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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dark Days Challenge: Eat Local This Winter

Eating from our regional foodshed during the dark days of winter can challenge the heartiest locavore, but we're fortunate to have a variety of fresh foods available in Portland even now. When using foods in season, try simple preparations that highlight natural flavors. Get to know overlooked veggies by cooking them without complicated sauces or hiding them amongst a dozen other ingredients; you'll saving yourself time and effort in the kitchen while coming to appreciate why people have cultivated them for millennia.

I didn’t grow up eating greens. In fact, I don’t think kale, mustard, turnip, beet or collard greens had ever passed my lips until seven years ago when a co-worker offered me a bowl of her homemade beef, barley and kale soup. Now, I use greens all winter long in soups, pastas, twice-baked potatoes, and egg dishes. You can roast greens, steam greens, boil greens, and saute greens. Here's a preparation my family calls Eintopf Essen, which means "one pot meal" in German. Put quartered Yukon gold potatoes in a pan with enough garlic-infused beef broth to cover, place greens on top of the potatoes and fully cooked sausages, such as weisswurst, knackwurst, bockwurst, or weiners on top of the greens. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer for 20 minutes or so, until the potatoes and greens are thoroughly cooked; the sausages will be heated through as well.

Roots & Tubers
Get to know your roots and tubers. Beets, carrots, celeriac, fennel bulb, parsnips, potatoes, rutabaga, sunchokes and turnips are all readily available this time of year. If you're not used to cooking with them, consider adopting a new root or tuber this year and trying out a few recipes. One of the simplest ways to enjoy their earthy goodness is to peel them (or not), cut into bite-size pieces, toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roast at 350-400°F until golden.

Our Christmas Eve feast was made unforgettable this year with the combination of fennel bulb, arugula, oranges, and Dungeness crab. I've experimented with similar combinations in the past, but this time, I have to say I really got it right. My not-quite-three-year-old son surprised me with his passion for this salad--he became quite miffed when I told him the salad was all gone after his second serving. I modified it for my five-year-old daughter, putting everything but the arugula in a purple cabbage leaf bowl for her. She quietly "ummmmed" her way through her big salad and declared it a "great dinner," high complements from my pickiest critic! Though I particularly like the crabs with fennel, crabs are a little out of our budget for everyday, so I tried this with leftover roast chicken earlier this week, using Napa cabbage with the arugula for some added crunch. Fantastic yet again...a definite keeper. For the dressing, combine the juice of 1 lemon and 1 orange, 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/3 cup olive oil.

Another tasty root joined us for dinner Christmas Eve: celeriac. Also known as celery root, it's a relative of the plant that makes celery stalks and has a similar flavor. I have made pureed celeriac and potato soup in the past, but we really liked the apple in this recipe. I skipped the buttermilk and topped ours with cream rather than olive oil.

I waxed poetic about this versatile veg last month. Besides my beloved lacto-fermented sauerkraut, I really enjoy an Asian-inspired coleslaw for salad during winter. I shred cabbage, grate carrots and celeriac if I have some one hand, chop an apple, and toss with sesame seeds and a vinaigrette of rice vinegar (2 tbsp), sesame seed oil (2 tbsp), white miso (1 tsp), tamari (1/2 tsp), and freshly ground white pepper.

My favorite way with leeks is simplicity itself. Cut off the roots and all but the bottom inch of green, slice the leek in half lengthwise and wash if necessary (fan out the upper layers of leek and run under cold water briefly). Lay them cut-side up in a small baking dish, spray or drizzle a little olive oil on the leeks, and sprinkle with sea salt and ground pepper. Roast at 350°F until the ends begin to brown. These come out buttery soft in the middle and crispy on the ends, with a delicate allium flavor.

As we celebrate today's historic inauguration, I would like to share with you a story about another president, leeks, and me. In 1995, I was a manager at Borders Books & Music in Rockville, Maryland. As our store prepared for the arrival of former President Jimmy Carter, who was coming to sign a book of his poetry, we were asked to provide him a light supper before his book signing. His publicist suggested that we pick up a sandwich for him from a deli. I simply could not abide by the idea of this great man sitting in our stock room eating a cold sandwich and offered to make the President soup and salad instead. I prepared Potato-Leek Soup and a Gorgonzola and Apple Salad, served on another manager's fine china in one of the store's back offices. President Carter and I talked about food and cooking while I served him soup. Later, he had seconds!

Now is a good time to use those beans, lentils, and dried peas in your pantry. Soak dried pulses water overnight or even longer, with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to help break down the enzymes that inhibit digestion. Here’s a lovely recipe for White Bean and Kale Pasta with Smokey Bacon from one of my favorite bloggers, Kimi at Nourishing Gourmet. I made this dish with black-eyed peas instead of white beans and we all enjoyed it tremendously.

While lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit, mandarins, etc., are not grown commercially here in Oregon, citrus fruits are naturally in season this time of year and now is a good time to enjoy the extra boost of vitamin C. My two favorites are page tangerines and blood oranges. Here's a lovely recipe for buttermilk scones that features citrus, from one of my favorite cookbooks, Julia Child's Baking with Julia. I intentionally underbake some of these (utilizing my oven's handy Uneven Baking feature) and freeze them. When I want a warm scone, I just pop one into the toaster oven for a few minutes. Try substituting some or all of the all-purpose flour called for in the recipe with whole wheat pastry flour or using Rapadura instead of white sugar.

Many people think of kiwi as a tropical fruit, but in fact, it grows right here in Portland. We have been enjoying some from a farm in Hillsboro. Fuzzy kiwi are harvested in the fall, but store well and you can still find locally grown fruit in the winter. We enjoy fruit salad with kiwis, oranges, pears, and apples, topped with a bit of honey and shaved coconut (which I toast while slicing up the fruits), sometimes over homemade yogurt, sometimes not. In fact, that's exactly what I'm craving right now.

Apples and Pears
Both of these popular fruits are grown in Oregon and Washington. While they are also harvested in the fall, they store quite well and are worth buying in bulk. Some varieties will even improve with age. The Fujis we bought in November became sweeter and more fragrant over the weeks we had them, for example. I buy 20 pound boxes of them at a time and store them on my front stoop, where I can keep a close eye on them and remove any “bad apples” (when temperatures dip below freezing, I bring them in and keep them in the basement). For the most part, though, I find the grade A, blemish-free fruit I buy rarely goes bad in the month or so it takes us to eat. We've had some for almost three months now and while they are a bit wrinkled, the kids still enjoy them. When I do find a fruit with a soft spot, I use the good part in coleslaw or gather a few handfuls and make a small batch of apple-pear sauce.

For even more ideas about eating local year 'round, sign up for Eating Local: Meal Planning for All Seasons on February 28th.


  1. Lots of good ideas for eating local, just one more I wanted to add:
    We've been eating homegrown sprouts like crazy this winter to get some local veggies :)

  2. Helpful post! I'm very interested in the same concept . . . in Pennsylvania.