I am very excited to introduce a new feature here at The Year In Food! Each month, I’ll highlight a handful of seasonal foods; the rest of the month will be framed around recipes that incorporate them.
Winter vegetables tend toward the starchy, the rooty, the dense, the bitter. A huge group of them fall into the cruciferous family, one that includes broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and some of this month’s picks: cauliflower and cabbage. There is that one lovely light in the dark sphere of winter produce, though, and that is citrus. My interest in starting this was born of the fact that winter months are tough when trying to remain faithful to seasonal food. It can be disheartening to eat the same kale dish week after week, or eye those carrots in the crisper with a sort of sad yearning for that faraway place when produce is so abundant one doesn’t know where to begin. Here is an opportunity to see these vegetables in a new light.
A Guide to Seasonal Foods is intended to be a conversation. Feel free to chime in with your favorite seasonal items, what you’re completely bored of, or how you keep seasonal food interesting when the selection is scarce. How are you keeping it lively? What are your favorite recipes? Let’s talk about it here.
CAULIFLOWER: According to classic produce guide The Greengrocer by Joe Carcione, Mark Twain said of cauliflower that it is cabbage with a college education. Cauliflowers do have an air about them, ensconced in their scarf of pale green leaves, easy to bruise and brown, and quieter in flavor than many of their relatives in the crucifer family. They really shine when their edges are caramelized, allowing for a great counterpoint between a mild sweetness and nuttiness. They are one of the less bitter members of their vegetable family. Cauliflower’s season peak in late fall and early winter.
Also check out: Orangette’s Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Mustard Vinaigrette.
GRAPEFRUIT: Citrus fruits are like a guiding light in the winter months when so much else is dark, rooted, bitter or starchy. Grapefruits are fantastic eaten out of hand, especially if you can break their succulent sections from the bitter white pith that can sometimes overwhelm their sweetness. They peak in late fall and winter, grown primarily in places where there is heat in the coldest months: southern California, Florida, Texas and Arizona. They are really great in salads, especially when partnered with fennel or bold winter greens, and also make a lovely marmalade!
THIS MONTH: GRAPEFRUIT POPPY SEED BREAD
Also check out: Brooklyn Supper’s Grapefruit Cranberry Marmalade
CABBAGE has a pedestrian reputation. Perhaps that was the implication in Mark Twain’s statement: it’s a lowly commoner, hanging out in the streets and causing trouble. There’s a reason for that, though: it’s a remarkably versatile vegetable, suiting itself nicely dressed up in a raw salad, braised in a savory broth, steamed; it works with other vegetables as happily as it does with any number of meats. And then there are sauerkraut and kimchee, preserves that give new purpose to the plant.
THIS MONTH: CABBAGE SALAD WITH APPLE AND CARAWAY
PARSNIPS are the pale, delicate cousin of carrots. Texturally, they are a little denser and a little starchier than their orange relative, but can be prepared similarly. They can also be used in place of potatoes, sweet potatoes or turnips in cooking. Surprisingly, parsnips have more nutritional value than carrots! They need a cool frost to become sweet, which is why they are at their peak in winter. Historically, farmers considered it bad luck to pluck a parsnip before winter had settled firmly over the fields. Parsnips are a great vehicle for vibrant flavor combinations such as rosemary and parmesan, or paprika and chile. They perform beautifully when roasted, pureed into soups, or mashed.
THIS MONTH: ROASTED PARSNIP FRIES
Also check out: Weird Vegetables’ Parsnip Potato Turnip Gratin
BEETS: Vibrantly colored, the flavor of a beet is equally vivid: a mostly sweet burst balanced by subtle, earthy undertones. Because of their intensely sweet flavor, they work well with sharp, salty cheeses such as gorgonzola, parmesan, or goat cheese. They are lovely when tempered by vinegar in marinated or pickled form. They like herbs such as fresh rosemary or tarragon. They also work stunningly well with most citrus fruit. Opt for smaller beets that are firm to the touch. And remember to add them at the end of cooking unless you want your entire dish stained by their color. You can also use the beet greens as you would spinach or chard.
THIS MONTH: BORSCHT
STEWS are the hearty, comforting essence of winter foods. Richly fragrant, demanding slowness, studded with all variety of root vegetables, and frequently a piece of meat that requires hours for tenderness, stews are a perfect weekend venture. Stews emerged from a place of necessity and thriftiness in the narrative of cooking; that is, they answer the question of what to do with the same old vegetables when produce is sparse in the winter, and further, how to employ a tough, cheap cut of meat. You don’t need meat in your stews, however; they can simply be a dense mix of vegetables, legumes or grains, simmered over a low flame and married into a savory melange of warming goodness.
THIS MONTH: COQ AU VIN
PEARS have a graceful quality to them but are something of a fickle fruit. They walk a fine line in their raw state, spoiling and bruising easily, and verging on unpleasant if even slightly over- or under-ripe. But a perfectly ripe pear is a heavenly thing – buttery, juicy, softly sweet. They are related to apples but more nuanced in flavor. Pears are great when poached slowly in a bath of wine, juice and spices. They partner well with citrus and in bright green salads.
THIS MONTH: CHAMPAGNE POACHED PEARS
Also check out: Smitten Kitchen’s Pear Bread.
February: Radishes, chocolate and more!