Winter at the Farmers’ Market

Source: Nancy Gordon

Though summer is the favorite season for farmers’ market produce, it is wonderful to bundle up and set out to enjoy the intriguing array of fruits and vegetables that winter has to offer, too. Farmers’ markets are replete with colorful and hardy choices that inspire dreams of savory meals and comfort foods. Among the most popular winter produce are wild mushrooms, dates, citrus in a festive array of choices, pomegranates, quinces, pears, turnips, fennel, and winter squashes.

Wild mushrooms have become increasingly mainstream and available in recent years. Vegetarians and meat-eaters alike love cooked portabello mushrooms (sometimes called portabellas) for their firm, meaty texture, and the wider availability of previously gourmet or exotic “wild” mushrooms, such as shiitake, enoki, and crimini, has opened up new worlds for weekday cooks! Mushrooms should be firm, without soft, slimy or dark spots. Gills should be covered by cap membrane or be intact and not crushed. Brush them to clean; do not soak.

Dates are easy to select and purchase as their quality is so consistent. They are sold both fresh and dried at some markets, and dates that are strung are usually the semidry type, ideal for eating and cooking. Date palms are incredibly prolific as up to several hundred pounds can be harvested from a single tree.

Blood oranges are one of winter’s most distinctive fruits, with a brilliant crimson interior and an intense, sweet citrus flavor. Blood oranges are somewhat smaller than traditional oranges, yet their beautiful flesh—sometimes solid in color and sometimes streaked—adds interest to almost any dish and makes a lovely garnish.

Mandarin and navel oranges, tangerines and clementines have vivid, alluring color and are extremely versatile. Mandarin oranges have a looser, reddish-orange skin, and tangerines are actually a variety of mandarin orange with deep rose-orange skin and flesh. Navel oranges are favored by many as there are no seeds to contend with. Clementines are a very-flavorful and virtually seedless North African oranges of the Mandarin family with a refreshing zip. Select citrus that feels firm and heavy for its size and look for fruit without marks or dents on the peel. Citrus is ready to eat when purchased.

Lemons and limes are not only aromatic additions to recipes and drinks as they help bring out the flavors of other foods, but also their peels can make festive garnishes. Look for lemons and limes that are heavy for their size and rather thin-skinned (easier to find with limes than lemons) since those with thicker peels will have less flesh and will therefore be less juicy. Peels should be glossy and finely grained. Avoid limes with lots of brown markings.

Pomegranates are about the size of an apple and have hard, leather-like, deep-red skin filled with shiny red seeds or kernels that are embedded in a spongy white membrane. The flavor is considered to be sophisticated and a nice balance of sweet and sour. Look for the largest ones as they’ll have more kernels and will be juicier—but take care as the deep-red juice can stain.

Quinces are a staple in Persian, Greek, and Moroccan cuisine, and they look like a golden-yellow apple or pear with a knob at one end. They must be cooked or baked as the fruit is hard and gravelly in texture when raw and they lend themselves well to use in preserves and jellies. Look for firm fruit with few blemishes with most of the fuzz removed. They will be green when unripe, turning to pale yellow as they ripen.

Pears should be selected when firm, and they must be ripened prior to serving. Avoid pears that have soft spots or heavy bruises. Asian pears should always be firm.

Turnips are a cultivated root vegetable of the mustard family considered to have a rather rustic, earthy character. The flesh is sweet, tender and crisp, and it has a rather sweet flavor. Look for small turnips with small, firm roots with the root ends and stem base intact.

Fennel (sometimes known as sweet anise) is known for its fragrant, herblike green leaves and tasty bulb. The flavor becomes milder when cooked. The bulbs look similar to celery. Look for clean, bright-white, compact bulbs with crisp stalks.

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