Winter is a time of rest for the garden and for our bodies. The frost sets in, giving vegetables a sweeter flavor, and in warmer climates, citrus fruits ripen on the tree. I hope this winter produce guide inspires you to work with fresh fruits and vegetables. It covers how to select the best characteristics for flavor and shelf life, storage, and flavor pairings. There are even recipes if you’re looking to change up your winter routine.
From ruby grapefruit to Key limes, you will find a huge variety of citrus fruits in winter where they grow throughout the tropics, subtropics, and in many Arizona backyards. Citrus plants are small evergreen trees or shrubs that enjoy ample moisture and little or no frost. If you’re looking to eat citrus out of hand, all species are rich sources of vitamin C as well as potassium and citric acid.
Don’t toss the citrus peels. When finely grated, the outer part–not the pithy inner white–is called zest, and it gives savory and sweet dishes alike a concentrated citrus flavor, without imparting any acidity. With an orange or lemon and a grater in hand, fresh zest is at your fingertips and ready to enliven tea, a jar of sugar, bean soup, chicken, or fish.
How to Select Citrus
Citrus fruits ripen on the tree and are ready to eat from the market. Select heavy fruits with thin skins for the highest proportion of juice and flesh. Avoid buying citrus that’s light for its size as this indicates an old, dehydrated fruit. Avoid brown, bruised, or soft spots as this is a sign that the fruit is rotting. To store, refrigerate citrus or store in a cool pantry. Do not keep in plastic bags as this will draw moisture from the fruit and quicken spoilage.
Beets have the highest sugar content of all vegetables. Indeed, the sugar beet is grown for the production of sugar. At the store, you’ll find red, gold, or candy cane varieties. Technically, chard is a beet that’s grown strictly for its leaves. Beets are a member of the diverse goosefoot family and originated in the Mediterranean region. Beets are an excellent source of folic acid and vitamins K and A. To retain the nutritious color pigment of beets, cook them with their skin intact. Add them to fresh juices to aid detoxification. Try them pickled, boiled, or grated raw into arranged salads. Bake a beet or feature it in a classic borscht soup with a dollop of sour cream. To brighten their color, add lemon or vinegar to their cooking water (or to turn the beets a darker purple, cook them with an alkaline substance like baking soda). Beet greens may be substituted for chard in many recipes.
How to Select Beets
While most beets are identified by their deep red skin, there are some beets that are gold or white. Select firm, fresh-looking plump beets. Their leafy greens, when intact, should look vibrant. At home, separate the leaves from the roots to extend the freshness of the roots, and store the unwashed greens in a separate perforated plastic bag.
Pears have a richer aroma and texture than their apple relatives that is both more melting and grittier. Due to this quality, they were once called butter fruit. Pear is native to the Middle East, though 95% of American-produced commercial pears are grown in Washington, Oregon, and California. Eat sweet, melting, and juicy pears out of hand. Firm and crisp varieties are best enjoyed canned and pickled. Pears may also be juiced, pureed, used in salads, brandied, frozen, dried, made into preserves, or distilled into liqueur or wine. To prevent cut pears from browning, sprinkle with lemon juice. The two main types of pears are those that change color when ripe (Bartlett) and a winter pear where color change when ripe is negligible (Comice). The latter winter pear, ripens later and is often featured in gift boxes of fine fruit.
How to Select Pears
Unlike most fruits, pears are best ripened off the tree. Select firm–not hard–pears with a noticeable aroma. Ripen at room temperature in a closed paper bag until the flesh at the stem end yields to gentle thumb pressure. Since pears soften from the inside out, a pear that is really soft on the outside is overripe. Never store a pear sealed in plastic. Without freely circulating oxygen, the core will turn brown and brown spots will develop under the skin. Favor organic when possible, as commercial pear orchards typically receive nine applications of pesticides per season as well as routine fungicides and herbicides.
Broccoli, one of the more popular cabbage family members, takes its name from the Latin word for branch (brachium), as its stalk is indeed like a sturdy branch that divides into smaller stems topped by dark green florets. The Salinas Valley in California provides 90% of our domestic broccoli crop. In addition to the florets, peel and discard the fibrous skin from the stalks and use the tender inner stalk. Use the nutrient-dense leaves attached to the stem as you would kale or collards. While steaming is perhaps the most common way to prepare broccoli, it’s delicious in countless other dishes, including roasts, soups, casseroles, omelets, and stir-fries. I enjoy blanching and serving broccoli with a dip as part of a crudité platter.
How to Select Broccoli
Select broccoli that has a fresh smell, bright and compact green florets, and firm stalks. Avoid broccoli with a rank smell, yellow florets, or woody or hollowed stalks as these have overmatured. While broccoli may appear to keep well for a week or more in the refrigerator, for the optimal flavor, use within a few days of purchase.
