One of the misconceptions about eating sustainably is that it becomes an overly daunting task in winter. It’s true that the chilly months are a time when regionally grown organic produce becomes more limited in variety, and harder to find. But such limits don’t stop me. In fact, they inspire me. That’s because I view winter food planning as a game.
Think about it: what good game doesn’t have limits? The boundaries, or rules, are what give a game its form, its uniqueness. In Scrabble, for example, there’s only one “Z” and one “Q.” This is one of the limits that makes Scrabble fun to play. Place one of those letters on a triple score space and it’s even more enjoyable. Why? Because you’ve just made the most out of the boundaries of the game.
It’s the same with eating organically in winter. The array of ingredients may not be as plush as during the summer harvest, but you still have much to work with, and numerous places to find it. Hearty root vegetables, crucifers , squashes, rich dairy foods, storage fruits, dried beans and grains, preserved foods, pastured meats—when you make the most of these cold-weather foods, you enjoy the pleasures and benefits of sustainable eating all year long.
I’ve found that there’s plenty of ways to bring more nutrient-dense, earth-friendly and seasonally appropriate foods to the winter table. Let the games begin.
1. Patronize a winter farmers market. (They are sprouting up at indoor venues all around the country.) Think there won’t be much to buy? Think again. At my winter market, I have weekly access to farm-fresh eggs, artisanal cheese and frozen fruits. I can get apple cider, root vegetables and a variety of mushrooms. I can purchase hoop house greens (including the sweetest-tasting frost-nipped spinach on the planet) and hydroponic tomatoes. I get organic meats, preserves, salsa, sauces, and sunflower oil. Maple syrup, honey, breads, pastries…need I go on? For a guide of farmers markets around the nation, visit Local Harvest.
2. Prepare “repertoire dishes”—those delicious, dependable dishes that, once you’ve learned the basic technique, can be varied with seasonal ingredients (such as winter greens, roasted root vegetables and caramelized onions). Omelets, stir-fries and pureed soups fit the mold; so do gratins, pasta tosses and open-face melts.
3. Enjoy eggs, dairy and (a little more) meat at this time of year—and don’t feel guilty about it. Summer’s wide diversity of locally grown organic fruits and vegetables may not be available to you right now, but a full range of protein-dense organic ingredients are. Consider egg-based main dishes like frittatas and quiche. Treat yourself to a fondue or a grilled cheese sandwich. And just say “yes” to old-fashioned casseroles and stews that include a modest amount of meat.
4. Get friendly with organic dried foods. If dehydrated fruits and vegetables don’t sound appetizing, then you probably haven’t experienced the deep savor of reconstituted, sautéed morels that were foraged last spring; or the sweet, candy-like chewiness of dried pear quarters cut from a friendly neighbor’s tree. I’ve tried both and they have convinced me that winter actually flies by if I fill it with dinners of wild mushroom stew or soup, and breakfasts of granola or oatmeal with dried pears and maple syrup.
5. Going on vacation? Eat local while you’re on the road. Get off the freeway fast-food route and seek out locally owned restaurants, farmers markets and whole-foods cooperatives—the places most likely to carry regionally sourced and organic foods. And when you reach your destination, skip the same-as-everywhere chain food and ask about regional specialties. Online resources like the Edible Communities magazines can be a big help.
6. Incorporate hearty, healthful whole grains and dry beans into your menus. With their long shelf life, grains and beans stand at the ready in your pantry. They simmer or bake into dishes that incorporate foods you’ve frozen, preserved or otherwise stored. How about baked beans with bacon bits and maple syrup? Barley with celeriac and last August’s frozen sweet corn? A black bean soup spiked with leftover ham and roasted red peppers?
7. Give organic, regionally sourced food gifts for the holidays. Unlike rubber chickens or talking socks, food is something people actually need. You won’t be contributing to rampant consumerism by giving something edible. Food is something that contributes to your area’s economy, is nurturing (and biodegradable!) and is a meaningful expression of community pride.
Terese Allen writes about the pleasures and benefits of regional foods, sustainable cooking, and culinary folklore. A former chef, Terese went from kitchen manager to cookbook author when she wrote The Ovens of Brittany Cookbook, a collection of recipes and remembrances from a groundbreaking Midwestern restaurant. In addition to her work as food editor for Organic Valley, she is a senior contributor and food columnist for the Madison, Wisconsin Isthmus. Browse her latest organic recipe features, or visit www.tereseallen.com.