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CSA crops pass taste tests if not beauty contests

Beets and carrots with citrus dressing, orange slices, and pomegranate seeds.

Valerie Ryan for The Boston Globe

Beets and carrots with citrus dressing, orange slices, and pomegranate seeds.

Stalwart Community Supported Agriculture members dedicated to local farms and cooking seasonally year round will find their winter boxes filled with root vegetables and brassicas (think cabbage and company). Deep winter CSAs contain a taste of the region’s cold weather harvest and a test of dedication.

In the Northeast, winter CSA shares consist largely of crops harvested late in the fall for storage. Those include carrots, parsnips, onions, winter squashes, beets, celery root (celeriac), hardy radishes, cabbage, potatoes, and turnips. In the temperature and humidity of a root cellar, where growers keep them, the produce stays fresh. When they’re delivered, many vegetables still retain a coating of root cellar dirt, which is the appealing part for many cooks. Veggies are often large, oddly shaped, and occasionally unattractive, all of which gives pause to even the most dedicated locavore. Nothing here is winning a beauty contest, but what they lack in appearance, the vegetables make up for in remarkably delicious flavor.

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Chris Kurth, owner of Siena Farms in Sudbury, says that while late fall crops are not always as sparklingly fresh in appearance as summer produce, he thinks this is where New England farms really shine. “When we do start getting the hard frost in the fall, that makes all of our crops and brassicas and the sturdy fall greens much higher quality than [in] the summertime, because they love that cold weather. It sort of sweetens and strengthens them, and so we enter the winter storage with the highest-quality crops of the entire season and then they store beautifully from there.”

These vegetables are not the tender eat-off-the-plant green beans and tomatoes of sunny summer. Winter fare requires plenty of peeling, chopping, and cooking. But shareholders are undaunted. There is something about a strange-looking rutabaga that calls for pulling up bootstraps and heading to the stove.

Siena Farms CSA coordinator Susan Turner believes rutabagas and the rest of the winter group offer a connection to growers. “It’s somehow more precious that somebody grew this. It’s not just what they paid for, it’s where it’s coming from,” she says.

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Knowing your farmer, unfortunately, does not always translate to knowing what to do with the vegetables. Kohlrabi and daikon radishes can be perplexing. Even familiar produce can stretch the limits of imaginations when they come by the tens of pounds weekly (we’re looking at you, winter squash).

But farmers are willing to help. At Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, CSA coordinator Lana Cannon takes a hands-on approach, experimenting herself. “I feel like that’s part of the job description — to be eating it in different ways and throughout the season so that we can keep track of how the flavors are changing or staying the same and which dishes they do best in.” At pickups, members are always talking about what they’ve cooked or new recipes they’ve tried. “Our winter CSA is very communal,” she says.

For first-time winter CSA member Amanda Duggan, who is also the marketing and development assistant at Drumlin, it’s a matter of connecting with family members and neighbors. A recent college grad, Duggan shares the CSA with her parents. They in turn hand out vegetables to neighbors. She says the trick is to divide when there is too much food. “You get more people involved.”

And they may fall in love with these homely roots. The vegetables sometimes enter the share box looking a little rugged, says Kurth. “But after a quick peel, they are, in many ways, the best vegetables of the season.”

Valerie Ryan can be reached at valerie.ryan.j@gmail.com.
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