It’s early December and we’ve already had our first snowfall in Southern Ontario. The abundant farmer’s markets of last summer seem like a distant memory and spring is a long time away. So what are those of us in northern climates going to do for the next 6 months if we’re interested in eating a seasonal diet? Survive on a diet of meat and stored root vegetables?
Not to worry! There are plenty of options for seasonal eaters in the north that don’t require eating potatoes and turnips at every meal. Nor do we have to rely solely on imported fruit and vegetables. It’s possible to strike a balance and eat meals that capture the essence of the season while still eating as local and fresh as we can. Here are some ideas:
Canned and Frozen Products
Previous generations planned for winter well in advance by preserving and freezing fruits and vegetables at their summer peak. Jars of tomatoes, fruit, pickles and jams were put into cold storage for the winter. In 2008 many people don’t have the time or storage space to undertake such a project but there are a lot of decent options available at grocery stores and markets. Canned tomatoes are an excellent substitute for fresh in soups, stews and sauces. I try to find ones that are prepared relatively close by – Ontario Natural Food Co-op, for example, sells certified organic tomatoes grown locally. I avoid canned peas, green beans and carrots however, as they just don’t have a very appealing taste or texture. Canned legumes (such as kidney beans, cannelinis and chickpeas) are another good option for quick meals. White Bean Dip with Fresh Herbs is a great example of a recipe you can make with canned beans.
Likewise, frozen fruit and vegetables provide a way to enjoy the tastes of summer (and unlike canned, frozen baby peas are usually fairly decent). Frozen blueberries are great for muffins, pancakes or coffee cake while frozen strawberries and raspberries can be turned into a sauce or quick jam in no time. I also like the ease of frozen spinach when fresh isn’t available.
Green, red and yellow peppers, herbs (if you have an indoor herb pot, that’s even better), tomatoes, celery, mushrooms, arugula and salad greens are just some of the things grown in local greenhouses. As a rule I avoid most types of greenhouse tomatoes because they have no real flavour, however, Sunset Campari brand tomatoes are quite good. Another option is to roast greenhouse plum tomatoes to bring out their flavour – see Slow Roasted Tomatoes for a great recipe.
Making the Best of Long-Storing Fruits and Vegetables
Vegetables such as pumpkin, squash, turnip, carrots, beets, celery root, parsnips, potatoes, apples and onions are typically available during the winter because they can be stored for long periods of time. So make the best of them! With a little creativity, there is a lot you can do with these great vegetables. Check out my recipes for an Apple Caramel Tart, Butternut Squash Gratin and Peppery Potato and Leek Soup. A quick internet search will yield thousands of other suggestions and recipes. I’ll also be posting more ideas in the weeks to come as I experiment with winter produce.
Cooking techniques can also help the home cook get the most out of seasonal products. Techniques such as braising and slow cooking are great for cold nights and can turn a simple ‘meat and potatoes’ dinner into a rustic masterpiece. You can check out ‘Williams Sonoma Slow Cooking Essentials’ from My Reading List for some great slow cooking tips and recipes and I’ll be posting some braising recipes in the near future. Stews and soups such as are also ideal for cold weather cooking and make perfect comfort food for long winter evenings. See my recipe for Chicken Noodle Soup for a quick and easy example.
Pantry staples such as dried lentils, beans, polenta, rice, barley, dried pasta, dried fruit and berries, nuts can be turned into great hearty dishes that are also budget-friendly. Bucatini All’Amatriciana, homemade Gnocchi (serve with tomato sauce instead of fresh pesto), and White Bean Dip with Fresh Herbs are a few examples of recipes that can be made with pantry items. Over the winter I’ll be working on some recipes for creamy risottos, polenta and some lentil and bean dishes so stay tuned.
Other Fun Options
Fondue or Raclette with local cheeses, homemade pizzas and chili are fun options for winter cooking, especially if you’re feeding a crowd. You can usually buy pizza dough at pizzerias or bakeries (or make your own, of course) and have everyone top them with their favourite seasonal ingredients such as mushrooms, leeks, rapini, caramelized onions and sausage. A staple of dinner parties in the 1970s, fondue is making a comeback. After a day on the slopes or at the rink, gather some friends by the fire and dip bread cubes and blanched vegetables into a mix of your favourite local cheeses. And don’t forget about chili – a big pot is the perfect meal for après-ski or while watching football. It can be made in advance and feeds a crowd. There are also a lot of vegetarian versions so all guests can enjoy the fun.
Even the most stringent locavores (people who eat only locally grown products) sometimes buy imported items. However, during the winter I still try to keep my imported purchases seasonally appropriate, opting for vegetables such as swiss chard, beets, leeks, fennel, etc. and saving the asparagus and peaches for summer when I can get them close to home at their very best.
So the best advice is to make the most of the season and enjoy what we do have. Cozy dinners by the fire after a day of skiing, bold red wines, iced wines and ciders, mugs of hot chocolate following an afternoon of skating, hearty soups and stews and roasted vegetables are just a few of the things we can celebrate now. And before you know it, it will be summer again!
Happy Winter Eating!