CSA boxes offer farm-fresh goodness with no middle man

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Farm Fresh to You

This CSA box is from Farm Fresh to You in Sacramento, California. Photo: Kristi Garrett

When I first moved to Wisconsin nine years ago, I didn’t expect to find a fresh food paradise waiting for me here. I grew up in the 40-mile smear of suburbs north of Detroit, and while I was used to seeing the occasional farm stand, strip malls and parking lots were much more common. As far as I would have guessed, a 400-mile move due west wasn’t going to make much of a difference in my eating habits.

As it turns out, Madison is the hub of a local food movement that features several farmers markets in the summer and winter, farm stands, farm stores and farm restaurants, and best of all, a strong Community Supported Agriculture culture.

I’d never heard of CSAs before I arrived in Madison, and the first time someone suggested buying a share in a local farm to me, I laughed. It sounded like some kind of barnyard stock market scheme – County Road W in place of Wall Street – and completely unaffordable. Buy a share of a farm? Who has that kind of money?

It’s not as strange as it sounds. Farmers need capital to get their seeds in the ground, to buy new equipment and repair the old, to pay for labor. Consumers need food.

The CSA model gets rid of the middle men of grocery stores, supermarkets and even farmers’ markets. Instead, consumers connect directly to the farmers themselves. By buying one of a limited number of shares or subscriptions, consumers pay ahead of time in the expectation of receiving boxes of food periodically during the growing season – weekly, biweekly, or monthly, depending on what the farm offers and just how many zucchini the subscriber is willing to deal with in a summer. Fresh produce becomes even more affordable when you’re buying directly from a local farm, and the subscription model gives farmers access to capital when they need it most – before a single spaghetti squash even sprouts from its seed. (Some CSA models offer pay-as-you-go subscriptions.)

Of course, buying a share in a farm doesn’t mean you can show up in the fields and start giving orders – you don’t “own” any part of the farm. What your investment buys is the promise of some beautiful vegetables once the harvest begins.

And there’s one other thing you own as well, which comes as a shock to some new CSA subscribers: a share of the risk. Your high expectations of overflowing boxes of crisp radishes, juicy tomatoes, and spicy peppers may well become a reality, but a bad season may put a damper on what you can expect from your CSA subscription. A drought, a damp spring, an infestation of corn smut or potato blight, and you may find your high hopes dashed. It’s not common for an entire harvest to be lost, but despite having your heart set on raspberry jam or tomato sauce, one crop’s failure could lay you low.

But spreading that risk out among all of the subscribers and not concentrating it on the farm itself gives small farmers the ability to absorb unlucky seasons without folding – a risk to which the large agribusinesses they compete with are rarely subjected.

Since there is a lot of chance in CSA offerings, I like to focus on the entire bounty a CSA box provides rather than just looking forward to a few favorite crops. Last year, unfavorable conditions meant that I only got a single butternut squash – an all-time favorite at our house for curries and soups. But what I did get was several bags of purple potatoes. Purple potatoes?

Before arriving in Wisconsin I’d never before seen a food so purple, at least outside of a blueberry patch, and I’d bypassed them at the farmers’ market many times before. They didn’t taste quite like your standard Idaho variety, and I was surprised to find they turned my entire pot of cabbage and white bean soup an off-putting pale violet color the first time I substituted them in for russets. But they had a surprisingly creamy texture that I’d never encountered in another potato, especially when sliced and sautéed in oil – and now purple potato slices topped with half a hard-boiled egg and a sprinkle of fresh cilantro are one of my summer staples.

Purple potatoes are hardly the most exotic things you’ll find in a CSA box, either. Celeriac is as likely to make an appearance as celery, and I got more burdock root than broccoli one year. As someone whose farmers market trips are most likely to revolve around corn, tomatoes, beans, and eggs, I found my first few CSA boxes challenging – and a little confusing. There was at least one curry I made using sunchokes that I mistook for ginger root! That particular meal turned out, well … edible. But after a few years of kitchen experimentation (as well as the newsletter full of tips and recipes that comes with my current CSA subscription) I feel a good deal more comfortable with a wider variety of vegetables than I ever knew was out there.

Kohlrabi

Kohlrabi may have a face only a mother could love.

The best example of perplexing produce that has become a dinner delight may just be the humble kohlrabi. Kohlrabi is not what I could in good conscience call an attractive vegetable. While I’m quick to extol the beauty of a perfectly ripe tomato or a freshly picked strawberry, I don’t find much to praise in the look of a kohlrabi’s bulbous, thick-skinned stem, nor in its curling, tattered-looking leaves. The plant’s name itself doesn’t evoke much joy, either. Translated, the German means “cabbage turnip” – two vegetables not best known for the joy they bring when you find them on your plate.

But what else can you do when fate, and your CSA subscription, bring you a bag of six or seven of the things? You’re going to figure out a way to eat kohlrabi, of course. Once you know your way around it, kohlrabi seems much less “cabbage turnip” and much more a new way to enjoy the flavor of broccoli (a close botanical relative) combined with the crunch of an apple. It can be eaten raw – grated on your salad, for example, or sliced thin and served with hummus – but I tend to prefer it cooked. And if I’m going to cook kohlrabi, chances are good I’m going to make “kohlraburgers.”

Try them and tell me what you think!

Marinated Kohlraburgers and Yogurt Sauce Recipe

Serves 4

Ingredients (Kohlraburgers):
3 medium/2 large kohlrabi
3 cloves garlic
½ cup fresh-cut herbs (chives, oregano, parsley, cilantro)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon or lime
Fresh ground black pepper
Salt

Ingredients (Yogurt sauce):
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons finely shredded cucumber, with its juice
4 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely chopped

Kohlraburgers are a flavorful dish you can serve to your vegetarian friends at your next barbecue, but I’d be proud to offer this to any carnivores in attendance, too. The burgers have a broccoli-esque flavor that goes well with garlic and most herbs, too. I like to combine fresh cilantro and parsley for the marinade, but it’s worth experimenting with your favorites.

Get started with the marinade early in the day. Add the peeled garlic cloves to your food processor (or blender) and pulse the garlic until it’s broken down. Add in the fresh herbs, the lemon or lime juice, the tomato paste and the oil, and blend until it has a more or less even consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Peel your kohlrabi. While you can eat smaller kohlrabi with the skin intact, it’s just too tough on the larger variety – which also makes peeling a chore, so be careful with the paring knife. Cut the peeled stem into ½-inch rounds. Layer the discs in a bowl with the marinade, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and stash it in the fridge for 5-6 hours.

When done marinating, the kohlrabi usually does best in the cooler top rack of the grill. After about 10 minutes of cooking, I move it down to the bottom to get it a bit crispy and grab some of that grill flavor.

While the kohlrabi is on the grill, you can quickly put together the yogurt sauce. Blend the yogurt with the shredded cucumber, its juice, and the cilantro.

Serve the kohlrabi fresh off the grill with a dollop of yogurt sauce, either on its own or on a sandwich or hamburger bun.

What’s your favorite way to use kohlrabi? Tell us in the comments below.

Aimee Ogden

Aimee Ogden is a writer, mother of twins, and perpetually hungry foodie in Madison, Wisconsin.