Cooked with care, cabbage is a sweet, delicious, and a remarkably versatile winter vegetable. Cabbage can be eaten raw, as in slaws, or thinly sliced and added to salads. When not overcooked, it is enjoyable in soups, or in simmered, sautéed, steamed, or baked dishes. The leaves make excellent wrappers for a savory filling. And fermented into sauerkraut, it’s delectable. Outer cabbage leaves are more deeply ribbed, waxy, and nutrient dense than inner leaves. Trim fibrous parts from the cabbage heart and enjoy the tender core either cooked or raw. When cooking with red cabbage, add a splash of vinegar to further vivify the color.
How to Select Cabbage
Select cabbages with compact heads that are heavy for their size. Favor those that have vibrant outer leaves in place; this indicates freshness. Cabbage may be either red or green, with round or pointy, smooth or crinkly leaves. Savoy cabbage has a looser head, sweet, mild flavor and buttery, smooth texture when cooked.
Top Cabbage Flavor Pairings
RED CABBAGE+APPLES+CIDER VINEGAR
SAVOY CABBAGE+WALNUTS+GARLIC+OLIVE OIL+LEMON JUICE
The whole plant, stalks, leaves, seeds, and roots are edible. Celery is a member of the carrot family, though the leaves are thought to be comparable to broad-leafed parsley, ranging from mild to bitter. Celery is versatile: cut it into sticks and serve it with peanut butter and raisins, juice it for an electrolyte boost, or chop it for a salad or soup. The core of the celery is crisp, tender, and delicious–trim and enjoy raw or cooked.
How to Select Celery
Choose a firm or tightly formed bunch with fresh, green leaves. Store celery in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. When stored in the crisper, wrapped tightly, celery will maintain its freshness for 2-4 weeks. Whenever possible, favor organic celery. Commercial celery is one of the four most heavily sprayed vegetables (along with potatoes, sweet bell peppers, and spinach). Nearly all supermarket celery is blanched with ethylene gas to reduce its bitter flavor, and too much ethylene will cause celery to yellow and wilt. Organic celery with a vivid, deep green color has not been blanched and will taste stronger, an indicator of its superior nutritional profile.
Collards are a favorite soul food of the American South, where they get braised with ham hocks or fatback. In my family, collards, black-eyed peas, and cornbread are traditional New Year’s Day fare. Collards are a cabbage relative with large, smooth, nonheading leaves. Collard greens are more tender than kale, sweeter and less bitter, too. To separate the greens from the stems, grasp a collard by the stem end with one hand and, with the fingertips of the your other hand, strip the greens from it. Use the greens as you would cabbage or kale in soups or stir-fries.
How to Select COLLARD GREENS
Whenever possible, favor small collard leaves, which are tender and more flavorful than oversize leaves. Select leaves that are vibrant with no sign of yellowing.
Brussels sprouts in the garden have a strange and beautiful appearance. Between 20 to 40 buds (or baby cabbages) grow together along a tall, single stalk that’s topped with small cabbagelike leaves. To serve Brussels sprouts whole, trim, then cut an X into the base to allow heat to penetrate their center more quickly and to prevent the outer leaves from over-cooking. Blanch or steam until the leaves are vibrant green and just tender. Brussels sprouts are especially delicious halved and roasted until the outer leaves are slightly crisp and charred. At their prime, Brussels sprouts need little more than butter or extra virgin olive oil and salt. If they aren’t sweet, they take to more assertive flavoring such as mustard, capers, or juniper berries.
How to Select Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts become sweet and tender after a frost so seek out local sprouts if your region has a frost. Favor sprouts that are vibrant with tight leaves and avoid selecting sprouts that have turned yellow or have black spots. Store Brussels sprouts in a plastic bag in the crisper for a week or longer. You can also keep the sprouts on the stalk, whenever possible, to extend shelf life.
Winter squashes have dark yellow to orange flesh and hard rinds. The sweetest squashes generally are those with the most deeply colored flesh. Winter squash are not eaten raw; they can be baked, stuffed, steamed, or fried. Pureed squash makes a sweet soup or pie. These are the common winter squash varieties: Butternut, Delicata, Banana, Acorn, Hubbard, Spaghetti, Pumpkin, and Kabocha Squash. Regardless of the variety, winter squash tastes best when harvested after the first frost.
How to Select Winter Squash
Choose heavy squash with a smooth, hard, richly colored rind. Select squash that are heavy for their size. The rind should be free of soft spots, cracks, and holes. An intact stem will extend shelf life. Store in a cool, dry area and arrange, uncovered, so as not to touch another and they’ll hold for up to 6 months! Check squash periodically for soft spots and use those first. Once cut, refrigerate.
Leeks are the sweet cousin of the onion. They look like giant scallions with dark green tops and thick white bulbs. To use, slice lengthwise down the white part and rinse under water to remove sand. Discard the tough, green tips of the leaves (or use them in stock). Use the tender bulb in soups, sautéed dishes, pilafs, and casseroles.
How to Select Leeks
Look for firm, brightly colored, fresh-looking leeks (preferably with untrimmed tops and bottoms). Avoid over mature leeks that are lighter in weight for their size; they can have a fibrous core that makes them tough to use. While large leeks are more readily available, small leeks are even more tender and flavorful.