Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Winter has bounty of its own

Eating local produce is still possible in colder months

Express Staff Writer

Melinda Springs, co-owner of the Wood River Sustainability Center in Hailey, keeps plenty of honey and jams in stock throughout the winter. Though most of the available winter produce is of the spud or preserved variety, the center and other produce providers say itís possible to eat locally all through the bleak mid-winter. Photo by David N. Seelig

Snow covers the sites of the Wood River Farmers' Markets in both Hailey and Ketchum, and one could be forgiven for thinking the season for local produce is over. But supporting area farmers and finding good local produce is still possible, say retailers—if one just knows where to look.

"Actually, winter is our busiest time," said Laura Theis, spokeswoman for Idaho's Bounty, an online co-op that connects farmers with customers. "We're one of the only places people can get [local produce] in the winter."

Options for local produce abound in the summer, with farmers markets twice a week and the Wood River Sustainability Center open three days a week. Stands are filled with summer squash, tomatoes and green beans, all of which are snatched up by customers.

But Theis said the co-op still gets an average of 130 orders a week during the winter, and that people are just as invested in buying food locally.

Theis said November and December are Idaho's Bounty's biggest months, in part because of the holiday season.

"People are having parties and gathering with friends," she said.

Thankfully, the co-op has plenty of winter items available to provide foodies with their local fix. Theis said old storage items such as potatoes and turnips are plentiful, and the co-op is still getting kale and some greens from its providers. In fact, she said, the early spring months actually tend to be leaner for the co-op.

Julie Johnson, owner of NourishMe health food store and café in Ketchum, said March, rather than December or January, is the true "hungry month."

"Your wares are growing thin and you're not picking anything out of the ground yet," Johnson said.

In early winter, farmers and retailers still have relatively full stores, said Chrissie Huss, wholesale account manager for Idaho's Bounty.

"There are times of the year that get a little tricky," Huss said. "[But] these months, we're able to store a lot of great stuff."

Of course, the types of local produce available shift as the seasons change. Molly Brown, owner of Glow Live Food Café in Ketchum, said it's more difficult for her to find high-quality produce in the winter.

"In the summer, we do 80 percent local," she said.

Though she can get tomatoes and cucumbers through Idaho's Bounty from local greenhouses through the winter, she said it's not the same as truly seasonal produce.

"The vitality of the food isn't there in the winter with the greenhouses," Brown said.

Herbs and greens, as well as tomatoes and cucumbers, are prized in winter by chefs who are looking for a "hint of freshness," Huss said. 'There are things that if we have them available, chefs are really happy about."

Idaho's Bounty provides local produce for NourishMe, Glow, Ketchum Grill, Sego, CK's and other valley restaurants throughout the season. There is a definite shift to the type of storage crops one might expect, such as potatoes, carrots, turnips, squash and onions.

However, Theis said, there is variety within this seemingly limited selection.

"We have potatoes, but we have every kind of potato," she said.

Huss said the co-op stocks 12 varieties, including some rare colored types.

"Every now and then, [chefs] might want purple or blue potatoes just for a little color," she said.

Red carrots and other unusually colored items are popular in the winter as well, Theis said.

None of these colorful spuds were in evidence at the Wood River Sustainability Center in Hailey last week, but locally prepared products such as jams and baked goods were still lined up along the shelves.

Idaho's Bounty also sees an increase in what Theis calls "value-added" products, in which farmers or producers have made local produce into something else, such as jam or sauce. Johnson said she uses a lot of these items as the days grow shorter.

"That's what you want to eat at Christmas—what you've prepared in September," she said.

Despite the variety, those who want to eat locally this winter will need to adjust their diets, Johnson said. She said she doesn't feel limited by the season, but rather just changes her mindset.

"You want to eat winter stuff in winter," she said.

During one snowy day last week, Johnson's lunch included a hearty wheat-berry salad with cranberries that would not have been out of place stuffed inside a turkey, as well as a baked potato topped with onions and a nut-hemp dressing. Alongside were mashed locally grown potatoes and turnips with herbs and horseradish—all decidedly winter dishes.

Johnson said the somewhat limited amount of local foods available can be deceiving, as she could combine eggs, milk, cheese and cold storage crops in a myriad of ways.

"Look at what the French did with those things!" she said, adding that she can make any number of soups and stews.

Brown said soups are one of the more popular winter options at Glow as well. Though it's more difficult, she said she uses 100 percent local squash, pumpkin, lentils and beans in Glow's winter soups.

"People have the misconception that raw food is just cold," Brown said. "We do a lot at Glow with warm soups, with curry, ginger and turmeric."

She said the use of warming spices is the key to winter cooking. A raw-food vegan and an avid cleanser, she said she no longer gets any cravings for certain foods in certain seasons, but her customers may.

A raw or live-food diet still allows for food to be heated to 120 degrees, hot enough for soup or the other warm winter options, such as hot quinoa and rice bowls Glow serves.

Whether vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, Johnson said, people tend to gravitate to more substantial, nutritionally dense foods with the winter season.

"For me, winter cooking means getting to eat pot roasts that have been cooking all day with potatoes and turnips," she said. "That's what winter is about—whole, awesome food."

Katherine Wutz:

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