By Stephen Wade
This is my sixth winter here in New York City, and over those years, I’ve learned how to get the most out of the season—the shopping tricks, the best growing conditions, and which farmers to go to. The markets, contrary to popular belief, aren’t empty, or a home to storage bins for hearty root vegetables (though those exist, to be sure, the old reliable tricks of the season). There are the apple varieties that keep well into the late winter, gaining sweetness and texture; black radishes to sharpen your salads, and the watermelon radishes to brighten them up.
But there are also things from further afield worth looking out for, and a lot of them come from the elephant in the produce aisle: the golden state of California. Producing nearly 50% of the nations “specialty crops” (real talk: fruits and vegetables), California supplies most of the nation’s winter salads, greens, and other seasonal goodies. And while a lot of the items can also be found from other regions (winter chicories and kales from the Pacific Northwest, or citrus from Louisiana and Texas), the accessibility of ingredients from California, thanks to nearly a century of policy that has helped them top the game, isn’t the worst thing. But instead of just grabbing something that looks tempting, here’s a primer on choosing the best of the winter produce, particularly what you might end up finding at the Whole Foods and the small independent groceries across the country that source good products.
Winter citrus: The bright, sharp flavors of citrus and their panoply of colors are the solution to so much of winter’s dining doldrums. From salads to braises, juice to zest (for cookies and other baked goods), the uses for all the citruses are multitude and can fit every need. Look beyond the Cutie tangerines in pre-pack boxes and instead seek out Lavender Gems, Murcott, and Dancy tangerines, which are well worth the effort. Later season Tarocco blood oranges don’t have as much pigment as Moros, but pack richer flavor. And if you see Cara Cara oranges—also called Red Navels, a grapefruit-navel orange cross—grab as many as you can. Their pinkish hue and sweet-bitter balance make for an amazing addition to pretty much everything, including your Sunday-morning hair of the dog. Hoping to find these beauties? Your Whole Foods may have them, but if you’re down for the investment, Friends Ranch, Frog Hollow Farms, and Pearson Ranch in California do shipping for 5-pound-plus quantities of fruit (great for both making marmalades and snacking on fresh).
Chicories: Late fall was the last we saw of these beauties in the Northeast, but down south and in parts of the west coast, the chicories are at it right now. Thriving in cooler temperatures, the bitter bracing greens have both the most delicious of names—castelfranco, radicchio di tardivo, and bianca riccia to name a few—and are steadfast and multifunctional in the kitchen. Endives and lighter, looser-leaved radicchios make for awesome salads and raw preparations; rounder, tighter heads like treviso or escarole chicories can take a roasting, dressed in light vinaigrettes, served alongside polenta, pan-roasted fishes, or cooked in simmered soups. They make a stellar accompaniment to dried bean preparations as well.
Avocados: Spare me the need for the watery, flavorless, blood avocados that come from Mexico and Guatemala most of the year (and no joke, cartels have gotten involved in the trafficking of avocados, and along with turning local communities into slave labor, this is part of the story when it comes to year-round demand for avocados). Wait for the magical window from December to March when the California avocados are out in force. There are great examples from Louisiana and Texas as well, but California is home to some of the more interesting breeding programs, and the varieties being harvested—Bacons, Fuertes, and Reed’s being some of the best, along with that workhorse, the Haas—have as many uses as you can reckon. Using its slightly firm but creamy texture, the unctuous flavor, and its ability to match up with sharper and more solid flavors means that the sky is the limit in terms of preparations including, as my friends and I learned during an omakase dinner last year, a really stupidly good tempura.
Cauliflower: While the whole roasted head of cauliflower trend seems to have died off, it’s hard not to emphasize the glory of the nutty, rich, creamy nature of this reliable winter vegetable. Buy them, if you can, still wrapped in their leaves (this limits damage to the curds—yes, the florets of cauliflower are called curds—and keeps them fresher). You’ll be rewarded with a deliciously versatile medium for soups (they don’t really need cream), salads (with grains and other goodies), or, yes, roasted whole, rubbed with crunchy, fragrant spices or spiked with a good deal of sherry vinegar and golden raisins.
Black & Watermelon Radishes: While there are plenty of roots to take advantage of during the winter season, it would be a mistake not to spotlight these guys. Along with the more obvious beets (proper storage beets, roasted, are a lifesaver of flavors), these two radishes, stored properly, bring a touch of heat, fantastic colors, and succulent textures to the winter table. Black Spanish radishes, round, bulbous, and covered in the slightly sandy black skin, reveal a creamy white inside that’s got a horseradish heat. Watermelon radishes, yellowed and tinged green on the outside, explode with a vibrant ruby-to-port colored interior. The former excels in raw preparations, adding pepperiness and crunch; the latter makes an amazing pickle, especially when combined with shallots, enlivening any number of applications. Both of these mix and match with every ingredient listed above, pairing the local-seasonal with the best in season nationally makes for a much expanded pantry in these cold months.
With one foot in food policy, and another in hospitality, Stephen Wade has worked for urban farms and the New York City's Greenmarkets, as well as being a practiced barista and certified master food preserver. Currently living in Sunnyside, Queens, he's involved with organizing New Yorkers around the 2018 Farm Bill and pursuing his master gardeners certificate. Follow Stephen on Instagram.
Illustrations by Steve Viksjo