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Local does it

Eating regional food in winter is challenging, but there are sources. This season's diet is simpler - it's supposed to be.

A tempting variety of seasonal produce and foods is available from area farms and farmers markets. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
A tempting variety of seasonal produce and foods is available from area farms and farmers markets. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)Read more

Even the best-intentioned locavore - that is, someone who eats only or mostly food grown, raised, and produced nearby - can run into difficulties over a Philadelphia winter.

Fruits and vegetables grown in the region are climatologically limited, as are the outdoor farmers markets that link consumers with local foods. The pyramids of Pennsylvania and New Jersey produce at supermarkets such as Wegmans and Whole Foods, so prominently featured during other seasons, have dwindled to nothing.

"Winter is a tough time of year," says Emily Gunther, product manager of the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market. "We always joke that we need to get creative, because the stand looks a lot less exciting when you don't have tomatoes."

But with a little resourcefulness and creativity, eating locally in the snow-blanketed days of February is not impossible.

At the Reading Terminal Market, where local butchers, bakers, and farmers have gathered for more than a century, local food knows no season. The Fair Food Farmstand, serving its first winter in a roomier new location, offers a diverse and ever-expanding product list: grass-fed meats, eggs, dairy, root vegetables, greens, canned tomatoes, frozen berries, and high-quality regional products such as Gilda's Biscotti, Capogiro Gelato, John and Kira's Chocolates, and Pequea Valley Yogurt.

Winter Harvest, the all-purpose buying club that is a partner with the Farm to City organization, gives subscribers the chance to directly purchase meats, produce, dairy, and value-added products from producers from November through March. Much like community supported agriculture, the items are dropped off at neighborhood locations weekly, but unlike a traditional CSA, the orders are a la carte, and there's no annual membership fee.

At the Piazza in Northern Liberties, a newly opened year-round Saturday farmers market offers some of the best of the area: Shellbark Hollow Farm goat cheeses and yogurts; Landisdale Farm raw milk and grass-fed beef; Griggstown Quail Farm poussins, ducks, and pot pies; and produce from Culton Organics farm, plus fair-trade coffee, hot sauce, artisan breads, jarred fruit from Highland Orchards, and all manner of meats. Even on a recent 19-degree Saturday, vendors braved the frigid air, and the selection was excellent.

Devotees of local foods say the real challenge is not in the shopping but in denying the temptation to buy strawberries from Chile or shrimp from Thailand. Eating locally through the seasons is about cultivating cravings, getting in touch with the true flavors and foods indigenous to the area at any given time of year.

Gunther says she sees many customers turning to meats for stews, stocks, and soups - inspired as much by the stand's sustainably raised farm offerings as the cold weather. Slow-cook cuts such as short ribs, shoulders, oxtails, and brisket are ideal. Because local food operations tend to be small, customers can always ask for what they want: Unusual cuts of meat are almost always available on special order, and purveyors will usually work with producers to get new products.

Root vegetables such as turnips, rutabagas, celeriac, and parsnips, which grow well in the area and keep for months with proper storage, are a natural pairing for slow braises. They can also be baked in a winter gratin with breadcrumbs and milk, or roasted and tossed with grains and greens in a salad. (Many salad greens are grown indoors at local farms and are available through the season.)

There are more obscure roots to explore, such as sunchokes and yacon, both delicious cut into chunks and simply roasted, or cooked with stock and pureed. Brilliant Japanese sweet potatoes grown at Landisdale Farm and sold at Fair Food Farmstand and through Winter Harvest have purple skin, yellow flesh, and a uniquely mild flavor. Dried beans - lentils, split peas, limas, chickpeas - are occasionally available at Winter Harvest and make excellent staples for pantry stocking.

The local apples and pears still available for purchase at Winter Harvest and Fair Food, the last of which were harvested in November, are somewhat compromised in texture, but still serviceable for applesauce, stewed fruit compotes, or baking. Black walnuts from the autumn harvest are still on sale at Fair Food Farmstand, as are New Jersey cranberries.

