Jane Says: Don’t Let Your Winter Kitchen Get Boring

Tired of the limited local harvest? Here's a few tips—and a recipe—for livening up those root vegetables, squash and greens.

Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“It’s March, and my farmers market is very limited. I’ve been eating the same vegetables for months now. Any tips?”

—Theresa Stewart

By the time March rolls around, all the produce we were thrilled to see in November has palled, even for the most die-hard proponents of buying seasonal, local food. For much of the country, in fact, a visit to a farmers market yields all-too-predictable heaps of potatoes, parsnips, onions, and carrots. And the overwintered kale and cabbage, delicious as they are, look as though someone backed a car over them.

It’s worth remembering that we’re talking about some of the most nutrient-dense vegetables on the planet, which means absolutely nothing if they sit in your fridge while you order Thai food. But take heart: Rekindling interest and appetite in these culinary workhorses is as simple as changing up flavor or texture, or utilizing a different cooking technique.

Surf the Supermarket

When it comes to supermarkets, we’ve all learned to stick to the perimeter, where the produce, meat, seafood, and dairy departments are, and avoid the center aisles, which are crammed full of all those nasty packaged goods. Fair enough. But most supermarket managers are very good at catering to the diversity in their communities, and their international sections have evolved far beyond boxes of taco shells and bottles of soy sauce. And if you don’t live in a place where there are Asian, Indian, and Latin markets, these shelves are one-stop shopping for all manner of flavor boosters, including chipotles in adobo (combine a dab with maple syrup or sorghum; spread on wedges of sweet potatoes or winter squash before roasting), and Thai curry pastes or Indian curry sauces, which give pizzazz to cauliflower, winter squash, and braising greens. Just a half-teaspoon of Asian fish sauce gives depth of flavor to a vegetable soup; pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika) is wonderful on roasted or baked potatoes; and the Moroccan spice blend called ras el hanout has a great affinity for carrots, winter squash, and greens.

The Raw Deal

You’ll look at some vegetables in a whole new light when you eat them raw instead of cooked. Serve paper-thin slices of cabbage, turnips, celery root, fennel, and/or kohlrabi with hummus or a creamy dip spiked with pimentón or the hot North African chile paste called harissa. Finely shredded kale has become the latest go-to salad green (try it with shards of ricotta salata or Parmigiano-Reggiano on top). Long shavings of butternut squash, tossed with arugula, radicchio, and perhaps some toasted pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds) make a great cold-weather salad as well.

The Roasting Rut

When roasting vegetables, especially sweet potatoes or winter squash, try using coconut oil instead of olive oil. As I suggested in a column back in June 2012, when buying coconut oil, choose a minimally processed “virgin” one, and you’ll be rewarded with deep coconut-y flavor. No matter what oil you use, vegetables only need a light coating; spread them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet so they have room to cook evenly and get browned in places. Leftover roasted vegetables are like money in the bank—serve them as antipasti, combine them with a favorite grain (or not) in a salad, or (my favorite) cut them into smaller pieces, if necessary, and fold them into a risotto.

A Game-Changing Technique

This is the perfect time of year to become proficient at the time-honored French technique called chiffonade. The term, which means “made of rags,” involves cutting a vegetable into strips of varying thicknesses so that once they hit a hot oiled pan (that already has some garlic and red-pepper flakes working), they’ll become crisp-tender in a matter of minutes. As far as the prep goes, for collards and other braising greens, simply stack a few leaves at a time, roll them up like a cigar, and slice away. 

This technique also turns brussels sprouts into a quick-cooked slaw that appeals to virtually everyone. Brussels sprouts, by the way, are little nutrition bombs: In addition to fiber and protein, they contain vitamins C, E, A, K, B-6 and folate, as well as the essential minerals calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and selenium. If thinly slicing individual sprouts sounds too finicky for words, just try it—with a decently sharp knife in hand, you can power through a pound of sprouts in no time.

Here’s a recipe that’s always in my culinary rotation this time of year:

Brussels Sprout Chiffonade

Adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook

Serves 4

Cut 1 pound of trimmed brussels sprouts in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise into thin slices. In a large skillet, melt about 2 tablespoons unsalted butter over medium-high heat. Once the butter stops foaming, add ¼ teaspoon cumin seeds. Give them a few moments to bloom before adding half the sprouts and some salt and pepper. Cook the sprouts, stirring and fluffing them every once in a while with tongs until they’re tender, no longer than 5 minutes. Transfer them to a large bowl, then cook the remaining sprouts. (Two batches sound complicated, but the sprouts cook faster and more evenly.) Once you’ve transferred the second batch of sprouts to the bowl, stir in the lime juice, and add salt and pepper to taste.

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