CSA 101

A large selection of produce from a CSA.Q. What is a CSA?

Excellent question! CSA=Community Supported Agriculture. CSAs have been around since the 1980s, but they have become super popular in the last few years with the explosion of interest in buying local and knowing where your food comes from. CSAs vary in how they operate, but most are

  1. local farms; in which you
  2. purchase a membership, and in return
  3. receive weekly pickups of produce, dairy, meat.

Q. Okay, so I Googled CSA and found out there are several in my neighborhood. How should I choose one?

Very good! Now you need to do a small bit of additional research. Most CSAs have websites or Facebook pages. Check them out. Here are some questions you should be thinking about:

  • How much do I want to pay? You might be in for a bit of initial sticker shock, since you will usually be paying up front for the food you will be receiving. Most CSAs use their membership payments to purchase necessary supplies for the growing season. Keep in mind, however, that you would need to purchase food anyway for the next few months, just in smaller increments. Also, with your CSA membership you know that your food is local, that it is grown using healthy practices, and you get to meet the people responsible for growing it!
  • Do the pickup times work with my schedule? Most CSAs have only one or two days when you can stop by to pickup your share (after all, they have a farm to run!). Make sure those days and times mesh with your schedule. Keep in mind that you will be picking up fresh produce, so you will also need to have time to decide what you are going to do with it (i.e., refrigerate or freeze it, can it, cook it immediately, etc.). Some CSAs however, deliver the weekly pickups to locations off the farm. Check this out; there might be a drop off location close to your home or workplace.
  • Is there a work option? Some CSAs offer their members an option to reduce their share payments if they agree to do a set number of hours of work on the farm during the season. While this might not be for everyone, it is a great opportunity to learn more about how your food is grown and the people who are growing it.

Q. I’ve done a bit or research and found a CSA that I like near me. But the payment is more than I have on hand, especially since I’m not sure what I am going to do with all that food. Suggestions?

Many CSA’s allow members to split shares. In other words, two people can sign up for one share and split the cost. Check with your CSA to see what their policy is, then start asking friends and family. Donna first became involved with a CSA when her friend Jess asked her to split a share. Donna picked up the shares the first and third weeks of every month, Jess the second and fourth.

Q. Help! I just picked up my first CSA share. Now my kitchen counter is completely covered in produce, including a lot of stuff I never heard of. What am I going to do with all this?

Please don’t panic. In our experience, almost everyone who joins a CSA goes through this initial stage. Catfish & Waffles is here to help. We are also happy to point you toward many other great resources that have helped us over the years. Once you’ve mastered some basic approaches, you’ll be able to handle anything your weekly share throws at you. You will also be feeding yourself and your family a healthy and interesting local diet, and with some techniques for preserving food, enjoying favorite fruits and vegetables beyond their season. The stuff you never heard of could easily become your new favorite. Heck, you might even start your own food blog.

Freezing

Most vegetables and fruits can be frozen, although the preparations depend on what you are freezing (see the resources below). For starters, have a supply of freezer bags on hand and a sharpie for contents labeling and dates. The freezer that came with your refrigerator will do fine for now. Over time, however, once you’ve been bitten by the food preservation bug, you might want to consider purchasing a stand alone freezer for extra room and convenience. Frozen veggies are a great addition to soups and stews. Those greens you froze back in June will taste great in that lentil soup you’ll be making in February.

But you can do more than simply freeze your fruits and vegetables individually. Consider whole dishes. July’s eggplant parmesan will prove an easy and tasty meal on a cold December night long after eggplant has gone out of season. That  strawberry-rhubarb pie that you baked in June will look and taste marvelous on the table after your Thanksgiving Day dinner. Other good contenders for freezing: sauces, soups, stews. Donna quick freezes pesto in ice cube trays, then keeps the frozen cubes in the freezer for impromptu pasta dishes.

The Web abounds with terrific resources on freezing. Living Well: 11 Secrets To Properly Freezing Produce at Design Mom is a great one to help you get started. If you like to rock it old school and still want to feel the heft of a book in your hands, a well-thumbed perennial favorite of ours is Putting Food By by Ruth Hertzberg, et al.

Canning and Pickling

You’d be surprised at what you can can and pickle: brussels sprouts, garlic scapes, and daikon are some of the more exotic veggies we’ve pickled in recent years. Not to mention the ones we’re all familiar with: cucumber, beets, green beans. Pickling and canning takes a bit of planning and prep, but the rewards are worth it. The stacked jars look really cool in your pantry, pickles are great for healthy snaking, and the bragging rights just can’t be beat. And you know they taste a lot better than the ones you buy at the supermarket! Canned tomatoes are a major staple in our house. Every summer we put by at least 150 pounds, which over the course of the year will find their way into pasta sauces and chili dishes. We’re just too spoiled these days to eat the stuff that comes out of a tin can.

Fruit also lends itself to canning. Whole peaches, pears and apricots, for example. Applesauce and apple butter. And then there are jams and jellies. Sure, we all like staples such as strawberry and grape, but there’s plenty of room for the exotic here. Imagine blackberry pepper with rum, or peach habanero. That last one’s really good on warm toast on a sub-zero January morning before you go out to shovel the sidewalk.

The aforementioned Putting Food By is a great resource for learning the basics on canning. In this neck of the woods (Philadelphia), however, you can’t do better than checking in with Marisa McClellan. She hosts the blog Food in Jars, and literally wrote the book on the subject. Better yet, she holds classes throughout the year on the various aspects of pickling and canning. 

Fermentation

Growing up Pennsylvania Dutch on a farm in rural York County PA, means that I am well acquainted with the phenomenon  that is sauerkraut. My grandmother made it by hand whenever she had an abundance of cabbage, and fermented it in crocks in the old springhouse that sat across the road from the farmhouse.  Now I make it too whenever we can get enough cabbage from our CSA or food co-op. I make it because I love sauerkraut, but also because I appreciate the continuity it creates between my present life and my past.

Vegetables other than cabbage are also candidates for fermentation. Carrots, radishes and cucumbers, for example. Our favorite go to expert on fermentation is Sandor Katz. His encyclopedic The Art of Fermentation is our bible on the topic.

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