The new year means the start to another busy time for our produce buying office and many of us are looking for lighter dishes as we roll (literally and figuratively) out of the holidays. I crave a simpler diet now, less complicated and heavy, lighter on the sauces and oils. While maintaining availability and variety in produce can be a challenge this time of year, there is still an abundance to choose from. The supply lines are longer (and more treacherous) for a lot of produce but even as most of the country is shrouded in a quiet blanket of winter, domestic growers are producing a remarkable range and quality of products. Here are some noteworthy examples of what you will see in January.Salad greens: Winter affects lettuces in almost the opposite of what happens in the summer. Shorter, cooler days and cold nights result in slower growing, denser plants. Cool weather also enhances the color of red varieties - what is light hued, almost pale red in the summer becomes a dark burgundy, almost black. While many of the green varieties of leaf lettuce are challenged by a broad range of problems during the winter, particularly romaine, chances are if you are in the mood for a good leaf based salad, Mother Nature will provide.
Cooking greens: Greens, being more biologically (and nutritionally) dense plants, tend to fare better in the winter than their salad cousins. In fact, both green and red varieties of kale, chard, mustard and dandelion greens are hardier and have a richer, more robust flavor in the winter. Because of this they tend to have fewer interruptions in supply. All greens have a robust flavor but my personal favorite is mustard - its peppery flavor goes well with a broad range of dishes and they (as are all greens) are very easy to prepare.
Heavy vegetables: Heavy (or tonnage) is an industry term used to describe vegetables that are, well, heavy. These include carrots, cabbage and celery as well as lighter items like broccoli that are packed in ice for transport. These are also items that are for the most part single harvest - one plant/one harvest. This means a major weather event in the plant's life cycle can have a devastating impact. But like all row crop commodities, new plantings go in weekly to maintain supply so interruptions due to crop loss are generally short lived if the period of severe weather is short. Despite this risk, heavy vegetables in the winter are often the best flavored of the year - the slower growing, bright colored, more flavorful specimens are worth the extra trouble.
As a rule I try to make my winter vegetable decisions when I get to the store or farmers market. While you are likely to find what you want every day, it's good to be flexible since it is far more likely a truck will be delayed or a harvest set back by conditions in the field in the winter. I also like to mix it up in the winter - broccoli one day, greens the next, a salad with different ingredients from week to week. Variety in diet and trace minerals are my personal reasons but there is also larger reason: buying a broad range of vegetables encourages farmers to diversify and discourages mono-cropping (the continual production of a single crop).Outside of weather and the ongoing effects of climate change, one of the greatest threats to our food supply is the proliferation of invasive pests. For example, let's say a new insect that likes one type of plant, maybe a Brassica like broccoli, invades a growing area. If the dominate crop produced in that area is broccoli, the impact from that pest is devastating. But if there are broad range of cops produced in that area, the impact is more manageable because the non-broccoli crops act as a natural barrier that can slow or stop the migration of the pest. Buying different kinds of vegetables is my small way of helping encourage supply diversity.I cook all of my winter vegetables in the same basic way - a combination braise/stir fry. I start with just enough oil to keep the vegetable from sticking in a frying pan, warm and add onions or garlic (if necessary), and then my chosen vegetable (cut first into bite-size pieces). I like my vegetables crunchy and this method allows me to vary the length of cooking to match the maturity of the plant. I then finish with a dash of soy sauce (or tempura dipping sauce). I also often replace the oil with a tiny bit of water if I want nothing to come in the way of the flavor of the vegetable.Making that extra side of carrots, turnips, kale or cauliflower is nothing new - most of this product is available year round (and organic thanks to all of the excellent farmers we work with!). It just feels new after two months of that extra piece of pumpkin pie, slice of turkey or ladle of gravy. Not that they weren't great (they were yummy and now reside along my waistline), it's just that it's the new year and with it comes another season of change.