Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Green Kitchen: Local Going Into Winter

Green Kitchen is a bi-weekly column about nutritious, inexpensive, and ethical food and cooking. It's penned by the lovely Jaime Green.

Ignore the fact that it's snowing outside-- Wait, don't ignore that. Take a moment to enjoy that. It's snowing! But ignore it in terms of the point I'm about to make.

Ignore the fact that it's snowing. Ignore the fact that it's about 50 degrees in my apartment, that I'm wearing sweatpants and a hoodie and my hat. Ignore the down comforter on my bed, the cold toes, the date on the calendar.

How do I know it's winter?

Let's take a look at what's recently come out of my kitchen. Breakfast Sunday: an improvised take on what I remembered of Kris' Shaksouka – canned diced tomatoes, half an onion, a carrot, and eggs poached therein. Lunch today (and for the rest of the week, and taking up some space in the freezer): lentil soup made with dried lentils, canned tomatoes, frozen spinach, and an onion. Breakfast tomorrow's looking like a smoothie with frozen cherries and blueberries.

Where have all the fresh veggies gone?

Winter is rough on lots of people – the sun's gone, it's hard to spend time outside, and winter coats are uncomfortable and bulky. Snow is lovely and sweaters are cozy, but this time of year can bring your mood down. (I always wish, walking past Christmas decorations in December, that our holiday of sparkly lights took place a few months later, when even the snow is dreary and we could really use a little extra glitter.)

Winter's an extra downer for local eaters, though. I'm not even a 100% locavore. Not at all - I love bananas and avocados and cans of coconut milk. I do appreciate the environmental and economic repercussions of shopping at the farmers market, but I keep doing it because I love how it feels. Meeting farmers, knowing where my kale comes from. Even just the ritual of the market – walking between stalls, comparing produce, and the week-to-week cycle of the growing season. From asparagus to tomatoes to butternut squash, that's how the year goes.

But now we've, like we do every year, come to the end. The farms are mulched over and resting for the winter, and just about every night brings a freeze. We have a few more weeks of the real hardy stuff – kale and leeks and Brussels sprouts – and food that stores well lasts a little longer. Apples and onions and winter squash stick around basically until springtime at the year-round greenmarkets (so do bison meat and eggs). But the growing season is drawing to a close, and with it goes a big part of what I love about cooking.

From Flickr's stevendepolo
So many of my culinary decisions in the warmer months are based on what I find at the market – radishes are cheap or the parsnips look nice, and I get inspired and try something out. (Maybe this is just a relief from my usually agonizing decision making process.) But in winter I don't think I get down cause the food's not local – the problem is that, for the next five months, all of the food is the same. Cheap and mediocre at my local supermarket, or pricier and lush at the Whole Foods downtown, it's shipped in from wherever, in-season in California or Chile or Taiwan, and nothing changes from one week to the next.

What do you do when your local veggies dry (or freeze) up? Do you come up with new, slightly less local, guidelines? Maybe food from your country, or hemisphere, rather than a 300-mile greenmarket radius? Maybe I can let sales direct me in winter the way the seasons do the other half of the year. Do you transition to canned and frozen foods? Canned tomatoes beat fresh ones seven months out of the year, and frozen kale – flash-frozen when it's fresh – is looking mighty good, and cheap, compared to the produce section at Whole Foods.

I've got my freezer supply of mashed cauliflower and apple sauce, and there's always room for soup in there, too, but it's not enough to make it through until spring. What's most important about how you choose where to get your food? Is it price, convenience, localness, or just the experience of it all? And how do you make the second-best choice feel good?

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