In a global marketplace, we are spoiled for choice. Asparagus appears in our supermarkets all year long, never mind that it comes from several thousand kilometers away and isn’t anywhere near as good as our fresh, local variety. Likewise lettuce and greens of all types, green beans, and peas, tomatoes, and so on. There really isn’t much need to change what you cook, regardless of the season… which, in a rather perverse way, is too bad. The proliferation of imported year-round vegetables means that we don’t put the emphasis that we once did on using winter veggies.
These are vegetables that either come into their most flavourful best during the colder months, or ones that store well and are available to us from late fall right through into spring. While most are root vegetables, there are some, like Brussels sprouts, that are sweetest and most tasty when harvested late. All of them pack really impressive health benefits, adding important vitamins (especially C), minerals, and fiber to our diets.
Winter meals tend toward comfort food: slow roasted affairs that fill the house with delicious smells long in advance of the meal. Winter vegetables are perfectly suited to accompany slowly roasted or braised meats. Many, like parsnips, carrots, Jerusalem Artichokes (sunchokes), beets, and potatoes can simply be tossed into the pan with the chicken or lamb or beef or pork and left to cook in the juice of the meat. Turnips and sweet potatoes (boiled and mashed with brown sugar or maple syrup and butter), Brussels sprouts (steamed and then finished in a light sauté with garlic and butter), and broccoli (steamed until just done to preserve crispness and bright green colour) add both colour and flavour to the plate.
Parsnips are a particular favourite of mine. Their nutty, sweet flavour is the essence of comfort food. The later they are harvested, the better they get, as the starch in the root turns to sugar when exposed to cold temperatures. Gardeners who cover parsnips with a layer of soil in the early winter can harvest their crop right through into early spring, and the longer they wait, the sweeter the result.
Sweet potatoes do not like the frost and have to be harvested as soon as the first frost kills off the stalks, but in southern Ontario, we have an ideal growing season for them. In fact, sweet potatoes are a commercial crop here, and Ontario sweet potatoes are available in stores and markets. They store very well and can be kept for up to a year in cool, dry conditions. I like them for the colour they impart to winter meals, which can tend toward white and brown, as well as for their sweet flavour.
I have never been a big fan of beets, but have discovered that if they are prepared right (see below), I not only tolerate them, but often come back for seconds. And they are definitely worth cultivating a taste for, as they are one of the most “cardiovascular friendly” of all foods, providing anti-oxidants in both the root and greens that lower cholesterol levels and provide protection against coronary artery disease and stroke. They are reputed to offer anti-aging qualities as well!
Here’s my favourite recipe for winter root vegetables, taken from my well-worn copy of Michael and Anna Olson’s Inn On the Twenty Cookbook.
Root Vegetable Confit
Note: while there seems to be a lot of oil used here, very little remains with the vegetables, and using oil rather than water concentrates rather than evaporates the flavour. Keep the oil to use over again.
Preheat the oven to 350, and place each of the following vegetables in its own container: 2 sliced carrots, 2 sliced parsnips, 1 diced celery root, ½ diced rutabaga, 2 diced beets. Distribute 2 Cups of vegetable oil evenly over the vegetables and add salt and pepper. Cover the dishes with foil and cook each until tender. Celery root takes about 20 minutes, parsnips about 30, carrots and rutabaga about 40, and beets about 50. Drain the oil and set the vegetables aside until you are ready to serve them. To serve, heat the vegetables together (except for the beets) in a large sauté pan, season to taste, and sprinkle with thyme. Heat the beets separately, as their colour will bleed into the other vegetables, and toss with the others just before serving.