On a Thursday evening last May, I walked into Greensgrow Farm in Port Richmond with a mix of excitement and trepidation: I was about to collect my first installment from the community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, a weekly, farmer's-choice assortment of whatever fruits and vegetables are ready to pick.
But as I unpacked my bags of produce at home, my confidence waned.
Here were heaps of vegetables I had never considered purchasing at the supermarket - and others I'd never even seen there. Dandelion greens? Rhubarb? And more to come next week? I worried that I was in for a long, bitter summer.
Here's what I learned the hard way: CSA success requires careful preparation, an arsenal of strategies for coping with unfamiliar produce, a tall stack of trustworthy cookbooks, and an open mind. For those considering a farm share (or re-upping this season with a degree of anxiety), here's your survival guide:
The first step may sound obvious, but it's crucial: Put away your produce properly. It's a process more involved than tossing a cellophane-pack into the refrigerator, because farm-fresh greens can wilt incredibly quickly, and even carrots can turn rubbery if not stored properly.
I asked Marisa McClellan, the Center City-based author of the blog and cookbook Food in Jars and a CSA veteran, about her approach. She said she first tends to greens: washing them right away, drying them completely in a salad spinner and chopping them before packing them into bags or containers with lids. It makes them easier to use, and they last longer. (She also swears by the ethylene-trapping containers that have come onto the market.)
After that, it's a matter of strategizing: using the most perishable items first, and preserving things you won't get around to eating that week by pickling, fermenting or freezing them.
McClellan said she usually devotes an hour or so to making quick refrigerator pickles with extra cucumbers or turning surplus tomatoes into freezable pizza sauce. If she has bitter greens she won't eat in a salad, she'll blanch them quickly, then grind them into pesto with walnuts, Parmesan and olive oil, freezing the pesto in ice cube trays for easy use.
Finally, it's a question of locating reliable recipes for all those unfamiliar roots, leaves and stalks looming in your crisper. (And a good recipe is crucial when it's your first showdown with a new ingredient. For example, I treated those dandelion greens like I would chard or kale, and sautéed them without blanching them first; the result was unpleasantly bitter.)
Fortunately, a slew of new cookbooks are devoted to plant-based cooking, and many are even organized around the seasons to serve as users' manuals for anything that happens to be coming out of the ground.
I started with McClellan's Preserving by the Pint (Running Press, $23), a book of pickles, preserves and pestos that's parsed by the season. It's packed with solutions for many of the things I reluctantly took home last year, such as turnips (pickles!), garlic scapes (pesto!) and hot peppers (homemade Sriracha!).
Faced with that bundle of rhubarb, I tried her recipe for a simple compote, chopping up the rosy stalks and sprinkling them with sugar, lemon zest and vanilla before roasting them. Her recipe calls for processing the compote in a boiling water bath to preserve it. I didn't bother, because it was gone in a few days - it was that good - drizzled on Greek yogurt or slathered on toast.
But rhubarb, perhaps, is too easy. A few months into my CSA program, the contents of my shopping bag began to get really weird.
Fortunately, it was about that time that I discovered Laura B. Russell's book Brassicas (Ten Speed Press, $23), named for the family of super-healthy cruciferous vegetables that includes not just kale and cauliflower, but also intimidating bulbs of kohlrabi and heads of romanesco. It turns out that, lightly steamed or simply sliced thin enough, these veggies are outright approachable. Russell turned romanesco into an easy salad that was delicious enough to make again and again.
And I did. Last summer, I made a lot of salad.
This year, in search of other ideas, I consulted Emily Seaman, chef at Dizengoff, the acclaimed Center City hummus shack.
After all, just like those of us who are slave to our CSAs, Seaman often has to deal with an unexpected bounty, including surplus and scraps from sister restaurant Abe Fisher and surprises from her regular suppliers.
"One or two farmers have smaller operations, so I'll say, 'Bring $200 of your best stuff tomorrow,' " she said.
Then, she scrambles. It's often a matter of trial and error. For instance, when Abe Fisher used hundreds of ramp bulbs, Seaman turned the leftover greens into tabbouleh.
In other cases, she said, "We pickle a lot of stuff, because it keeps longer." She fermented a wintertime influx of squash, turnips and rutabagas, serving the results as condiments or using them to season other recipes.
This year, I plan to follow her lead. When I'm overwhelmed with turnips, I'll crack open My New Roots (Clarkson Potter, $30), the new book from nutritionist-writer Sarah Britton. Her version of fermented turnips includes beets and dill for color and flavor.
The book, divided into chapters according to season, covers the best of spring, summer and fall produce - think, pea and tarragon soup, or cucumber salad with lemon, spelt berries, feta and nigella seeds. And, it offers solutions for some of the stuff you might otherwise be inclined to toss, as in a pesto of garlic scapes and carrot tops.
In fact, farm shares and farmers' markets have helped drive interest in whole-vegetable cooking, because they often include the so-called scraps rarely seen in grocery stores.
And the best place to look for an answer to those beet greens and watermelon rinds might be a new book from Atlanta-based chef Steven Satterfield. His encyclopedic Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons (Harper Wave, $45) is organized by time of year, then by vegetable. Satterfield restores dignity to things such as chard stems, which he advises dicing and sautéing with onion before gently wilting the greens, or setting aside for a sweet-and-sour relish to serve with cheese or charcuterie.
Still, as I can attest, some weeks there's just no time to make chard-stem relish. Some weeks, you'll be tired of leafing through cookbooks, out of canning jars, and actually considering the possibility of lettuce soup.
It's a good time to remember that it's called a farm share. The only thing to do then is call your friends and offer to share.
