Eat Good Food

In Season: Winter Produce

Winter produce, despite the shorter days and colder temperatures, boasts plenty of seasonal delights, from hearty root vegetables to robust bitter greens to bright, sweet citrus.

Beets

Not all winter produce is pale or green. Besides the familiar purpled red of the common round beet (Beta vulgaris), there are golden beets the color of carnelian as well as pink beets, white beets, and even two-tone beets, such as the Chiogga variety, which resemble a red and white bull’s-eye in cross section. They come elongated as well as round, can be small or big, and vary in flavor, from the mild Chiogga to the stronger, rather bitter big red beets. What they all have in common is a high sugar content for a vegetable. They belong to the goosefoot family and their closest relatives — chard, spinach, and lamb’s quarters — are cultivated for their leafy greens. It’s not surprising, then, that beet leaves are delicious, and some varieties are grown just for their greens.

How to Buy

Beets are most plentiful from June through October, usually with their bright green tops still attached, but late beets, topped and stored properly, will keep well from late fall through winter. Select beets that are firm, with regularly shaped roots; a misshapen root is a sign the beet struggled to grow, and may be tough and woody.

How to Store

Beets are best stored loosely in the crisper of your refrigerator, stalks removed. The tops wilt quickly, turning yellow and slimy, so it’s best to cut the greens off a little above the root bulb, and cook within a day or two. The bulbs will store for another week or so.

How to Prepare

Beets are best cooked until tender but not mushy. We prefer to roast them as this concentrates their flavor. Choose bulbs roughly the same size (leaving the skin on so they don’t bleed), place in a shallow pan with a splash of water, cover with foil, and cook at 400 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, until they can easily be pierced with a knife. Once cooled they can be lightly pickled in red wine vinegar as a component to be used in a composed salad. In winter they pair especially well with fennel, orange slices, Belgian endive, and watercress. The greens can be slowly braised as you would other sturdy greens.

 

Broccoli Raab

Broccoli raab, or rapini, belongs to the same species (Brassica oleracea) as kohlrabi, brussel sprouts, kale, collards, and all the cabbages. It is grown for its greens, which resemble sprouting broccoli that has started to flower. The vegetable’s leafy stalks and tender buds taste like a delicious hybrid of broccoli and mustard greens, with a robust, slightly bitter flavor that works great in pastas, on top of pizzas, or slow-cooked as a side dish.

How to Buy

Broccoli raab is available all year around, but is at its best in the cooler months. Look for tender, fleshy stems with the flower heads still closed. Yellow flower buds is a sign of age and poor quality.

How to Store

Wrap stalks in a damp towel and store in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Avoid storing it near ethylene-emitting produce such as apples or pears.

How to Prepare

Wash and trim tough ends of stems if needed. Coarsely chop for pastas and pizzas, or trim according to recipe.

 

Brussel Sprouts

Brussel sprouts are a variety, gemmifera, of the cabbage species Brassica olecera. Because of selective breeding done in Belgium in the 13th century, brussel sprouts do indeed look like tiny, perfectly formed cabbages. They grow on a heavy stalk, several feet high, with a few leaves on top. Their prime season is late fall and early winter, especially after the first frost when they develop their delicate nutty flavor. Tender and sweet when roasted, sautéed, or steamed, they only release their infamous sulfur aroma when overcooked.

How to Buy

Look for small sprouts, about an inch in diameter, as the smaller buds are sweeter and more tender. Sometimes you can buy entire an stalk of brussel sprouts that you cut off at home. Avoid those with yellow or wilted outer leaves.

How to Store

If the buds are still on the stalk, simply keep in the refrigerator. For loose sprouts, remove any damaged or wilted leaves and keep in a paper bag in the refrigerator. Though they will keep for weeks, once they’re off the stalk the flavor begins to deteriorate after a few days.

How to Prepare

Rinse the sprouts with cold running water and remove any loose or damaged leaves. Pat dry, then trim the stem close to the bottom of the sprout. If using whole, slice an X into the bottom of each to help them cook more evenly. To use the individual leaves, cut out the core of the sprouts with a sharp paring knife and carefully tease the leaves apart with your fingers.

 

Cabbage

Like its cruciferous siblings (kale, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli), cabbage belongs to the species Brassica oleracea. With an astonishing variety of strains propagated by plant breeders over the years, cabbage comes in many shapes, colors, and sizes; the most familiar variety in the U.S. is the Dutch cabbage, with smooth green or purple heads that change shape with the seasons. Savoy cabbage features crinkled leaves and a sweeter flavor, while Napa, also known as Chinese or celery cabbage, has an oblong shape and ridged leaves. Cooked well, cabbage has wonderful texture and spicy, sweet flavor, and is worthy of the most refined preparations. Known for its versatility, cabbage is an important ingredient in kitchens around the world and takes many forms, from fermented preparations like Korea’s kimchi and Eastern Europe’s sauerkraut to spicy coleslaws, stuffed cabbage leaves, braised sides, and stir-frys.

How to Buy

Generally speaking, the best of the cabbages come in early fall and last until truly cold winter weather. In California and the South, cabbage can be harvested throughout the winter into early spring. When looking for most types of cabbage at the market, look for heads that are tight and firm, with shiny, crisp outer leaves. Loose-leaved cabbages such as Savoy and Asian cabbages are the exceptions; these should look bright and fresh, with no signs of wilted or yellowing leaves.

How to Store

Whole heads of cabbage can be wrapped in a damp towel and stored in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for about a week.

How to Prepare

Rinse in cold water to remove dirt, then remove any loose or wilted leaves from cabbage, whether it is to be eaten raw or cooked. Depending on preparation, you can then cut the head in quarters and slice off the core from each segment  to shred the cabbage for slaws, salads, or stir fries. If making stuffed cabbage, remove the outer leaves and trim the core but leave the cabbage whole.

