What Will Winter Taste Like – Continued

December 10, 2008 at 8:53 am

Rob Gardner

If you were like me, shoveling snow before the crack of dawn this AM, you know winter is here.  Last week, we discussed what it would taste like by the products available to a Chicago area locavore.  Today, let’s discuss a bit more what those products will taste like by their flavorings.  The wonder and experience of seasonal eating is not just the parade of fruits and vegetables coming around for their period.  Different times of year just taste different.  Spring food (and in Chicago local eating, we use that term loosely) tastes sharp and bright and green because the onions and garlic are new and green.  If we could say that spring foods taste alive, of renewal, does that mean that winter foods taste like death and decay?  Well, let’s not quite go there, but winter tastes are the tastes of food holding on to their last grips of life and flavor.

Think peppers.  From about August until just about now, we can mark-up our foods with fresh peppers, both sweet and hot.  During the winter, we have to rely on the peppers we have dried.  Food will taste different.   With dried peppers come my first batch of harissa:

Soak dried peppers in hot water until they soften, about an hour; combine in a blender, food processor or mortar with a clove or two of garlic and a smidgen of cumin, drizzle in olive oil until a nice paste forms. If your peppers are very hot, like mine, use a bit of the water to dilute.

I’m rather smitten with Tunisian cuisine where harissa goes into everything.  Last night it worked just fine in a Tunisian style salad of raw, grated turnips (grate, salt, let sit five minutes, add harissa, lemon juice and olive oil).  I’m sure I’ll find many more uses for the harissa.

Another big difference in the way winter food tastes will come from the lack of fresh herbs, or perhaps the limited supply of herbs.   Certain dried herbs, especially oregano, can be used to great effect in the kitchen, but again it will taste different.  Winter is also time to make full use of the “Marco Polo Exception”, as Bill McKibben explains:

I considered fair game anything your average 13th century explorer might have brought back from distant lands. So: pepper, and turmeric, and even the odd knob of ginger root stayed in the larder.

Winter braises and mashes take especially well to spices. What better to join your home-made harissa than a North African inspired tangine. Think also how spices go into winter desserts like gingerbread cookies and fruitcakes (good fruitcakes!).

There is nothing to stop you from using dried peppers and ancient spices in your food all year long. It’s just that in other times of year we have options. Yes, we have to eat what is there, but it is also nice and good to have winter taste different. Us localies revel in this difference. Moreover, the seasonings of the season go best with the foods of the season. Lastly, there are other benefits to using these flavorings now.  Spices like ginger and peppercorns give a warming effect to food.

Today was not the first time I shoveled snow this winter. It surely will not be the last. At least I will have the unique tastes of winter to sustain me over this period.



  1. art says:

    I always like to use plenty of citrus in my winter cooking. Unfortunately, it is not local but preserved lemons could pass the test, right? I’ve got a stash of ancient preserved meyer lemons in my fridge for when I need a jolt of vibrancy in a rich braise or earthy greens. A lot of citrus is in season (somewhere else) and I get that feel good sense that I’m loading up with vitamin C to protect me from those winter colds too.

  2. Rob Gardner says:

    Thanks for the comment Art. I totally agree with you about citrus being part of winter flavors, and I might just have a blog post in me on the subject. I (surely the rest of the Local Family) preach no local absolutism. Just last week we purchased a sack of Florida tangerines, which lasted barely to mid-week.

    In general, I have two feelings about citrus. First, as you note, think of it as seasonal. Nicely, citrus comes into season when our other fruits about conk out. This gets me buying citrus, but my other feeling is that I wish there was better citrus to buy. Obviously, we cannot get “local” citrus, but I wish we could get more citrus that was local in spirit, that is from family farms, grown with sustainable practices, and was of heirloom varietals.

    I had dinner last night with someone who has been involved with Green City Market. I suggested why not do a “citrus exchange”. In other words, could not Green City Identify the Nichols or Green Acres of citrus in Florida or California, and make special arrangements to have their stuff for the winter markets. It violates certain precepts of the market, but what they hey, right?

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