How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Farm Box

Or: Necessity is the mother of all dinner

My first dalliance with farm box deliveries was ended by a head of bok choy. The little cabbage sent me running around town looking for ingredients I had never used and never would use again. Dinner that night was a delicious swan song, a wasabi-laced ode to all things exotic and strange to my humdrum kitchen. Afterwards I didn’t so much swear off farm boxes as fail to find the heart for them again.

The farm box (also known as the CSA (community-supported agriculture) box, organic vegetable box delivery scheme, or simply the veg box) is a box (or bag) of vegetables, usually organic, that arrives weekly from a local farm or farms. To sign up for a farm box is to cede control over the volume and kind of vegetables coming into your kitchen. In exchange, you support local farmers while decreasing your carbon footprint by getting seasonal, locally sourced food.

That first fateful encounter left me doubtful that I could manage a kitchen out of my control, but after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I wanted give eating more sustainably another try. A few things have changed in the meantime. I’m no longer working nonstop on a PhD. I’ve got a kid who needs to eat healthy food every day. I’ve read (half of) Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal. And now some farms sell Irish-only boxes, which diminishes the chances of another run-in with that fateful leafy green.

A recent delivery. Irish-only farm box with added fruit, eggs, and sneaky chocolate indulgence.

I’ve been getting farm boxes delivered for just over a month now, and it’s going well so far. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Cook vegetables in advance
This idea changed everything for me. It comes from Adler’s book (see an excerpt and the Guardian’s series of excerpts). Adler suggests roasting all your vegetables and frying up your greens the day you get them. It means that most of the chopping and a chunk of the cooking is out of the way, which makes mid-week meals a lot easier. It also saves panic about jilted greens wilting in the fridge a day or two before the next box arrives. I’m still not quite on board with cooked vegetables hanging around for a whole week, so I generally do two batches, taking care of the things that are likely to go off more quickly the first time around.

Think components, not ingredients
I thought I was off my rocker that first week when I cooked it all up and found myself staring at pans of tender turnips, beetroot, and kale. Not one of these items was previously in my regular rotation. But there is something about a cooked vegetable that demands to be eaten even more than its raw brethren. When you stop buying ingredients for recipes, and begin looking for meals to use your food, things have a way of getting used up. And the excitement at finding a new way to use a cooked vegetable is equal and opposite to the dejection of seeing the same dinner the third day in a row.

Make food, not recipes
Everything I’ve ever read about dealing with farm boxes or just being a grown up says to plan the week’s recipes in advance. I tried for years to do this, and, even without the added constraint of someone else choosing the ingredients, it was an unmitigated failure. Stressed-out-tired-Tuesday-evening me just cannot rely on relaxed-and-foolishly-ambitious-Sunday-morning me to plan something fast and easy. Every week, entire recipes got wasted. Not to mention the leftover ingredients that I couldn’t find another recipe to use up. As Adler writes:

…[recipes] begin where their writers are, asking you to collect the ingredients their writers have…

Instead of relying on recipes, I now keep in mind a list of meals that can be prepared on a weeknight. At the moment, that list includes stir-fry, pasta, wraps, omelette, risotto, and daal. Fritters, crepes, and stews are weekend standbys. Each of these has room for some of my already cooked vegetables. I do still pull out my cookbooks and make things that take more time and effort, but I don’t have to rely on them to decide what’s for dinner every day.

Keep a stocked larder
This all works for the sole reason that I keep everything else I might need at the ready. Onions and carrots, rice and grains, lentils, tins of beans and tomatoes, garlic, lemon, ginger, chilli peppers (these freeze really well), vegetable stock, tasty cheese, and good bread. There is something really pleasing about knowing that I am ready for whatever the farm box might bring without having to rely on anyone else’s idea of a good meal. One way or another those raw ingredients will combine with my waiting larder and become something new and delicious.

Before I wax too lyrical here, I should come clean and admit that the only reason I’ve been getting through the boxes is that I’ve been giving away potatoes. I honestly have no idea how anyone eats two kilos of potatoes a week. I also nearly maxed out on parsnips a couple of weeks ago. But instead of accidentally-on-purpose burning them to a crisp, I baked them into a surprisingly delicious cake (and did a little dance of joy when they didn’t turn up again the following week).

My weekly delivery and I are still getting to know each other, and flirtation seems to be turning into an enduring relationship. The commitment takes thought and effort, but creativity is born of constraints. Meals in our house have been more healthy and varied. And I’m surprised to say it, but I’m pretty sure that on top of everything else we’re wasting less food.

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