For most of the country, eating local in winter means eating storage items like large roots and dense cabbages. Lucky for us, fresh produce is available here year-round.
Winter markets in our region are lovely and abundant. Different hues of green, gold, red, and purple leaves spill over market displays and vibrantly colored root veggies abound. But let’s face it: Winter crops just don’t have the prestige and allure of summer crops. Sun-ripened tomatoes, watermelon, and sweet corn evoke the nostalgia of childhood summers. Many winter crops, like cooking greens, beets, and turnips, evoke a very different sort of memory—a soggy pile of overcooked veggies that had to be consumed before you could leave the dinner table.
If you grew up disliking any of these winter vegetables, now is the time to revisit them. Seed companies have scoured the world and have developed better-tasting varieties in the past couple of decades.
Take the turnip. The earthy, funky nature of this veggie can turn some people off, but sweeter varieties of salad turnips are now available, which have a milder flavor and crisp, juicy flesh. Rattlebox Farm owners Dana Helfer and Paul Buseck sell vegetables and offer a CSA pick-up at the Thursday Santa Cruz River farmers’ market at the Mercado San Agustín. They offer two varieties of salad turnips and Dana says, “We find that people who like radishes love them.” The creamy white hakurei, or Japanese salad turnip, and the Ruby Queen have a more subtle turnip flavor and their flesh is crisp and sweet. “We have grown these turnips since we started out five years ago. They are easy to grow and customers ask for them,” Dana says. These turnips are great for salads, where they are frequently mistaken for apples, and for quick sautés and stir fries.
Greens like collards, kale, chard, and mustard are favorites of farmers because they are cut-and-come-again crops. That means that farmers can harvest the big outer leaves and leave the central stem and smaller leaves to continue growing. During the shortest days of winter, plants grow slowly, but as days get longer, things speed up and farmers can harvest the same plants more frequently.
Make sure to use the more delicate varieties of greens first. Most lettuces, spinach, and chard have thin leaves that wilt quickly, while hearty greens like kale and collard will maintain their shape and texture much longer. This is true in the veggie drawer as well as with cooking, where smaller leaves and more delicate varieties of greens wilt down much faster than thicker varieties. Greens should be washed before using, to remove any grit. The best way to clean greens, especially curly and crinkled varieties, is to submerge them in a large bowl of water. Dunk and swish handfuls of leaves, shake gently, and lay them on a clean kitchen towel to drain. Remove any tough stems by folding leaves in half and cutting along stem or simply tearing greens away from stalk. To cut greens, stack several leaves and roll into a loose cigar shape. Use a sharp knife to cut into desired size.
Sweet and tender lettuces are best prepared simply. Take cleaned and dried greens and add a light drizzle of citrus juice, plus an even lighter drizzle of good quality olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Toss gently and serve as is or topped with very thinly sliced root vegetables or apples. For heartier salad greens, like romaine lettuce, endives and escaroles, arugula, or kale, choose dressings and toppings with more assertive flavors to balance any bitter or spicy taste in the greens. Creamy and/or tangy dressings are a good choice.
Ask at the farmers’ market about the varieties of greens they grow. They can help you choose something you might like and give you recipe ideas. Or visit the La Oesta Gardens booth at the Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park; they have a wide variety of veggies labeled with helpful signs that include nutrition and cooking information.
Roasting intensifies the sugars and earthy flavors of root vegetables. Slice into wedges, toss with oil, and cook an entire baking sheet full so you have leftovers. Mix with eggs or shredded meat and you have an easy breakfast. The roasted veggies are also a nice addition to any salad—they are particularly delicious in a grain salad, drizzled with a good balsamic vinegar, and seasoned to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Shredding root vegetables transforms them into something unexpected. Shredded, they are perfect for slaws, both creamy and tart versions. If you have a favorite coleslaw recipe, try substituting a mix of turnips, beets, radishes, or kohlrabi (not technically a root but similar) for the cabbage. You can also sauté shredded root vegetables with onions, letting them brown slightly, as a base for soups or pasta sauces.
In Baja Arizona, greens and citrus are in season at the same time. The tangy sweetness of citrus is a perfect complement to most greens. A squeeze of citrus on greens, cooked or raw, is an excellent way to add a finishing touch to the dish. Citrus also lightens root vegetable recipes.
Last year’s mild spring that came with relatively light winds has made for a great citrus harvest this year. Desert Treasures offers a large variety of citrus for sale at the Saturday and Sunday Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park, as well as the Saturday Oro Valley market. You will find varieties of oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines as well as kumquats. Chris Duggan of Desert Treasures says its Arizona Sweet oranges are especially popular. “Arizona Sweets are a sweet juice orange, with less pulp and a more balanced flavor for juicing,” he says. “They are very popular because they are hard to find elsewhere.” If you can’t make it on Sunday, don’t worry—citrus will show up at most markets across the region. Locally available citrus is mostly organic and free from wax, so it is perfect for zesting. Zesting removes tiny strips of the colorful and highly aromatic peel without any of the bitter pith that lies underneath. Add citrus zest anywhere you are using the juice, including salad dressings, marinades, sauces, and baked goods.
You can use any greens you like in this recipe. It is particularly good with pak choi, as the succulent stems soak up the sauce. If you like curry flavors, add more spices to the mix, sautéing them with the onions before adding the rest of the ingredients. Add tofu, garbanzo beans, or chicken and serve over rice for a complete meal.
In a large skillet, heat oil over medium high heat and add onion. Cook, stirring occasionally until the onion begins to brown. Add ginger, chile flakes, and coriander and cook until fragrant. Add vegetables and coconut milk, plus about ½ cup of water. Bring to a low simmer and cook until squash is tender. Season to taste with soy sauce or fish sauce and a bit of lime juice. ✜
Sara Jones is a longtime employee of the Tucson CSA.