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Beating The Winter Produce Doldrums

It’s a cold day in January. The farmers’ markets have long since closed for the season. The backyard raised beds which just recently burst with a bounty of climbing tomatoes are now vacant but for a light dusting of frost. Shelves that were stocked with an abundance of apple varieties grown on Wisconsin orchards are now filled with fruits from such far away origins as Argentina and New Zealand. This is the time of year when the committed locavore is forced to wonder how they will satisfy their produce cravings in the lean months ahead.

As winter comes around, we become increasingly more reliant on produce sourced from California and other warmer climates. The colder Wisconsin weather means that many of the fruits and veggies with fewer miles between the farm and our tables are far less available. Yet there are still opportunities to acquire heartier, cool weather varieties of produce either through late season growing techniques or shopping seasonally at the Co-op.

Roots and Squash
While many of the produce varieties we might buy locally are now being sourced from California, there are a few varieties of edibles that have popped up in the late autumn months: “Lots of root veggies and winter squashes, specifically carrots, parsnips, rutabaga,” lists Marnie McMullin, a Produce Supervisor at Willy East, “Super starchy, nice, hearty comfort food. Stuff that goes well in stews and soups.” It may be a time when produce may be of the heartier and filling fare, but that doesn’t mean it is not an opportunity for Wisconsin farmers to show off. In addition to the everyday orange carrots, local suppliers also provide the more exotic purple and yellow varieties that shoppers might not see at other times of the year. These crunchable roots aren’t the only goods demonstrating their diversity. Co-op Owners can discover a medley of squash varieties from the all too familiar butternuts and acorns, to the more festive kabocha or carnival squash, to the dessert friendly pie pumpkin or the curious but tasty red kuri and blue hubbard. “They tend to be a good storing squash too because they’re really dry and sweet.” says Marnie of the kabocha and and red kuri breed, “They’re very versatile.”

Tubers and alliums
Not only do many seasonal possibilities for culinary experimentation become possible with the influx of a collection of various squashes, the winter months also introduce a miscellany of local tubers and alliums as well as many root vegetables that might go unseen during other parts of the year. While many of the more delicate fruits and vegetables grown on Wisconsin farms begin to dwindle in availability, the more resilient tubers and alliums remain in a steadier supply. Spuds, onions, and their ilk continue to be a reliable staple in all their more commonplace varieties such as the adaptable yukon gold potato. Yet as the colder months wear on and the traditional garlic potato recipes become too mundane, the more adventurous cook might dare to engage with the petite delicacy known as the fingerling, or replace the more common yellow onion with its sweeter cousin the candy onion or perhaps even the cippolini. Curious consumers might even be so bold as to put the dark, toasted licorice flavors of black garlic to the test. 

Less common roots
 In addition to the subterranean standards such as onions or potatoes that most shoppers might think of when looking for a comforting and filling meal, other less obvious root vegetables litter the produce shelves in a multitude of colors and shapes. Owners might take advantage of the spicy kick that the earthy horseradish root can provide, or dine on the pale-colored parsnip only to find that it presents an astonishing sweetness in comparison to its more chromatic cousin the carrot. A personal favorite of Willy Street Co-op Produce staffers is the romantically hued beauty heart radish. Marnie speaks to the longevity of this charming edible: “I really like that the beauty hearts last really long. They go almost to the spring.” What’s more is the radishes’ culinary appeal: “I love that through the winter you can have a slightly spicy, crunchy item to put in your salad or soups or something.”Roots like the roast friendly rutabaga, the stew-worthy scarlet turnips or even the tie-dyed chiogga beets can also be found alongside other root vegetables including celeriac, which holds an intriguing resemblance to celery in flavor.

While the roots and tubers persist through the winter months either in storage or beneath the earth, seemingly undaunted by the subfreezing temperatures, there are still a few brave greens that survive on through those last autumn days before the unyielding frost settles. Many a member of the brassica family may still be found for consumption in these cooler months, although their availability can be on the unpredictable side: “It seems like it’s sporadic,” says Marnie when speaking of the best time to buy one of the more popular varieties of brassica family, the cabbage. “It seems like local cabbage can go a long time and then [suppliers] run out.” However, our Willy Street Co-op Produce expert offers a simple solution to those worried that they may have to do without kraut or coleslaw: “Buy up on your local cabbage and store it yourself!” When cabbage can be found from a nearby source it is often available in a medley; the green and red varieties are regularly accompanied by the less commonplace heads of napa or savoy. In addition to the cabbage, many other brassica species can pop up on produce shelves. The Brussels sprout enthusiast may be pleased to encounter their favorite vegetable while stocking up on green beans for a holiday dish. The kohlrabi, another brassica, can be found blending in deceptively well among the root vegetables. Although local supplies of broccoli and cauliflower can be interrupted week to week by their California counterparts, brassica consumers might choose a lesser-known veggie as an alternative: the romanesco. This cultivar is noteworthy for its otherworldly appearance, and is sure to inspire comment or question from any who has not previously come across these green peaks crowned in foliage that are so alien in appearance. Finally, there is one last member of this hearty family that should not go without mentioning: kale. Like the other brassicas, these leafy greens stand up to the cooler nights even as the rest of the vegetable garden is coming to its seasonal demise. Kale comes in such a selection of various breeds that anyone who has developed a taste for them will always speak of their favorite variety (on a personal note this writer is partial to the taste and texture of the red bor kale, particularly when prepared in a saute with salt and pepper).

