“What do you eat in winter?” is a question I frequently get asked when people learn that I eat a mostly local foods diet in the Northeastern U.S.
My reply starts with the fact that I eat just as well in winter as I do in summer. That fact really cheers me up right now. We are at the tail end of winter, but it will still be many weeks until the first spring crops are ready. If I only ate the storage and greenhouse crops available year-round here, well, I’d survive but my meals would be really boring.
Here’s how you can make your “off season” meals as interesting and nutritious for you as the ones you eat during the harvest months, all the while keeping a locavore’s lowered carbon footprint.
Shop at year-round farmers’ markets.
Find out if there are year-round farmers’ markets where you live. In my neighborhood there is the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket where a few stalwart farms offer apples, root vegetables, winter squashes, hearty greens such as cabbage and kale, plus meat, eggs, cheese, honey, maple syrup, wine, and cultivated mushrooms. There is also a smaller indoor market offering similar fare. And there are farms with hothouses offering out-of-season items such as tomatoes if you don’t mind the value-added price.
Join a winter Community Supported Agriculture share.
The CSA I am a member of offers weekly shares June through early November, and then a monthly delivery November through February. The farm then takes March through May to work on getting the new crops going for the year.
Our winter boxes include the usual storage stuff including winter squashes and root vegetables, but also greens from the farm’s unheated greenhouses, popcorn, dried chile peppers, and cider.
To find out if there is a CSA offering a winter share near you, check out Local Harvest.
Food preservation (DIY or take advantage of some of the frozen ingredients a few local farms are offering)
The canned, frozen, dried, and lacto-fermented foods I put up during the warm months add variety and nutrition to my “off-season” meals. A blueberry smoothie for breakfast in January, dried tomatoes kissed with basil oil in my pasta, pickled dilly beans to perk up a winter salad…None of these dishes would be possible if I hadn’t frozen the blueberries, dried the tomatoes, made the basil oil, and pickled the green beans.
If the number of food preservation classes I’ve booked for 2011 is any indication, interest in the topic is surging. But if you’re sure you are not going to be among those investing in canning jars and dehydrators, there’s another possibility. Look into local producers who may be doing the food preservation for you.
There are professional picklers who use mostly local ingredients and sell at farmers’ markets year-round. There are also an increasing number of farms who offer frozen tomatoes and other ingredients at their off-harvest season stalls. And at least one organization, Winter Sun, offers a monthly CSA share that delivers frozen fruits and vegetables (locally grown and picked in their prime).
Don’t expect preserved ingredients to taste like fresh: they are as good, but different. You don’t expect a raisin to taste like a grape, for example. Get to know preserved ingredients for their own unique textures and tastes.
Here’s a video I did on preserving herbs.
Forage for Wild Edible Plants and Mushrooms
There are some wild edibles available even in winter: I can collect field garlic, chickweed for salads, and warming tea ingredients such as spicebush and birch even when there are patches of snow on the ground.
More importantly, foraging perfectly compliments and fills in the gaps of the agricultural calendar. Where I live in Brooklyn, NY, the foraging season starts over a month before the first asparagus and other spring crops appear at the farmers’ markets, with fresh salad and cooking greens and rhubarb-like Japanese knotweed. In late fall, when the market is reduced to offering only storage crops (apples, root vegetables, etc.), there are still wild greens, Jerusalem artichokes, rose hips, and some wild edible mushrooms in the field.
The first rule of foraging is to be 100% certain of your identification (if in doubt, throw it out). If you’d like to learn but don’t want to be self-taught, John Kallas’ site is a good starting point for finding wild edibles classes. In NYC, try the links for my foraging tours and Brill’s.
Grow Food Indoors
You’ll need either a window with at least six hours of sunlight or plant lights to grow food indoors, but it’s worth doing. Herbs are especially good candidates for indoor growing. This year my most successful indoor herbs have been cilantro, parsley, and chives. They add fresh flavor and color to my winter dishes, and save the money I’d spend on those supermarket herbs (not to mention the plastic those are usually packaged in).
So those are my main tips for eating local off season: take advantage of the ingredients that are available year-round even in cold winter areas, plan on putting some food by for the cold time, consider learning some foraging skills, and if you’ve got a sunny window or space for plant lights, grow some food indoors.
By the way, spring is just around the corner.
Contributed by Farm to Table