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Learning to Love Winter Vegetables

In Wisconsin, November means dropping temperatures, falling leaves, and closing windows, digging out sweaters and warm hats, turning our clocks back and our radiators on, preparing for Thanksgiving (already?), and betting on when the first flakes will fall. This will be my seventh autumn and winter living in the northern United States, and these dramatic changes never cease to amaze me!

You wouldn’t guess by my blue eyes and Northern Irish complexion, but I grew up in Hawaii, where the change from summer to winter means nothing but a little more rain and a ten-degree shift in average temperature. The most inconvenient thing about winter was the constant mud between the toes in your flip-flops and the fact that you had to drive all the way to the north shore of the island to go surfing because the trade-winds had shifted, leaving the coastal waters of Honolulu calm and unrippled to the horizon. The plusses of the rainy season were that the deeply forested mountains grew even more lush and verdant, and of course: more rain, more rainbows.

When it came time for me to go to college, I chose a small, rural school in Vermont based on pictures of autumn leaves and students in cozy knitwear, smiling and clutching stacks of books to their chests. Imagine, at 18 years old, having never seen a squirrel or a snowfall, how exciting those first few months were for me! Over Thanksgiving I went to a friend’s house and begged to be allowed to rake their leaves from the backyard. As winter approached, I clumsily experimented with layering and bundling myself up for temperatures I’d never seen on the thermometer before. I have yet to master that skill; I still usually look like some hybrid of a yeti and a Raggedy Ann doll throughout the winter months.

I quickly learned that if you plan to thrive in a four-season climate, you need to find something that excites you about every part of the year. So, I took up cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding (which, by the way, is only kind of like surfing), I learned to knit and to enjoy the peace and quiet of a long, dark night indoors. But it wasn’t until I moved to Madison and started working at the Willy Street Co-op that I learned that the joys of living seasonally could extend to my diet as well! Mirroring the dramatic changes in the scenery outside, the landscape of the Produce department shifts rapidly at this time of year, and this island girl could not be more excited to dig in and savor the seasonal flavors!

Winter Squash Aplenty
As you walk through the Produce department at Willy East, your eyes will probably be drawn to the colorful winter squash “island” where the tomatoes used to be. Winter squash are so easy to prepare and to store; they are a no-brainer as staple ingredients in my fall and winter cuisine. My go-to soup is a blended squash soup with garlic, onions, and celeriac. Squash is also great roasted with beets and mixed with rice or quinoa for a delicious and colorful snack. Each variety differs slightly in terms of texture and flavor. As a general guide, the acorn, butternut, buttercup, kuri and kabocha varieties will be sweeter and drier than those with higher water content like delicata, carnival, and the light blue hubbard squash. The bright colors are not just for looks; the brightly-colored flesh of sweet potatoes and winter squash indicates large quantities of immune-boosting vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin A, B6, C and E. Check it out: these seasonal veggies aren’t only delicious; they might just keep you from getting that nasty fall cold that’s been going around! Additionally, winter squash and sweet potatoes boast high levels of carotenes, those yellow and orange pigments that help with vision and may prevent certain types of cancer.

Root Veggies Galore
What are all of these white, bulbous, hairy and/or rooty things? What do they taste like, and how do I use them? These are questions we get all the time, especially during the fall when we get an influx of storage crops that take the places of the local leafy greens and other summer vegetables. I must admit that I was in a similar spot when I first landed in these parts.

My first recommendation is to choose one of each of a few unfamiliar root veggies, dice them into equal sized chunks, toss them lightly with olive oil, garlic, and rosemary, roast for 25-30 minutes, and then do a taste test. Make sure to remember where you placed each vegetable in the tray (maybe make a map!) because a roasted turnip looks a lot like a roasted rutabaga or a roasted radish. Another surefire way to add complexity to your menu is by boiling and mashing a new root vegetable into your potatoes, or using it as a potato substitute altogether. I love mashed celeriac potatoes, smashed rutabagas, or the traditional Scottish dish of “neeps and tatties”—mashed turnips and potatoes.

Far and away my new favorite unusual root vegetable is the Jerusalem artichoke. Also known as sunchokes, they look a lot like ginger, but have the smoothest, nuttiest flavor of any root vegetable! They are great sliced thin and roasted, mashed with butter, heavy cream and chives, or blended, skins and all, into a celeriac-winter squash soup.

Keeping it Local
The Co-op has a commitment to working with local farmers, and by educating our customers about these sometimes unfamiliar products, we enable our hardworking producers to extend their seasons and make a profit throughout the winter and into the spring months. Eating seasonally and locally helps me to feel more connected to the place I’m living, and to honor those who have put down roots and made a commitment to steward the land they love. So whether you’re new to the country, new to the Co-op, or a veteran Co-op shopper and local foods connoisseur, I challenge you to let the change in season inspire you to try something new.

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