[Hey, this is Adam The Amateur Gourmet. I’m on vacation in Barcelona, Spain and while I’m gone I’ve asked some awesome people to fill in for me. Today we continue New York City Business Owner Day with Rachel Zoe Insler, owner of the amazing Bespoke Chocolates in the East Village (remember my visit?). Rachel’s got lots to say about CSAs, so let’s let her get to it. Take it away, Rachel!]
I haven’t yet bought a single vegetable at the Greenmarket this summer, but I’ve been eating the freshest local produce around, supporting New York-area farmers and spending less at the grocery store each week. Daily meals at Blue Hill at Stone Barns? That would be nice, but actually, I’m just a lucky member of the Stanton Street CSA.
Thanks to my CSA (which stands for Community Supported Agriculture), I am saving time, saving money, discovering new foods, feeling better than ever about what I am eating, and gaining a deepening connection to my food and my community. Does any of that sound good to you? I’ll admit that participating in a CSA is not for the right choice for everyone, but, if like many of Adam’s readers, you like to cook and you are marginally culinarily adventurous, I believe that you (yes, you) could benefit greatly from considering membership in your neighborhood CSA next season.
I’ve surprised myself by not writing about chocolate, and perhaps I’ve surprised Adam too, because I have to imagine that’s why I’d been asked to contribute! But somehow, writing a treatise on the anatomy of the perfect truffle, crafted in the temperature- and humidity-controlled confines of the Bespoke Chocolates kitchen, just didn’t seem in keeping with the spirit of the Amateur Gourmet. I considered writing about making chocolates at home, but the truth is: I don’t. I share 300 square feet of living space with my fiancé and we have three square feet of counter space that serves as both prep space and our dining table. I imagine many urban readers of this blog are in a similar (though hopefully slightly larger) kitchen situation as me:
Chocolate expertise aside, I wasn’t sure what I had to offer to this prolific blog that has kept me entertained and engaged for the past five years. I was having an existential crisis; what could a reader like me care to hear about from someone…like me? It was all very meta and then, walking home one day, the idea for my guest post topic hit me like a ton of garlic scapes: I will write a post for the CSA-less Rachel of Two Summers Ago, and those like her!!
What kept CSA-less Rachel from participating was not that I hadn’t heard of CSAs, but that I didn’t totally understand what I would be signing up for on a practical level. Did I like…have to go to a farm? Wasn’t it really expensive? Did I have to volunteer for hours on end? I’d ponder these questions, then I’d get visions of carrying endless sacks of broccoli home and crying so it was easier to just forget the whole thing. I wish I had known then what I know now. So, for the CSA-less and questioning among you, I now give you a complete look at one New York City CSA, so you won’t have to sacrifice any of your Michael-Pollan-reading, urban-home-cook street cred by asking someone else!
All CSAs are a little different, but the basic idea is summed up well by this explanation from the Stanton Street CSA’s website:
Community supported agriculture provides city dwellers (particularly those in low-income neighborhoods) with access to high quality, locally-grown, and yes affordable produce, while at the same time helping to support family farms & their environmentally sustainable agricultural practices.
Sounds lovely, how does it work? I pay for my vegetables upfront*, sharing the risk and reaping the rewards of farming along with our growers, namely Ted and Jan Blomgren of Windflower Farms. I also agree to volunteer four hours of my time over the course of the season to help with distribution. In return, every Thursday for 23 weeks from 5:30-7:30pm, I can go to the beautiful M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden, located two blocks from my apartment, to pick up 8-10 different fresh, local, organically farmed vegetables, pick up some recipes, chat with my neighbors (or not, if I’m in a hurry), and take them home with me! That’s it! Want a closer look?
Join me, will you?
Not all CSAs distribute in such an idyllic setting, but it’s certainly a perk of mine. I love having an excuse to visit this gorgeous community resource each week. I step out of the craziness of East Houston Street, pass by the Whole Foods with my empty reusable bags and walk into this:
As I approach the distribution area, I’m welcomed by the sight of my fellow East Villagers and Lower East Siders milling about, some rushing to grab their veggies quickly on their way home, others chatting, leisurely picking up their shares. The East Village and Lower East Side are fortunate to have several CSA options (find your NYC CSA here!), so most of our shareholders are uber-local, living and/or working within a few blocks. Before I opened my chocolate shop, CSA distribution was really the only time I would spontaneously interact with my neighbors; something about the experience of sharing a harvest took me out of Urban Autopilot Mode.
I’m greeted by a volunteer who hands me a newsletter which usually contains a message from Farmer Ted, an interesting article (this week’s was about Late Blight, something that would have been off my radar were it not for the CSA), and several recipes featuring the produce of the week.
A chalkboard lists the week’s share, so you know exactly how much of each item you are entitled to take. Strictly honor system, but as far as I know, there’s never been a problem. Typically, there are excess veggies and these are donated to the Bowery Mission, just another way that the CSA benefits my community.
The veggies are delivered from Windflower Farms in large bins; here you can see some delicious, sweet turnips.
