The kids are back into their school routines and the calendar says “first day of fall,” but my family is hanging on to one bit of summer as long as we can – our garden-harvest eating habits. Before we embrace the heartier meals of cooler days to come, we’re savoring the final bounty of late-summer and early autumn produce arriving weekly from a local farm.
We used to grow more veggies in our own garden, but we moved a few years ago and the yard is far too shady for sun-loving produce. So we signed up for a “farm share” — also known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) — to supplement our small patch of homegrown herbs and handful of vegetable plants.
Subscribing to a CSA program is different from shopping at a farmers’ market in that it involves paying an upfront fee to buy a share of the farm’s produce for the season. This model helps farmers by guaranteeing buyers for their produce, and liberates consumers like me from having to make weekly trips to markets to search for the freshest ingredients. The $25 a week we’ve invested in a farm-share gives a different flavor to our meals, not to mention healthy, carbon-friendly co-benefits.
One twist with a farm share is that it’s made our menus more spontaneous. You never know what’s going to show up in the weekly delivery — it all depends on what’s ripe and fresh on the farm. One week it might be tomatoes, peaches and green beans, another collard greens, squash and eggplant.
Whatever’s being picked now headlines in our evening meals. And since I haven’t eaten beef in about 20 years, basing our diet around local produce — as well as seafood and poultry — has worked great for me. Being part of a CSA does involve reversing the traditional order of grocery shopping and menu planning, so I do a lot of inventing on the spot around the ingredients I have.
Often, instead of planning a menu around a main course, our inspiration for dinner comes from a vegetable side dish that we build around, or even let serve as the main event. Tomato and corn gazpacho, for example, stands on its own as lunch or accompanies grilled chicken for a healthy and delicious dinner. The ever-present summer zucchini can be transformed into many roles in a meal, from meatless burgers (simply grilled and served on a roll, with a little fresh salsa for relish) to quiche to stuffed zucchini (a lasagna-like dish without pasta). And zucchini’s cool-weather squash cousins (butternut, acorn) can similarly form the basis of everything from soups to casseroles, whether as side dishes or main courses.
One of the great joys of summer eating is its simplicity, and that approach can be carried right through fall. My absolute to-die-for hot weather meal includes tomato salad, with nothing more than a little salt (to bring out the juices), olive oil and fresh basil. You can dress it up with mozzarella cheese and some balsamic vinegar if you like. Before the first frost, many gardeners rush to pick remaining green tomatoes so they can ripen in a sunny window and turn remaining fresh basil into pesto, extending the delicious harvest.
Some of my favorite summer dinner recipes come from an article entitled “101 Simple Salads,” many of which are based on two ingredients, like tomatoes and peaches or cucumbers and onions. And there are lots of options that transition nicely into cooler fall days, such as quick-sautéed kale with white beans, or chopped salads based on cabbage or carrots. And my farmers always provide me with recipe ideas for less-well-known ingredients that might show up in my box each week.
Beyond the taste and health benefits of basing our meals on farm-fresh ingredients, it makes me happy to serve food to my family that hasn’t traveled the typical distance of a thousand miles by truck or airplane and been refrigerated for days in a supermarket before reaching our table. And buying produce from growers close to home connects our family — including our two small girls — to where our food comes from and helps support farmlands and farm worker jobs in our state.
If you’re interested in experiencing the culinary adventure and environmental benefits of Community-Supported Agriculture, visit Local Harvest to see what farmers participate in your area and plan ahead for next summer. Sign-ups usually start in a few months, as farmers begin planning for planting season. If you can’t wait to sink your teeth into some tasty local foods, check out one of the many places you can pick your own apples, pumpkins and other fall items.
Now, what’s for dinner tonight? Maybe some sautéed swiss chard with garlic or parmesan? Or how about green bean salad with feta cheese?
Sarene Marshall is director of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change program
Photo courtesy Sarene Marshall
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