It wants to be temperate rain forest around here. Winter is when the pioneer dandelions, dock, and blackberries get on with the job of reestablishing the forest. When a break in the weather lines up with some time you aren't at work at your day job, it's an opportunity to run out and weed your winter garden and perennials. Onions and garlic are particularly poor competitors with weeds. Your overwintering beets, turnips, radishes, cabbages, brussels sprouts and your perennials are next. The beds that will hold your spring and summer gardens can be ignored, that is "left fallow", with the weeds bringing up useful nutrients from the subsoil. Just remove the blackberries and poison hemlock and pull the heads off the dandelions.
Winter is when you get the biggest payoff for your gardening and preserving. We have a good climate for winter gardening, but we still don't have the marketing and distribution to make it safe for our farmers to quit their winter jobs and raise veggies for us. If we want fresh food in winter that isn't trucked in and priced accordingly, we have to raise it ourselves.
"That was so good. When you get used to eating real food, you can never go back to that stuff they sell in the supermarkets'" That was Tina Hoban (aka The Woman Who Milks Sheep), on broccoli from a couple of broccoli bushes that overwintered in my garden last year. That stuff labeled as lettuce that they were selling in the super for $.79/lb: rancid, tasteless green cardboard. No wonder it was cheap.
Eating from your winter in garden requires some thought, particularly if you cook for people who expect lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber salad in every season. That's hard to pull off, even in summer. There's maybe a week when the early tomatoes and some cucumbers babied under row covers are ready and the early summer planted lettuce has hasn't turned bitter and bolted yet. That whole lettuce-tomato-cucumber salad business is from the big hotels back east, back in the day. They used to get out of season vegetables grown in greenhouses or shipped in by train from warmer climes. It was a big deal to go out for lunch on the weekends to a hotel restaurant and get a fancy meal with this amazing salad. The amazing salad was copied, by all who want to be cool, that is everybody, and of course in the process reduced to rancid poisoned commodity lettuce from California, decorated with a few slices of limp cardboard tomato and bitter cucumber.
If you must have midwinter tomato and cucumber, the BC hothouse growers do as good a job as can be done with coaxing warm season vegetables to produce off season. It will be special, though. The price will remind you why such effort is a big deal.
So what to do? The large brassica family gives us serious eats through winter unless it gets really cold. Winter is the season for root vegetables, and organic ones are sweet and delicious, a far cry from that nasty fodder turnip my relatives tried to force me to eat, back in Chicago. Winter squash, pumpkins, apples, and potatoes, either grown or purchased, store well for months. We can fire up the sprouter and dig out our canned marinara sauce, pickles and sauerkraut. The ambitious can try growing hardy greens, spinach, beets for leaves, Asian greens, and the burlier lettuces, in a hot frame or greenhouse.
Anthony Bourdain, who writes profane and funny books about the restaurant industry, once asked famous food activist Alice Waters about local eating in winter. She reeled a list of roots and brassicas. Bourdain's response (pronounced Bour-DAHN, stick the N up your nose instead of saying it) was "I'm not eating like a f#@$%! Russian peasant." Good point. Bourdain's family is from a fishing village in France, and he delights in pointing out that much high priced French food is actually recipes from rural France, developed to make something good out of tough meat and local seasonal vegetables. The taste of home, for him, is eating like like a French peasant.
So the question is, "What kind of peasant do want to eat like?" We can grow or buy winter vegetables from Europe, Asia and North America. We can steal (urh, adapt) recipes from Germany, Eastern Europe, Russia, Korea, Scandinavia, Northern France, Northern China, our own First Nations and pioneer traditions. There are even seasonal recipes from England and Ireland that are good if you make them yourself. We can notice that it is way cheaper to make outstanding organic tomato sauce, jam, sauerkraut, pickles, chutney and kimchi when the ingredients are in season and abundant than it is to buy good stuff later.
So think back to your own ethnic roots. What did grandmother in winter make that really said "this is home?". Sauerkraut with caraway and sausages? Borchst? Kimchi and rice? Carrot soup?
F#@$%! Russian Peasant Borchst
1 1/2 lbs meaty beef bone
can tomatoes and juice, or homemade marinara sauce
Brown the beef bone in a little oil in the bottom of a soup pot on medium high, in a little oil or fat. Turn down the pot to low, add sliced onion, and saute until translucent. Add water to cover, sliced carrots, a bay leaf and a pinch of peppercorns, and simmer until meat is falling off the bone. Meanwhile, peel, chunck up, and steam the potatoes. Take the bone out of the soup and remove all edible bits of meat. Return meat to soup. Grate the beets and add. When the beets are soft, add the tomatoes and cabbage slices and cook just until tender. Serve over steamed potatoes.
Purists will notice that borscht recipes vary by country, region, even household. Good point, time to dig out Granny's recipe and make the real stuff.
French Carrot Soup
This is Germaine Carter's recipe from "The Home Book of French Cooking". Mme. Carter was from northern France. She wrote the cookbook while interned during WW II. Her husband was the British Consul, so the Nazis locked them up in the same prison cell instead of shooting them. Mme. Carter's book is about real people food, a distinct contrast to Julia's Child's Cordon Bleu cooking. The cookbook did well and was in print up until the 1970's. You can still find used copies. I have my mother's copy. She cooked Mme. Carter's recipes when we lived in France, and after we came back to Chicago. Mama's home cooking, eh?
2 tbs. butter
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 quarts water
3 tbs. minced parsley
Peel and slice potatoes and carrots. Put everything except the parsley in the soup pot, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until the vegetables are soft and falling apart. Mash up the potatoes and carrots with an immersion mixer (the Vroom), the potato masher, or the way Mme. Carter tells you to do it, by forcing the soup through a sieve. Add parsley and serve.