Cooking Tips from a CSA Farmer

As we gear up for our seventh season of CSA starting next month, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve learned over the years for how I approach enjoying the many fruits and veggies that we grow here on the farm. 

Cast iron cooking with a view

Cast iron cooking with a view

Kitchen Staples

I’m not big on kitchen gadgets and am certainly not advocating for buying lots of gear. That said, I do want to mention there are a handful of items that I personally use regularly in the kitchen which I think make cooking from scratch easy and enjoyable. So for what it’s worth, these are my farm kitchen MVPs:

  1. Immersion blender: This is so handy for making soups (like our fall staple butternut squash soup), my lazy tomato sauce, and fruit smoothies (which I enjoy year round using frozen berries). You can always transfer whatever you’re cooking into a blender in batches, but I find it way easier (and it involves fewer dishes) to just use a stick blender.

  2. Cast iron pans: Largely due to health concerns, we’ve tried to purge Teflon and nonstick coatings from our lives. That means an arsenal of cast iron, aluminum, and ceramic cookware. We love our cast iron pans – which you can often get used (pre-seasoned!) by the way. They’re sturdy, can transfer from stove top to oven, and if properly cared for and seasoned are not hard to clean. We never use soap in them – we have a dedicated no-soap sponge that we use to wipe the food out, then heat them on the stove and rub a little olive oil in.

  3. Sharp knives: There’s nothing more infuriating than trying to use a dull knife to slice a tomato (or more dangerous than using a dull knife to slice a huge winter squash). It seems counter-intuitive, but sharp knives are way safer than dull knives. Scott can vouch for the fact that I’m not always what one would describe as “careful” when wielding sharp objects (for some reason he disapproves of my “air cutting” when I’m too lazy to get out a cutting board…), so it’s best not to have to hack at my veggies with a dull blade. Even having one go-to sharp knife will make a huge difference in all the cutting you’ll be doing with your CSA produce.

  4. Big cutting board: And along those lines, it’s also super helpful to have at least one large cutting board. I’ve watched people cut veggies on a tiny board, being super careful that the veggies don’t all fly off once chopped, and to me it looks slow and tedious. If you have a big board, you can have plenty of space to quickly do your thing. (Also, it means fewer band-aids than “air cutting” – see above.) Personally we like bamboo boards and we care for them by rubbing a little mineral oil in.

  5. Salad spinner: A key tool in the first greens-heavy weeks of the CSA featuring lots of lettuce, spinach, greens mix, and arugula. It’s the best way to get your greens clean and dry. No one wants a soggy salad.

  6. Salad dressing container or mason jars: Also helpful for salad season is a container for making homemade dressing. You can of course buy your favorite type from the store instead, but it’s pretty easy to whip up a simple vinaigrette or other favorite staple dressing, and they’ll generally keep in the fridge for a week. Just shake and enjoy.

  7. Ziplock freezer bags: No matter how many fruits and veggies you eat, sometimes you might still feel overwhelmed with produce in a given CSA week. Luckily there are many ways to preserve the bounty, and I think the easiest is freezing. It’s important to have a container that will prevent freezer burn. Our go-to is freezer bags, which we wash and reuse multiple times as long as there are no holes in them. For things like soups we also reuse yogurt quart containers.

  8. Compost bin: For any peels, tops, stems, etc. that you don’t want to eat. Composting extra organic matter keeps these food scraps out of the landfill and means food “waste” is going back into the food cycle.

Sharp knives!

Sharp knives!

Cooking Hacks

I also want to share a few of my favorite tricks…

I love cooking with ginger, but I never seem to have fresh ginger lying around. Since we’re 20+ minutes from the nearest grocery store, we rarely just run out to get a missing ingredient. One hack I’ve figured out is to freeze cubes of ginger! Basically I buy a bunch in bulk, peel it, cut it into chunks, and throw it in the Cuisinart with a little water. Then I freeze it in an ice tray, pop out the frozen cubes, and store in a freezer bag. That way when a recipe calls for a little ginger I can just pull a cube out and I’m ready to go! (Note: you can freeze other items in cubes such as herbs in oil or water, tomato paste, or vegetable stock.) 

In fact, you can freeze almost anything. I think the easiest thing to freeze and use later are peppers. Just slice or dice, throw in a freezer bag, and you’re done – no blanching necessary. Same goes for fruit like cantaloupe or berries, which we enjoy pulling out of the freezer in the winter and adding to yogurt for delicious smoothies. I also enjoy freezing greens – especially kale, collards, and spinach. These do require a few minutes of blanching, but it goes pretty quickly in batches and there’s nothing like pulling out a bag of ready-to-go greens to throw into a sauté or soup later on.

