Finding and eating fresh in winter
This time of year, I make a lot of soups and stews, which are perfect for the root vegetables and potatoes that we associate with winter.
But sometimes I want something bright in my mouth; something fresh and crunchy that holds the promise of warmer days. But what’s a cook to do? While on the surface there’s plenty of freshness at the supermarket, this time of year much of it comes from thousands of miles away and might not be at the peak of its nutritional value – blueberries from Peru, for example. And finding fresh at the winter farmers markets is also a challenge since this is New England, not California.
But I was desperate. So I went on a treasure hunt to local supermarkets and to winter farmers markets in East Falmouth, Orleans and even Scituate. While I didn’t find everything I was hoping for, I did find some prizes. They fell into three categories:
- Seasonal produce, grown both near and far.
- Produce that stores well.
- Produce and other products preserved by someone else.
There was also a surprise or two. More on that below.
Fresh and Seasonal
The freshest things right now are grapefruit, oranges, clementines, winter squash, Brussel sprouts and kale, Michele McGann, RD, a dietitian at Falmouth Hospital, said. She advises choosing fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C, which plays an important role in the immune system.
But don’t just turn to citrus for vitamin C. Red peppers, Brussel sprouts, kiwi fruit and berries are all as high or higher in vitamin C than an orange, according to the National Institutes of Health. My head was turned by a pile of glowing red peppers – admittedly grown in Israel but on sale at the supermarket – which I then had to figure out how to cook. See my solution below.
And this time of year, you might find not only greenhouse salad greens but their smaller cousins, microgreens, said Kim Concra, a dietitian and nutritionist with Cape Cod Cooperative Extension in Barnstable. Microgreens are greens or vegetables – beets, broccoli, corn, radish, among others – that are snipped just as they are beginning to leaf.
“Basically, they get up only a couple of inches high maybe, and then you’re giving them a haircut,” Concra said. They have much of the nutrition of their bigger selves, and are good in sandwiches or frittatas or salads.
I saw beautiful greens at the farmers markets in January but sadly no microgreens the weeks I was there.
There was, however, something I hadn’t expected: Cape Cod-grown oyster mushrooms at the Orleans Farmers Market that exploded out of a quart container like an alien. They were a splurge, but I cut them into 3-inch strips and pan fried them, then put them in an omelet. It was a yummy meal and took advantage of another local item in farmers markets right now: eggs.
Also, in Orleans, Ralph Tupper from Tupper Cranberries in East Brewster was selling the last of this season’s fresh cranberries. They were bright and shiny and red – and full of vitamin C. He had lots of ideas with what to do with them. I opted for a dessert; the recipe is below.
Waiting Their Turn
In New England we’re used to relying on fruits and vegetables that store well, such as squash and root vegetables. At the Winter Market at Mahoney’s on Route 28 in East Falmouth, Coonamessett Farm offered a roasting mix made up of carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic and Jerusalem artichokes.
But if you want some winter crunch, consider the apple. My supermarket had 14 varieties of apples recently.
“Apples are a perfect winter-month fruit for their ability to keep well after a long harvest,” McGann said.
Apples have some vitamins C and A but are also good sources of soluble fiber which helps protect against cholesterol build-up in the blood vessel walls, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture. For the best advantage, eat them with the skin on. I found a new take on an old favorite, Waldorf salad, that takes advantage of tart Granny Smiths as well as the year-round crunch of celery. The recipe is below.
Ready to Eat
And finally, what could be better than having the best of the summer preserved by someone else? It’s the ultimate local takeout.
In Orleans, I bought pickled beets put up by Peachtree Circle Farm in Falmouth, and in Scituate I found delicious sweet potato chili made by Kiss Flower Farm out of Norwell.
Vendors at all three winter farmers markets were selling meat, jams, bread, honey, pickles, spiced fruit, almost anything you can imagine that can be baked, frozen or put in a jar. While some of it might seem pricey, a 16-ounce jar of homemade chili was a perfect splurge for my small household.
To keep up on what’s fresh month to month and find out about farmers markets, check out the Buy Fresh, Buy Local Cape Cod website supported by Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. You can sign up for the monthly newsletter that has recipes and nutrition information.
Meanwhile, here are some recipes to help with the winter blahs.
CELERY AND APPLE SALAD
This recipe is an update of Waldorf salad and is adapted from “Ruffage, A Practical Guide to Vegetables,” by Abra Berens. It’s simple, and takes advantage of winter apples and celery, but offers all kinds of variations. For example, swap in blue cheese and walnuts. I added a squeeze of lemon and a teaspoon or so of honey to the dressing. Vary the amounts of each ingredient to suit your taste and the number of diners. There are no greens to get soggy in the fridge so it keeps for a few days. And, it’s the colors of spring.
- 4 cups celery cut in diagonal slices
- 1 pound seedless grapes halved (red or green, your choice)
- 1 tart apple cut into ¼-inch slices (Granny Smith, for example)
- ½ cup olive oil
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup pecans (You can toast them in a 350-degree oven for 7 to 10 minutes if you want to intensify the flavor.)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 ounces goat cheese
Toss all the ingredients except the goat cheese. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then dot with the goat cheese and serve.
CRANBERRY NUT PUDDING
Courtesy of Tupper Farm Cranberries in Brewster, this recipe is more cake than pudding but it’s tasty and the tart fruit is winter color. Serve with ice cream, whipped cream or even a custard sauce.
- 1 1/4 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (or enough to cover the bottom of a pie plate)
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/3 cup butter melted
Spread the cranberries in a buttered 9-inch pie plate. Sprinkle with brown sugar and nuts. Beat egg until thick, then slowly add the sugar, beating until blended. Add flour and beat well. Add melted butter. Spread over cranberries. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.
This is also adapted from “Ruffage, A Practical Guide to Vegetables,” by Abra Berens. It may seem a bit complicated but it’s really just braising red peppers with onion, tomato, and spices to create a topping that could go on anything – eggs, pizza, potatoes, pasta, panini. I put it over potatoes roasted with paprika and topped it all with a poached egg. Freeze it in small amounts so you can grab some when you want it.
- 3 tablespoons neutral oil, like canola
- 1/4 teaspoon chili flakes (optional, but gives it zing)
- 1 large onion, sliced thinly
- 3 garlic cloves minced
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt or to taste
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 12 ounces of crushed tomatoes or as Berens writes, “some sort of liquidy, canned tomato product.”
- 4 red, yellow or orange peppers, cut into strips
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven and add the chili flakes. Let them “bloom” in the oil for about 30 seconds (don’t let them burn!). Add the onion, garlic and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt. “Sweat” the onions over low to medium heat by cooking them covered for 5 minutes, stirring them, and then cooking them for another 5 minutes covered. Add the tomato paste and fry it a bit with the onions. Add the crushed tomatoes and peppers and bring to a boil. Turn to a simmer and cook until the peppers are tender, and the sauce is silky and thick. Note: I had to add a bit of water since my crushed tomatoes were very thick. My batch took about 45 minutes to cook down.
Editor’s Note: This story was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please check with your local farmer’s market for hours and availability.