Signing on to seasonality is easy and appealing in spring when the first tender, green shoots of asparagus burst forth, along with sweet new strawberries. It's a no-brainer come summer when the tiniest garden becomes a rainbow of color and a riot of produce. Winter, though, can be a toughie.
Winter is the season of turnips and other root vegetables, of dark, sturdy greens like collards, cabbage and kale. The variety of produce is limited (How many turnip recipes are there? How many can you stand? ) and lacks the glam factor of fair-weather produce. And yet, I find winter crops utterly inspirational.
Think about it -- we've been stricken by record snowfall and cold all around the globe and the only thing we can do is come up with terms like snowapalooza and claims that winter means global warming doesn't exist. Puh-lease. Cold weather makes us lame. Cold-weather produce shrugs it off. Not only do they survive, they grow.
I harvested collards from my garden yesterday. I had to. They've gotten so enormous, they're top-heavy and toppling over. This has nothing to do with my farming prowess. They obey their own green urges and grow of their own accord. Having withstood a brutal summer and a winter cold that smote my tomatoes and herbs, the greens have grown as big as elephant ears. Winter greens don't care about cold. They say, bring it on.
Many humans can't say the same. They don't like the taste of what winter has to offer. The greens aren't delicate. They don't dance on the palate -- unless they're dancing flamenco. They can taste bitter. Here's what I say -- eat more of them. Studies indicate herbivores have a higher tolerances for bitter foods than omnivores.
Winter greens are bold -- that's their appeal. Winter is not for weenies. It's not a subtle season. Who wants a plate of delicate mache now? Low temps demand confident flavors and abundant nutrients to support our bodies as we shovel snow or curse our fate. Winter greens are lousy with antioxidants and crammed with vitamins K, A and C. Can't say that about meat. You can say meat has protein. Guess what? So do winter greens. They've got protein, but without the artery-clogging fat and cholesterol and animal eating karma.
Special bonus -- as you develop a taste for winter crops, you can develop a taste for seasonal eating. Rather than trying to eat the same banana for breakfast whether it's January or June, take a cue from nature and vary what you eat with what grows. Seasonal eating didn't begin with Alice Waters. Before food could be shipped and refrigerated, the seasonal produce in your 'hood was what you got, period. You want cherries in March? Good luck with that.
Eating what's in season, what's in the markets and the fields not only means eating the freshest food you can lay your mitts on, it takes the stress off the planet, too. Even in the depths of winter, crops come to us fresh, not canned.
Cold-weather crops prove just how tough and benevolent nature is. We could learn from this. We could learn a lot from nature in general. Learning to live and eat in the now, to embrace the bitter with the sweet, is a healthy start.
Wild Rice with Winter Greens, Lemon, Pinenuts and Raisins
An old Sicilian trick, balancing the bitterness of winter greens with rich pinenuts and sweet raisins, yields a whole grain dish that's fortifying and fabulous.
1 cup wild rice
4 cups vegetable broth or water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 bunch winter greens -- collards, cabbage or kale, tough center ribs removed, leaves sliced into skinny ribbons
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/4 cup raisins
1 good pinch red pepper flakes
sea salt to taste
In a large pot, bring water or broth to boil over high heat. Add wild rice. Cover and reduce heat to low and simmer for half an hour. Turn off heat, leave the pot on the burner for another half hour or so, until all the liquid is absorbed. May be done the day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Bring back to room temperature before proceeding.
In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add chopped onion and saute, stirring until it softens, about 5 minutes. Add chopped winter greens, which will shrink in the heat to a fraction of their volume. Continue cooking until greens are just wilted -- another 3 to 5 minutes.
Tip in cooked rice and stir mixture gently to combine. Grate in the zest of both lemons, squeeze in lemon juice, stir in sea salt and pepper flakes. Add pine nuts and raisins just before serving.
Serves 4 to 6.