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Winter eating: beyond kale sandwiches

Rainbow chard grows all winter in the Northwest and can be used liberally in omelets, pastries, stirfries and more. Credit: lynn.gardner via Flickr (CC)

I was recently invited to a dinner in the mezzanine of City Hall to speak about what I see as a long-term vision for a better food system. I was one of a small group of about thirty people, all taking turns tossing our two cents into the ring. The ultimate goal was to crowd-source information on steps to achieving a better food system. The hope was that we might all work together towards the end goal.

Honestly, the invitation confused me with buzz words. How can our food system be ‘broken’ when I can easily grow most of my salad greens in my apartment all year long? Everyone’s talking about fixing the food system, but what the hell is actually wrong with it? Of course, as it turns out, there are many answers to this question. For now, however, let me share a thought on seasonality.

This may go down as one of the most obvious statements of 2011, but plants (and therefore produce) are seasonal. As mother nature dictates, garlic is planted in fall and harvested in late spring. Grapes ripen on the vine in late summer or early fall. As a country accustomed to getting what we want, when we want it, many Americans simply do not recognize this.

Grocery stores seemingly know no season. Green grapes are offered all year in most green grocer aisles. Year round produce beckons from stocked shelves and gives the illusion of availability. Yet when vegetables are being shipped in from South America, are they actually ‘available’? Decoding our food system to define what “available” means to an individual takes effort and forces a level of consciousness that not everyone has time for.

Mary Bouron, a friend and occasional blogger, is visiting Seattle this month from Paris. She is a ‘foodie’ — she has grown her own food, worked as a food stylist, and in general is a highly food-conscious individual. On a whim last week, she was seduced by asparagus and corn on the cob when walking the aisles of a local grocery store. Accustomed to the Parisian food system that is (sometimes annoyingly) based strictly on seasonality, she caved and paid $7.99 a pound for asparagus. That is more than twice the cost of in-season asparagus. She was compelled, however, simply because the asparagus was there on the shelf. You don’t see this in Paris.

“The severity of the French food calendar can catch me off guard,” she admitted. “If you don’t get your fill of dark sweet cherries in June then you are out of luck when you have a hankering in August,” she warned in her blog. It is not that France is full of enlightened consumers who make conscious choices to eat with the seasons – the choices are being made for them.

Here in the states, that is definitely not the case. We have food available year round at the grocery store — tomatoes on the vine, cucumbers, and more. Unfortunately, if shoppers are trying to focus on eating locally and supporting a local economy, this translates to more work.

Personally, I find trips to the grocery store perplexing. My own definition of an ‘available’ food is one that has been grown in the Pacific Northwest. Of course I allow myself some exceptions, such as all the tropical and warm-climate fruits — bananas (though I haven’t had a banana in months after being eco-guilted by a friend), avocados, olive oil. But for the most part, I cruise the produce aisles looking for the keywords “Washington” or “Oregon.”

A trip to the store requires serious label-reading, which takes time and often produces dismal results and options. Further, in the dark days of winter, vegetable choices shift to cabbage, potatoes, brussel sprouts, and the occasional leafy green, such as kale. (I admit to choosing California vegetables on occasion; California has a longer growing season and will often be the closest regional option for something green.)

This is not to say, however, that local produce is unavailable.

Carrots, for instance, can be grown nearly all year long. There is no reason to purchase a carrot grown outside of Washington state. Carrots are timeless, growing easily in spring, summer, fall, and over winter. Additionally, carrots are one of the great cellared crops (along with potatoes, onions, apples and more) and can be stored in cool storage for months. Shaved in salads, grated for savory carrot pancakes and used as a cornerstone of soups and stews, carrots are diverse in their offerings.

Cabbage, potatoes, onions, and mushrooms are also local all winter long and can be easily had. Though winter’s seasonal offerings are few compared to summer, they are rich enough to contribute to a winter diet. The trick is getting creative and using the few things available in a myriad of ways.

I am lucky. I grow food for a living, so not only am I in-tune with the changing seasons, I have access to local food all year long. Another unexpected (but awesome) outcome to growing your own food is that your taste buds change: There is no way I could eat a tomato in the middle of winter (nevermind that commercial tomato production is a huge political issue), because it doesn’t taste good. Winter tomatoes are not sweet and they are often mealy. 

