Mid-Winter: What To Eat

It is exciting to me that so many more people are making their way back to seasonal eating.  For those people dedicated to eating as locally as possible this isn’t something they have to think about because eating locally forces you to also eat seasonally.  Learning to eat seasonally isn’t easy when nearly all grocery stores are always stocked with tomatoes and summer squash in winter.  How do you know what’s in season?  Different regions are going to be a little (or a lot) different.  In Florida right now it’s strawberry season but by the time it’s strawberry season where I live, in the Pacific Northwest, it will be much too hot for strawberries in Florida.  So I can’t tell everyone what’s in season for their area specifically.  I can only give some general guidelines to help you find out what’s in season where you live.

Here are some tips to discover what’s in season where you live and following that I will list what’s in season specifically for my area.

Shop your local farmer’s market: this is the number one way to discover what’s in season.  Though many farmer’s markets close during winter, be sure to do some research including nearby towns or cities that may have year-long markets that you can visit.  A winter farmer’s market will have only the produce that could be grown in your region and stored (such a root vegetables) in winter.  At the one farmer’s market in Portland that’s open all year many vendors have produced their own jams and pickles and sauces from the produce they grew in summer so you may not be able to buy tomatoes from them but you can buy salsa produced locally.  Even if you don’t make a habit of regularly shopping at a winter farmer’s market, go to one to educate yourself.

Ask what produce is local at your regular supermarket: many large supermarkets will carry a few local items even if they aren’t labeled as such.  Be sure to talk with the produce manager to find out if they carry anything local.

Read garden books about your region: here in the Pacific Northwest we have a fantastic garden guide (but only for regions west of the Cascades) put out by the Seattle Tilth that is a month by month guide to what to plant and when.  Even if you don’t garden you can easily see what grows during different seasons in your specific climate.  Look for climate specific guides.
I would love to see some Southerners and Southwesterners compile a region specific list of what’s in season for them in winter.  The list I give below should roughly apply to most of the top 2/3 of the United States but will not apply at all to people in the South and Southwest for which I apologize! If any of you out there have been working on this topic and studying your region for seasonal eating and can provide a detailed list, I would love to publish it here.

What to eat in mid-winter:

Fresh eating: (either pulled from your own garden or bought from the store, these items should be available picked fresh)
Chard

Kale

collards

leeks

citrus (though it comes from the southern states if you buy them, winter is their season)

watercress

chervil

mache (corn salad)

parsley

sorrel

Asian greens (tatsoi, mustards, bok choi…etc.)

endive

radicchio

persimmons (depending on region, may be done by early winter)

mushrooms (if you have a local cultivated source)

From the root cellar: (even if bought from local farmers, most likely these things were harvested in fall and stored)

potatoes

carrots

onions

cabbage

winter squash

celery root

parsnips

rutabagas

sunchokes

turnips

beets

shallots

apples

pears

kiwis (usually harvested in late fall and ripen in storage in winter)

garlic

From the pantry:

fruits

pickles

jams

sauces

dried things

We have become very accustomed, us modern people, to eating tomatoes in winter and apples in summer but it isn’t natural and except for the root vegetables that store well nearly all year, no produce is at it’s best when it’s no longer in season.  Winter is a harsh season, especially for people living in the extreme north.  Our diets should become more limited in the winter.  When you spend all winter eating mostly greens and root vegetables punctuated by things you preserved for the pantry, you will look forward a great deal more to the change in diet the spring brings with asparagus and radishes and lettuce.  It may sound bleak if you’re used to eating lettuce salads all winter but unless you’re eating lettuce from your own green house, it isn’t natural to eat lettuce in midwinter.  It’s a time for soups and root vegetable roasts.  While it may seem counter intuitive to some people, eating preserved food (particularly made by you) is healthier than eating out of season vegetables.  It takes a big shift in habit but I think you’ll find that when you eat seasonally you become more connected to your own region, the earth’s natural cycles, and your food will taste better and provide more optimal nutrition for you.

While I eat mostly seasonally and still stick mainly to locally produced food, I do have exceptions.  What I learned from going mostly local for ten months (a couple of years ago) was that there are a few things in my diet that I don’t want to live without.  Avocados and citrus do not grow in my region so buying them means I’m always getting them from hundreds of miles away.  Though sweet potatoes can grow here, this isn’t their ideal region and very few people grow them.  Tropical fruits such as bananas don’t grow here ever.  Pomegranates are another thing that I used to enjoy but which don’t grow where I live.  While I was being more strictly local I bought none of these things.  What I learned was that I can live life without bananas.  I can live life only buying sweet potatoes at the same time my organic CSA has them (we don’t get a lot of them, I bought some extras), and I can live without eating citrus often.  But I cannot live without eating avocados.  I cannot live without imported coffee and olives.  While I was doing my local challenge I had a small list of imported foods that I allowed myself to have such as coffee, tea, oil, sugar, and some other essential items.

