Thinking Outside the CSA Box

By Emily Larocque     
Illustrations by Matt Lynaugh

Farm-friendly Austinites who participate in local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs might gently sigh now and again at the repetition, even the copiousness, of certain boxed goodies. But you simply can’t knock the variety. Ensconced amid the familiar greens, herbs, okra and beets are dazzling vegetal novelties—a gourmand education—nestled in every CSA box!

But wait…what’s up with that alien pod?

Let’s assume that you know your tangy mizuna from your nutrient-rich tat soi, your bok choi from your mei ching choi. You’re aware that carrots come in light yellow, beets can be cylindrical, peppers come in purple and just because they’re long and skinny doesn’t mean they’re hot. You’ve dabbled with Japanese eggplant, sampled a variety of the heirloom melons that grow abundantly in the Austin summer.  And, as CSA veteran participant Roger Heil puts it, you get that belonging to a CSA program turns dinner prep on its head. “Instead of what should I buy for dinner,” says Heil, “it’s what can I make with this?” 

So what’s next in the CSA box? As it turns out, a lot more than you might expect. 

“There are so many things to try growing here in Central Texas,” says adventurous and knowledgeable Home Sweet Farm farmer Brad Stufflebeam. He says he often relies on tips from CSA program subscribers like chefs Monica Pope of t’afia and Brian Light of The Republic, to narrow down his list of new additions to the farm. Subscribers may get familiar chard and spinach in winter, yet summer could bring stinging nettle, wild amaranth and bitter dandelion greens...oh my!

“We love weeds!” says Chef Pope. “They find themselves in soups or sauces mostly, or in combination with other greens. Anything that you might use in conjunction with spinach works with nettles. Heat them first to remove the pokies.”

Chef Light uses wild amaranth mostly as a garnish, and stinging nettle for soup. Taming the bitterness of the dandelion greens can prove challenging, but Light suggests that blanching can help. Boil four cups of water and a half cup of sugar, dip the greens in for 30 seconds, then transfer to ice water.

Other Home Sweet Farm surprises include the standout heirloom melon, Sakata’s Sweet—a yellowish-green little number that looks like a pear. “You can eat the rind, the skin, everything,” says Stufflebeam. And popular Indian cucumber newbie, Poona Kheera, with its thin, edible skin and crisp meat, has inspired rounds of applause, as well. Stufflebeam’s family likes adding it to yogurt with lemon juice and cumin seed to make a tzatziki.

Participants of the Hairston Creek CSA program are frequently surprised by Christmas melon, or muskmelon which is similar to honeydew and can be stored, uncut, for long periods of time. And in terms of visual delight, it doesn’t get much better than Johnson’s Backyard Garden’s Romanesco cauliflower—arguably one of the most freakishly beautiful vegetables on the planet. Its brilliant green spikes curl in pleasingly symmetrical spirals to form points encircling its girth.

Another show-stopper is Hairston Creek’s watermelon radish. Related to the Japanese daikon, these lovely little orbs resemble a wee version of their namesake when cut, and are great sliced raw or with a splash of vinegar to bring out the sweet flavor.

If it’s a CSA box conversation piece you’re looking for, Finca Pura Vida Farm—run by husband/wife team Gayla Lyons and Edgar Chavez, includes varieties of oregano, beans, squash, zucchini and melon that have been cultivated in Chavez’s Costa Rican family for centuries; some likely date back 600 years. In particular, Lyons likes the ayote squash, which is light and a little watery. She uses it for pie, bread, cookies—anything you would normally make with pumpkin.

Of course, oftentimes the ingenuity comes in the kitchen, not in the box. After creatively juggling the glut of beets that recently appeared in his CSA box, Heil was running out of culinary ideas. He can’t remember who told him about adding beets to chocolate cake, but it quickly became a favorite dish.

“The effect is kind of like a red velvet cake,” he says, “and it makes it a little more healthy. Some people are surprised to hear there are beets in there.” His wife, Karen Rayne, adds that, “The concept of beet chocolate cake seemed suspicious, but it did have ‘chocolate’ in the title, so we tried it. It’s actually really tasty.”

Selecting what to grow and put in the CSA box is something farmers consider an important part of the job—springing from their desire to educate as well as please the subscribers they so value. Many farms, like Tecolote and Home Sweet Farm, include suggested recipes for unusual items in the box, and often post recipes, tips and field questions via their websites and member listservs. It’s a bond of communication for which subscribers are gastronomically grateful. As Hands of the Earth farm member/worker and CSA program subscriber Josh Conrad says, “You have to get to know your farmers if you want to get to know your food.”