How can you keep good flavor in your food all year? Do yourself a favor and get an herb garden started next year. It is easy and homegrown herbs will most definitely contribute to your household bottom line. As a conscious consumer, you need only to start reading labels — buying seasonally will follow. The fresher the food, the more nutrients it has.  Food will taste better, cost less, and give you an opportunity to get in the kitchen and be creative. What more could you ask for this holiday season?

Amy’s Winter Recipes 

Rutabaga Gratin

My mom made mashed rutabagas with bacon every Thanksgiving and it was one of my favorite dishes. Rutabagas have an almost sweet flavor to them and, countered by their earthiness, they don’t need much else to make them taste delicious.

This recipe uses a vegan cashew cream instead of heavy cream to please any vegetarians you have at your Thanksgiving table and cuts down on some of the calories from butter and bacon fat in my mom’s version. Herbs and salt play a major role here, so don’t scrimp. Marjoram has a strong herbal note and is a refreshing alternative to the Thanksgiving standards like rosemary, sage and thyme.

Cashew cream

1 1/2 cups boiling water

1 cup raw cashews

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

Salt

4 rutabagas (about 2 pounds), cut into about 1/4-inch-thick slices

1 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

4 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram

Freshly ground black pepper

Nutmeg

Bread crumbs, homemade and ground coarsely

Prepare the cashew cream first. In a medium-sized glass bowl, pour the boiling water over the cashews and let sit for at least 15 minutes and up to 30. Stir in the nutritional yeast. Purée the mixture in a blender on the highest setting for about 3 minutes, until the consistency is smooth and creamy. Season with salt to taste. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Cover the bottom of an 8-inch-round baking dish with a single layer of rutabaga slices, overlapping their edges and working in a circle. Sprinkle with some salt, some of the chopped herbs, and a few grinds of black pepper. Add another layer and season with salt, herbs, and pepper. Pour in about one third of the cashew cream – enough to cover these two layers.

Continue until the baking dish is full or you run out of rutabaga. Pour in the remaining cashew cream, almost to the rim of the baking dish. Grate nutmeg over the top layer and sprinkle with bread crumbs until covered. Drizzle with a generous dose of olive oil. Place in the oven, in the center of a sheet pan, to catch any cream that spills over. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until rutabagas are just cooked through and bread crumbs are toasty and brown. Serve immediately.

Baked Eggs with Kale & Crusty Bread

[ Makes 2 to 3 servings ]

I love eggs served with a side of sautéed greens. If I can eat greens at every meal, I will, and sautéing chard, kale, or spinach with garlic alongside an egg is a culinary match made in heaven. This is a one-pot-only meal, perfect for a dinner when you have only eggs in the fridge for a “main” ingredient.

The dish can be made with little fuss and attention. Serve a crusty piece of bread alongside, and it’s a meal that can be made at a moment’s notice and feed lots of mouths for cheap. The only thing needed from the grocery should be the greens, otherwise all of these ingredients are pantry staples.

2 to 3 strips bacon (optional)

Olive oil

Half onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 bunch kale, cut into ribbons, crosswise, starting

with the stem end

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Salt

3 eggs

Toasted baguette, rubbed with raw garlic clove

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cook the bacon in a large, deep-sided ovenproof sauté pan over medium heat, about 7 to 10 minutes or until brown. Pour off the excess fat, remove the bacon, and set aside. Coat the bottom of the same pan with olive oil. Add the onion and garlic, stirring until soft and slightly brown, about 10 minutes.

Working in batches, put the kale in the sauté pan and cook until wilted, turning continuously 5 to 7 minutes. Toss in the red pepper flakes and season with salt. Fill the sauté pan with an inch of water and cover, bringing to a simmer. Cook until the kale is tender and drain off any residual liquid.

Increase the heat to medium-high. Make three “pockets” in the kale and crack an egg in each. Leave untouched for 2 to 3 minutes, allowing the bottom of each egg to set. Cover and put the pan in the oven until the egg white is set but the yolk is still runny, about 6 to 10 minutes. Garnish with crumbled bacon.

Serve on a plate, alongside toast.

Pantry Note: You can easily substitute other greens for the kale in this recipe—chard or spinach work well.

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