How to Eat Local in the Winter and Enjoy It
Seasonal eating stories seem so one-sided. It’s easy to celebrate the first asparagus of spring, the first tender green chives, overwintered spinach’s fresh sweet leaves.
But what about when it’s February and you’re only half-way through a winter of trying to eat locally and seasonally? It can look grim. Now is the winter of our discontent.
It doesn’t have to be like that.
It’s taken me several years to come up with meal strategies to guide us through our December to March eating. We definitely eat differently than during the abundance of summer, but it doesn’t have to be a drag.
So what’s local veg look like around here in winter? Cabbage, root veggies and winter squash.
That feels like a short list of options. But if you can find well-stored local produce, you may be pleasantly surprised at how tasty it is compared to that stuff trucked in from California.
My daughter said to me last night, “You know, I’m always surprised how good this cabbage salad tastes.” The secret? Finely sliced local cabbage tossed with sea salt and excellent olive oil. Crisp winter cabbage salad can out-compete withered boxed greens any February day.
You can go a lot of directions other than olive oil and salt with lowly cabbage slaw. You can take the same salad Southwest with a pinch of oregano. Or take the salad East with a dressing of sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar. And there’s nothing wrong with a standard mayo, sugar and vinegar-based dressing. Just be sure to shred or chop the cabbage very finely and let it sit a bit to meld flavours before serving.
Red cabbage is especially nutritious and adds a splash of colour to your plate.
Getting Back to Your Roots (& Tubers)
We grow a lot of carrots for winter, but we no longer use the root cellar to store them. I “store” carrots in their garden beds, harvesting during a January thaw. Carrots get a quick rub with snow and then are stowed in our near-empty refrigerator.
Do yourself a favour and get REAL carrots with skin on, not those sad whittled-down and chlorine bleached “baby carrots” that come in little baggies. The taste and improved nutrition is worth a little of your prep time. Cold storage conditions enhance the sweetness of carrots. I find it hard not to snack on them while I’m prepping them for supper.
I’ve read that cooked carrots are more nutritious than raw carrots. Heat breaks down some of the cell walls making nutrients more available. Sauté or steam those carrots instead of boiling them if you want to eat those nutrients and not send them down the drain. Don’t forget the butter! Beta carotene is a fat-soluble nutrient that needs to be coated in fat for your body to absorb it.
One of my go-to winter dishes combines our pals cabbage and carrot. Shred or finely slice cabbage, carrots, onion and garlic. Soften the onions in a skillet in a generous serving of butter until they are translucent. Add the remaining veggies with a pinch of salt, a big grind of pepper and crank up the heat. Stir often. The idea is to retain some crunch in the cabbage and carrot, but to cook them until they just turn tender. Add a dash of soy sauce to finish. Sometimes I’ll crack in an egg or two and cook until glossy.
Yes, technically potatoes are tubers, not roots. But their underground growth allows us to group them into the roots category. So let’s move on.
We used to go to great lengths to grow, cure and store potatoes for our winter use. We still grow a nice crop of gourmet fingerling potatoes for our family to eat through to December but, as I’ve “matured,” I’ve decided to let go of growing yer basic spud. Digging a thirty foot row of potatoes by hand is a laborious job I’m happy to outsource.
Besides, we like to support other local growers through our food co-op in Owen Sound. These growers are larger farms (with staff and potato digging equipment) who have excellent winter crop storage facilities. Buying from them in my off season, creates a more stable local food economy. And I can focus my limited energy on crops that are more important to me.
One of our favourite ways to eat potatoes is mashed. If you want to up your mashed game, try colcannon. I’ve been making this since college where my roommate and I were obsessed with all things Irish. The original recipe comes from Extending the Table, but I’ve adapted it over the years. A real recipe can be found here. I never bother with peeling potatoes. I just cut off anything questionable.
Here’s the basic idea of colcannon. Make mashed potatoes keeping them a bit drier than usual. At the same time, lightly steam cabbage (or kale) and onions (or leeks) in a minimal amount of water, stock or milk. Blend these until smooth. Add the cabbage/onion smoothie to the potatoes and mash again with lots of cream, salt and butter. You are supposed to put this into the oven to bake and get crusty. We usually can’t wait. It’s yummy with fried eggs or sausage.
This year I had a goal of bringing beets to every market. I just about succeeded and they were so popular, I barely got to eat any myself! So partway through the summer I planted eight feet of beets just for me. In the autumn, my dear mother helped me roast, peel and slice all those beets. We put the beets into small packages that I now pull out of the freezer and eat to my heart’s content.
I LOVE beets. Other folks in my household? Not so much. Even though I point out how beets have more antioxidants than most other veggies, it can still be a tough sell. So I’ve started having beets with my breakfast eggs. Don’t look at me like that. It’s really good.
One of the ways I can get my family to eat beets is to be liberal with the feta cheese, butter and balsamic vinegar. I read that cooking beets in salted water with a bit of vinegar can help balance that “earthy” flavour which some people are more sensitive to than others.
If you are a beet lover, this is a great season for you to go gangbusters. Beets store well and tend to be very affordable.
I’m looking for a good beet soup recipe if anyone has one to share.
We had a very late spring last year. The apples didn’t bloom until the first week of June, three weeks later than usual. All the outdoor planting was behind schedule with the cold wet weather. Something had to give in my crop plan and it was the winter squash. I didn’t grow any at all.
Winter squash is also met by my household with one hand clapping, so I was the only one sad about giving them up. Again, I really LOVE squash, but I have reduced the number of times I cook it weekly to avoid mutiny.
Winter squash gets pretty much the same treatment no matter the variety. Cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and roast it in a hot oven until it’s soft and caramelized. If you want a real recipe, go here.
I have found that my people willingly eat squash one way: in curried squash soup. It’s easy enough to throw this soup together once you have cooked squash on hand. Soften onion, garlic and celery in a dollop of ghee or butter. Add curry spices of your choice and allow them to bloom in the fat. Add a pinch of salt, the cooked squash chopped up a bit, and stock. Allow it to bubble away for 20 minutes then turn off the heat and add a can of coconut milk. Now blend it into a smooth puree. Serve with yogurt and a squeeze of lemon. You can also switch out the squash for carrots and it’s still yummy.
Roasting is the winter vegetable’s friend. It brings out the sweetness of those stored sugars. Roast whole heads of garlic, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips as well as potatoes, carrots, beets and squash. You can even roast different veggies all together on one tray. Just be aware that some will take longer to roast than others so you may need to remove them as they finish so they don’t burn. Cut dense vegetables in smaller pieces. Don’t be stingy with the olive oil.
So that’s a very brief overview of our winter veg strategy. All of the above veggies can combine with pantry staples and frozen goodies we put up over the summer to make yummy winter fare. Heading into the winter with a freezer full of meat and a decently stocked pantry, that’s the stuff of later posts.
Now go get a cabbage and make me proud.