by Caroline Carney
The frozen tundra of a New England winter is upon us. I imagine those of you who hail from the temperate West Coast are in a particular state of despair after these past few months of face-chapping winds, snow, and drab-looking fruits. Although many of us admire the locavore movement, it is a difficult badge to wear during a New England winter. It means forgoing freshly-made pesto, avocados, artichokes, asparagus, bananas, citrus … I should stop there before I hyperventilate. It’s a hard way to eat, but certainly worth the effort. How can we possibly be inspired this deficit of options?
Historically, New Englanders have always been culinarily challenged in the winter months, forced to be creative with what the cold earth offers up. Cooks must know what local foods are at their peak, or at close. The foods that do survive are those hearty, rugged compatriots who have always been there for us: tubers, brawny leafy greens, sturdy root vegetables, members of the strongly-scented allium family, and those thick-skinned, nearly invincible gourds. Winter is also an opportune time to experiment with local seafood offerings. These same old winter foods can provide inspiration that will make for a happy and healthy winter season.
Know Your Roots
First stop on our journey is the root cellar—an age-old construction that expands the produce selection this time of year. Farmers pile up the late season harvest to ensure it will last all winter long. Chris Kurth, owner of Siena Farm in Sudbury, chuckled when I asked what produce he currently has. I didn’t think this was a laughing matter, so I pressed him for a thorough list. He said that what little he does have is coming from his root cellar: cabbage, watermelon radishes, parsnips, and kale.
Usually underground, root cellars harness the naturally cold temperature to keep produce firm and fresh. The vegetables live in the root cellar, breathing in oxygen and exhaling out carbon dioxide and water. The root cellar has a natural level of humidity that helps the vegetables retain their moisture and crispness. You cannot get the same results with a refrigerator, which removes humidity from the air. Root cellars also protect vegetables from sunlight, which can cause spoilage and nutrient loss.
Squash the Winter Blues
Shopping for squash can be a blast: so many colors, shapes, and flavors without the pressure to cook them this week. Winter squash actually sweetens off the vine, so a couple months in your living room as an edible decoration will only improve the flavor. A grocery shopper can find not only the standard butternut, pumpkin, and acorn varietals, but also the more obscure buttercup and hubbard. Now is not the time to shy away from new gourds—buttercup and hubbard are in season and packed with amazing nutrients.
The winter varieties of squash are extremely rich in vitamin A and are a good source of vitamin C, folate, and potassium. They also have more fiber than summer squash—the strings and squash seeds are high in insoluble fiber and the flesh contains soluble fiber. Pumpkin seeds aren’t the only ones for eating. Never toss the seeds; roast them and then snack on them or add them to a salad, all the while knowing that they are providing lots of iron, potassium, zinc, and B vitamins. Winter squash can be stored for several months in a cool, dark place—how I imagine many of your apartments feel right now. So, pick a few varieties of winter squash. When you’re feeling the yen for sweet, satisfying squash, roast one up (do not boil squash because this will destroy the precious vitamin C and other nutrients). Try out the recipe at the bottom of the article for a comforting winter meal.
Ripe and Ready
There are few things more disappointing than a strawberry in the middle of winter: after being shipped across the country it is pallid, and lacks that syrupy sweetness of summer. Strawberries, grapes, apricots, blueberries, peaches, and raspberries do not improve in sweetness or flavor after being picked. They merely soften on their slippery slope to decay. These fruits start to produce polygalacturonase—pectin’s arch enemy. This troublesome enzyme attacks the pectin that holds the fruit cells in place.
In the wintertime, it’s best to choose local fruits that ripen after the harvest. Apples and pears do get sweeter after the harvest. As they ripen off the tree, apples and pears convert their starch reserves into sugar. A period of cold storage before final ripeness actually improves the texture of the flesh. Many Massachusetts farms take advantage of this by storing these fruits in cold cellars. Apples lack polygalacturonase, so they remain crisp up until they start to rot. Nevertheless, apples and pears do emit ethylene, a gas that acts as fruit’s internal “ripener”, after they’re picked. Ethylene encourages decay in many vegetables, so it is best to store fruit in a separate drawer in your refrigerator, or a sealed plastic bag. Take a break from apple pie and try poached pears with a dark chocolate sauce. They are simple and quick to make and will satisfy the tastes of the most avid chocolate fiend.
Plump and succulent, the oyster is a perfect companion during the sluggish winter months. It is a tragic misconception that oysters are only a summertime indulgence: they can be even more delectable in the winter. Oysters spawn during the warmer months, which causes their flesh to become soft and milky and depletes the glycogen stores that give them their flavor. And fortunately for us, the cold winter waters of Massachusetts are ideal for producing bivalves that are flavorful, lean, and crisp. The higher the level of salt in the water, the more amino-acids the oyster’s cells need to contain to balance the saltiness outside the cells. Winter oysters in New England have a high amount of these amino-acids, which lends them a savory quality. Duxbury, WiAnno, Martha’s Vineyard, Cotuit, Wellfleet are all Massachusetts towns that boast excellent oyster beds. So make this February oyster month.
Oysters provide lean protein, are rich in zinc, and contain many other minerals such as calcium, iron, copper, iodine, magnesium and selenium. Although oyster lovers prefer these briny morsels raw, cold, and washed down with a glass of Sancerre, pan-seared oysters can be a real treat for bivalve neophytes.
