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The Greens of Winter

Winter markets: where the odds are good, and the goods are odd...but in a good way

Dec. 13, 2016
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Ten years ago, winter was still a time of deprivation for those who aspired to follow a local seasonal diet. With the passing of summer, the farmers markets shuttered and the range of produce dwindled to a precious few, mostly roots with dirt ground into their skins. While summertime farmers markets spread nationally, the locavore’s wintertime diet looked bleak until winter markets began to appear.

Winter markets can have all of the adventure and goofiness of summer markets with all the gossip, recipes and friendship. Winter markets, and the evolving basket of agricultural innovations that help supply them, are game-changers in the world of local seasonal eating. Growers have an opportunity to produce income during what has historically been a dead period for the farming business. And for a farm on the edge of making it, every bit of extra cash makes a difference. The pace of a winter market is not as frenetic as it can be in its summer counterpart. The crowds are smaller. There are few pressing engagements to which anyone has to rush off. With less going on, there is more time to talk. Relationships built indoors around steaming cups can pay future dividends for growers and consumers alike.

Nationwide, the number of markets has almost quintupled since 1994, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), to 8,669 markets in late 2016. If you do a Google News search of winter markets, the results are littered with signs of growth, including the announcements of new markets left and right and young markets returning for their second or third years.

“We are seeing a lot of winter markets extending because farmers are putting up greenhouses and hoop houses,” Peter Wood of USDA’s agricultural marketing service tells me. “Now that farmers can grow food later into the season, they need places to sell it.”

Maine farmer Eliot Coleman, author of the seminal New Organic Grower, pioneered many of the season-extending techniques that allow winter markets to boom, including the use of multiple-row cloth inside hoop houses to extend the seasons. When I reached Coleman recently, he’d just sown seeds of kale, Asian greens and Asian broccoli in his greenhouse. He waxed about how pleasant it is to be inside a warm, sunny place amongst growing plants, and told me I could build one myself for $5 a square foot. “A hoop house is the cheapest form of indoor structure you can build,” he said.

“Fresh greens are what really have made winter markets happen,” Coleman says. “If it was just carrots and beets and celeriac it wouldn’t draw in the crowds.”

I’ve always wanted a greenhouse, and I’ve always wanted a root cellar. But thanks to my hometown winter market in Missoula, Mont., I no longer need to stockpile squash and carrots, because I have weekly access to the root cellars of area farmers via the market. I also have access to a sheep cheese creamery, multiple flocks of layer hens, several pastry chefs, a fermentologist and even a pack of gift-making elves—the makers of soap, gourd-craft, wooden carvings and other local art. Our winter market even takes place in a bar, which pretty much seals the deal.

Perhaps nothing epitomizes a distillation of the summer market like little bags of dark green kale sprouts for sale, dense with kale flavor. And then there is the potato lady of Mountain Spring Farms in Paradise, Mont. Like a species of fish adapted to life at the bottom of the ocean, with no need for the surface, Mountain Spring Farms doesn’t even bother selling at the summer market. In winter, they show up with their spectacular potatoes, and the people show up with their money.

Last week, I bought some of their huckleberry potatoes, with their thick purple skins and buttery yellow flesh. At another stand, I bought six golf ball-sized celery root balls. I also got greenhouse parsley, onions, a huge bag of spinach heads, a loaf of bread, some collard greens, a parsnip, a bunch of carrots, a sweet dumpling squash, and a potent and delicious fermented beet beverage called kvass.

Coleman and his partner, Barbara Damrosch, have also written the Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook: From the Garden to the Table in 120 Recipes. Their recipes are simple and easy to modify with whatever winter produce is available.

Potato and Celery Root Mash

(From Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook. Used with permission)

Bring water to a boil in a pot or saucepan. Cut 1 pound of potatoes into 1-inch cubes. Trim, peel and scrub ½ pound of celeriac and cut into 1-inch cubes. Add all cubes to the pot and simmer until soft. Drain and set aside. In an empty pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter and add a medium-sized onion, minced. Stir often until onion is translucent. Add two bay leaves, a teaspoon of thyme and a cup of heavy cream. Simmer for about five minutes, remove the bay leaves, add the potato and celeriac root chunks, and mash it all together. Season with salt and black pepper, and garnish with chopped parsley.

Coleman and Damrosch serve it with browned butter. I cooked parsley and garlic in butter with a squeeze of lime, for a sauce, and it was excellent.

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