Melissa’s magical spreadsheet: How a grad student on a budget became the ultimate foodie

At our CSA member potluck last summer, I learned two things about CSA member Melissa that blew my mind a little.

First, Melissa doesn’t repeat recipes. Like, she makes a different thing every time she cooks. Compared to my staples recipes ways, this seemed wildly adventurous.

Second, Melissa ensures she’s always trying something new by tracking all her cooking in an ever-evolving magical recipe spreadsheet. In the spreadsheet, she also keeps notes on dietary restrictions, time spent, ingredients, and tweaks she’d make. As a person who loves her spreadsheets, I had to know more. (P.S. Yes, you will get a chance to see this spreadsheet).

So I set out to learn more about the journey from Melissa’s grad school kitchen to her current life as maybe the ultimate foodie.

When Melissa moved to DC 7 years ago, it was her first opportunity to cook for herself, and at that point, she was just “trying to find recipes that fit my grad student budget and that I wouldn’t mess up.” Originally, she saved recipes she liked in a Word document, and enjoyed keeping notes on what worked. She found she truly enjoyed reading food blogs and planning her meals for the week. (Scroll down for links to Melissa’s favorite recipe resources).

“I always aspired to more seasonal eating because I was aware of the environmental impact of what I was eating, but being on a budget made it hard to integrate into my diet,” says Melissa. She got her feet wet with a CSA that dropped boxes at her workplace before finding her way to Owl’s Nest.

Along the way, she met her partner Dave, who impressed her with his knowledge of food and cooking. They connected over their shared love for culinary adventures. Eventually, she turned her list of recipes into a spreadsheet they could share. After that, she says, “it got out of hand really quickly.”

Today, Melissa is a self-described “huge CSA nerd.” Not only does she use ALL her share each week (as in, she brought pickled chard stems to that CSA member potluck), she and Dave have volunteered regularly on the farm over the years.

How does she make time for this delicious life? For one, she really likes it: she doesn't just enjoy eating, she also enjoys reading food blogs, planning meals, and spending time in her kitchen.

Plus, her spreadsheet is a helpful resourcee: she has some recipes tagged as weeknight meals, and so after she picks up her CSA share on Tuesday, she usually makes a couple of big batches of those in “one big cooking session that will last till the weekend.”

Then, Melissa and Dave spend weekend hours on culinary adventures, trying more elaborate recipes, like this Ratatouille Pie, Julia Child's Zucchini Tian, and Marinated Summer Squash with Hazelnuts and Ricotta.

Read on to learn more from Melissa, and even get a peek at that epic spreadsheet.


Melissa's favorite kitchen tools

For Melissa, a food processor is key, because she makes a lot of creative pestos and for when, she says, "I’m tired of chopping."

She also loves her micro plane, especially for grating ginger and garlic.

Finally, Melissa extra loves her ice cream maker! It's a standard 2 qt from Cuisinart and she says: "I have made some pretty wacky flavors--carrot halvah, huckleberry tea, I even made basil ice cream for my coworkers (they preferred the chocolate stout ice cream I also brought, unsurprisingly)."


the spreadsheet

Melissa was kind and generous enough to share her magical spreadsheet, and there are a ton of recipes. Don't miss out on the "Best of CSA" and "quick snacks" tabs - lots of useful stuff there!


Community cooking, seasonal eating, and special sauces with Maya and Jon

Maya moved into a group house in Columbia Heights five years ago, and at the time, she admits she was still learning how to cook. She had some solid staples she'd used since college, but when she moved in with her four housemates, she was still getting used to cooking with fresh produce.

Luckily, she had a cooking community around her. "I ended up in a community of people, not just in my own house but in the other group houses in our broader community, and they would have house dinners all the time or potlucks so I just got exposed to different recipes and different ways to cook vegetables," says Maya. From a cabbage salad to a garlicky kale sauce, she got inspired by her neighbors to try new recipes and share them with her housemates.

Her house, aka Rosemont, had a membership to the Radix Farm CSA (the predecessor of Owl's Nest) at the time, and she "got really into it" and especially into knowing who her farmers are. Although they loved the Radix CSA pickup at St. Stephens, after an infamous "daikon debacle" in which they tried way too hard to like those big radishes, they decided to shift to the Market CSA. This option allows Maya to plan an relaxing trip to the market most Saturday mornings to stock up on veggies for the week.

