This year, we joined a CSA. I have noticed that a lot of people, even a lot of my Bay Area hip-to-this-kind-of-thing friends, don't actually know what a CSA is, so I'm going to tell you about it. But first, some backstory.
When the girls were babies, I developed, as many new mothers do, a particular interest in healthy eating. Not that I wasn't generally a healthy eater before, and a scratch cook most of the time, but motherhood kind of added a new layer. I thought it would be easiest to incorporate a lot of vegetables into our diet if I subscribed to a service that delivered organic produce to our home once every week or two--there are several companies in the Bay Area that do this. And it was an okay idea, except that the standard order tended to be a little boring. Heavy on beets and greens. But there was an option to customize each delivery, so I did, deleting things we didn't like or that I didn't know how to cook, adding things we preferred.
Which was fine, except it made each delivery a bit more expensive, and it meant that I was only ordering the stuff I would have bought at the grocery store anyway, nothing new or very interesting, and sometimes things that weren't even in season or locally grown. Since I was still going to the grocery store for non-plant based foods, there was really no point to continuing the produce delivery experiment. It just wasn't the right choice for our situation.
I started buying our produce at farmer's markets instead. This is a really fun way to shop--it's social, for one thing, and you can sample the wares. The produce is local, it's seasonal. But even here in California most farmer's markets aren't year-round, and somehow I could never seem to stick to my budget--each week it seemed like I was taking $20 more out of the ATM than the previous week before I set out to explore the market. And again, there was no incentive to try new things, although I did step outside of my box a little more over time, unable to resist the siren songs of such offerings as purple kale.
We try growing something every year and somehow it never quite works out to being the grocery-bill supplement we hope for. I blame myself: I cannot remember to water anything. But the herbs seem to do okay without much help from me, and that's something, right? Fresh herbs aren't cheap.
I loved the idea of joining a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture cooperative, but had heard that the weekly shares tended to mirror what I'd experienced with the delivery services: limited variety. Still, I really dug the idea of supporting a small, independent farm and reaping, no pun intended, the benefits. I heard about a particular CSA farm from a friend, and checked it out--their website had a chart of their crops showing what was available each month during the season, and it was like a dream. Oh yeah, beets and greens for sure. But also squash, onions, peppers, eggplant, carrots, green beans, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, plums, strawberries, apricots, garlic, basil, parsley, etc etc etc.
I got on the waiting list this year thinking maybe next year, I'd get a spot. Lucky break: they expanded their customer base a few months into the summer season, and I got the callup to the majors. I split a family-sized share with a friend and it ends up being just about right for two families of four, where half of each family is not really pulling much weight when it comes to mowing down the legumes. One of us goes and picks up a huge box of vegetables each week at a convenient pickup spot, and we meet up to split the goods between us.
So I have a set amount of vegetables each week for which I pay a set amount, things chosen for me by nature, and I have to figure out how to use them all before the next box gets picked up. I still need to go to a regular grocery store for other foods, but I can skip right by the produce section, unless the box is light on fruit that week. Instead of the more common American practice of deciding on a protein and then building a meal around that each night (which I have relied on, lazily), I approach each meal with the purpose of trying to fit as many different vegetables into it as possible, using meat, starch and dairy more as condiments and accents than as bulk, and trying to do it all in a way that doesn't make it look like I was just trying to use a bunch of vegetables.
So. Indian-style curry with cauliflower, potatoes, green beans and a little bit of chicken, with garlicky collards sauteed just long enough and hot enough that they get a little brown and nutty-flavored here and there.
A scalloped potato/squash torte, with a crisp salad of mixed lettuces, mizuna, arugula and herbs. So familiar and yet so new.
Black bean and squash enchiladas and a tangy side of chopped cucumber/radish/carrot/banana pepper, drizzled in a spicy vinaigrette and sprinkled with cotija cheese.
Frozen peas made fancy by pureeing them with fire-roasted hot peppers and riched-up with a chunk of butter, for dipping some barbecued pork ribs into between bites of smashed potatoes mixed with handfuls of chopped flat-leaf parsley or apple-juice-and-mustard glazed carrots.
Slices of summer squash (any kind) simmered in butter just until tender, then sprinkled with flakes of kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper, served with anything.
Radishes, cold out of the fridge, schmeared with a little butter and dashed with a little sea salt, eaten on the sly standing at the kitchen counter when nobody's looking.
It does remain to be seen whether I save us any money overall by buying our produce this way--I think it will be impossible not to, as we're already getting twice as much produce for half of what I used to spend every week at the farmer's market. But I'm definitely being creatively stimulated in the kitchen, which I really needed, and it feels good, and healthy, and right.
What's especially great though, is that we get the opportunity to visit "our farm" once a month and see where our food is coming from and get to know the people growing it for us. That's how I knew the eggplants were coming, by seeing them peeking out from under their leaves. That's how I know apples are going to be coming soon, from watching some kids eating the earliest ones. The strawberries we get each week are coming from a field that Molly and Daisy plundered. We have a bond with where our food comes from now, which is kind of priceless.
Not all CSAs are certified organic, but natural and sustainable means of farming are the general rule. Some CSAs require up-front payment for the entire season (ours allows for monthly payments) and some include a winter season (ours does, but it's limited and we're probably going to be lucky to be included).
To find out more about CSAs, Farmer's markets, and other means of obtaining fresh local produce in your area, check out Local Harvest.