Hi Umbra!

I’ve held back from joining a CSA because 1) I live alone and am worried about wasting food, and 2) I’m worried I’ll get so much oddball stuff, especially in the winter, that I won’t know what to do with it. I figure I can overcome No. 1 by seeking out some sufficiently hip neighbors and seeing if they want to share (although someone cautioned me that it gets hard to split the choice stuff — she mentioned an incident with six strawberries). But I’m more concerned about the second. I work a lot, and don’t have a ton of time to research recipes or do lengthy food preparation. It seems so much easier to buy what I need at the farmers’ market. But I’d like to support local farms more directly, and ideologically, I like the idea of CSA — do you have any advice?

Sacramento, Calif.

Dearest Tara,

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Hmm. The farmers’ market might be the better choice for you. No harm in that, either. CSA advice first, and then soothing remarks about farmers’ markets.

Recently, we discovered that community-supported agriculture means joining one’s eating fate to a particular farm by paying at the beginning of the season for weekly boxes of produce (the nuance-free description). Fighting over strawberries does sound tearful. One thing you could do is find a CSA that offers half-shares. They will divide the strawberries ahead of time, and you will still get to meet your sufficiently hip neighbors as you each pick up your box without rancor.

Farmers have to plan the harvest months in advance. Duh, right? This is to your advantage should you choose to join a CSA: you can ask what will be in your upcoming boxes. The farmer knows whether kohlrabi and rutabaga are en route. In fact, any experienced CSA farmer has seen enough confused members to have thought around the kohlrabi surprise. So as you look around for a CSA to join, you’ll usually see a list of expected upcoming foods, and later, recipes for unfamiliar foods.

I’ve seen CSAs get around the I-don’t-like-that issue by having members pick up their produce on the farm and pack their own boxes, directed by signs saying “take one broccoli or one rapini.” You don’t want rapini, you don’t have to have it. An adventurous person accustomed to eating seasonally and excited about leaving broccoli behind them, by the way, would be a great candidate for supporting a beginning farmer. Remember, it’s not just a financial transaction, it’s community-supported agriculture.

A good cookbook might be another way to get around fear of the unusual. There are cookbooks out there for every specialty, and you need one on simple cooking with vegetables. I, of course, have advice on this point: Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone has a section organized by vegetable. Under “carrots” will be a list of simple suggestions for stuff that goes well with carrots (e.g., dill), and three to seven recipes ranging from glorified steamed carrots to something kind of special. Also, I’ll give you a hot tip: almost everything is tasty steamed and served with butter, salt, and pepper. Join a CSA, get the box, find a simple recipe, gain confidence, look forward to new odd foods. It could happen to you.

That said, community-supported agriculture and farmers’ markets are not necessarily systems in conflict. Farmers’ market stands are either run by middlepeople, selling stuff other people grew, or run directly by the farmers themselves. (To find out which is which, inquire at the market organizer’s tent, or at the booths if you are comfortable.) In the latter case, you are supporting a farm just as directly as with a CSA. The money goes right to the farmer. It’s just a different model. If you shop often and faithfully, the farm will begin to feel assured of a certain amount of income each week at the market stand, and you could get a little closer to the CSA ideal while still controlling your produce choice.

Oh, here’s my last CSA idea: just go for it, get a whole share, don’t worry about the unfamiliar food. Find or make a cooking, adventurous friend. Give them the produce you can’t or don’t wish to cook. I bet they’ll sometimes invite you over to eat it. Everyone wins.