The CSA has also helped orient her meal planning process around what's in season. "I’ve learned to let the crops drive the cooking," Maya says. "I have a couple of go-to recipes for each vegetable and whatever vegetable shows up determines what I cook for the week."

Along the way, Maya also added her "farmer boyfriend" Jon to her cooking team, which has not only encouraged her to care more and more about where food comes from, but also made her enjoy cooking collaboratively.

"I think Jon and I are really good at looking at what’s in the fridge and turning it into whatever we need, particularly seasonally. How can this become soup in the winter and how can we throw this on the grill in the summer?" says Maya.

Another key part of their seasonal eating strategy is what Jon calls "the unsung heroes of cooking seasonally": the sauces. Among Jon and Maya's pantry staples are the ingredients for making a variety of delicious sauces that help make veggies into meals. Jon says: "Get the temperature and texture of the vegetables right and then the sauce is the separate delicious thing" to round it out. Scroll down for links to their favorite sauce recipes.

Despite the fact that she can now get a lot of great veggies via Jon's farm, there are two main reasons to keep getting an Owl's Nest Market CSA share:

  • Consistency: Maya likes that the upfront commitment requires that she picks up vegggies each week, because it means she'll actually do it.
  • Connection: "It's really excellent to know who’s growing my food. I can support the people in my community and the people I care about by getting vegetables. I can look at you and ask you questions and know the hard work that went into growing something before I consume it," says Maya.

sauces: the unsung heroes of seasonal eating

  • Miso-sesame dressing from Smitten Kitchen is great for roasted root vegetables and "just about everything."
  • Garlicky kale sauce: just olive oil, ACV, nutritional yeast, lots of fresh garlic, soy sauce, and tahini (if you like it thick). "Put that on kale and you can crush a bowl of it," says Maya. Shoutout to neighbor Meredith for this one!
  • Black garlic and yogurt sauce: This new addition to their repetoire is "so f--ing good I wish I had some right now." Maya notes you can stock up on black garlic at H Mart.
  • Pesto: Maya has been making pesto from all kinds of greens for years. Any extra greens can be combined with olive oil, salt, nuts, and cheese for a delicious sauce.

a peek in the rosemont pantry

  • Staple foods: grains, rice farrow, pasta, black beans, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, canned tomato, tomato paste, yogurt, lemon, limes, red onions, garlic, ginger, veg stock.
  • Tools: Knives! "We just got sharp knives for the first time in our lives," says Jon. "And cooking is so much better now. I actually enjoy cutting onions."
  • Maya also uses her immersion blender basically every time she cooks. Plus, their food processor, cast-iron pan and grill are essential.
Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 8.16.58 AM.png

recipe inspiration

Although Maya and Jon tend to cook based on what they know and what's the fridge rather than following a recipe, when they're looking to make something different or special, they recommend the following sources of inspiration:

  • Smitten Kitchen - Maya especially gets inspired by their Instagram feed, where she can get excited about a new dish while she's scrolling.
  • Simple by Yotam Ottolengi - While some of his other cookbooks are made up of complex recipes "with like 25 ingredients" this one is 'simple' enough for weeknight meals.
  • New York Times Cooking email newsletter - although it's more meat-focused than their house is, Maya finds it useful sometimes.

a tale of three CSAs + breakfast of (CSA) champions jenna and julia

As a dietitian, Jenna approaches cooking and eating differently from most of us. "I’m not picking things based on what I’m craving. I’m thinking about how to I make sure I’m getting essential macro nutrients," says Jenna.

That's why Jenna is all about eating vegetables for breakfast. That's right: nearly every morning, Jenna and her partner Julia cook breakfast from scratch using CSA veggies.

"I get my vegetables in at breakfast and it means I am that much further in to getting enough vegetables for the day. It’s not fancy, but it’s cooked," says Jenna. (Not sure how many vegetables you should be eating each day? Jenna recommends this resource).

My guess is you're thinking: That'll never work for me. I can barely eat my bowl of cereal before I rush out the door. For Jenna, it's something she prioritizes.

