Once we are adults, there seem to be fewer and fewer things that wholly change the course of one's eating habits. I have had some people tell me in the past that the issue of food politics, where our food comes from, and supporting small farms, is best taught to youngsters because adults are too "far gone" to really change on a fundamental level. I am convinced that a huge exception to this rule is community supported agriculture (CSA) and what it can teach us.
In November, we joined a CSA for the first time. After a lot of research, we decided to subscribe to Eatwell Farm's weekly box. I have known Nigel Walker, the farmer, for a few years and knew that we would be in good hands with his CSA. Eatwell Farm is a certified organic farm located 68 miles from San Francisco with a CSA program that is in it's 10th year.
This week, we received our 17th box. I can say that without a doubt, subscribing to a CSA has completely changed the way we eat. Our meals at home are now much more reactive than proactive, but in only the best sense of the term. Instead of doing the work to decide what's at the peak of the season ("I know there are oranges at the market right now, but aren't they almost at the end of the season? Are they still sweet? Where are those tomatoes coming from? How were they grown?"), and what is from our local foodshed, we pick up a box of fruits and vegetables that the farmer has decided he wants us to have because they represent the best that his farm has to offer that week.
One argument that I have heard against joining a CSA is that "I love shopping at farmers' markets each week." I love shopping at the markets too, and still do. CSA membership and market shopping go hand in hand, but instead of lugging all the essentials home I use the market to append to what I already have. I find the market to be a much more pleasant experience when I know that I have the basics at home already.
Each week in our box, we receive a newsletter from the farm that talks about the week and anything that is going on at the farm. This type of communication puts me in touch with my food in a way that I have never been connected before. At the very beginning of the year when we had terrible storms in the Bay Area, we received a newsletter talking about the damage done to the farm (power out, damage to the power source), and the reasons why Eatwell Farm fared so much better than some (the quality of the soil absorbed the rain correctly) -- all things that I may have been able to find out at the farmers' market if I asked the correct questions and if the farmer had time to talk with me.
I still have the note from that week on our refrigerator:
We do not have running water on the farm due to the weekend storms. Your vegetables are unwashed today and quite muddy. Instead of lettuce, you have organic walnuts from Dixon Ridge Farms. You may have a butternut squash instead of sweet potatoes. We were also not able to wash eggs. You will receive double eggs with your next box. Thanks for your understanding.
So much about this note makes me smile. The fact that there are so many changes to the box, the fact that they substituted lettuce with walnuts (because they're so similar), and fact that the note reminds me of how muddy the food was that week. I received one item in a plastic bag and I literally had no idea what it was until I washed and washed for about two minutes - to finally find a watermelon radish in a huge clump of mud. Jason and I were fascinated because we had never seen mud with such a clay-like consistency. We actually ended up calling Nigel on the way to Sacramento one day to see if we could go see the farm after the storm. "It's not in very good shape," he replied, but I persisted that we wanted to see it during the winter, and he acquiesced. The pictures that you see in this post were from that day, and as you can see the farm was gorgeous and in amazing shape.
* In most of his books, Mark Bittman recommends a method of cooking greens that involve heating a small amount of oil in a pan, sauteeing greens for 2 or three minutes over high heat, then adding spices and chicken stock (about a cup for a pound of veggies) and cooking a few more minutes (I usually cover, but it depends on the vegetable). The beauty of this recipe is how many variations there are of it. You can cook it with peanut oil, ginger, and a bit of soy sauce for an Asian influenced dish, or with olive oil and red peppers for a more Italian dish. I have used this cooking method with broccoli, cabbage, spinach, tatsoi, chard, kale, and brussels sprouts.
* To support our new CSA food routine, I stock large amounts of brown rice, beans, lentils and baked smoked tofu to give us proteins and help round out a meal featuring our CSA veggies.
* Any time you we have root vegetables that we are stumped by, we roast them. You can try this with one or many types of root veggies combined together. I dice them all into same-sized cubes, add a small amount of olive oil and salt, then roast them in the oven at 400 degrees. The amount of time depends on the size of the dice, but it usually takes about 30 minutes. I have tried this on different combinations of sweet potatoes, butternut squash, rutabagas, and turnips. The roasting adds a dimension of flavor that is wonderful by itself or added to a dish such as soup, rice dishes, or pastas.
* Elizabeth Schneider's book Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference has proven to be a very valuable resource when I get something in the box that I haven't used much before. While I have bought turnips for specific recipes, I have never had turnips in the fridge and wondered what to do with them. Same goes for rutabagas. This book helped me with both veggies, and gives me new ideas for familiar vegetables as well.
* I plan on using the CSA box when entertaining as well as in every day cooking. At the moment, I am still depending on recipes and menus when friends come for dinner, instead of letting the box dictate what we'll have.
* I plan on starting to put vegetables "up" for the May Eat Local Challenge, and for out of season use. We often think of that in the summer, but I wouldn't mind saving some of my spring and winter vegetables as well.
* I need to revamp our kitchen area in order to give myself a good cool, dark place to store our root vegetables and other long-term storage items. Right now, most items go into the fridge or are put on a table, neither of which is an ideal solution.
While I think that Eatwell Farm is an exceptional CSA to belong to and a great fit for us, I would encourage you to look into joining any CSA near you. It's an amazing way to get local food easily, feel more connected to your food than ever before, and to support small local farmers who work so hard at providing food for the community.
If you live in the Bay Area, this post I wrote for Bay Area Bites gives a good overview of local CSA's.