It’s Back, The Tastes of Winter

October 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Editor’s Note: At the Local Beet, we firmly believe in re-use and recycle, and we know that much of what we have put up on the site remains valid the next year.  With a good chill in the air this week, we’ve been thinking about cold weather eating. And if you’re thinking what will it taste like, see our insights from years past.

It may finally be cold enough [soon] for my apples in the attic. Will it taste like winter in the bungalow? Well, it depends on when in winter we are eating. We can first look at the tastes of winter by when in winter we’re eating.

Winter eating covers three periods: it begins with the final accumulations, goes through storage and preservation and ends with hanging on and renewal. Winter eating lasts longer than the calender’s definition of winter. The season of winter eating begins, has begun by fall and lasts full bore until at least the end of March. These three periods lead to different types of produce. Throughout the winter, though, it is the time to eat meat, dry beans and stored grains.

When Winter Tastes Like Fall

The first part of winter, now, eating is roughly akin to the way it has been the last month or so. That is, the few operating markets, like Green City, will have the same stuff this week as in the last few weeks. The markets include the last of the field crops, the heartiest brasicas and sturdiest roots, as well as the things the farmers have, that have not sold, the hard squash, the potatoes, the apples. Maybe if you expect the over-abundance of a summer market, you will find the markets bare now. I find them quite ample (look at Irv and Shelly’s site for an idea what’s around). Right now, it is still possible to eat each week from what can be purchased. It is also possible now, to continue to stock up for later weeks. We continue to buy apples to put aside and pick up more squash than we can immediately eat. This Local Family is pretty comfortable in garlic and onions but is yours?

Stored and Preserved Foods

It will not be that long until the Chicago area markets empty of food. Oh, there will be  Winter Markets and some version of Green City and Cassie and all, but these markets will not be brimming with food. It will become harder to eat each week from the market purchases. Thus, we go to the stores. We eat the beets and turnips and ‘tato’s we have around. We eat from the cans; we eat from the freezer. Local winter meals can still include green salads, maybe not as many, but they mostly taste hearty, classic winter food, things like a good mash-up of assorted roots along side some braised meat.

The Hungry Months

Then it ends. It not so much ends, as there is only so long stored food, even in good conditions, lasts. By February it will be hard to find, either in your improvised root cellar or in the markets, the beets, the celery roots, the rutabagas that kept you alive for the last few months. It is survival time. The leanest time for the locavore. Hopefully, your freezer contains something because there will not be a lot of local food to buy. There are, however, foods that will last even this long. Right about now you start discovering your best onion and potato dishes–this Jamie Oliver one is especially good. Cultivated mushrooms are always around, and in the Bungalow mushrooms become at least a once a week treat. There is also sprouts and micro-greens that grow indoors, and before you turn your nose, think about finding anything else green. Finally, always, there are apples. For the most part, the later apples are not the Turley Winesaps, the Arkansas Black and other heirloom varieties. But the locavore can always find a Michigan red delicious apple when needed. We hang on. Our spring CSA starts in April. Right before that, we will have tasted the first the ground offers, watercress that can appear while snow still sits and ramps and nettles and maybe some morels. A turnip will never have tasted so good.

Winter Seasonings

The second way to look at winter eating is to see how we season. The reliance on preserved foods changes the way food tastes.

Think peppers.  From summer, well into fall, 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.

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” to local eating, 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 present, but it is also nice and good to have a winter that tastes different. Us locavores 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.