Wintertime Doesn’t Mean the End of Farmers Market Shopping
It’s that time of year again. After a last big push for Thanksgiving shoppers, many farmers markets and roadside stands are closed until spring. Growers are exhausted and happy to stop—or at least turn their attention to seed catalogs and maintenance chores they can do inside, out of the wind and bitter cold.
Or not, given that more and more of them are relying on protective cultivation methods to extend their growing season. (Note to backyard gardeners: Choosing early-maturing or cold-hardy varieties, staggering planting dates, and/or using floating row covers are three such techniques that can be easily, economically implemented.)
This is all to the good when it comes to you, the consumer, who wants to put fresh, local food on the table year-round. Some cities have covered markets that operate 12 months a year; one legendary example is Pike Place Market, in Seattle (since 1907), and there’s the historic Reading Terminal Market, in Philadelphia. In other places, like the various boroughs of New York City, a number of the growers who participate in the city’s Greenmarkets pile on the thermals under their Carhartts and brave the elements. After Christmas, shopping there turns into something more akin to foraging, but pretty much all winter long you’ll be able to find pot greens and cabbages—both all the sweeter for the frost—as well as apples, potatoes and other root vegetables, grains and dried beans, and various meat products and jarred or frozen products.
Then there are states down South and in parts of California and other western states that are fortunate to have the sort of weather in which farmers markets can offer local produce that would make many of us giddy with delight any time of year. In Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmers’ Markets, Deborah Madison devotes a chapter to citrus and subtropical winter fruit. “Lucky indeed are those who can pick up a sugar pineapple, a quart of blood orange juice, or a bag of passion fruit at the farmers’ market,” she wrote. Some citrus and kiwifruit don’t depend on a tropical climate, she added, noting that they thrive farther north as long as their growing area is free of prolonged hard frost. “Markets in the California foothills, in Placer County, for example, are sources of feijoa, mandarins, lemons, and oranges. But many of the softer exotic fruits—the guavas, cherimoyas, avocados, and lychee nuts dwell more safely southwards where freezes are less of a threat, or on the lush sides of Hawaii’s islands.”
What we often mean by the word exotic is something that is “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different,” and at farmers markets in many parts of the United States, that translates to old-fashioned winter vegetables that some of you may be unfamiliar with. Here are three favorites.
This beautiful celadon-green or purple orb with the whirligig leaves isn’t a root vegetable but a bulbous stem that grows above ground. An ancient member of the nutrient-dense brassica family, it’s been cultivated in France since Roman times and in the United States since the 18th century. Because you’ll also find it in other parts of the world, including Hungary, Germany, China, and India, it is one versatile veggie. Juicy and clean-tasting with a mild turnipy flavor, it handles an array of seasonings and embellishments with aplomb. It’s great in a vegetarian stir-fry or curry and has a special affinity for Eastern European flavors. Cut into wedges and quick-braised until tender, then tossed with sour cream, bottled horseradish, plenty of salt and pepper, and a good amount of roughly chopped fresh dill, it’s terrific alongside grilled sausages or pork chops.
If you’re trying to work more raw foods into your diet, kohlrabi is a great place to start. Cut into slices, it’s delicious with nothing more than a sprinkling of flaky sea salt. If you add it to a crudité platter, it will be the first thing to disappear. Or mix it with celery root in a winter salad or slaw.
Shopping and prep tips: Choose medium to large kohlrabies (yep, that’s the correct plural), because they have a greater ratio of flesh to peel. The outer skin is on the woody side, so it’s best to peel them; make sure you also remove any fibrous layer beneath the skin (the purple and green types are the same under the surface).
Remember what your mama told you: Appearances can be deceiving. Compared with its vibrant carrot cousin, for instance, the parsnip is pale and fleshy, with a long straggly tip, but it’s a good source of vitamins (especially C and the B’s) and minerals. Its flavor is also surprising—elegant instead of earthy, with a complex sweetness that instantly elevates a tray of roasted winter vegetables. Like rutabaga (below), it’s wonderful when mashed with potatoes. Its sweetness is a nice foil for kale, collards, and other pot greens and can stand up to a hit of bitterness (broccoli rabe), smokiness (bacon or ham), or brininess (capers or anchovies). Its bountiful natural sugar content means that you can use it to replace another sweetener in muffins and other baked goods.
The parsnip is also one of the most ancient vegetables on the planet. According to food historian and heirloom-vegetable authority William Woys Weaver, wild parsnips were foraged in the Stone Age (calling all Paleos!) and were a feature of kitchen gardens in ancient Rome.
Shopping and prep tips: Choose roots that are on the large side for a better peel-to-flesh ratio. Avoid those with tops that boast a sprouting seed stalk—a good indicator of a tough, woody core—and if the skin is thick, don’t hesitate to peel.
This root vegetable, which looks like a huge turnip and is nutty and peppery in flavor, is sometimes called a swede, yellow turnip, or neep. Botanically, it’s a cross between the turnip and the cabbage and is the star of the Scottish dish called clapshot—potatoes and rutabaga mashed with good butter and whole milk. In Scotland, clapshot is traditionally eaten alongside haggis on Burns Night (Jan. 25), but don’t wait until then to indulge. It’s wonderful with any rich, deep-flavored meat—steak, venison, or even duck breast.
The big plus about buying rutabagas at a farmers market is that you don’t have to deal with the wax coating on those sold at supermarkets. The most efficient way to peel a rutabaga is with a sturdy Y-shaped peeler, but if you don’t have one, all is not lost. Use a sharp paring knife to cut off one end of the vegetable to make a flat, stable surface, then set it on that end and remove the skin in lengthwise strips.
Shopping and prep tips: Bigger is not better. Gargantuan rutabagas typically have woody cores that should be cut out and discarded.