"People tend to associate cranberries with Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they are actually amazingly hardy fruits and will last through March," Gunther says.

Carrots and beets, the sweetest of the root vegetables, make excellent desserts when cooked with milk and sugar as an Indian-style halwa or baked into a cake. Failing that, there's always a bowl of rich yogurt with a drizzle of local honey or maple syrup.

Many locavores find that the limitations of a local diet encourage more risk-taking in trying new foods. For the thrill-seeking palate, Winter Harvest offers goat kefir, beef tongue, and jars of kimchi. Another interesting Fair Food find is spelt kernels, which Gunther says grow more readily in the region than other grains, and can be cooked in place of wheat berries or barley as a hearty, nutty risotto.

Of course, the most resourceful locavores will draw upon preserved food from the warmer months. Marisa McClellan, a Web producer who also writes the blog "Food in Jars," has been delving into her collection of canned tomatoes, string beans, and cucumber pickles, and pressure-canned stocks.

"I can rest comfortably knowing my tomatoes are local," she says. "They just taste better when they come from a nearby farm and you've canned them yourself."

McClellan is taking part in the Dark Days Challenge, an online contest of sorts in which participants agree to eat at least one fully SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, ethical) meal a week during the most difficult season, and blog about it. She sources food from Winter Harvest, the Meadow Run Farm buying club, the Fair Food Farmstand, and the Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market. The results have ranged from simple snacks of apples and Claudio ricotta to frittatas with hearty greens and soups with root vegetables and ground beef.

McClellan has found that her Dark Days meals are often elemental and delicious in their simplicity.

"In our modern lives we've lost the point of winter, which is to hunker down, sleep more, eat simply," McClellan says. "You have to change your attitude: It's not about making the most complex and different and interesting meal. It's about being content with meatballs, roasted potatoes, and broccoli. It's actually very freeing."

Pork Shoulder Braised in Cider Vinegar With Cabbage and Sweet Onion

Makes 4 servings


2 1/2 pounds pork shoulder

3 garlic cloves, cut into shards

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 slices bacon, cut into lardons

2 onions, peeled, trimmed, and cut into 8 wedges

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1 cup chicken stock

1/2 cup apple cider

1 cabbage, cut into 8 wedges (remove and discard core)

2 thyme sprigs

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut slits into the pork and insert the garlic shards. Score the fatty side of the pork with crosshatch marks. Season shoulder with salt and pepper.

2. In a Dutch oven or large ovenproof pot, cook bacon until it renders fat. Use a slotted spoon to remove bacon and discard. Add pork shoulder to pot and thoroughly brown on all sides, about 5 minutes a side. Transfer to a plate.

3. Add onions to pot and cook until lightly browned. Add vinegar and, using a wooden spoon, scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Add stock, cider, cabbage, and thyme, and bring to a boil. Nestle pork in pot, spooning some liquid over it. Cover pot and roast in oven until tender, about 2 hours, stirring cabbage and turning pork halfway through the roasting time.

4. Transfer pork, cabbage, and onions to a serving dish. Bring the remaining liquid in the pot to a boil and cook until reduced, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in mustard. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce over pork and cabbage and serve hot.

Per serving: 498 calories, 57 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 24 grams fat, 197 milligrams cholesterol, 326 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText

Beet Halwa

Makes 6 to 8 servings


1 pound beets, scrubbed and peeled

1 quart whole milk

1 cup sugar, or more to taste

4 green cardamom seeds

1/4 cup unsalted butter or ghee

Freshly grated nutmeg

Chopped cashews, sliced almonds, or both (optional)


1. Using a grater or a food processor, grate beets.

2. Combine milk, sugar, and cardamom in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, heat butter in a frying pan. When foaming subsides, add beets and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add beets to milk and bring to a boil again. Continue briskly simmering, stirring frequently, until milk is mostly absorbed, but beets are still moist, about 1½ hours. (Mixture will continue to thicken off heat.) Remove cardamom.

