EATING LOCAL - When cool rules outside, hearty veggies offer warmth, health

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You've heard it before: Eat in season.

That's all fine and dandy in the spring and summer, with a bounty of easy-to-prepare fruits and vegetables. But when fall and winter roll around it can be a challenge.

Even for me, with a degree in nutrition and years of cooking experience, this time of year requires more planning and creativity.

Sometimes I need a little inspiration. After Thanksgiving my family and I took a trip to Seattle and hit up our favorite natural food stores and farmers' market. At the farmers' market I loaded up on baby beets and turnips, celery root, baby bok choy, Lacinto kale, and chard. From Nash's Farm, I grabbed a big bag of organic carrots, a giant leek, and a few parsnips.

But there's no need for folks to make a trek to Seattle for fall vegetables; Walla Walla's markets stock most everything one needs. In season now are root vegetables such as turnips, beets, carrots, rutabaga, parsnips, radish and celery root; leafy greens such as kale, chard, collards, arugula, and mustard greens; winter squash, leeks and various brassicas, such as broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi and cauliflower.

Root vegetables are delicious in an variety of ways. Roasting brings out their natural sweetness and individual flavors. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, bake at 350 degrees until fork-tender and caramelized around the edges. I especially like a combination of carrots, parsnips, and beets, with fresh rosemary or thyme added toward the end of baking.

Root veggies also make nourishing addition to stews and soups. Recently I added turnips to my split pea soup, even though I thought I didn't like them. Turns out the flavor melds with all the others in the soup and softens the strong taste.

To lighten up the heavy foods of this season, blanch any of these root vegetables until just tender (or use raw) and chop into a small dice with fresh parsley, cilantro or chives, add a squeeze of lemon, drizzle of olive oil and dash of salt and pepper.

"Greens make you beautiful!" Cynthia Lair of www.cookusinterruptus.com likes to say. And there is truth to that statement. Greens are rich in anti-oxidants and nutrients, and contribute to a healthy diet, in turn making you radiate from the inside out. But they've gotten a bad rap, with many people's first exposure being cooked-beyond-recognition versions.

I prefer Lacinto kale or chard over curly kale or collards, but all of them are delicious sauteed with a little onion, garlic, and olive oil until wilted and just tender. A light drizzle of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar adds a nice finishing touch. Sliced in thin ribbons (or chiffonade), leafy greens make a tasty addition to soups or sauteed vegetable medleys. Other greens in season right now are arugula and mustard greens, both of which have interesting spicy notes. Arugula is great in salad mixes, on your favorite sandwich or tossed with hot pasta until just wilted. Mustard greens go nicely in stir-fries or sauteed with a squeeze of lemon.

Winter squash - rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin C and potassium - make a healthy addition to dinnertime. With a multitude of squash varieties, mixing it up will keep things interesting through the long cold season.

Try acorn squash cut in small wedges, tossed with oil, salt and pepper, and baked until soft; no need to peel them, as the skin softens with baking.

Butternut squash, peeled and cut into small dice saute up nicely with a variety of other vegetables and make a lovely side dish. Or boil with your favorite broth and blend with spices for a nourishing smooth soup.

Bake a sugar pie pumpkin for use in quick breads or other baked goods. Cut in half, scoop out guts and bake cut-side down with a little water until soft to the touch. Scoop, mash, and use.

Leeks can be used like an onion, sauteed with oil to deepen the flavor of any vegetable dish. For the adventurous, try baking trimmed leeks, cut lengthwise, cut-side down, with a glug of olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe a bit of grated cheese. Cook until fork-tender.

Though it may not be a common term, I like to use the word "brassica" to describe the family of cruciferous vegetables.

Broccoli and cauliflower are nice steamed until just tender and tossed with olive oil or a vinaigrette, fresh herbs and lemon zest.

Cauliflower does well tossed with oil and roasted with a variety of spices, such as curry, oregano or smoked paprika.

Kohlrabi is a bulb-shaped, mild-flavored vegetable that adds a nice crunch to chopped salads. After peeling, either grate or finely dice and combine with cabbage, carrots, parsley and lemon for a fresh snack or side salad.

Brussel sprouts are lovely roasted with bacon or shaved and sauteed with olive oil, shallots, and lemon zest.

Of course, cabbage makes a beautiful coleslaw, but it also makes a delicious hot dish, braised with onion, broth and slow cooked until tender. My grandma would make cabbage boiled with potatoes and carrots, and drizzled with vinegar.

Though it may take a little more effort, I hope these ideas help to make your season delicious and nutritious. And way more interesting than thawed frozen vegetables.

Melissa Davis is a local chef with a bachelor's degree in nutrition. She can be reached at jadenluna@gmail.com. More of her writing is at www.melissadavisfood.wordpress.com.

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