The temperatures have plunged below the freezing point, the first major snow of the season has blanketed the ground, and winter is officially here. Baby, it’s cold outside, and there’s not a cute fresh tomato in sight -- to which I can only say, thank goodness.
After a superabundance of August heat and lush summer vegetables this year, I was more than ready to welcome the frost-kissed produce of fall and winter, including my new love, Brussels sprouts. Winter farmers markets in the area still show a variety of delicious greens, but roots and tubers find their way into the spotlight now as well, offering rich flavors and starchy comfort. Unfortunately, many of these nutritious foods often get slighted in favor of the more brilliant colors and flavors of summer, but two recent cookbooks -- one new and one revised edition of an older favorite -- bring winter vegetables to the center of the plate.
Both Andrea Chesman, author of the new Recipes from the Root Cellar: 270 Fresh Ways to Enjoy Winter Vegetables, and Lane Morgan, author of the original and the 20-anniversary revision of Winter Harvest Cookbook: How to Select and Prepare Fresh Seasonal Produce All Winter Long, hail from northern climes (Vermont and northern Washington, respectively) and a tradition of hearty cold-weather foods. Morgan explains the basic biology behind winter produce: in warmer months, the energy absorbed by plants converts easily into fruit and seed production, giving us the juicy ripe food of summer, but shorter days and colder nights cause plants to stick with the basics of leaves and roots. Fortunately, when that energy concentrates in the leaves and roots in cold weather, it also converts starches to sugars, making winter vegetables sweet and tempting.
Morgan explains why cooking winter vegetables has so much appeal for her: not only is there more time for cooking come winter (especially if you spend much time in the garden in summer), but "food seems more important then. We want to gather our friends at the table and keep the gloom away." Winter vegetables have long had a bad rap, probably because so many of us were exposed to overcooked, underflavored, tough, and/or bitter roots, tubers, and greens in our childhood. But as both Chesman and Morgan show, the wide variety of flavors and possible cooking methods for winter produce can give us just as much to savor as summer fruits and vegetables.
Each book begins with a lyrical introduction to winter cooking as well as a detailed guide to the wide variety of vegetables and fruits available during the shorter days of the year. While Chesman groups these foods by family, Morgan lists them alphabetically. Chesman also includes dry beans (emphasizing storage foods) while Morgan includes fruits that keep well in cold months. Both explain how to select the best quality for each item, as well as how best to store these foods, and they each offer a glimpse of the nutritional content of winter vegetables. Interesting historical and cultural tidbits are included: Did you know that jack o’-lanterns were first made from rutabagas?
Both books organize recipes by course: soups, salads, side dishes, main dishes, and so on. Both note vegetarian and vegan recipes or variations, but Morgan goes a step further and labels which dishes are gluten-free. Chesman offers “market measures” in her recipes (two carrots instead of two cups of carrots, for example) to permit flexibility in cooking, and both authors include the occasional recipe with no measures at all (based completely on taste). The recipes stress simplicity, as the authors give winter vegetables the chance to shine -- as in crispy kale chips or the Scottish classic of "neeps and tatties" -- but you’ll also find more complex and globally flavored recipes like vegetable lo mein, feijoada, or lasagna. And dessert recipes offer surprising combinations, such as carrot and parsnip custard, rutabaga pie, and even a sweet spinach tart.
Winter vegetables respond best to slow cooking, of course, allowing their flavors to deepen in the long careful techniques of braising, roasting, or simmering. However, both books point out that winter produce, if chopped finely or shredded, can cook quickly in stir-fries or even be enjoyed raw in salads. And beyond the traditional accompanying tastes of onion, garlic, or even maple, winter vegetables become savory and satisfying when dressed in Asian (soy-based sauces or curry spices) or even tropical flavors and exotic spices.
Both Recipes from the Root Cellar, and Lane Morgan, author of the original and the 20-anniversary revision of Winter Harvest Cookbook offer an appealing and satisfying entrée to cooking vegetables you might have avoided in the past. I have several recipes bookmarked in each and am torn by what to try first.
Basque soup with pumpkin, cabbage, and beans? Hazelnut, chard, and goat cheese filo pie? Gratin of turnips and rutabagas? Pasta with tomato-braised root vegetables? I’m going to enjoy cooking seasonally this winter.
Moroccan Carrot Salad
From Winter Harvest Cookbook, a vegan and gluten-free recipe. Serves 6.
Grate or julienne carrots. Add shallots and toss. Combine sugar, salt, and cumin and toss with carrots. Season with pepper and cayenne. Add lemon juice and toss again. Marinate for 1 hour. Sprinkle with parsley and serve at room temperature.
NOTE: I made a lightly sautéed version of this and combined it with local chevre as a roll filling. Even raw, it would make a great sandwich filling if pressed into a smear of chevre or cream cheese.