While she recognizes it's not normal ("It's nearly impossible to find a healthy breakfast. It's not part of our breakfast culture to eat vegetables," she says), it's a "non-negotiable" part of her morning routine.

Their breakfast almost always includes a grain, eggs from pasture-raised chickens, and a vegetable, like steamed sweet potatoes or sauteed greens. (Scroll down for more on Jenna and Julia's favorite breakfasts. Even if you're not up for cooking in the AM, you might love these recipes for brunch or dinner).

Not only does a hot breakfast mean that Jenna gets an early start on veggie consumption, it also helps Jenna and Julia use all the veggies from their 3 different CSAs.

I'll reiterate: Jenna and Julia are not only half-shareholders in the Owl's Nest CSA, they're also members of the Three Part Harmony Multi-Farm CSA and in the winter, they join the Open Book Farm Winter CSA. They're like 3-time CSA champions.

She "became enamored of farmers market" in Seattle when she was in grad school learning about the agricultural part of the food system. Through the vibrancy of local markets and eating fresh salmon of the Puget Sound, Jenna "learned to love and appreciate food that was eaten close to the source." That love and appreciation continues to fuel her interest in CSA today.

No matter how much you love supporting local farms, if you've got that quantity of veggies coming in your door, you've gotta have a strategy. Here's a quick rundown of Jenna and Julia's key CSA strategies:

  • "Make the vegetables to be the center of every meal."
  • When meal planning, do an inventory of what you already have in the pantry. "You gotta have the supporting actors around so that when you get the star - the CSA veggies - you’re ready to make almost anything with them," says Jenna. They typically do weekend shopping with their Tuesday share in mind.
  • Once you've got the basics in your pantry, keep it simple. "If [a recipe] has more than 2 ingredients I don’t have, I don’t make it," says Jenna.
  • Speaking of simple, Jenna suggests honing in on a couple of versatile cooking methods. In her house, that means braising for greens and roasting for root vegetables.
  • Batch cooking makes weeknights easier. "I’m not gonna cook from scratch every night of the week," says Jenna. On their best weeks, Jenna and Julia make larger batches of recipes, especially veggie sides, and eat them throughout the week.

Read on to learn about how Jenna evaluates recipes and see what's in her pantry.


Jenna's recipe checklist

  • Is this recipe balanced? Does it have representation from at least 3 food groups? (this is most important for one pot meals, of course, if you are using several recipes for a meal you'll be asking whether all together they are balanced)
  • I shy away from recipes that mention non-fat or low-fat products since this is typically an indication that the author may not share my emphasis on whole foods cooking.
  • How many vegetables are featured? And in what portions? Does it amount to little more than a garnish or is it a major component of the dish?

a peek in j + j's pantry

  • Tools: Cutting board, nice sharp chef’s knife, saute pan or cast iron skillet, good roasting pan (sturdy sheet pan or big glass dish).
  • A special shout out to tools that do double duty. With tongs, you can move greens in a pan or lay a piece of meat on the grill. their Creuset pot is good for making stew or putting a casserole in the oven.
  • Jenna uses a microplane or a grater a lot, especially to use up roots like beets, carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, and radishes. If you grate them the first time you use them, then stick them in the fridge, you can quickly top your sandwich, salad, or tacos.
  • Fats: grass fed butter, peanut oil, coconut oil, olive oil
  • Protein: a couple cans of beans, dried lentils, tofu and tempeh, Open Book meat, brown rice, quinoa, whole grain pasta

breakfasts of (CSA) champions

The picture is a mashup of two of our favorite breakfasts, says Julia. "Toast and and scrambled eggs appear on both plates. But on this particular day we weren't in the mood for the same thing, so Julia put together some salad greens for a quick light veggie, and Jenna braised some broccoli in oil and liquid aminos (a staple in our house)."

According to Julia, another strategy for a quick but veggie-full breakfast is "jazzin' up leftovers. Just add another veggie, and put an egg on it." For example, the morning we talked, she started with leftover sweet potatoes and black beans, then added sauteed cabbage and an egg.

Plus, here's some more inspiration for your next veggie-full breakfast. Julia notes these are a bit more complex than they might make on a weekday, but they give you a sense of how J + J start their day.

image1 (1).jpeg

Amanda on feeding her family with CSA produce

Amanda is the rare CSA member who was a champion before she picked up her first share.