Row cover and hoop-houses
Although the many root vegetables and even a few of the squash varieties might survive well through the winter months, needing little other than a cold dark space for storage after harvest, the brassicas are more demanding when it comes to cold weather growing. In order to extend the season or protect products like greens from a sudden cold snap in late autumn months, Wisconsin farmers might employ practices to insulate their crops from chilly winds and damaging frost. Sadie Sturgeon, one of Willy Street Co-op’s Produce buyers who previously worked with Troy Gardens, and Marnie, a Willy Street Co-op Produce supervisor and former employee with Driftless farms, both suggest row cover as the likely technique for protecting vegetation from the hazards of cooler climates. “It will help you get a little more time,” states Marnie on this cold weather growing practice. “Unheated hoop-houses are another way too. If you do an unheated hoop-house with reemay or maybe even with smaller hoops within that hoop house you can extend greens.”

The utilization of practices like building row cover or hoop-houses to extend the growing season by no means need to be isolated to those growing produce at a commercial scale. Just as local farmers may wish to keep produce supplies continuing beyond an autumn harvest, so might the backyard gardener hope to keep benefitting from the bounty of the land long after the last tomato of summer has been picked. The sturdier winter vegetable varieties like the potato or the turnip hold up to the cold because they’re underground, protected by the soil’s relative warmth, while storing moisture within their roots.

Protect your herbs
When the nights have cooled down, it is still possible to grow cold-resistant herbs such as garlic, sage, parsley, chives or thyme; greens including bok choy and scallions; roots such as the turnip, beets, or rutabaga; and to some extent even a few leafier varieties such as arugula, endives and chard. To keep the more fragile of these plants viable, they will demand special attention.
When colder days come around, it is time to protect herbs by insulating them with an organic mulch made from straw or dried leaves heaped around their base. A more protective alternative may be to grow your late season produce within the protection of row cover or within a cold frame, assuming you might like to avoid the hassle of building a greenhouse. As the cold becomes more bitter, it is worth emulating the practice of doubling up on cover through using another layer of row cover within the outer shell. Protective structures might take the form of a lightweight, moveable prefab polycarbonate cold frame, or involve putting hoops over the rows and covering plants with successive layers of row cover. Not only will this protective shield block out the freezing temperatures and trap heat released from the soil, it will save the precious greens within from the wintry hazards of sleet, snow, wind or drying out. When the thermometer starts sinking below 32ºF, double insulating either by reinforcing row cover with a clear plastic sheet or using row cover within a cold frame may be sufficient insulation for winter resistant crops to survive temperatures below freezing. However, this comes at a cost as more insulation will further limit the already scant sunlight your plants will receive in the short days of winter.

Planting & harvesting
The reality of the Wisconsin winter is that in the months between late December and early March, the hardened soil and absence of heat and light from the sun means that plant growth will be in astate of cessation. However, that does not mean that there is not planting or harvesting that can still be done, so long as the gardener can achieve a good sense of timing. Many heartier produce varieties can still be harvested from a mature plant even during this period of growth suspension, although starting a new plant will prove unsuccessful. This might even be a good time to get a head start on your crop for the early spring. Immediately before the days when sub-freezing temperatures become a constant you can sow seeds that you anticipate to sprout in early March, waiting patiently as they sit in latency.

Advantages of winter gardening
Even with all the challenges of winter gardening, it can present some surprising advantages. In fact, there is less upkeep needed to maintain these crops when it comes to watering. The plants will grow slowly, curbing their demand for hydration within soil that contains more moisture without the threat of evaporation that takes place in warmer months. Aspiring winter growers should take heed, as over-watering may prove dangerous, since fungus and rot can thrive in the cool damp. But less time spent lugging a watering can is not the only perk of brisk weather. Marnie explains how winter varieties often taken on a surprising taste:

“I would say something that stands out about the produce we tend to have in the winters is that it’s sweet because the roots have sat through some really cold nights and they’ve converted a lot of their water into sugar and so they are really tender and sweet versus maybe carrots you’d get in the summer. It’s all really sweet isn’t it? It’s all really sweet things; you don’t get a lot of bitter foods that store over the winter.”

This knowledge alone should give some produce enthusiasts all the inspiration they need to forget about the sugary fruits of summer and seek out root veggies in conciliation. However, others might still find the prospects of eating local in the winter to be a challenge. The advice Produce staff offers to Willy Street Co-op Owners on winter veggies is to take note of “how well they store. It might surprise people how long you can store produce you harvest in the fall. It doesn’t go bad as fast as summertime varieties like lettuce or tomatoes... If [Owners] store them properly in a cool dark place I would say yes they could likely store a lot of those veggies.” For those who still remain apprehensive about keeping their menu exciting while trying to employ local varieties, Produce staff advise experimentation; whether that might mean grating a celeriac for a non-traditional coleslaw, or roasting parsnips when soups are getting too dull. “My favorite thing that maybe people haven’t tried would be making a pumpkin pie recipe but supplementing with red kuri squash or maybe the kabocha,” suggests Marnie. “You get a little bit of a different texture and a lot better flavor.” Should your winter dishes involve a radical departure from the played out squash varieties or simply rotating new carrots and radishes into your salad roster, one thing is certain; even in the face of a seasonal shift in produce varieties, locavores have no need to fret.

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