Insights by Goldie
Sound Consumer | January 2001
by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist
Goldie Caughlan, PCC Nutrition Education Manager, remembers growing up in rural North Idaho, where the summer's bounty was sealed in jars and supper was usually a hearty stew.
Q: What's the argument for eating seasonally, for eating only foods that would be available naturally in your locale? Should people here in the Northwest focus on roots, tubers and stored grains at this time of year and avoid imported fruits and vegetables from a faraway climate? Does it matter?
A: The simple answer is that seasonal foods are more available and therefore more nutritious and less expensive than imported foods, which may spend days getting here by truck and plane. If you don't want to pay $3 for a head of lettuce, yes it does matter! Foods such as potatoes, yams, parsnips, carrots, rutabagas, turnips and beets are warming foods, too, and provide nutrient-dense, low-fat, high-carbohydrate fuels to sustain us during cold weather. But there's more behind this question and answer.
The root of it all
My childhood was spent in rural North Idaho, where it was the norm in this season to have six-foot fence posts submerged in snow and temperatures in the double digits below zero for several months. My grandkids roll their eyes in disbelief when I tell them we had no electricity or indoor plumbing and "central heating" was an unknown concept. That we cooked and baked with a wood-burning range and heated the house with a big cast-iron, pot-bellied stove is received as "cool!"
What intrigues them most, however, is hearing how we were able to have food to eat in the winter, when we were isolated for weeks at a time between periodic forays into town for staples. Even then, provisions were mostly limited to coffee, cocoa, sugar, flour, rolled oats, cornmeal, dried red beans, salt and a few spices, baking powder, yeast and sometimes canned milk and margarine, if the family cow was dry and the stored butter used up.
Much of the summer's bounty was sealed in hundreds of colorful jars — pears, peaches, plums, strawberries and blackberries, plus whole, diced or sauced tomatoes, stewed chicken, elk and venison, and even (apologies to the squeamish) pickled pigs feet. Of course, there were also jars of mincemeat, applesauce and huge quantities of jams and jellies. We always had sauerkraut and pickles, whole home-cured hams and bacon, and crocks of whole eggs, preserved and good for use as any fresh eggs.
The root cellar contained mounds of potatoes (we called them spuds), onions, carrots, parsnips, beets, turnips, rutabagas (usually known as Swedes) and whole heads of cabbage, all nestled in straw beds. Stored cool, but not in the humid root cellar, were whole pumpkins and squashes and sometimes our homegrown peanuts, plus English and black walnuts and hazelnuts. Milk and cream were sometimes available fresh, sometimes not.
Winter breakfasts were early, hot and hearty, alternating between steaming bowls of cooked cornmeal mush or oatmeal, hotcakes, French toast from my mother's twice-weekly baking, baking powder biscuits or eggs with ham or bacon. Hearty bean stews were common for mid-day fare, or meat sandwiches with pickles and sauerkraut.
Supper (not dinner!) was eaten early in the winter, usually by four or five o'clock, because evenings were short, with bedtime generally by nine o'clock. Supper was usually any variant of stewed meat, roots and potatoes and was accompanied usually by fresh cabbage slaw or sauerkraut, perhaps finished with a bit of canned fruit and a piece of gingerbread or sugar cookie. Usually one evening a week we made fudge after supper. Pies or cakes were Sunday treats only, as were baked ham, pot-roasts or occasional fried chicken.
A dialogue with food
We lived and ate seasonally because we were country folk and it was the mid-1940s. It also was a time before anyone ever heard the term "globalization of foods," with the consequent blurring of the meaning of seasonal foods. Did we become bored with our fare, as the season hung on and on? Perhaps. Certainly, I remember my mother eagerly digging the first shoots of wild dandelions soon after the Spring thaw — for a delicate spring salad. But for the most part, I honestly don't believe that we thought about food that way in those times.
Rural families especially have a deep connection with their source of food all year long, through the spring planting season and the long, hot, work-filled summer and days of near-endless fall harvest. Security was closely correlated with the knowledge that the root cellar and store room would see us through the winter, including enough to share with neighbors if needed, and always with anyone who came to call. My father died when I was 10, but even now I find myself echoing the first words he always used to greet someone when they crossed our threshold. "Have you eaten?" Always.
Times have changed. Most of us will never grow all of our own food, though many of us still do some gardening. In summer, it's very reassuring to see the reappearance of farmer's markets and the local produce piled high at PCC more abundantly than in years past.
It seems to me that whatever our circumstance, however we accomplish it, it's very important that we learn about our own food traditions and heritages, that we never, ever take food for granted, that we become intimate with the source of our food and tune in to the seasonal variations. We need to have the children in our lives involved, hopefully in some form of gardening; even if it's as simple as engaging in a dialogue about the foods as they go into the shopping cart, the skillet, onto the table and into our bodies.
Deep winter's warming foods
I'm honestly not a purist about seasonality. I appreciate having bananas and citrus year-around — perhaps precisely because they were so very rare in my early childhood. But in winter I delight in the marvelous pears, apples and kiwis especially. I still include a bit of mixed lettuce or spinach greens in salads, even though I know they're shipped from California or Arizona. They are in good condition — but very expensive — and certainly not as satisfying to me as in summer, harvested in our own region, or from the back yard. Instead, my cold-season salads feature Swiss chard, cabbage family greens and grated roots.