Blooming Glen Farm. This Perkasie farm offers a box of organic vegetables, plus such pick-your-own items as strawberries and cherry tomatoes. There are also pickup sites in Doylestown and Yardley. 215-257-2566, Bloomingglenfarm.com
Crawford Organics. This Lancaster County farm offers pickup of produce boxes at several Philadelphia locations. If you know now that you'll be on vacation for part of the summer, it will sell you a prorated share. 717-445-6880, crawfordorganics.com
Greensgrow Farms. Weekly and biweekly shares include vegetables, fruits, eggs, and cheeses from various area farms, and are available at pickup sites around the city. 215-427-2780, greensgrow.org
Lancaster Farm Fresh CSA. This cooperative of 75 organic and chemical-free farms offers shares of vegetables, herbs, meats, flowers, and cheeses, with pickup locations across greater Philadelphia and beyond. 717-656-3533, Lancasterfarmfresh.com
Pennypack Farm. An educational farm with a focus on sustainability, Pennypack offers vegetable shares in varied sizes to fit your household, plus pick-your-own flowers as a perk at locations in Horsham and Fort Washington. 215-646-3943, pennypackfarm.org
Philly Foodworks. Produce, eggs, meat, cheese, yogurt, and bread shares are available from a variety of food producers through Philly Foodworks, at pickup sites in Center City, Northwest Philadelphia, and the Main Line. 240-350-3067, Phillyfoodworks.com
Red Earth Farm. This Lehigh County farm uses organic growing practices for its vegetable CSA, and offers such add-ons as fruit, egg, cheese, flower, and yogurt shares. Pickup locations are around Philadelphia and the suburbs. 610-683-9363, Redearthfarm.org
Taproot Farm. A family-run organic farm in Berks County, Taproot offers vegetable and fruit shares in a range of sizes, with pickup sites around Philadelphia and in Ambler. 610-926-1134, Taprootfarmcsa.com
West Philly Foods. Sourcing from farms in and around Philadelphia, this CSA includes a fruit-and-vegetable box and such add-on options as jam, bread, cheese, cookies, and Dock Street beer at sites in West Philadelphia. 215-895-4050, Westphillyfoods.comEndText
Makes 1 quart
2 pounds turnips, peeled
1 small beet, peeled
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons fine sea salt
2 large garlic cloves, sliced
2 sprigs fresh dill
1. Slice turnips and beets into batons the size of large french fries.
2. In a large measuring cup, combine vinegar, maple syrup, and salt with 2 cups water. Stir to dissolve the salt.
3. Put a few slices of garlic and the dill sprigs in a 1-quart jar. Add a handful of turnip pieces, a couple of beet pieces and then a few more slices of garlic. Continue layering this way until the jar is filled.
4. Pour the pickling liquid over the vegetables. Cover the jar with a tight-fitting lid and keep at room temperature for a week. After that, it's ready to eat and can be stored in the refrigerator for up to six weeks.
-Sarah Britton, My New Roots
Per serving (based on 6): 76 calories; 2 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams sugar; 0 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 1,985 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 2 half-pint jars
1 pound rhubarb
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 vanilla beans
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash rhubarb and chop into 2-inch lengths. Arrange pieces in the bottom of a baking dish.
2. Put sugar in a small mixing bowl. Scrape vanilla bean seeds from the pods and add to the sugar. Using a fine rasp, grate in lemon zest. Toss well and then sprinkle over the rhubarb. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice from one half over the rhubarb.
3. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until rhubarb pieces are tender but haven't lost their shape. When they're done, the color should have faded into a dusky pink.
4. If you're canning for long-term storage, while the rhubarb is roasting prepare a boiling water bath and two half-pint jars (refer to FoodInJars.com or your favorite canning cookbook for a detailed guide) and process for 10 minutes. If not, it will last, covered in your fridge for one to two weeks.
- Marissa McClellan, Preserving by the Pint
Per serving (based on 6): 50 calories; 1 gram protein; 13 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams sugar; 0 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 3 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 8 servings
33/4 pounds asparagus
4 tablespoons butter
8 ounces cooked, shelled, deveined shrimp
6 sprigs of dill
1. Break or cut off the woody ends of the asparagus. Cook them either in an asparagus pan, or in a regular saucepan (covered) with the bottom of the stems in about 2 inches of boiling water and the upper part of the stems and tips propped up against the side. It should take 4 to 6 minutes. The spears should be just tender when pierced with the point of a knife. Remove from pan and pat dry.
2. While the asparagus is cooking, melt the butter in a skillet and gently warm the shrimp with the chopped dill.
3. Divide the asparagus among plates or serve on a large plate. Spoon some shrimp and dill butter over each serving and season.
- From A Change of Appetite (Mitchell Beasley)
Per serving: 127 calories; 11 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams sugar; 6 grams fat; 75 milligrams cholesterol; 114 milligrams sodium; 5 gram dietary fiber.EndText
1 cup water
1 medium romanesco or regular cauliflower, cored and cut into bite-sized florets
2 teaspoons whole-grain Dijon mustard
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 red bell pepper
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/3 cup fresh dill
3 tablespoons drained capers
1. In a large pot, bring water to boil over high heat, and add a steamer insert if you have one. Add romanesco, cover the pot, reduce heat to medium and steam 2 to 3 minutes, until crisp-tender. Use a slotted spoon to transfer romanesco to a rimmed baking sheet or clean towel and spread in a single layer to cool.
2. In a small bowl, to make vinaigrette, whisk together the mustard, lemon zest, lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Slowly add the oil, whisking constantly with a fork to emulsify.
3. Put romanesco in a serving bowl, add bell pepper, onion, dill, capers, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and vinaigrette, and toss gently. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Laura B. Russell, Brassicas
Per serving: 171 calories; 5 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams sugar; 12 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 1500 milligrams sodium; 5 grams dietary fiber.EndText