I’m not making this up: she emailed me the morning of the first pickup of the season to say that she was in labor and heading to the hospital to give birth, so she was sending her mom to pick it up. You heard that right: she managed to take care of her CSA pickup while she was literally giving birth to a child.

If that’s not a CSA Champion, I don’t know what is.

That was her second child, and Owl’s Nest is her first CSA experience. She lives near our Bloomingdale pickup site, and first learned about the CSA from our team at a pickup a few years prior.

She’s really enjoyed the experience: “I like the challenge of using different vegetables I wouldn’t necessarily have gone and bought. We love the farmer’s market, but I also like the idea of supporting a specific local farm.”

Amanda admits that having two young kids makes it harder to find the time to cook all her CSA produce, “but feels more important.”

“It’s important for us to sit down to meals,” Amanda says, but what’s on the table is even more important with small kids. "I really care about about the food my kids are eating and it’s important to me to feed them a wide range of flavors now because it’s what establishes their palate.”

While her three-year-old is now at a stage where she doesn’t always eat all her veggies, Amanda sees the CSA as an opportunity to a way to get her family more connected with where her food comes from. She brings her daughter to CSA pickups and lets her pick which tomatoes and which bunch of kale to bring home. It is Amanda’s “profound hope” that these early food experiences will help shape her kids’ future food lives.

That said, Amanda doesn’t consider herself particularly skilled in the kitchen; in fact, she describes herself and her husband as a “super practical and not really big cooks.” While she and her husband have some strong basic kitchen skills, she says the CSA has “forced us to expand what we know what to do.”

For them, that means that most dinners start with a meat, and then they "solve for the vegetable." They grab whatever's good in the vegetable drawer and make a simple veggie side, like a salad or steamed veggie. Occasionally, on the weekends, Amanda will make something more complex, like kale chips or a stew to have as a backup weeknight meal or for lunches, but she and her husband mostly keep it simple.

Amanda also appreciates our collaboration with other farmers, including the meat and egg add-on from Open Book Farm. Since most of the dinners in her house include meat and convenience is a huge priority, it's a big bonus to be able to pick up high-quality meat, veggies, and eggs in one trip. So in her second year as a CSA member, she's getting it all and she's ready to eat it with her family.

image2 (1).jpeg

Amanda's CSA insights

  • Keep it simple: just eat it! "So much of the share can be eaten raw," says Amanda. "You get a totally new experience."
  • The Owl's Nest farm team can be a great resource when it comes to figuring out how to use a new veggie. "Staff are amazing," she says. "I will often grill them" for ideas for using say, kohlrabi.
  • Eating seasonally has given Amanda new ways to look at certain dishes and flavor combinations. For example, she remembers an "aha!" moment when she realized that all the main ingredients in a ratatouille are in season at the same time - she understood that dish in a whole new way.
  • She enjoys reading farm notes in the newsletter each week because it gives her exposure to the experience of her farmers.
IMG_1973 (2).jpg

A peek in Amanda's pantry

Amanda's practical approach to weeknight meals means she tries to always have her pantry stocked with some staples.

  • Fats: olive oil, coconut oil, butter.
  • Basics: lot of spices, rice, quinoa, canned tomatoes, stock, milk, flour, and other basic baking items.
  • Tools: Amanda uses a wok or a steamer pot most nights, relies heavily on her roasting pan, and her Instapot is also key.

kids favorites

  • Sweet potatoes! Niles only started purées/solids recently but enjoyed puréed baked sweet potato from the winter CSA popup, and three-year-old Juliana is really into baked sweet potato "fries".
  • Juliana also loves kale chips from the dehydrator.
  • Another kid favorite was the pea sprout "leaves" in the summer.

Michelle on CSA as self care

Michelle's life is a lot like a lot of folks in DC: she has a demanding job, she travels a lot for work, and she's doing it all to make the world a better place. You know, she's a busy urban professional.

Her life wasn't always this way: she lived in DC for the first time right after college, working for an environmental advocacy group, but soon "moved across the country on a lark to work on a farm in Washington State." It was there that she first learned about CSAs and learned how to cook fresh produce.