While I love broccoli and cauliflower, when the price is too high I simply substitute less expensive, and equally nutritious, dark kale greens or other cabbage family items for similar nutrients and taste. Other foundation foods in winter include sweet potatoes, hard-shelled winter squashes, carrots, beets, leeks, dry onions, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas and all leafy varieties of kale, collards and cabbages. All can be eaten both raw and cooked.
Parsnips, for instance, intensify their sweetness when baked, but can also be grated into a salad. Likewise, if you think you don't like rutabagas, turnips or beets, try them diced, tossed with herbs, peeled garlic and olive oil and roasted. Grate any of them into salad or serve thin slices with dips. Beautiful! Jerusalem artichokes, those knobby tubers you may mistake for gingerroot, are also wonderful, both grated and sliced in salads, munched in slices, steamed or boiled, diced and added to stir-fry or soups, or oven roasted.
It's these nutrient-dense, high-carbohydrate, hardy vegetables and fruits that best fuel and sustain me through the winter months. I now choose them deliberately and often, not because I must. There's never any shortage of peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, asparagus, avocado, eggplant and other hot-climate produce trucked to our region all winter long. I still include these occasionally in the cold season, but more as condiments than mainstays. During these months I also appreciate the frozen corn, green beans and garden peas as a delicious, colorful and nutritious gift from last summer's bounty. Such flash-frozen produce, plucked at the peak of the season, have been shown to retain both more flavor and nutrients than when purchased raw in mid-winter, where they are many days, if not weeks, off the vine and out of the ground.
There's a stark reality about seasonal eating that needs to be said. Most of the winter vegetables mentioned — especially the turnips, parsnips, winter squashes and such — are, in fact, still shipped in from other areas at this time of year. They're no longer grown in our region in sufficient quantity for storage for winter use since culinary preferences have switched. Most people still eat very few of these vegetables and they've never been as chic as the exotic foods that remind us of the sun-filled Mediterranean.
Before the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII, (many of whom were our local food producers), perhaps 80 percent of our foods in the Puget Sound area were grown here. This maritime climate is capable of producing considerable food even in winter. So today, the seasonal foods concept must be stretched because sadly, the bulk of our produce, especially winter fare, is shipped in. As farmers' markets continue to flourish, and more people discover these wonderful foods, perhaps we shall someday see these crops produced more regionally.
Sweet Spiced, Sautéed Parsnips
Yield: 4 2-cup servings
Time: 15 minutes
- 1 tablespoon refined, high-oleic safflower oil, organic canola oil or ghee*
- 3 large parsnips, scrubbed and sliced the thickness of coins
- 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
Heat oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) or a well-seasoned wok. Add parsnips and briefly raise heat to high, being cautious not to burn parsnips. Toss and sear as many surfaces as you can, then lower heat back to medium.
As you continue sautéing and tossing you'll observe a glazing effect occurring, as the natural sugars respond to the heat. Sprinkle with salt and grated nutmeg and toss again. At the last minute, add minced parsley, toss only a moment more and serve piping hot.
Variations: Try coarsely grated parsnips, rather than sliced. It gives more surfaces, so it's trickier not to burn the caramelizing sugars, but yields an interesting texture and appearance. You may also like to vary the spice: Try cinnamon, mace, garam masala blend, or a bit of freshly grated, squeezed ginger juice with the parsnips. Yum! Parsnips are truly hidden treasures!
*Ghee is clarified butter.
Yield: 3 1-cup servings
Time: 10 minutes
- 1 fist-sized amount of Jerusalem artichokes (white or purple) unpeeled
- 1 small turnip, scrubbed and trimmed, unpeeled
- 1 small rutabaga, scrubbed and trimmed, unpeeled
- 1 broccoli stalk (not flowered crown), peeled
- 1/2 lemon, squeezed
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley for garnish
Scrub, then thinly slice Jerusalem artichokes. Place in a large bowl and toss with lemon juice. Cut turnip and rutabaga in quarters, then in small, thin slices. Add to bowl and toss. Thinly slice peeled broccoli stem, add to bowl and toss. Remove slices, arrange on plate, garnish with parsley and serve with your choice of dip. Try with a yogurt, tofu-based or bean dip — or munch 'em just as they are!
Variation: Grate a bit of beet root and sprinkle on top.
Rosemary Roasted Roots
Yield: Serves 4 to 6 (about 5 to 6 cups total)
Time: 1 hour
- 1 medium turnip
- 1 medium rutabaga
- 1 large parsnip
- 1 large carrot
- 1 medium beet
- 2 or 3 potatoes (preferably red, Yukon Gold, or Yellow Finn)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary or 2 teaspoons dried
- 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- Coarsely ground black pepper to taste
- 6 to 12 small cloves garlic, peeled (optional)
Preheat oven to 475° F. Lightly oil a large, cast iron skillet, a large pyrex or other ovenproof casserole.
Scrub, trim and dice unpeeled vegetables in uniform size, generally in 1-inch cubes. Toss with rosemary, oil, salt, pepper, and garlic. Roast in a single layer, covered, in hot oven for 15 minutes. Remove cover, toss and return to oven. After 15 additional minutes, test beets and rutabagas, as they tend to be more dense and require slightly longer cooking than other roots. If required, continue to roast uncovered for another few minutes. Serve hot. Leftovers are excellent cold, tossed with a light vinaigrette, or combined with cold cooked beans or pasta.
Variation: Use additional rosemary, substitute thyme or a combination of fresh or dried herbs. Dried herbs work best when rubbed vigorously before use to release flavor essence.