To spend a quarter of December in Peoria, IL, called for extreme measures. Peoria might have an excuse in winter when it comes to fresh local produce. But from my casual observation, finding locally grown (and human-edible) produce is a challenge. The rich dirt of the vast surrounding farmland is home only to corn used for cattle feed and Twinkies. Rumor had it that a new gourmet market opened. I’d believe it when I saw it. But while an expensive gourmet market might offer better-looking organic produce than the limp bundles of kale at Kroger, it doesn’t address the problem of how little local land is used around the country to grow food for people who live there.
I feared losing my turnips more than I did being groped in the airport. So I checked my suitcase, full of produce from my final shopping day of the farmers market. Go ahead, laugh. But I take my veg seriously.
You can download a high-res version of December’s poster (or see image below). At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a list of previous month’s logs of this yearlong project.
End of the Market
It was fitting that the last day of the farmers market fell on the winter solstice, December 21. Even as the lights went out on easy access to fresh, local produce, it was also the start of three more minutes of light per day.
You wouldn’t know it was the end of the season given the piles of fruits and vegetables still available, which makes me want to ask, “can’t you just keep coming week after week?” But farmers need a rest and so does the earth, not to mention the market staff that give up their weekends for nine months.
Finding Local in Winter
A few grocery stores make an effort to carry local produce, but the supply is inconsistent. Now I’m challenged to shop in new places. After nine months of tracking what I eat, I find that while I don’t eat much differently than I did before, I do think twice about what I put in my basket. It’s become a fun challenge. On one trip, the only green local thing I could find (after having missed two farmers market days) was savoy cabbage, which I’d never had before. With its intricately dimpled leaves, it’s lighter and less chewy than regular cabbage and it caramelizes beautifully when sauteed. Add onions and apples and you have a nice winter dish.
Pears are Oregon’s state fruit and they love nothing more than hooking up with Oregon’s state nut, the hazelnut in something like this Pear and Hazelnut Tart. Or else hang out with a piece of gorgonzola—a favorite sandwich of mine. Pears keep well in cold storage. So I buy as many as I can.
Trying to keep it local for a crudite platter, I bought diakon radish for the first time. It looks like a gigantic piece of sidewalk chalk, and the peppery flavor is more mild than radishes. And has a satisfying crispiness but is juicy at the same time.
Trusty root vegetables and winter squashes will see you through the cold months. They’re durable, keeping for a long time, and they’re packed with flavor. For Christmas eve, I chopped up the fingerlings, turnips and parsnips (from my suitcase) and added onions and carrots, tossed with olive oil, fresh herbs, salt and pepper and roasted them on a cookie sheet for about 40 minutes. You can puree any leftovers with some broth or water the next day and turn it into soup!
And remember, asparagus is right around the corner! Happy 2011.