Happy summer, everyone!
I'm writing again this season to share information, recipes, and thoughts I've gathered about making the most of your CSA veggies throughout the season. For anyone new to this blog, I'm Megan. (That's me to the right). My partner, Blake, and I have been subscribers to Scotch Hill Farm since 2012. I love reading about food, trying new recipes, and experimenting with different approaches to cooking.
For first-time subscribers (and even return members), the week's delivery can be a little overwhelming at times. But, you can do it! I thought I'd share a few things we've learned over the past few years.
If you're just starting out, It's no secret that starting a new activity and allowing it to become habit works best when that activity is easy and pleasurable. It's much harder to stick to a routine or adopt a new habit when it's tedious, cumbersome, or overly complicated. Cooking from scratch every night can seem like one of those burdensome chores we'd all rather avoid. Here's where strategy and a little know-how can really make a difference.
Start the season off right by staying on top of your share from week one. Falling a little behind certainly happens and isn't the end of the world, but using up that first share before the following Thursday gives us a great confidence boost for the start of the season.
Invest in a few quality kitchen tools if you don't have them already. Having the right tools makes any task that much simpler and more pleasant. I'm not here to hawk a bunch of newfangled gadgets. A few kitchen basics go a really long way in prepping farm veggies.
One decent knife: Do yourself a favor and get one decent chef's knife-- a big, sharp one. I have a couple on my knife bar, but I'm always grabbing the 10 or 11 inch knife for veggie prep. Using a longer knife allows you to keep the point of the blade grounded on your cutting board which helps you avoid cutting yourself. It also means that you won't lose sight of the blade in a big fluffy pile of greens or have to do too much hacking to get through a large squash. Almost every time I've cut myself with a kitchen knife it's been because I used a knife that was too short or too dull for the task.
A large cutting board: With a large cutting board, you have space to work and you're not always chasing bits of vegetable as they go careening onto the floor. It also lets you chop a bundle of greens all at once or set up a proper mis-en-place, if you're feeling fancy. Mine is around 12 X 18.
A salad spinner: I know, I said I wasn't into newfangled gadgets. But stick with me. I like salad spinners for two reasons. First, they allow you to gently clean and dry a whole pound of greens at once. (They have a built-in colander!) Less obvious is that the salad spinner is hands-down the best way I've found to store greens. You can extend the life of your greens by at least double (I won't admit to how long I've let lettuce sit in a salad spinner in my fridge before opening it to find perfect, crisp leaves for my salad). Simply rinse your greens, spin them dry, dump the excess water from the bottom and replace it with a small amount of fresh water--enough to keep the air moist but not so much that it's touching the leaves--and tuck it in the fridge. It's as convenient as bagged grocery store lettuce and so much better.
A roasting pan or heavy, rimmed baking sheet: Having something that will stand up to the heat of the broiler (usually 450 to 500 Fahrenheit) allows you to make exquisite roasted vegetables and indulgent gratins, but more important for the time-pressed cook is the ability to make sheet pan suppers. Sheet pan suppers have become popular recently for the simple fact that they take hardly any work and allow you to make a delicious, full-flavored meal. The technique is infinitely customizable and works well for vegetable-forward meals. I'll talk more about these as we start getting vegetables that will stand up to high heat.
Those are the basics. If your kitchen and budget allow, a few other items can help free you up to explore new techniques for your CSA veggies.
A food processor, blender, or immersion blender: Homemade sauces, pestos, dressings, and soups are all available to you if you have one or more of these tools at your disposal. I have one of each, but the tool I use most often and would recommend for anyone on a tight budget or with tiny kitchen (like mine!) is the immersion blender. Mine, a Cuisinart, was a gift from a former roommate and I love it. I make salad dressings, pasta sauce, pesto, smoothie, and a whole lot more with it. It can be a bit splattery, but I help cut down on the mess by using it in a deep pan, measuring cup, or bowl.
A mortar and pestle: A large mortar and pestle is great for making rougher sauces and dips. I love pounding garlic and herbs together to form the base for a pesto. It's great stress relief!
Plan ahead, a little or a lot. If you're the kind of person who likes to plan meals ahead, do it! Plotting out your meals for the week can really help you make sure to use all the veggies in your share. But, if you're not a planner (I confess, I'm not), making and sticking to a rigid food plan can be tough and even discouraging. So, if you're like me, embrace the spontaneity a little, but do so smartly. Know which veggies you'll need to use more quickly (think delicate stuff) and which ones will hang out happily for a bit (think heartier stuff) and do a little veggie prep when you pick up your share. You're more likely to grab veggies as a snack or toss them into a meal if they're spiffed up and ready to go. So, wash your greens right away, separate roots from their tops and store them separately, and maybe even cut up veggies that you like to snack on so they're ready to go. Future you will thank you for it.