A freezer full of farm goodies to enjoy all year long

A freezer full of farm goodies to enjoy all year long

You don’t always have to come up with a unique and creative way to cook your produce. When in doubt, I just sauté veggies and throw them over a grain like rice or quinoa. Add a sauce – store bought (like Teriyaki or Yellow Curry) or homemade – or not. Throw in a protein like some tofu or meat, or don’t (Americans eat too much protein anyway, and you’ll get some from the veggies and even more if you use a grain like quinoa). Or, my favorite when we have an abundance of eggs – throw a bunch of chopped veggies in a frittata.

My Inspiration

I have a number of go-to cookbooks and blogs that are great for plant-based/veggie-heavy diets and well suited to cooking CSA veggies.

Some of my cooking inspiration on the shelf

Some of my cooking inspiration on the shelf

My favorite cookbooks are:

  • Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: This is hands down the cookbook I pull off the shelf most frequently. I’ve discovered fun favorites like mung bean pancakes (a great use for shredded carrots!), solid recipes for pizza dough (which I then top with homemade tomato sauce and lots of fresh veggies), and ways to cook practically every vegetable. What I love about this book is that the flexible recipes often include a base recipe and then list a number of variations so you can use what you have on hand and adjust to taste.

  • The Vegetarian Flavor Bible: This is a fantastic resource for improvising. I’ll be honest – I just wing it waaaay more often than I look up a recipe and stick to it. This is a really helpful book for cooks who have some sense of what they want to make but could use some help with the specifics. For example, if you know you want to make a butternut squash soup but aren’t sure what other veggies or herbs play nice with the squash, just look up butternut squash and there’s a whole list of complimentary flavors. It’s a great guide for people who want to be creative and not stick to a recipe but get some suggestions. I’m a big fan of making substitutions in recipes, especially since I’m usually trying to cook with just what I have on hand since I’d rather use my freshly grown veggies than make a trek to the grocery store. I usually use recipes just when I’m learning something new; after that I improvise, and this book is a good tool for that.

  • FairShare CSA Coalition’s two cookbooks: From Asparagus to Zucchini and Farm-Fresh and Fast. With recipes contributed by many CSA farmers, these books are really helpful for using CSA veggies. They’re developed knowing the types of seasonal produce you’ll be working with if you subscribe to a CSA here in Wisconsin. One of my favorite spring recipes is for lettuce cups that use fresh snap peas, lettuce, kohlrabi, and a ground meat if you’d like.

SK’s spaghetti squash tacos

SK’s spaghetti squash tacos

And some of my favorite blogs include:

  • Wisconsin From Scratch: We are lucky to count blogger Sarah as a CSA member, so she’s experimenting with all the same veggies you get every week, and documenting them. Her website is a good archive, though these days she shares more about her weekly cooking ventures through her Instagram stories. Sarah also does a great job scouring the internet for awesome recipes; she introduced me to two of my favorites: okonomiyaki (such a great way to use lots of cabbage in a savory dish) and fried greens meatlessballs (the best way to turn a million greens into a hearty main course). 

  • Smitten Kitchen: I haven’t met a SK recipe that I’ve tried and didn’t like. I love her original cookbook, but she has tons more recipes on the blog too. I tend to avoid recipes that involve long ingredient lists; mostly hers are simple but I will say even the ones that are slightly longer I’ve always found to be worth the effort. I love her spaghetti squash tacos, ratatouille, and bran muffins.

  • New York Times Cooking: This is a great searchable database (it does require a subscription however). If you’re looking for something to do with the beets and carrots in your box one week, type those two ingredients in the search box and you’ll find dozens of recipes that use both. You can also save recipes (from the New York Times or anywhere else on the internet) to Your Recipe Box, and organize them into folders, which makes finding favorites easy.

  • Bon Appétit magazine: Lots of creative new recipes I would never come up with on my own. I also like that they often have fun sauces and dressings. Sometimes recipes call for less common ingredients, but I usually just sub for something similar.

SK’s bran muffins - here with blueberries and cantaloupe

SK’s bran muffins - here with blueberries and cantaloupe

I hope you find some of these tips and resources useful as you prepare for the CSA season! We’re looking forward to sharing lots of locally and lovingly grown fruits and veggies with our members soon.