 

Cauliflower

A member of the Brassica genus, which also includes broccoli, brussel sprouts, and kale, cauliflower originated in Asia and has been a European favorite since the 1500s; the vegetable was introduced in the U.S. in the early 1900s. In addition to the familiar large white heads, there are colored varieties that produce smaller heads of purple cauliflower, or chartreuse green, such as the striking romanesco, which grows in a swirling, fractal-like pattern. Available year-round, cauliflower is most plentiful in the fall and early winter. Cauliflower’s mild, sweet, delicate flavor lends itself well to both raw and cooked preparations. Try it as a crudité, perhaps with Bagna Cauda; combined with garlic, anchovies, olive oil, and hot pepper flakes for a zesty pasta; fried and bathed in lemon juice; or as a smooth creamy soup.

How to Buy

Select cauliflower with fine-grained, compact curds and bright green leaves, a sign of freshness. Avoid cauliflower with brown spots.

How to Store

Cauliflower will keep for several days stored in a closed container in the refrigerator.

How to Prepare

Before using trim off any discolored parts and rinse with cold water. If the cauliflower is tender and fresh, the stems will not need peeling. To ensure quick cooking, separate the head into flowerets.

 

Celery Root

Celery root, or celeriac, the knobby, pitted root vegetable related to common celery, is Mediterranean in origin. First introduced to the United States in the early 19th century, it has only recently become commonly available here. Though not particularly beautiful, it is fantastically versatile. The rhizome’s punchy, herbal flavor and crunchy texture shines when served raw, either by itself, or combined with other vegetables, and dressed with mustard-flavored mayonnaise (celeriac remoulade for example); when cooked, its mellow earthiness accentuates other vegetables for complex hearty soups and purées, or baked as a gratin to accompany grilled or roasted meat.

How to Buy

Celeriac needs careful inspection before buying as it has a convoluted exterior which means that you can have quite a lot of waste when you remove the outer part. For this reason, choose the smoothest celeriac you can find. Choose small roots that are heavy for their size, with vibrant green leaves on the stem ends.

How to Store

To store, cut off the stems and wrap the root in a damp towel and place in the crisper. Kept this week it should stay fresh for a week or two.

How to Prepare

Celery root  must be peeled for all preparations. First slice off the top and bottom of the root, then peel away the sides to remove the tough skin and the many small roots attached to it. To prevent discoloring, submerge in a bowl of acidulated water. If it is not to be used right away, leave sliced, diced, or julienned celeriac in water and refrigerate.

 

Leeks

The leek (Allium ampeloprasum), a member of the garlic and onion family, is grown for its blanched, white stems. Called the “poor man’s asparagus” by the French, leeks are prized for their succulence and sweet, delicate flavor. They can flavor chicken and vegetable stocks and soups, and be integrated into tarts, pizzas, and foccacia. They have a special affinity with fish, and add a rich flavor to chicken and beef. Most abundant in the fall, mature leeks can be left in the ground and harvested throughout the winter into spring.

How to Buy

Leeks should have firm, unblemished stalks with stiff, green leaves. Any attached roots should be firm and white. Smaller, younger leeks are more tender and mild.

How to Store

Leeks keep best if they are not trimmed or washed until just before use. Bundle in a damp towel and store in the refrigerator. Smaller leeks should be used within a day or two, but larger ones will keep for four to five days.

How to Prepare

Small leeks to be cooked whole should have their roots trimmed at the base of the stem, being careful not to cut off the basal plate, or the leeks may fall apart during cooking. Trim the tops, leaving several inches of the tender green leaves on the stem, and pull off one outer layer of leaves. Then hold the prepared leeks under cold water and rinse out any dirt or sand that may be trapped between layers. Larger leeks that will be sliced, chopped, or julienned should be rinsed in cold water for a few minutes, separating the layers to remove any grit, and dried with a towel. Save any leafy green tops to use in soup stocks.

 

Turnips and Rutabagas

Members of the cabbage family, turnips (Brassica rapus) and rutabagas (Brassicus napus) are different species. Turnips are usually available throughout the year, but are most tender in the spring and fall. Even so, their mild, sweet flesh and earthy flavor make them a versatile addition to the succession of root vegetables that usually grace our winter tables. Generally larger in winter, the bulbs can be combined with potatoes and celeriac to make a gratin, or mashed together into a purée or soup. When roasted with other vegetables like carrots, celery root, and parsnips, their flavor adds balance. The greens can be enjoyed like any other leafy green: sauté them with olive oil and garlic, or stew them with salt pork as they do in the South. Rutabagas, a hybrid of turnips and cabbage, are best in late fall and winter after a period of cold weather, when their sweetness and flavor have developed. Used very much like large, starchy turnips, try rutabagas boiled and mashed with butter or baked into a decadent and comforting gratin with potatoes and Gruyère.

How to Buy

At the market select turnips that are firm and smooth, with fresh green tops if still attached. Big topless turnips should have fresh cuts where their tops were chopped off. Avoid very large specimens, four inches across or more; they can have a tough, woody texture and unappealing taste. Look for solid rutabagas that feel heavy for their size with unblemished skin.

How to Store

Both turnips and rutabagas should be kept dry and stored in the refrigerator, where they can last up to a month. Turnip greens should be cut off, wrapped in a damp cloth, and stored in the crisper.

How to Prepare

The preparation for turnips depends on their type and maturity. Small, tender-skinned turnips need only a washing of roots and tops to remove any traces of dirt. Larger, thick-skinned turnips and rutabagas need to be peeled.

 

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