Stock your pantry. Keep essentials on hand to round out your meals. Staples in my kitchen include a few varieties of beans (sometimes canned, but mostly dried) and lentils, fish canned in olive oil, a few grains, Parmesan and sometimes feta cheese, an array of spices, capers, olive oil, vinegar, fresh garlic, and Kosher salt. Pay attention to the things you use most often and make sure they're front and center in your pantry and forget about the rest.
Read about food and cooking. One of the most invaluable food habits I've picked up is reading about food. I find that having a few go-to cooking/recipe sources makes cooking daily meals much simpler and less monotonous. Sources I turn to time and again include Food52, The New York Times Cooking site (free, if you sign up for an account), Cook's Illustrated, Plenty and Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi, and Smitten Kitchen. Your mileage may vary, but the more important point is to pay attention to the recipes that you like and look to their authors for inspiration. When we're in a rut, that's the first thing I do and it works every time.
Learn a little about food preservation. Part of making the most of your CSA share is learning a little bit about food preservation and finding techniques that work for you. Taking simple measures on the day you receive your share can help keep veggies fresh and crisp for longer.
- Always detach the tops from root vegetables, but don't throw them out! They're tasty and nutritious as well. Detaching the tops keeps them from drawing moisture out of the roots, allowing you to store your turnips, carrots, radishes, and kohlrabi for longer. Try storing radishes in a container of water in the fridge to keep them crispy for a couple extra days.
- Freezing is a simple and effective way of lengthening the life of your veggies. I blanch my veggies, let them dry, then freeze them in labeled freezer bags. Be sure to squeeze all the air out before sealing.
- Don't be afraid to try other techniques too-- make pickles or pestos to extend your veggie's stay in your fridge.
Throw a dinner party or potluck. Still think you have too much food lying around? Throw a dinner party, potluck, or backyard barbecue and share the bounty with friends and family. What better excuse can you find to invite people over than having a surplus of tasty food?
Relax. Learning to trust myself in the kitchen was a crucial development in my cooking ability. Many of us carry strong emotional attachments to food, often without even knowing it. Even if we're excited to try something new or to serve our families an elaborate meal, we're plagued by the fear that it won't turn out right or that our skills aren't good enough. It's true that cooking takes some level of skill and knowledge, but it's equally true that it also takes confidence in our abilities as cooks. For me, an informed approach to improvisation is the most central part of cooking well. I find recipes immensely helpful, but also somewhat constraining.
- Substituting smartly: How often do you actually have (or want to buy) every ingredient in a recipe? Learning what you can and can't substitute is important. The safest approach is just to swap like for like. Don't have sherry vinegar on hand? Most any any vinegar will do, but maybe avoid the distilled white kind unless you're looking for a pickle flavor. Don't like Swiss cheese? Any cheese with a similar consistency will usually stand in just fine. Tasting often and adding ingredients incrementally helps you steer clear of any meal-ruining errors.
- Seasoning to taste: I like salt, maybe more than your average home cook. I take care not to oversalt, but since no one in my home has medical issues limiting sodium and we steer clear of hidden sodium by avoiding processed foods, I salt to my heart's content. I also love sour, bitter, and spicy flavors and use them to balance out a meal. Pay attention as you're cooking to the qualities in a meal that have you coming back for more and leave you satisfied at the end of a meal. Balance and variety are important to satisfying our appetites.
- Allowing flavor to develop: One of the scariest parts of cooking for me used to be figuring out how long to let something cook. What if it gets overdone? What if it burns? What if it turns to mush? What if it sticks to the pan? All of those things might happen, but if you're using a technique that allows improv and watching it closely, they won't. Sauteeing and roasting are really forgiving ways to cook vegetables, and since there's nothing in your share you can't eat raw, tasting is your best bet for checking in on the veggie's status. Once of the best sources of flavor for many dishes is the fond--that sticky stuff that forms at the bottom of a pan. It may look burnt, but chances are if it's not pitch-black, it offers you a perfectly concentrated flavor to add to your dish. Add a little liquid, preferably something acidic like lemon juice, vinegar or wine, but water will do, and scrape with whatever tool won't damage your pan. Then stir all that good flavor into your dish.
Visit your farm. If you feel yourself faltering midway through the season, visit the farm! See where your food comes from and get to know the people who grow it. Trust me, spending a few hours or a few days in the gardens with Tony and Dela will replenish your energy and passion for CSA membership.