4. Garnish with nutmeg and nuts, if using. Serve warm, with vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Per serving (based on 8): 246 calories, 5 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 34 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 28 milligrams cholesterol, 94 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Golden Gratin of Root Vegetables and Winter Greens

Makes 4-6 servings as a main course


For the sauce:

2 cups whole milk

2 slices onion

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 handful of sage, rosemary and parsley, in any combination

1/4 cup unsalted butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Splash of white wine (optional)

Salt and freshly milled pepper

Pinch of ground nutmeg

For the gratin:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for the dish

1/2 cup finely grated Parme san, plus more for the dish

12 ounces rutabagas, peeled and julienned

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, sliced

1/2 pound spinach, arugula, or kale

12 ounces golden turnips, peeled and julienned

8 ounces carrots, peeled and julienned

Salt and freshly milled pepper

1/2 cup seasoned whole-grain breadcrumbs


1. Prepare the sauce. Combine milk with onion, garlic, and herbs and heat slowly. When it boils, turn off the heat. In a separate pan, melt the butter, and whisk in the flour. Combine with milk, whisking. Add wine if using, and warm over the lowest possible heat for about 15 minutes. Strain out the solids and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a 2-quart baking dish and dust with Parmesan.

3. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook rutabagas for 2 minutes and drain.

4. Heat oil in a pan, then add onion and saute until caramelized. Add the greens and stir until they wilt.

5. Combine all of the vegetables, season with salt and pepper, and pour into the dish. Pour the sauce evenly over the top, and sprinkle breadcrumbs and Parmesan over it. Bake until bubbling and golden brown on top, about 45 minutes.

Per serving (based on 6): 326 calories, 10 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, 41 milligrams cholesterol, 329 milligrams sodium, 9 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Roasted Winter Vegetable Salad

Makes 4-6 servings


1 1/4 cups wild rice

4 1/2 cups water

1 cup medium diced onion

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

Salt and pepper

2-2 1/2 cups root vegetables (parsnip, carrot, sweet potato, turnip, and/or rutabaga)

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups winter greens (collards, chard, kale, or beet greens), cut into 1-inch strips

1 cup shredded red cabbage

For the dressing:

1/3 cup sunflower seeds

1/3 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

2 tablespoons lemon juice



1. Rinse wild rice. Combine rice with 1 quart water and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cover, cooking for 40 minutes, or until rice is tender.

2. Meanwhile, heat oven to 375 degrees.  Toss onion and root vegetables in 2 tablespoons oil and a generous pinch of salt. Spread vegetables in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake until tender and starting to caramelize, about 30 to 40 minutes. Turn them two or three times during baking to make sure they caramelize evenly.

3. On the stovetop, heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat in a saute pan. Add garlic. When it becomes fragrant, add greens and cabbage. Cook until cabbage is tender and greens are bright and soft, but not limp. If necessary, add a few tablespoons of water to steam greens and prevent garlic from burning.

4. In the work bowl of a food processor, combine sunflower seeds, oil, honey, lemon juice, and salt. Pulse until sunflower seeds are pulverized.

5. Toss together rice, vegetables, greens, and salad dressing in a large bowl.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Per serving (based on 6): 421 calories, 9 grams protein, 43 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 26 grams fat, no cholesterol, 35 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Raw Beet Salad

Makes 4 servings


1/3 cup walnuts

1 pound beets, scrubbed and peeled

1/4 chopped parsley

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon champagne vinegar, unseasoned rice vinegar, or lemon juice

Feta or goat cheese, to taste (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Spread walnuts on a baking sheet and toast until golden, about 8 minutes.

2. Shred beets, using a food processor or a box grater.

3. Combine beets with walnuts, parsley, olive oil, vinegar, and cheese. Toss and serve.

Per serving: 177 calories, 3 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, no cholesterol, 91 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.EndText