A Locavore’s Cruelest Season

“What is the hardest part?” is a question I’m frequently asked when people learn that I eat a mostly local foods diet in the Northeastern U.S. And often folks will guess that my answer is going to be “winter.” Actually, the most challenging part of the year for a locavore living in a place with four distinct seasons is right now, at the tail end of winter on the threshold of spring.

crocuses-smThe crocuses and first daffodils are blooming, the songbirds have returned from the South, the days are tangibly longer, and… at the farmers’ markets it’s still mostly last year’s apples, cabbage, and root vegetables, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares don’t start again for weeks or even months, and unless you’ve got a greenhouse or a cold frame, there’s not much to harvest yet from the garden.

I do manage to eat just as well in winter and early spring as I do in summer. But if I only ate the storage and greenhouse crops available year-round here…well, I’d survive but my meals would be really boring.

Here’s how I make my “off season” meals as interesting and nutritious as the ones I eat during the harvest months, all the while keeping a locavore’s lowered carbon footprint.

Shop at year-round farmers’ markets.

Find out if there are year-round farmers’ markets where you live. In my neighborhood there is the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket where a few stalwart farms offer apples, root vegetables, winter squashes, hearty greens such as cabbage and kale, plus meat, eggs, cheese, honey, maple syrup, wine, and cultivated mushrooms. There is also a smaller indoor market offering similar fare. And there are farms with hothouses offering out-of-season items such as tomatoes if you don’t mind the value-added price.

Join a winter Community Supported Agriculture share.

Gotta say this tip is not helping me this month since my fruit and veggie CSA winter share ended last month. But each year I appreciate it while it lasts.

The CSA I am a member of offers weekly shares June through early November, and then a monthly delivery November through February. The farm then takes March through May to work on getting the new crops going for the year.

Our winter boxes include the usual storage stuff–winter squashes, apples, and root vegetables–but also greens from the farm’s unheated greenhouses, popcorn, dried chile peppers, and cider.

To find out if there is a CSA near you, go to Local Harvest. In NYC, check out Just Food.

carrot-jar-smFood preservation (DIY or take advantage of some of the frozen ingredients a few local farms are offering).

The canned, frozen, dried, and lacto-fermented foods I put up during the warm months add variety and nutrition to my “off-season” meals. A blueberry smoothie for breakfast in January, dried tomatoes kissed with basil oil in my pasta, pickled dilly beans to perk up a winter salad…None of these dishes would be possible if I hadn’t frozen the blueberries, dried the tomatoes, made the basil oil, and pickled the green beans.

If the number of food preservation classes I’ve booked for 2011 is any indication, interest in the topic is surging. But if you’re sure you are not going to be among those investing in canning jars and dehydrators, there’s another possibility. Look into local producers who may be doing the food preservation for you.

There are professional picklers who use mostly local ingredients and sell at farmers’ markets year-round. There are also some farms offering frozen tomatoes and other ingredients at their off-harvest season stalls. At least one organization, Winter Sun, offers a monthly CSA share that delivers frozen fruits and vegetables (locally grown and picked in their prime).

Don’t expect preserved ingredients to taste like fresh: they are as good, but different. You don’t expect a raisin to taste like a grape, for example. Get to know preserved ingredients for their own unique textures and tastes.

I’ve got a food preservation workshop coming up this Saturday, March 19th at the Trade School. No money is exchanged at that one–classes at the Trade School are for bartered goods or services. You’ll see my wish list when you go to the web site to sign up, but feel free to barter things not on my list.

Grow Food Indoors

You’ll need either a window with at least six hours of sunlight or plant lights to grow food indoors, but it’s worth doing. Herbs are especially good candidates for indoor growing. This year my most successful indoor herbs have been cilantro, parsley, and chives. They’ve added fresh flavor and color to my meals for months.

Forage for Wild Edible Plants and Mushrooms

This is my favorite tip for “the cruelest season.”

Where I live in Brooklyn, NY, the foraging season has already started with daylilly shoots, garlic mustard greens, etc., and it’s well over a month before the first asparagus and other spring crops will appear at the farmers’ markets. I can collect field garlic, chickweed for salads, and warming tea ingredients such as spicebush and birch even when there are patches of snow on the ground.

The first rule of foraging is to be 100% certain of your identification (if in doubt, throw it out). My foraging tours start up next month.

So those are my main tips for eating local off season: take advantage of the ingredients that are available year-round even in cold winter areas, this harvest season put some food by for the cold time, consider learning some foraging skills, and if you’ve got a sunny window or space for plant lights, grow some food indoors.

By the way, in the Northern Hemisphere, Spring starts on March 20th this year 😀

An earlier version of this post appeared on Farm to Table.
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One response to “A Locavore’s Cruelest Season”

  1. acmeplant says:

    This is the second year I’ve done the Winter Sun winter CSA and I can’t say enough good things about it. The quality is fantastic and it runs through April this year!

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