CSA produce share: How to use your fruits and veggies before they rot

My refrigerator’s vegetable drawer is stuffed with kale, peas, and turnips. I suspect my neighbors are in the same boat; up here in the Northeast, that’s what’s currently coming in community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes. The contents of your vegetable drawer may vary, but if you’re a CSA member, you know exactly what I mean. More importantly, you know the feeling of CSA Panic: The new share comes tomorrow, and we’re only half done with this one! What am I supposed to do with all these potatoes, or carrots, or mustard greens, or … celeriac?

I grew up in a rural area, where being a “work-share” CSA member meant you actually went to the farm and helped out. (Dirty, but extremely fun, especially when you’re a kid.) Now, living in New York City, I have what is probably a more typical experience. Every spring, I send a chunk of change to my local, volunteer-led CSA, which in turn works with a handful of farms to put together several offerings. The base option is a box or a bag of vegetables, delivered every week to an empty nearby school that lets us use their space every Saturday morning. Volunteers arrive to bag up the goods and distribute them to other members as they pick them up (everyone takes a weekend as a volunteer in my CSA). In addition to vegetables, members can pay extra to receive eggs, or a fruit share, or other items like honey, coffee, or meat. A CSA can extend way beyond produce: During the first pandemic summer, my husband and I used a little of our stimulus check on a share in an oyster CSA. (Yes, it was awesome.)

CSAs have a fascinating history, beginning with Black farmers in Alabama in the 1960s and ’70s and slowly growing to number around 13,000 in the US the last time census data was collected. The appeal is obvious: Weekly shares generally cost the same or less than what you’d pay in the grocery store (mine works out to $30/week), often with higher-quality produce and subsidized shares or SNAP for lower-income members. The up-front investment helps family farms (which struggle in the face of Big Agriculture to stay alive) have a guaranteed income.

The constant flow of vegetables is the backbone of most CSAs, and whether you’re a newbie or veteran, once the season starts you are soon confronted with your own wasteful food habits and unimaginative cooking skills. I’ve developed an arsenal of tools of my own to confront the problem, and so have a bunch of expert cookbook authors and chefs.

So if you, like me, are trying to make the best of a farm share, fear not: Help is on the way.

Establish an order of operations

The cycle starts when you bring home the goods, a variety of toothsome, wholesome, and usually pretty dirty produce. Where to begin?

Most of the experts I spoke with said the first thing to do is sort them in order of priority, which has to do with what will last a few days and what will still be edible if you find it in the back of the fridge in a month. “Arugula and other delicate head lettuces along with snap and snow peas tend to tire more quickly, so use those in the first days of bringing home your farm share,” says Alexandra Stafford, a blogger and cookbook author who writes a Substack newsletter devoted to making the most of your CSA. “Kale, cabbage, and other heartier greens will hold up just fine for at least a week in the fridge.” The same goes for hard and tough-skinned vegetables, I find: Winter squashes, carrots, beets, potatoes, and other root veggies can hang out for a while without harm. (Don’t refrigerate your potatoes. Or your tomatoes, while we’re at it.)

Leafy greens can sometimes be the trickiest to deal with, since they take up a lot of space and can wilt quickly, but also will almost certainly not get eaten if you don’t store them clean. I immediately wash my lettuce and other leafy greens and run them through a salad spinner, then dry as well as I can between layers of towels. Then I wrap them in paper towels and store them in bags in the refrigerator, and this keeps them fresh for at least a few days. Maya Kaimal, owner of an eponymous line of Indian food products and the author of Indian Flavor Every Day, is a big proponent of CSAs, and she has a more eco-friendly, plastic-free solution: “I wrap my greens in moistened cloth market bags — the unbleached cotton type I seem to have a zillion of — and then I put them in my vegetable drawer,” she says.

