Winter Greens


The Greens of Winter Market

The farmers market used to be more of a summertime thing. When the landscape turns brown and white, our thoughts don’t rush off to the next farmers market. But don’t sleep on – or through – the winter Farmer’s Market. The colors of fresh veggies seem all the more vibrant against the grim backdrop of winter, and the flavors are like much-needed tastes of sunshine.

Even here in Montana, as close to Canada as you can get without a passport, the diversity of produce at the winter market is astounding.  Here and now, in the middle of a northern winter, I just ate a glorious salad of local greens.

We owe this winter bounty to a perfect storm of developments. Warmer temperatures have tilted the growing field toward more winter growth, furthered by advances in greenhouse technology, and funded by widespread hunger for year-round local food, which makes it increasingly worthwhile for farmers to pay for heat – in return for year-round profits.

Northern farmers have been inching in this direction for years. Before it became common to pay to heat their greenhouses, farmers were extending their growing seasons with tricks like building little hoop houses inside big greenhouses, and covering their crops with blankets.  The first farmers that I noticed heating their greenhouses were doing so to start their tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, in order to get a head start on summer.

About two years ago I noticed a sharp increase in the winter market greenery. The first daring farmer had no trouble selling her tender greens. The other growers noted her success, and the idea spread like weeds.

Today, the winter greenhouse bounty at the mid-January market includes arugula, bok choy, broccoli, lettuce, kale, parsley, cilantro, and celery. The usual winter storage crops are for sale too, as well as protein-rich foods such as dried beans, cheese, eggs, beef, pork, chicken, and even local saltwater shrimp from a guy who grows them in a tank. And there are baked goods and condiments and value-added delicacies like maple syrup, hot sauce, dried tomatoes and other fruit.

With raw ingredients like these, there is no excuse for making a boring winter meal.  We can use these wintergreens to add flourish to standard winter fare, like using fresh herbs and chopped onions to garnish a hearty winter-style stew, for a cold weather version of pho. Or add wintergreens to potato salad, along with shredded carrots, hard boiled eggs, garlic and onions, add kale, parsley, and whatever else you can score that makes sense. Alternatively, make a grain salad with cooked wheat or quinoa tossed with chopped parsley, garlic, onions and cheese, and drenched in a tangy vinaigrette.

Those recipe ideas all lead to a satisfying, hearty place. But now that winter is the new summer, why not make a green salad? The only thing glaringly absent from the bowl would be the luscious tomatoes of summer. At my house, we make a bunch of dehydrated tomatoes during the peak of summer when fresh tomatoes are cheapest. In a salad, these dried tomatoes offer a sweet tang similar to the summer version, but with less juice.

The farmers markets of summer get all the glory, but pound for pound, the winter markets have more guts. These off-season centers of homegrown commerce, which run from about Hallowe’en through Easter, are like the distilled essence of their summer counterparts, smaller but cuter, with more hot cocoa.

Here’s a recipe for a winter salad dressed with a tangy, white wine vinegar dressing that is easily customized to fit any salad.

Tangy Winter Salad

The first time I made this salad, I ravaged it like it was steak drenched with wine sauce, and I had just come home from war. The dressing recipe comes from sweetpeasandsaffron.com, and includes several variations which I will note below.

You probably won’t have access to the exact same array of leaves that I got last week at the Missoula Winter Market. It doesn’t matter. Get what you can.  Here is what I used.

Tangy White Wine Vinegar Dressing

½ cup white wine vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup
Salt and pepper to taste (don’t skimp on the salt)

Variations on this Dressing

Asian variation: add some toasted sesame oil
Chile Lime variation: add some chili powder, garlic and lime juice
Fajita sauce variation: chili powder, paprika, cumin and lime juice
Zesty lemon version: lemon juice and zest

Combine and mix the ingredients.

Salad Recipe

I’m hesitant to give a specific ingredient list, because your instructions are simply to go get greens at the winter market and build a salad around them, dressed with one of the above variations, along with onions, cheese and garlic, which you can reliably find at most winter markets. I’ll leave the quantities flexible, too. It’s a salad, not a croissant.

Greens (I used red leaf lettuce, curly kale, baby spinach, arugula and parsley)
lemon juice
Sliced onions
Dehydrated tomatoes, if you got’em
Pressed garlic
Hard cheese like Romano, grated; or crumbled feta
Tangy White Wine Vinegar Dressing, above (original version, no variation)

Remove the ribs from the kale leaves. Add the kale foliage to a bowl, along with the lemon juice, and massage it by squeezing and mashing it between your hands. Rip or cut it down to bite size pieces. Chop the lettuce and parsley as well.  Leave the arugula and baby spinach whole.

Add the leaves, onions and dehydrated tomatoes to a large salad bowl and toss them with the pressed garlic. Toss in the salad dressing. Add the cheese to the top and toss again if you wish, or let the cheese mix as you serve it.

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