your CSA bounty? Please share your best tips and tricks in the comments.

About the author: Carolyn Cope writes Umami Girl and manages a CSA in New Jersey.

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