Linda Ly, who writes the award-winning homesteading and gardening blog Garden Betty as well as The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook, then tackles her root vegetables. First she removes the greens, wraps them in a damp towel, and seals them in a bag. Then she stores the roots separately, often in their own plastic bags. “With radishes in particular, I like to wash them first and then store them in the fridge, in a jar filled with water, which keeps them crisp and ready for snacking,” she says. (Radishes are good with every kind of dip, but I confess a weakness for eating them with butter and a little salt.) Other root veggies can also be stored in water in the fridge, in a food storage container, she notes.

Tamar Adler, author of several books about using up food — including most recently The Everlasting Meal Cookbook — says the first thing to do is simply make sure you’ve cooked everything that can be cooked, so that they’re already ingredients, rather than just raw materials. “Once you have roasted squash or boiled little turnips or sautéed greens, it is much easier to just add them to rice or a sandwich or a soup,” she says.

What’s important is to not lose track of what you’ve got on hand. For sisters Irene and Margaret Li, chefs and authors of the zero-waste cookbook Perfectly Good Food, it’s all about strategy. “If you have leafy lettuce greens that need to be eaten sooner rather than later, don’t shove them to the back of your crisper drawer,” they say. Stick a running list on the fridge so you know which ingredients you’ve got, or keep a note on your phone.

Use easy-to-replicate recipe formats

Using everything you get requires some strategic planning. “If you have root vegetables that will last longer, think ahead about fun ways to eat them and get those ingredients,” the Lis say.

You’ll need to have some reliable tools and ingredients on hand. Kaimal suggests a salad spinner, sheet pans, and reusable zippered bags; Stafford says a good chef’s knife, extra-large bowl, and food processor are essential. I’d also recommend an air fryer (for making quick roasted vegetables), a blender, and one of these chopper things, which I spotted all over TikTok last summer. It’s brilliant for making a fast salad or provoking minimal onion-chopping tears.

A Dutch oven is one of Ly’s favorite tools for turning everything into soup at the end of the week. Soup is in fact the great food-saver: The Lis recommend a hand blender (also called a stick or immersion blender) — “because you can toss so many different items from a CSA box into a soup!” Just heat up some broth, add languishing roasted vegetables, and blend, then add other ingredients till it tastes right (which could include cream, full-fat coconut milk, peanut butter, cooked garlic and onion, miso, and other refrigerator stalwarts).

Everyone I spoke with recommended having olive oil, salt, and some kind of acid on hand, like lemon juice or wine vinegar. “Aleppo pepper or silk chili (from Burlap and Barrel) is great for sprinkling on all sorts of vegetables, especially sautéed greens and roasted vegetables,” recommends Stafford. I’m a New Yorker, which means I put “everything” seasoning on, well, everything. But I also recently subscribed to a spice company that sends some new, fun spice every month to try, which keeps me from always defaulting to my beloved Herbes de Provence.

Ly recommends having oil (such as avocado and olive) in both pour and spray bottles. I recently started using olive oil in spray bottles and it changed my life — coating vegetables and pans evenly is so much easier now. Ly also recommends a “good condiment that can go on anything,” like chili crisp or chimichurri. “If I’m feeling stuck or too lazy to cook, I throw veggies into a pan and top them with chili crisp,” she says. Having miso, rice vinegar, and soy sauce around, as well as a selection of spice blends from various regional cuisines, is always a smart move.

Roasting vegetables is one of the easiest ways to turn your produce into ingredients. Preheat your oven to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, then chop everything into roughly the same size, and then drizzle (or spray) olive oil onto them and add spices, salt, and pepper. “You can cook a whole bunch of different veggies at once — just keep an eye on them, since smaller pieces will cook faster than larger pieces,” the Lis say. “Once cooked, they’re super easy to use up in lots of different recipes, from pasta to salad to just eating straight, and they’ll last a few extra days in the fridge.”

