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Eat Me

On the Perils of Abundance

How to cope when your CSA share runneth over

Photo: Michelle Gienow, License: N/A

Michelle Gienow


For those of us who buy CSA (community-supported agriculture) memberships, there are two times a year when we wonder if our several-hundred-dollar investment in personal future vegetables is, well, possibly nuts. The first comes early in the harvest season, when weekly shares are scant and seem to consist entirely of Swiss chard and maybe a microgram of cilantro. The second wave of CSA doubt presents itself now, but as the exact opposite quandary: overabundance. August and early September are high harvest season, when every species of plant is pumping out the produce, fulfilling its biological mission of reproduction.

We are definitely in the thick of things at the moment. Yesterday, I picked up our weekly share of produce from our CSA, Flying Plow Farm, and it filled three shopping bags. Besides pound upon pound of summer spinach, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, leeks, melons, and more, each member was allotted seven pounds of tomatoes. This morning, every flat surface in my kitchen is covered with lovely, lolling tomatoes. I swear they multiplied overnight, like gremlins.

There is, of course, the option to simply not take the tomatoes or anything else we don’t like or can’t use. But based on observations of pick-up shed behavior at all three CSAs I have belonged to, most people do not walk away from food they have already paid for. (The general approach to dealing with the plethora of produce we are expected to take home this time of year seems to be an initial double take at the sheer mass of vegetables, followed by a look of concern, quickly replaced by a resigned loading up of bags, boxes, and coolers you never seem to bring enough of. I know I certainly feel that way, anyway.) So take it I do and return to a refrigerator still stuffed with half of last week’s vegetables.

I know I am not the only one experiencing simultaneous CSA-related overload and guilt this time of year. Other moms at the playground admit (secretly, shamefacedly) to simply tossing wilted week-before veggies rather than resuscitating them, because there are just so many more new arrivals to deal with. It’s like the Mariel boatlift, only with peppers and parsley—the central problem is finding appropriate housing for all the newcomers when you haven’t even processed the previous wave.

There are plenty of resources online advising the best practices for canning, freezing, or otherwise preserving each kind of fruit and vegetable. In theory, I’m all about storing as much of my CSA bounty as I possibly can so it may re-emerge during those months when nothing grows. I know, unbelievable though it may seem now, there will come a week in January when I’m actually longing for chard. But all that cleaning, chopping, blanching, shocking, and packing takes time (and I’m also afraid of my pressure canner, an issue for another time). And then, once it re-emerges from the jar or freezer, this preserved produce requires further wrangling to become an actual meal.

For the sake of timesaving and sloth, I’ve realized, then, that the way to go is to cook the vegetables into actual dishes—even better, main courses—and then freeze those. This way, once thawed, they are basically ready to reheat and eat. Not every recipe lends itself to this approach; some simply don’t freeze well and others don’t work in the very large batch size required to process the vegabundance in a time-efficient way. But I like to think I have found the perfect recipe to use up most, if not all, the major players in the summer abundance olympics: caponata.

Caponata is, I believe, the Italian word for “ratatouille, only we added olives and anchovies.” All Mediterranean cuisines seem to have some version of this sauteed vegetable stew, which can be eaten hot, cold, or at room temperature. It’s perfect for this time of year, when all the constituent veggies are both at peak flavor and peak profusion. It’s also a highly flexible dish: With no golden ratio between ingredients, it’s basically just use what you got. Cooks in different parts of Italy use some very different ingredients—in Sicily, they add raisins; in Puglia, they sprinkle on pine nuts. There are really no ways to go wrong when cooking caponata and a million ways to use it.

Caponata stands on its own as a side dish, but served over pasta or quinoa, it works as a healthy, hefty main course, served hot or tossed and chilled as a salad. It also stuffs a fantastic sandwich, especially when accompanied by some fresh mozzarella cheese. It can be made in infinitely expandable batches—the limit being the size of your largest pot. Thankfully, it freezes reasonably well. The texture can get a little mushy upon thawing, so it’s better to use it with pasta or as a lasagna filling rather than straight up. But it will still taste fantastic.

And making caponata will absolutely thin that herd of tomatoes crowding kitchen counters and windowsills this time of year.

Caponata

Note: I prefer caponata to ratatouille because I find the olives or capers or anchovies give the dish a deeper, richer flavor. If you don’t have these or prefer to leave them out, however, you have ratatouille. Also, if you’re missing anything -- other than the garlic, eggplant, and tomatoes, which are essential -- just leave them out. This recipe is loose, since much will depend on how much you have of what. Just dive in. It’ll be great, no matter what.

Summer squash (any kind)

Red and green peppers

Eggplant (any kind)

Tomatoes (any kind, even Sun Golds or other cherry tomatoes)

Garlic (lots)

Onions

Basil (for garnish, when serving)

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