There is widespread concern about the overfishing of many local fish (cod, halibut, haddock) as well as the unsustainable nature of many farm-raised fish (salmon, ranched bluefin and farmed freshwater eels). However, the Massachusetts bivalve population is doing just fine. Farm-raised clams, oysters, scallops and mussels, are sustainable because they do not require wild-caught seafood to feed them. These bivalves are filter feeders, meaning they extract organic matter from the water. As the bivalves gobble up phytoplankton, algae and other particles, they filter the water thereby benefiting estuaries and bays.
Go forth and cook with your head held high as you roast, sauté, boil, poach, and bake with winter foods. If you cave and throw in a little lemon zest or spinach, I won’t think any less of you because I might just be doing the same thing.
Barley and Winter Squash Risotto
A stunning display of winter’s bounty. The orange of the squash, the purple kale, and the glimmers of yellow zest will brighten the dinner table. You can substitute any type of squash for hubbard. Use whatever your farmer has in stock.
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 2 shallots, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 2 cups lightly pearled barley
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 6 cups vegetable stock
- 1 ½ pounds Hubbard squash, quartered
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- Grated zest of 4 lemons
- 1 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
- 1/2 cup Greek yogurt (fat free works just fine)
- 1 bunch purple kale, roughly chopped
- Handful of toasted pine nuts
*Preheat oven to 375 °F
- Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, shallots, garlic, and 1 teaspoon of salt and sauté for about 5 minutes.
- Add the barley to the saucepan and stir until it is thoroughly combined with the onions, shallots, and garlic.
- Add the white wine, bring mixture to a simmer for 5 minutes. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. In 1-cup increments, add about 6 cups of stock. Allow the barley to absorb most of the stock in between each addition and stir regularly. This slow process is key to risotto — the stirring removes the softened endosperm from the surface of the grain so it dissolves in the liquid and the incremental addition of liquid to an uncovered pan means that much the liquid evaporates, resulting in a flavor-intense sauce. It should take about 40 minutes. When the barley is tender remove the pot from heat.
- While the barley does its thing, turn your attention to the squash. Place the squash on a cookie sheet. Slather the quarters with the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of ground pepper.
- Put the squash into the preheated oven and roast for about 35 minutes or until the squash is tender when pierced with a fork. Don’t overcook— a mushy squash has no place in risotto. Once it is done, remove the peel and cut into ½-inch cubes.
- Bring a pot filled with 5 cups of salted water to a boil. Add the chopped kale. Boil for about 6 minutes. Pull a piece of kale out to test it for doneness. It should be a little firmer than sautéed spinach.
The Finished Product
- Combine the barley, squash, and kale in a large bowl. Stir in the lemon zest, Parmesan, and greek yogurt. Garnish with pine nuts and a dusting of extra Parmesan before serving.
Serves 4 as a main dish, or 6 as a side.
Pan-seared Oysters with a Chickpea Nutmeg Crust
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 dozen plump, meaty oysters (WiAnno work well and can be found at Whole Foods for 99¢ each)
- 1 chickpea flour (you can use regular flour, but the chickpea adds a nutty flavor)
- 1 teaspoon fine grain salt
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- a few grinds of pepper
- a squeeze of lemon juice
- Shuck the oysters, being careful to not mangle the flesh. Shucking takes some practice, so ask around and see if someone will teach you.
- Combine the flour, salt, nutmeg, and pepper in a bowl. Cover the oysters with the flour mixture to create a uniform coating on each bivalve.
- Over high heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large non-stick sauté pan. Once the pan is sizzling, drop a few oysters in at a time. Do not crowd the pan. Each oyster will release some liquid and if there are too many in the pan at once, the liquid will interfere with the crisping process.
- Once the crust is golden, remove the oyster from the pan. Add oysters as cooked ones come out. If charred residue builds up in the pan, carefully wipe it out with a paper towel and add more butter and olive oil, reheat, and add breaded oysters.
- Eat immediately with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Poached Pears with Dark Chocolate Sauce
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup white wine (such as a Gewurztraminer)
- 1 cup sugar
- Zest and juice of half an orange
- 4 pears (Anjou, Bartlett, or Bosc on the firm side)
- My Richest Chocolate Sauce (recipe follows)
- Bring the water and wine to a boil in a large saucepan.
- While waiting for this, peel, quarter and remove the center seed part of the pears.
- Turn the boiling liquid down to a simmer and add the orange zest, juice, and pears.
- Cook the pears for 20-40 minutes. The cook time will depend on the level of ripeness of the pears- the riper they are the more quickly they will poach in the liquid. The pears are done when they are tender, but not soft.
- Remove the pears with a spoon when done and serve warm or chilled with some of the poaching liquid and a drizzle of dark chocolate sauce.
*Poached pears can be kept for a day in the refrigerator, submerged in their liquid.
My Richest Chocolate Sauce
Makes about 1 and 1/2 cups
- 8 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons agave nectar
- 1/2 cup half-and-half
- In the top of a double boiler (or in a bowl set over simmering water) combine the chocolate, butter, and agave nectar. Cook, whisking often, until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
- Remove from the heat and whisk in the half-and-half, beating until smooth. Use while still warm.