Here comes winter's feast!
Winter usually brings on a kind of depression. The days get shorter, there is a chill in the air, and all of our favorite fruits and vegetables are gone. No more fresh peaches, cherries, or tomatoes until next year.
Instead of lamenting over the things we have lost, let's explore the bounty that the fall and winter seasons have to offer. This is the time of the root vegetable - carrots, onions, beets, potatoes, parsnips, turnips - the list goes on. Also, there are a large number of winter squashes available that can be roasted and made into everything from soups to desserts. Winter squashes are distinguished by a hard outer shell, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and have a long shelf-life. Spaghetti squash, acorn squash, butternut squash, pumpkins, and Hubbard squash are the most common varieties.
My favorite thing to do with root vegetables is to roast them (with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper) and mix them together. They can also be diced up small, added to a quick cream sauce, and served as a side dish or in a pie covered with puff pastry (like a pot pie). Winter vegetables are higher in natural sugars than their summer counterparts so smaller portions are very satisfying and highly energizing. Roasted parsnips can be pureed and added to regular mashed potatoes to add an extra dimension of flavor. Spaghetti squash can be served with your favorite marinara sauce and meatballs (instead of pasta). Acorn squash can be roasted with apples and maple syrup to make a simple vegetable side dish. Butternut squash makes a quick and satisfying soup as well as an excellent filling for home made ravioli (use won ton skins if you don't feel like making pasta from scratch).
I know it is fashionable in America to hate vegetables and we often treat them as a nuisance. I am inviting you to join the counter-revolution! Seriously, who can resist a plate of steaming ravioli, especially when they are stuffed with a sweet ricotta and squash filling? Or a bowl of silky smooth butternut squash soup when you come in out of the cold? You may think you hate cabbage but it is the main component in egg rolls. Admit it, we all like a good egg roll now and again. No need to point out that you are secretly eating vegetables. Just enjoy!
Then there are the green vegetables. They are tougher than the spring greens but they are long on flavor and vitamins. Kale is a misunderstood and underused vegetable. You can make a delicious soup out of kale, potatoes, and sausage. Or kale and potato cakes (use leftover mashed potatoes!). Cabbage and its relatives (brussels sprouts, broccoli, bok choy, kohlrabi, mustard greens) are plentiful and inexpensive. Check the recipe section for suggestions. The main point here is this: if you think a little outside the box, you can elevate all of these vegetables to new heights (and impress your friends and family).
Don't despair, there are also winter fruits! Oranges, tangerines, apples, and pears are all plentiful and delicious. Baked apples (or pears) take little preparation and are delicious with ice cream or whipped cream (my personal favorite!). Tangerines are a wonderful snack for "the little ones" and contain a burst of vitamin C - the perfect antidote to a gloomy day.
Bundle up and take a field trip to the Farmers' market with your family and friends on a Saturday morning. Then go home and cook a meal together. The work gets divided, everyone has a great time, and you can all sit down to a wonderful feast (and a movie) afterward.
Summer fruit is here! Open season on farmers markets!
Farmers markets usually run all year long, but the summer season is the most exciting time because of all of the luscious fruits that are available. Mangos, apricots, berries, nectarines, peaches, cherries - the list is as endless as it is delicious!
We've all seen the summer fruit displays at the local supermarket - huge sculptures of perfect, beautifully polished fruit, usually for a high price. Nice if you want to take a picture, and nominally more nutritious. If you want produce that is more flavorful and nutritious, buy from the small farmers. The small farmers that are involved with the farmers markets are local, and grow a few items at a time.
You'll enjoy the different energy at the farmer's market. There is usually a myriad of things to do. Some of the booths sell snacks (ooh, hot Kettle Corn!). There might be a band playing. Noisy, chaotic, filled with people - it's a social experience and a shopping opportunity all rolled into one. Much more fun than the chain store supermarket!
While you're there, you can talk to the farmers or their employees. They can tell you how and where they grow their crops (remember, local is better) and you can usually sample anything you want to buy. Ever try to sample a fruit at your neighborhood superstore? If you don't get arrested, you still might not get a true taste of what you're getting. Most large commercial farms pick their fruit before it is ripe so it can survive shipping across the country. In general, it takes 3-5 days for this fruit to arrive at its destination. Since it is picked "green", it is gassed to induce ripeness. It works, but it doesn't leave you with the best product you can get. It may look like an orange and have a faint orange smell but it doesn't have the same rich flavor an orange would have if it was left to ripen on the tree.
The things you find at the farmers market are picked when they are ripe and ready to go. You can smell the fruit when you are standing next to it. As a matter of fact, you can usually get some good discounts at the end of the day because the farmers don't want to take the fruits and veggies home. Most of them wouldn't survive the return trip.
Perfect isn't necessarily better--the fruits and vegetables you'll find at the farmers market are more "natural". Although not all of the farms are certified "organic" (yet), most farmers grow their crops without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. This means that they are not all perfectly round, shiny, or without blemishes. To make up for it, the flavors are deep and vibrant, the fruits are ripe and at their peak, just the way Mother Nature intended.
If you are a parent and think your kids won't try new things, the farmers market is a perfect place to take them. Between the noise and the samples, you may be surprised to find your children eating things that are "out of the norm". A word of caution - don't bring your kids to shop in their "Sunday best". By the end of a successful day, they will be wearing everything they ate!
Come prepared. You'll need cash and a few bags to transport your purchases. Often you can negotiate a discount with the farmers. Either way you slice it, you'll have fun, make some new friends, and have some delicious fresh food to show for your efforts.
A final note: one of the best things about the farmers markets in the S.F. Bay Area is one is open every day. For more information, visit http://www.sfgate.com/food/farmersmarkets.
Fresh markets are also gaining momentum around the country. If you are in New York City, for example, there are 46 markets throughout Manhattan and the boroughs. The largest and most well known market is the Union Square Farmer's Market, which operates year-round and is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. For a more complete schedule of markets in NYC, go to http://gonyc.about.com/cs/photogalleries/a/greenmarkets.htm.
Go forth and gorge!