I consider imported items as a flexible list but a list that must remain roughly the same size at all times.  So while I’m buying avocados, I don’t buy other non-regional produce such as other tropical fruits.  If I really want to buy bananas for a special occasion (I bought them for the first time in two years a couple of weeks ago) I don’t buy some other non-regional item.  I am happy with the balance I’ve reached for now.  I am constantly looking for closer sources for things like oil and while cost is obviously a factor since I have very little padding in my budget, I can’t always afford to buy things made closer to home.  However, I found an olive oil that’s produced in California (organic!) that costs only slightly more than the cheap imported olive oil I can buy at my discount grocery store*.  California is a lot closer to me than Spain or Italy so buying from California not only reduces the number of miles my food had to travel to get to me, it also supports the economy of my own country.

Seasonal eating has given me a greater appreciation for the food I cook and the flavors I associate with each month of the year.  I would like to end this article with a little list of the foods that you shouldn’t be putting in your grocery cart unless you live in one of the southern regions in which these things might be showing up at your local farmer’s markets:

Not in season in winter:

tomatoes

fresh basil

eggplant

summer squash

green beans

lettuce

strawberries

berries of any kind

peppers (unless preserved)

cucumbers

Happy seasonal eating!

*I should note here that even at my discount grocery store the olive oil is surprisingly expensive.  If a Trader Joe’s was closer to me I’d probably buy theirs because it’s such a great price.  But I heard from a friend that even Trader Joe’s has some California oils available.

8 thoughts on “Mid-Winter: What To Eat

  1. miss lila

    This is where the difference between our areas is almost shocking — strawberries are just coming into season here (production peaks in early Feb; other berries start around April-May), and Florida-grown summer squash, green beans, eggplant and even corn are abundant. Cruciferous vegetables come into season in early spring & late fall, potatoes & other root vegetables in early summer. Lettuce and fresh basil are available mostly year-round (my basil plants were going strong until this past week’s crazy cold snap), sweet potatoes are too.
    The flip side is that some of my favorites – cherries, apples, pears, leeks – don’t exist locally, and asparagus & fresh english peas (my very favorites) only show up for a couple of weeks at produce shops, and never at the big chain markets (imported asparagus is always there, but never peas). The vegetables commonly known as fall/winter crops have a remarkably short (commercial) season here, but the home gardener can get around that and actually get two plantings of those veggies (one in late summer, another in winter/early spring) by planting fast-maturing varieties. Local bananas are actually very hard to find, same with some citrus (lemons, limes) – most of the commercial production is overseas or in California.

  2. michelle

    Even the trader joe’s california olive oil has had a price spike, I found local on sale at a market in november and scooped up 3 bottles, at 5dollars for 750ml, it is not the cheapest but all california grown and not a mix, I also have learned to tell by the bottle shape, at least here the round slender and square slender bottles tend to be northern california growers, even if private labelled for chains!

  3. stitchy1

    Lila- I was thinking about you while writing this and I will write up a little article to list what you’ve shared here for others to read who might be in the south as well. Great information!
    Michelle- that is totally interesting, I never observed that about the Cali oils. I think in some ways it’s natural for oils to be expensive, they have always been a precious commodity throughout history. However, we all have to work with our own budgets. I keep meaning to make monthly trips to TJ’s.

  4. michelle

    I think i mistyped the bottle size above, I think they are 250 ml, whereas the larger wine bottle size is 750ml
    ps Your photo of the pasties or pockets has me drooling and is a total tease! I want them to eat NOW…..but I am not up to making them :(
    I tried some organic california olive oil, it was in a wine bottle size and l,,,,I am not operating fully yet, sorry, sick toddler and sleep deprived do not mix!
    psss your photos always are great and your header makes me smile!!!!

  5. NM

    I believe cabbage can stay in the garden much of the winter (at least according to Steve Solomon; haven’t actually personally tried that.)
    According to the Corvallis farmer at the market, the persimmons were from storage, and are done now. She’s got spinach and salad mix (including lettuce), grown in hoop houses, and arugula; don’t know if that’s from hoop houses or not, but the CSA also had arugula through mid-December.
    Also fresh, brussels sprouts, mustard greens, Asian greens of various kinds — tatsoi, etc., — and corn salad, aka mache. Have also read that chervil will grow through the winter, and can be used as a salad green.
    Parsley and sorrel will last pretty well through most weather; parsley root is also good to eat. My chard did not survive all those extended hard freezes we had, but probably would have if I’d covered it. The parsnip leaves look pretty pathetic, but I pulled up a root that was fine.

  6. stitchy1

    Nicole- I adjusted my lists to include some of the things you mentioned. I am leaving most of the root vegetables on the root cellar list because it’s so variable who is able to leave those in the ground over winter to harvest fresh as needed.
    Thank you for the extra ideas- I can always count on you to have some extra things to add to my lists!!

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