I never liked turnips until I tasted my CSA turnips and apparently, mine is not a unique observation. Years of cardboard-like supermarket turnips convinced me I was a hater, so I was dismayed to find them in a share last summer. The handy newsletter anticipated my reaction and pre-emptively offered a recipe for roasted turnips from Chez Panisse that all but guaranteed to convert the anti-turnip. I’m now a member of the turnip choir. I never would have put money or effort into turnips previously, but they just showed up in my share demanding to be dealt with, as they had already been paid for, and I was pleasantly surprised. Of course, I don’t love everything that I receive (see the aforementioned broccoli), but more often than not, the super-fresh specimens win me over.
Here are some beautiful scallions, which will invariably find their way into a stir-fry this week. Stir-fry has always been a fairly common “default” healthy dinner in my kitchen, but the CSA has saved me from stir-fry burnout. Each week there are different vegetables to choose from and the quality is so superb; even my quick weeknight dinners are elevated to something special.
We usually get lots of greens during the summer, as the farmers try to grow what their shareholders like to eat. Here is some crisp romaine lettuce, modeled by friendly CSA volunteers:
Next, here you see some….OHMYALICEWATERS! What the heck is that? A tub of aliens? What am I supposed to do with that???
Well, I’m kidding at this point, but when I first saw kohlrabi during last year’s distribution season, that was my (thankfully silent) response. CSA to the rescue: there were two kohlrabi recipes in the newsletter that week:
the lending library of cookbooks to consult:
and the most valuable resource of all, a bunch of other amateur home cooks hanging around who are mostly pretty excited to share their own tales of kohlrabi victory and woe on the spot. I remember wishing I had two stems of kohlrabi by the time I left, so that I could try preparing it both raw and cooked.
One of the things I think about often is how making fresh food truly accessible doesn’t just mean simply making it available, or even affordable. Education is a critical and often-overlooked component; I never would have purchased kohlrabi without knowing what it was or how to work with it. My exotic-to-me vegetable incident sheds light on a much more problematic and widespread issue: many people in cities don’t know what to do with any vegetables. If you’ve got extremely limited time and a very limited budget, you might feel like even inexpensive vegetables are a waste of money as they’ll probably languish in your refrigerator if you don’t feel comfortable preparing them, while fast food is a sure thing.
But I digress. That’s another issue (volunteer for Just Food if it’s one you’re interested in!) I’m going to hop off of my soapbox and back into the garden. We are very lucky in that our CSA offers more than just vegetables. There is an option to participate in the fruit share, which last week featured luscious peaches:
We’ve also got a flower share (which was not available to photograph since all of the flower sharers had picked theirs up by the time I arrived) and an egg share. These eggs are luscious, bright orange yolks and fresh eggy taste. Plus, when was the last time your hens wrote you a personal message?
Finally, we’ve got something called “Extras” which are a la carte deliveries of pastured meat and poultry, breads, cheeses, and much more. You can read more about Extras here. One of the volunteers or core members (Hi Kevin!) is always on hand to assist you in making sure that you get all of the delicious goat cheese, flour tortillas, honey, yogurt and grass-fed lamb that you ordered. At Thanksgiving, you can even order a heritage turkey!
I didn’t photograph everything, so to summarize, our share this week consisted of: cucumbers, kale, bok choi, chard, scallions, romaine lettuce, turnips, kohlrabi, potatoes, and one cute tomato. It’s actually the smallest share we’ve had all season, which I think is related to the weather. Still, it was plenty of veggies for my fiance and me. What have we been eating, you might ask?
The kale, a few potatoes, and some of the scallions found their way into a frittata with six eggs, which served as three lunches. Some turnips and potatoes were roasted with thyme from last week’s herb plants, and served with a salad of lettuce and some grilled chicken. Cucumber salads have been plentiful this week. Tonight I’m thinking stir-fry with scallions, kohlrabi and bok choi. Tomorrow I guess whole wheat pasta with white beans, sage leaves (also from a CSA plant) and chard.
Nothing too fancy, I know. When I’m less busy at work, I get more adventurous with my vegetables, and I have a blast. I love that my CSA share is super-fun when I’ve got ample kitchen time, but it’s also my savior when I’m more limited. It is so nice to have meals plan themselves, and for those meals to be built around fresh produce.
Before the CSA, I used to have grand plans of visiting the farmer’s market weekly, but in reality, I almost never went. I was (and am) such a busy person; I didn’t feel I had the time to make local produce a priority in my life. Now that I have pre-paid for the vegetables, I have forced myself to prioritize picking them up, but it’s only a fifteen minute time commitment a week, and besides, it’s an obligation that I am thrilled to have.
If anyone’s made it to the end of this post, I’m amazed and grateful. I guess I’m pretty passionate about this. I’ll close by saying that the few downsides I’ve experienced are far outweighed by the benefits to CSA membership. Feel free to post any questions you may have in the comments section, and I’ll try alleviate your broccoli nightmares. I’m talking to you, CSA-Less Rachels of Two Years Ago!
*Payment plans are available for those who cannot afford to pay at once, though, and subsidized shares are available as well for those in need. Detailed pricing info is here but note that every CSA is different.