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Eating locally in winter

Tired of root veggies? You can expand your January diet without hurting the Earth.

By Chantal Braganza

You knew it would be difficult, but you made the commitment. You told yourself it would be better for the environment, your health and the local economy. And so when spring melted the snow, you bought provincially grown asparagus and maybe tried baking a rhubarb pie.

Then summer arrived and all the benefits of your new diet were on display at your farmers market. Buckets of strawberries, sweet summer peas. Peaches and pears that yielded juicily against your tongue when you bit into them.

“Eating local never tasted so good,” you thought to yourself as you polished off the last of late fall’s apple harvest.

But winter’s since rolled in, the farmers market has closed shop and pickings at the supermarket are slim. The thought of rutabagas, potatoes or parsnips again at dinner sets your teeth on edge.

Being a locavore in winter can seem daunting, but with a few tricks, it doesn’t have to be impossible. Here are four ways to get started.

Grow it

Last September, Randy Shore made something of an extreme promise to himself. In his quest to eat locally, he would consume something home-grown every day for the next 365 days. Having started the challenge so late in the growing season, you’d think the Vancouver Sun reporter and editor was on a fool’s errand.

“It turns out you can grow a lot of things pretty successfully in the winter,” especially in the warmer climate of Gibsons Landing in southwestern British Columbia, says Shore, 47. Having retired most of his large garden space for the winter, he’s been using a greenhouse built from a kit.

“One of the things you can’t do is grow everything you can get at the grocery store. You either have to change what you eat or change your recipes to things you can grow successfully. I can grow chard, kale, spinach and turnips really well. For some reason, carrots not so well. Radishes are a mystery to me.”

Of course, building a four-season greenhouse isn’t practical, or even possible, for anyone who lives with colder winters or less spare time.

“If you’ve got an apartment, you can easily grow herbs: cilantro, parsley or basil,” says Shore. With a couple of Mason jars and light watering, “you can also grow alfalfa sprouts and bean sprouts right in your kitchen without any light at all,” he adds.

Buy it

Last March, Toronto writer Sarah Elton ate spinach picked from the ground that very month. The farmer she buys produce from had planted the seeds in wintertime, covered them with hay and left them in a hoop house layered with vapour-barrier plastic. In February, when winter’s rays get hotter, the hay was pulled back to reveal sprouted greens. While the process is more labour intensive than growing with the seasons, creative farmers can take it on if the demand for winter produce is strong.

“Things have changed a lot since the colonial era when people’s diet was limited in the winter,” says Elton, author of Locavore, a cross-country study of how Canadians have changed the face of local eating. Though many, if not most, farmers markets tend to shut down from October to May, shifting demands are starting to change that.

Tara McDonald, executive director of Vancouver Farmers Markets, set up a winter market in 2006 after years of requests from loyal shoppers. The event now runs weekly with an array of colourful produce, from apples to pears, quince and berries.

“Customers have discovered . . . that you can eat greens, all kinds of fresh vegetables and fruit, and not have to suffer,” she says.

A more convenient (though pricier) option is taking part in a community supported agriculture program. Purchasing a CSA share is like buying stock in a favourite company, but with immediate edible benefits. Members pay a yearly fee for weekly packages of whatever the farm, or network of farms, produces. Some CSAs deliver, others arrange pickup spots at central locations, and an increasing number are starting to offer their services through the winter. 

Preserve it

Joel MacCharles and Dana Harrison have about 700 jars in their home — an obsession that began with a jam-making experiment four years ago. Between pickles, jellies, preserves and frozen produce, the couple behind the food blog wellpreserved.ca have a larder stocked to keep them fed not only in winter but most any month when a certain fruit or vegetable isn’t in season.

You don’t have to be a jar junkie for preserving to work for you. It’s a time-saving and economical option, as buying produce in season (and in bulk) often means better prices.

“If I were new to canning, and I wanted safety plus results,” says MacCharles, “I’d start with a pectin-based jam.” Once you’re comfortable with the process, meat-based sauces and vegetables, though more susceptible to developing botulism if preserved incorrectly, are a natural step up.

As for freezing your bounty, make sure to use the best method for each type of produce. Small things such as berries or peas are best frozen individually on trays before storing. Soft-flesh fruits like peaches need a hit of vitamin C powder and sugar to prevent them from going mushy after thawing. And green vegetables (think asparagus and brussels sprouts) benefit from a quick boil before going into the icebox — it’ll keep them from turning brown.

Stretch it

The quickest and perhaps most useful way to expand your winter menu is ingenuity. Try to think of three ways you can use an ingredient. Shore was delighted to discover that turnip tops make excellent greens and leek ends are perfect for flavouring soups.

“A lot of people think of jam as something that goes only with toast,” says MacCharles. “I’ve got 15 types of jam in my kitchen and don’t eat breakfast. We make some jams specifically to pair with certain cheeses. I make jams that are mixed later with balsamic vinegar to make salad dressing. We use jams to flavour muffins.”

“I get an extra satisfaction out of eating locally in the winter,” says Elton, who kicks off cold-weather eating by freezing chunks of her Halloween pumpkin and doling it out over the next six months — a pie here, a curry there. “It feels like you have to be more creative, even when there are more options than there were before. I think I’ve only bought one rutabaga in the last three years.”

Chantal Braganza is sponsoring editor at Reader’s Digest Canada. 

Author's photo
Chantal Braganza is a writer and editor in Toronto.
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