Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Eating Seasonally When Nothing is in Season


Unless you live somewhere that remains warm and sunny throughout most of the year, cooking seasonally in the months of November through March is a challenge. When I was living in Washington, my seasonal winter produce selection was definitely limited, consisting mainly of hearty greens, winter squash, mushrooms, apples, carrots, and onions. In Quebec, though, nothing grows during the winter. Absolutely nothing. In this neck of the woods, everything freezes and is covered in a heavy blanket of snow and ice during the winter months, so the growing season is dormant.
So, is it even possible to eat seasonally during the winter in a place where nothing grows during those months without getting scurvy? I am here to assure you that it is, but that it does take a little more effort than in the warmer months. There are a few options if you want to continue eating only local produce: one is to eat the local bounty that remains from the fall harvest. Root vegetables, apples, and pears all store well, and can last throughout the winter without rotting (if stored correctly).

Another is to try some of the produce that is grown locally in greenhouses throughout the year. Greenhouses across Canada grow mainly tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and peppers so that produce can be grown locally in a controlled environment at all times. The pros: buying greenhouse-produced veggies means not having to buy stuff that has been shipped all the way in from California, Mexico, Chile, or somewhere else far away. Also, fewer pesticides and chemicals are used in greenhouses, so even the nonorganic stuff is much closer to organic than field grown produce. There are cons as well, though: greenhouse-grown vegetables cost more to produce, so they cost more to purchase as well. Maybe this isn’t a problem for you, but it’s worth considering. It should also be noted that it takes a lot of energy to grow in a greenhouse, and so I don’t know how much smaller of a carbon footprint greenhouse growing makes.
Finally, you can look for local produce that has been frozen or canned. In the case of canned, and sometimes of frozen, you are definitely losing some taste and nutrition, but if you’re really trying to only eat local, it’s an option. Or, if you’re really organized, you can spend your fall freezing and canning all of autumn’s bounty so that you can eat it throughout the winter. I hope to be that organized this fall, but we’ll see. I’ll admit, it’s one of those things I always say I’m going to do and then never actually get around to doing.

Honestly, my take on the subject of eating locally, especially during the winter, is like my take on most things: everything in moderation. I understand the importance of eating locally for my health, for the planet’s health, and for the health of the local economy, but there are some cases where I think eating locally isn’t necessary. For one thing, I really don’t believe that it’s better for my health to be denying myself such a huge variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the winter because they don’t grow in Quebec during that time. There are some fruits that don’t grow in this part of the world at any time of year: if I were to only eat locally, I would never eat citrus, bananas, avocados, or just about any tropical fruit. These things never grow in Quebec, so does that mean I should never eat them? I say no way. I think that my health is better for having these items in my diet. The fact that they have to be shipped in from afar just means that I should eat less of them, and more of what I can get locally.
Something that I will never ever get from Mexico or the southern U.S. —and I encourage you to do the same—is tomatoes. If you must have fresh tomatoes at this time of year, buy on the vine tomatoes that have been grown in greenhouses. If you’re not sure which are which, the greenhouse ones will be labelled “Product of Canada” (in the U.S. as well, for the most part). Why? The answer is long, but I’ll try to be brief: mass produced tomatoes are picked when they’re green and rock solid and sprayed with gas to ripen artificially. The labour to grow and harvest these tomatoes is often basically slave labour. In some cases, it is literally slave labour. For a crash course on the evils of industrial tomatoes, read this article.

Andrew and I have salad with dinner most nights. During the winter, I make an effort to stick to the most local stuff possible, as I outlined above. Sometimes, this presents a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to add some variety to my salad repertoire. In looking through some old recipe clipping the other night, I found this one for Beet and Pear Napoleons with Ginger Juice Vinaigrette.
This salad is an ideal representation of my philosophy on eating locally during the winter: most of it is local, but for the sake of healthy variety, some of it is not.

Pears and beets are local, likely harvested a few months ago. You’ll notice in the recipe that there is supposed to be shredded apple on top, but Andrew ate the last apple, so I had to skip that component. In theory, though, apple would be another local contribution.
Oranges are not local, but they are in season, so they will represent the seasonal, but imported, component of this salad. I opted for Cara Cara oranges this time, a less acidic, subtler variety of the navel orange.

The lettuce is somewhat local, and grown in a greenhouse. At least, I assume so, as the label reads “Product of Canada.” It could have been grown in British Columbia, which is not exactly in the golden 100-mile radius of local eating, but there’s no way of knowing. Anyways, it will have to do as the greenhouse grown representative in this salad.

But enough about local and not-local: this salad is a great salad because it tastes good. And it looks pretty.
This is the type of dish that you can bust out at a dinner party and your guests will all ooh and aah and think that you’ve constructed something very complex, when really, all you’ve done is stack the ingredients instead of just plopping them down on the plate. The beauty is in the contrast between the white pear, the deep purple beet, and the vibrant green lettuce.
It might seem like eating locally is a lot of work, especially in the winter, and that’s because it is. I look at it as a challenge, though, and an opportunity to try new things and learn more about where my food comes from. And don’t forget: everything in moderation.

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