When I am drowning in leafy greens and need to make space, I handle the situation by turning them into a pesto (or something that I call pesto, anyhow). The traditional pesto most Americans think of is basil-based, with pine nuts and Parmesan involved. But I just take whatever huge pile of greens I have lingering from last week and, after washing, shove them in the blender. I add as much peeled, raw garlic as I have sitting around (which might be three cloves or a lot more), then glug some olive oil into the blender. I turn it on and continue adding olive oil through the lid until it forms a bright green sauce. Then I add salt till it tastes good enough to complement everything from rice to pasta to eggs veggie dip. (Beware: The garlic gets stronger over time.)

My best recommendation, when it comes to cooking what you’ve got, is to store recipes in an easily searchable place, so you’re not flailing all over the internet when looking for something to do with those turnips. I’m a passionate fan of the Paprika Recipe Manager app, which has desktop and mobile iterations that sync across platforms. You can drop a web link into the app and it will pull out the recipe with astonishing accuracy, saving ingredients and instructions and then making it easily searchable in your own private database. I also use this for printed cookbooks, scanning the text using my iPhone’s Live Text function, then cleaning it up slightly. Paprika also has some great list-making functions for creating a grocery list as well as keeping track of your “inventory,” which is especially helpful for tracking what’s in the produce drawer already.

What to do when your produce has seen better days

My share is delivered on Saturdays, which means by Thursday I’m usually getting a little panicked and the fridge is looking a little … limp. Soggy. Not quite in shape anymore. So what should you do? When I asked around, the answers tended to provoke exclamation points.

“Trim off anything soggy or rotting and cook it!” declares Adler. (Her book is devoted to ways to do this.) “Use a good deal of olive oil and salt so it’s delicious and you want to eat it!”

Stafford favors “freezing!” Anything wilted can quickly be turned into a green sauce, and big batches of pesto and schug can be frozen in ice cube trays, then popped out and stored in bags, for use throughout the season and into the winter months. Stafford transforms leafy greens into fritters and fried green meatless balls, which can also be frozen. She also prefers to cook greens before freezing them: “For instance, if I have a head of kale or chard that is looking tired, I’ll quickly sauté it, and either stash it in the fridge (to be used as a pizza topping or omelet filling) or freeze for a future use.”

Traditional canning, I’ve always found, is a bit beyond my reach, both in terms of labor and space (I do live in Brooklyn, after all). My freezer is tiny too. But a quick pickle is a great way to rescue and change the taste of most vegetables. Ly turns extra cabbage into kimchi or sauerkraut, and tomatoes that are overripe become homemade tomato sauce. Extra herbs can be frozen, too.

I get eggs in my CSA share, which means I’m sometimes drowning in those if we haven’t been eating them as regularly. But that’s a great opportunity to make an easy frittata, which uses up a dozen eggs and whatever random veggies are sitting around, especially the ones I don’t love. Slice it up and you can eat it throughout the week, and it makes a great office lunch, too.

For me, the key to using everything up has been in seeking out great vegan and vegetarian cookbooks. I eat some meat and dairy, but find that plant-based chefs have the most creative ideas for what to make. Similarly, the best uses for odds and ends and unexpected vegetables often lie in global cuisine; Indian food, for instance, (as in Kaimal’s cookbook) often lends itself to vegetarian cooking.

And Kaimal has the kind of suggestion that might be worth hanging on to for next year: “I choose the alternate week CSA box so that I can still enjoy what looks good at the farmer’s market on the off weeks,” she says. “Otherwise, I get overwhelmed!”

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past few years of CSA membership, it’s that if you find yourself getting overwhelmed, just imagine you’re in an elaborate cooking competition show, tasked with figuring out what to do with all this wonderful food that you’ve already paid for. That mindset gamifies the experience, encourages experimentation, and makes any kitchen flops feel a little less floppy. Yes, CSAs support local agriculture and biodiversity; they’re good to join no matter what. But your CSA box is only as good as your imagination — and everything tastes better when you’re having fun.

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