Several years, several moves, and two master's degrees later, she moved back to DC in 2016 and found Owl's Nest. She became our first ever work-trade volunteer, spending a few hours on the farm each week in exchange for a share of vegetables.

She loves the work trade because it enables to put her values into practice: "The choices we make matter, on the micro level of supporting local business and a thriving local economy and also on the macro level, in terms of public health and climate change. Since the work that I do on a professional level is more abstract, it feels really good to get my hands in the dirt."

But when I first asked Michelle to talk to me about her CSA experience, she admitted to feeling hesitant. During a particularly demanding year in terms of work travel, she was feeling like she wasn't at her CSA best, and ended up eating more quick meals of bread and hummus than making culinary masterpieces.

As we talked, we realized that for Michelle, being part of the CSA is ultimately about self-care. For her, self care isn't about spa days or bubble baths, she said, "but more, what are the things you can do in your daily life that are about taking care of yourself."

And the act itself can be the reward: it is deeply satisfying to cook yourself a meal. "It can be hard to carve out the time, but it also feels totally indulgent to turn off NPR, listen to music, and chop vegetables," Michelle said. Disconnecting from the rest of the world and being present in the kitchen is nourishing far beyond the nutritional value of the meal.

The veggies in her fridge often motivated her to do just that. "Even when I wasn't cooking the most amazing meals, I was prompted to take care of myself in a way that I wouldn't have otherwise," said Michelle. The produce was a reminder of her best self, the one who takes the time to make her life delicious.


Michelle's kitchen principles

  • Michelle doesn't really cook from recipes much anymore, but her basic formula for a healthy meal is greens, beans, and grains. When she has meal prep time, she cooks her beans and grains in advance, and then she can put together a weeknight dinner in a snap.
  • You can make something special that's not hard. An ongoing joke in Michelle's life is about her future food blog called "OOPS I made dinner" where OOPS = Olive Oil, Salt, and Pepper. In other words, a really simple raw or roasted preparation with just these few ingredients can make a delicious meal, especially when you're using high quality, fresh produce.
  • Vegetables enhance everything! Even if it's just adding some fresh tomatoes or roasted turnips to a cheese pizza, they can make your meals more exciting and flavorful.
  • Cooking with fresh produce can take more time, but the rich sensory experience of making your own meal is so worth it.

michelle's pantry staples

  • Acid: apple cider vinegar, lemons, hot sauce, salsa, pickled veggies
  • Spices: Michelle loves cumin, thyme, oregano, and smoked paprika. As a vegetarian, Michelle says the smokiness really helps add a depth of flavor to lots of meals.
  • Beans: cannellini beans, black beans, chickpeas - Michelle mostly cooks dried beans, but she also keeps some canned around for convenience
  • Crunch: "can come from fresh radishes or cabbage, from pantry items like nuts and seeds-- almonds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, shredded coconut-- all best when toasted!"
  • Tools: After years of using an immersion blender, Michelle recently invested in food processor and loves it. She also can't do without her sharp knife, secretly loves the avocado seatbelt her mom gave her as a gift, and her citrus squeezer - "great for getting the juice and not the seeds!"
  • Resources: Michelle (and lots of our CSA members) love Samin Nosrat's Salt Fat Acid Heat. And there is a special place in Michelle's heart for Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. "The portion of the cookbook dedicated to individual vegetables and other ingredients and what to do with them helped me develop "principles" of cooking so I don't have to rely on recipes. All of her cookbooks focus on great, local, fresh ingredients and letting the flavors shine."

Michelle's kitchen playlist (with bonus veggie puns)

Michelle says: "Sometimes I like to "turnip the beets" while I'm cooking. Listening to 'roots' while chopping.... root veggies. I should stop but I don't carrot all."

Here are some of her favorite artists to tune into: Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Hiss Golden Messenger, Lucius, Mandolin Orange, Phil Cook, Anderson East, Sylvan Esso, Future Islands, Oh Wonder, Oh Pep, Haim, Shakey Graves, Leon Bridges, The Deslondes, The Suffers, Nathaniel Rateliff, Lord Huron, Madisen Ward and Mama Bear, Brandi Carlile, John Prine, Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings Machine, Neko Case