Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Green Kitchen: Local Going Into Winter

Green Kitchen is a bi-weekly column about nutritious, inexpensive, and ethical food and cooking. It's penned by the lovely Jaime Green.

Ignore the fact that it's snowing outside-- Wait, don't ignore that. Take a moment to enjoy that. It's snowing! But ignore it in terms of the point I'm about to make.

Ignore the fact that it's snowing. Ignore the fact that it's about 50 degrees in my apartment, that I'm wearing sweatpants and a hoodie and my hat. Ignore the down comforter on my bed, the cold toes, the date on the calendar.

How do I know it's winter?

Let's take a look at what's recently come out of my kitchen. Breakfast Sunday: an improvised take on what I remembered of Kris' Shaksouka – canned diced tomatoes, half an onion, a carrot, and eggs poached therein. Lunch today (and for the rest of the week, and taking up some space in the freezer): lentil soup made with dried lentils, canned tomatoes, frozen spinach, and an onion. Breakfast tomorrow's looking like a smoothie with frozen cherries and blueberries.

Where have all the fresh veggies gone?

Winter is rough on lots of people – the sun's gone, it's hard to spend time outside, and winter coats are uncomfortable and bulky. Snow is lovely and sweaters are cozy, but this time of year can bring your mood down. (I always wish, walking past Christmas decorations in December, that our holiday of sparkly lights took place a few months later, when even the snow is dreary and we could really use a little extra glitter.)

Winter's an extra downer for local eaters, though. I'm not even a 100% locavore. Not at all - I love bananas and avocados and cans of coconut milk. I do appreciate the environmental and economic repercussions of shopping at the farmers market, but I keep doing it because I love how it feels. Meeting farmers, knowing where my kale comes from. Even just the ritual of the market – walking between stalls, comparing produce, and the week-to-week cycle of the growing season. From asparagus to tomatoes to butternut squash, that's how the year goes.

But now we've, like we do every year, come to the end. The farms are mulched over and resting for the winter, and just about every night brings a freeze. We have a few more weeks of the real hardy stuff – kale and leeks and Brussels sprouts – and food that stores well lasts a little longer. Apples and onions and winter squash stick around basically until springtime at the year-round greenmarkets (so do bison meat and eggs). But the growing season is drawing to a close, and with it goes a big part of what I love about cooking.

From Flickr's stevendepolo
So many of my culinary decisions in the warmer months are based on what I find at the market – radishes are cheap or the parsnips look nice, and I get inspired and try something out. (Maybe this is just a relief from my usually agonizing decision making process.) But in winter I don't think I get down cause the food's not local – the problem is that, for the next five months, all of the food is the same. Cheap and mediocre at my local supermarket, or pricier and lush at the Whole Foods downtown, it's shipped in from wherever, in-season in California or Chile or Taiwan, and nothing changes from one week to the next.

What do you do when your local veggies dry (or freeze) up? Do you come up with new, slightly less local, guidelines? Maybe food from your country, or hemisphere, rather than a 300-mile greenmarket radius? Maybe I can let sales direct me in winter the way the seasons do the other half of the year. Do you transition to canned and frozen foods? Canned tomatoes beat fresh ones seven months out of the year, and frozen kale – flash-frozen when it's fresh – is looking mighty good, and cheap, compared to the produce section at Whole Foods.

I've got my freezer supply of mashed cauliflower and apple sauce, and there's always room for soup in there, too, but it's not enough to make it through until spring. What's most important about how you choose where to get your food? Is it price, convenience, localness, or just the experience of it all? And how do you make the second-best choice feel good?

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Jen said...

Ah, I've been struggling with this dilemma recently. I generally prefer to buy local grown veggies but when those dry up in the winter I tend to skimp on the veg. I also try to buy organic whenever I can, and I tend to get stuck in this "if it's not organic I'll do without" mentality. But this year our income has dropped significantly, and I've got some health issues that really require me to eat nutritious, whole foods. I've finally had to accept I can't afford to buy my produce at Whole Foods right now, and I need to not let perfect be the enemy of good when the choice is eat conventional veg or eat no veg. I've started buying conventional produce at my local ethnic market (dirt cheap and fresher than my grocery store). Once I let go of my focus on local and organic, I realized I was actually eating better and was taking more pleasure in my food.

So while I do still believe local and organic are valuable and hope to return to them when money isn't so tight, I think sometimes buying out of season, conventional produce is the right choice.

Anonymous said...

I have been fortunate in my local choices, but when you live in the Mid-South (Memphis, TN) you can afford to be. I bought tons of kale this summer, we have vendors that sold the whole plant which were huge. I couldn't eat it all, so I froze the rest; I had enough kale to fill six gallon freezer bags. I still buy frozen spinach, generic label from Forrest City, AR, so I'm not too worried about the carbon impact. If you can't afford the produce Whole Foods does sell seed. Kale is a biennial and can grow easily indoors, and for $3 I don't know of many who couldn't afford to try growing it. I did and am enjoying the fact all I have to do is pop outside to get a bunch. Y'all give it a try. It tastes best his time of year and if you do buy it freeze what you don't use, and if it's wilting try soaking the leaves in lemon juice for an hour.

GrowingRaw said...

We grow a lot of our own veggies and get some pretty huge gluts around Autumn time. We give heaps away, and then use various methods to preserve veggies for Winter. At various times of the year tomatoes and capsicum go in the dehydrator, beetroot and garlic get pickled, zucchini gets chopped or grated and stored in the freezer, oregano and coriander are dried and crumbled into glass jars. All this takes a fair bit of effort though.

Over Winter we eat more soups so the dried legumes can come out of the back of the cupboard and mix up with some of the longer storing veggies like pumpkin.

The other thing you can do in Winter is go on a bit of a sprout experimentation spree. Trying different seeds and beans gives you a diversity of flavours and nutrients to choose from, and you can throw them in stirfries pretty easily.

Anonymous said...

Lucky here - I LOVE potatoes, a year-round veggie. From the local market when I can, otherwise organic, from this island (UK). With veggies I tend to limit to what's available in the UK, but still buy fruits from Europe, organic when I can. But there's still the boyfriend's bananas!

Like others, lots of soup, and I go into high gear for the baking. I've started freezing some stuff, but he's going to have to get over his whole "frozen is evil" thing. Like that tomato which was picked green and then travelled two days to get here is gonna taste better?

Alisa said...

I've thinking about the same thing... made sure to dehydrate lots of fruit in the fall! Still munching on apple slices. My freezer is packed with frozen greens from our garden, plus homemade salsa and applesauce. But supplies are diminishing - we have a loooong winter up here in Ontario so I don't think this stuff will make it to March or April. Thank god for sprouts!

Sally said...

My income has taken a huge cut, too, and I buy the vegetables I can afford.

Kris, I so understand your need to be away, but I'm so missing the Friday Links and Saturday Throwback! :-(

Juno said...

My stash of frozen summer berries is the only thing keeping me sane until the spring/summer comes around again.