The past few weeks I have been amazed by the colours and freshness (picked from the earth that day) of my food from the CSA box. And of course being the perfectionist that I am, I have a notebook, Pinterest board and cookbooks dedicated to making the most of all yes all the vegetables and fruit. I got a bit excited in exploring these new flavours and creating the perfect dish. But, the thing with local and sustainable farm-grown food is that you don't really have to do too much to make it taste good, because it's delicious on its own and even raw state. The reasons for this are that vegetables and fruit are harvested at the right peak time - when they are ripe, there is less exposure to artificial light, they don't have to travel far with chances of them breaking down, no pesticides or harmful additives are used and they are only available in a given season offering different varieties throughout the year.
Let's put these reasons into action with a banana. Ireland does not grow bananas, although some
people may think the sunny southeast does ;) - that means bananas have to be imported from elsewhere. Typically, they come from warmer, tropical climates like Costa Rica. As we know bananas are very delicate and can easily be bruised or squished. Which means they are harvesting bananas when they are green; therefore, they have to ripen in an unnatural way. These green bananas have to be transported to a base where they will then be shipped to Dublin. Ireland is in fact the biggest exporter of bananas; from here bananas are further shipped to the rest of the countries in Europe. Once the bananas reach Dublin, they are placed in a temperature controlled ripening plant so that they can reach their optimum ripeness. And finally, they have to do one last travel to grocery stores and shops across Ireland. Now you may think differently and really wonder how long ago was this banana picked? And ponder that it's lifetime was spent more travelling then rooted in the earth.
But lets not "pick" on bananas and instead focus our efforts on the yummy CSA veggies! I have found there are certain ways to care and cook for them. You have to take note of everything that's in the box and if you don't know what it is, do some research with your farmer, garden cookbook or good ole Google. In my first box there was this beautiful bright purple root vegetable that I haven't seen before, and my research discovered it to be a kohlrabi. This awareness provides information on how to cook it or pair it with other flavours. There is a plethora of information out there to guide you on your CSA path like resources on farm websites, farmers markets/garden cookbooks such as The Allotment Cookbook and the CSA Cookbook, flavour guides like the The Flavour Thesaurus and The Flavor Bible and even apps like locavore and seasonal food guide.
Thus, the more information we have, the better we can prepare for things. So, here I'm going to tell you from my own experience, 5 easy tips on how to best utilise your CSA veggies. I hope this will minimise the overwhelmed feeling you may get when receiving your CSA box and guide you on how to use it all up.
1. Store your veggies properly
Since there are no preservative sprays used on CSA veggies, they're lifetime is shorter than say a waxed apple from the grocery store. This means you have to store them with a bit more care to preserve them for the week. For salad greens and leafy vegetables: dry them thoroughly and place in a small bowl or plastic bag. Tear up small pieces of paper towels or use a small towel among the leaves so they will absorb the moisture. Store the leaves in the bottom shelf of the refrigerator or drawer if they are in a sealed plastic bag. This should keep the leaves nicely crisp. The same goes with herbs although you can also place them in a jar with a bit of water.
If you want to use the leaves or fronds from vegetables (beets, fennel, etc.), ensure you cut them
from the vegetable and either use up quickly or store in fridge. Onions, garlic and more heartier vegetables and fruits with thick skin like melon and squash can be stored out of the fridge. Root vegetables are best stored either in a paper bag or bowl leaving a bit of their soil in tact; however, ensure they are not wet as this will contribute to mould. Any vegetable you want to snack on like snap peas, celery and carrots, cut up in strips and place in a sealed container with a bit of water in the fridge. I suggest storing cruciferous vegetables in the fridge unless you plan to use them in the next day - also note that leaves from broccoli and cauliflower can be used and are nice and hearty. If you live in a colder climate or have a cool larder, you could get away with storing a lot of your veggies outside of the fridge. Warmer, humid climates could decrease the lifetime and also attract fruit flies so best to use the fridge where needed.
2. Supplement where necessary
It would be great to only use the ingredients you get in your CSA box, and some do contain grains, dairy and even meat options - but for most in order to sustain the CSA meals it's good to supplement according to your taste. This means instead of making a list and going to the grocery store, the contents of your CSA box is the list and guide you on what other ingredients you need. Start with having the staples in your kitchen:
a good quality oil - I prefer olive oil
good quality vinegar - red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar or balsamic (has a stronger aged flavour)
proper sea salt - without anti-caking agents (calcium silicate and such)
spices - black pepper, cayenne or red pepper flakes, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, ginger
nuts or seeds/nut butter - provides protein and nice crunch to recipes and nut butter can add some creaminess to recipes
your favourite grains - buy this in bulk so it goes a long way ie. brown rice, quinoa, oats, etc.
sweetener (optional) - sometimes this helps to bring out the sweetness in vegetables or helps with the caramelizations. You can opt for a local honey or maple syrup.
dairy (optional) - hard cheese like parmesan give a nice crust to vegetables and soft cheese like goats cheese are lovely in salads
citrus (optional) - lemons, limes and oranges do give a nice tang to things
3. Plan out meals
Take the time to suss out all the containments of your box - what pairs well together, what are sweet flavours, what works well for snacks and what can I make a meal out of. The Flavor Bible is a good book that categorises food into tastes like spicy, sweet, earthy, nutty and so on; this helps to understand how to pair food in a complimentary way allowing you to build your own recipe. Once you've done this, you can figure out what you want to make for the week reviewing recipes online, in cookbooks or creating your own. I always like to take a bit of time on Sunday to make some lunch and snack go-to's for the week like a salad dressing, pesto for dipping and spreading, cut-up veggies for snacking or layering in sandwiches and a simple cold salad like rice with roasted vegetables or mixed bean salad. Then determine your dinners - always cook once and eat twice so you're not making a new meal every night. Maybe it's a variety of roasted root vegetables with chicken and the next night you can use the roast vegetables in a frittata. The planning allows you to better use everything in your box throughout the week. One more point is to note vegetables that may go off faster and use those first.
My poor family is probably sick of being the guinea pigs but the only way to test out a recipe or custom meal is to try it out; especially, with your family because they will be honest! Every chef experiments again and again until they have created the perfect dish where the flavours align perfectly together that when eaten the taste buds are so fulfilled and satisfied. I made courgette pizzas one time thinking it would be creative and fun to eat only to get a YUK reply from my kids and husband. The next day I made "popcorn" cauliflower, which is just roasted cauliflower with olive oil and salt, and they couldn't get enough of it. I knew that was a side dish I would make again. Remember to record your experiments either in an online app or journal so that you can look back at them and repeat next week until amazingly perfected!
5. KISS - Keep it Simple Stupid
KISS is the best concept for anything you do and also when it comes to food. When we add too many ingredients we can't taste what is in the dish. I was so excited to make this chilli dish with all 20+ ingredients, but I was disappointed in the outcome as all those ingredients didn't stand out and I was better off sticking with the basic recipe. With that being said, food that's in the CSA box is so nutrient dense and at it's prime time that you don't have to do much to it. That's why good sea salt is important, because it only enhances and brings out the natural flavour. If you experiment with different salts, you can decide which one you like best or which one you like for certain occasions - maybe I like rock salt on sliced cucumbers but milled sea salt in salads. A mixture of salad greens with a simple dressing of 4: 1 olive oil/vinegar and good dash of sea salt is so purely amazing. So don't complicate a dish like a stir-fry with 6 vegetables try 3 instead and don't overcook or over boil or overdo anything - keep it simple stupid.
The next time you get your CSA box, you'll think "I got this down!"
Now, have at it!