Winter Farmers’ Market Shopping Tips
The chilly temps — and sometimes snow — of winter don’t always inspire a trip to the farmers’ market, where we picture the fresh, seasonal produce of spring and summer. But there is plenty to celebrate at the winter farmers’ market: “cold storage” produce like apples, potatoes and onions; hydroponic and greenhouse greens and herbs; sustainably produced meat, eggs and dairy products; and prepared foods made from peak-season ingredients, which you can purchase all while supporting the local economy and a strong food system.
Yes, it’s true that markets tend to get smaller when the temperatures drop, which means you might not be able to get exactly what you are looking for. But adjust your expectations, and you can still find a lot at many winter farmers’ markets. “This is definitely the time of year to try new things: talk to the farmers about that unfamiliar vegetable, and ask them how they’d cook it up,” says Becca Rimmel, market manager for New York’s Ithaca Farmers Market. “You can come up with a lot of different dinner ideas just from a few conversations with farmers at the market!”
Those conversations are also key to making sure you understand how the winter items were produced. “If you’re shopping at a winter market, and you want to ensure you’re buying locally grown you can ask if the market is producer-only or if reselling occurs. This will help you know what your money is supporting,” says Elyse Wood, community manager at Colorado’s Boulder County Farmers Markets. “You can even ask a vendor, ‘Do you grow or produce all you sell?’ They may only supplement in the winter months, but it might be worth still supporting this grower as they ride out the winter season.”
While some markets keep their outdoor locations, others head indoors. Check out Farm Aid’s interactive map to locate one near you, then look for these items at markets from December to March.
While you might not find vendors with piles of tomatoes or peaches come January, many farmers do sell produce all year round. “The produce selection is a little different,” says Rimmel. “There are no fresh tomatoes or cucumbers, but you’ll still find a wide variety of produce grown right here in the Finger Lakes. We’re talking lettuce, spinach, kale, chard, carrots, potatoes, onions, beets, celeriac, garlic and more.” Depending on your location and the temperatures, some of these strong vegetables may grow through the winter, while others are harvested in the fall but keep in cold storage through the winter months.
Some farmers may leave hardy crops with established, healthy root systems in the ground in the fall, as they are likely to continue to provide harvest through the winter, a farming technique called overwintering. Although the variety of overwintered crops you’ll find at the market will depend on your location, some commonly overwintered crops include cabbage, kale, mustard greens and spinach. For Debbie Burns, general manager at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, winter spinach is a real favorite. “Cold-sweetening happens in plants grown in cold temperatures,” she says. “The spinach tastes so much sweeter than in other months.” Root vegetables like carrots, parsnips and rutabaga are also commonly overwintered.
Cold Storage Foods
Although the growing season ends, some fall crops can be stored in cold areas and will keep throughout the winter. You’ll find root crops like turnips, beets, celery root, carrots and potatoes available at winter markets, as well as onions, garlic, leeks, and different kinds of winter squash, along with apples and pears — all thanks to the fact that they keep well in cold storage. Keep in mind, these items need to be properly stored at home. “If you buy storage crops, make sure to ask the farmer where and how to store for optimal shelf life,” advises Denver’s Wood. “Temperature, humidity and light all make a difference in certain vegetable storage techniques.”
Here are more details about some of the produce, overwintered crops and cold-stored foods you’ll see at winter markets:
- Beets: Although peak beet season generally lasts through late-fall, these sweet, earthy root vegetables can be cold-stored, which means you’ll find them at many markets throughout the winter. The classic Russian beet soup borscht is a wonderful way to enjoy them and warm up in the winter.
- Celery Root: The gnarly bulb of celery root is harvested in late fall but keeps well stored in cool temps. A cousin to celery stalks, the aromatic vegetable is great for using with potatoes in soup, mash or roasts.
- Citrus: If you live in states with tropical climates like California, Florida, Texas and Arizona, you’ll find fresh citrus starting in November, with grapefruit, lemon, lime, kumquat, orange and other varieties of the fragrant fruit. Perfect eaten out of hand, citrus is also great for juicing, tossing into salads, roasting and in baking and desserts. Pro tip: Don’t trash the rind. Try this recipe for orange spice rub instead.
- Fennel: This is another cool-weather crop that usually makes its appearance at the market in the fall through early spring. The anise-flavored vegetable is super versatile; shave it thinly and serve it raw, roast it, caramelize it, or infuse it.
- Horseradish: Cool weather helps give horseradish its pungent spicy bite, so it is generally harvested from mid-fall right through to early spring. Use a fine grater to grate it into sauces and condiments to give them some zing.
- Sunchokes: These tuberous root vegetables are adapted to colder climates, and taste better when harvested after the first frost; you’ll find them at markets from late fall to early spring. Roast sunchokes like potatoes, puree them into soup or shave them thin and serve raw.
- Parsnip: A sweeter cousin to the carrot, this hardy root vegetable intensifies in sugar content and residual sweetness after a frost, and many farmers leave the crop in the ground to overwinter to help develop those flavors. Parsnips can be added to any dish other root vegetables are used in and go well with warm spices like ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, curry and cardamom.
- Rutabaga: This sweet, versatile vegetable grows well in winter and is often overwintered, which means you’ll likely find it at markets in colder months. Try rutabaga fries or a rutabaga gratin.
- Shallots: While generally harvested mid-summer and into fall, shallots need to be dried out for a week to several weeks before they can be used. They can then be cold stored for many months. Shallots are used in many ways, similarly to onions; try them in a favorite preparation, crispy shallots, perfect for topping homemade casserole.
- Turnips: Although baby turnips appear in summer markets, fully mature turnips are in prime season during November and December. The root vegetable does well in cold storage, so you’ll find farmers offering turnips through the winter months. Try them pureed with celery root, braised with apples or grated into fried patties.
- Winter Squash: Despite the name, winter squash varieties like acorn, kabocha, butternut and spaghetti squash are harvested in the fall and stored through the cold season. Squash is wonderfully versatile and can be used in a whole manner of preparations; stuffed acorn squash is a classic winter recipe to try out.
Hydroponically-grown and Greenhouse Foods
During the winter months, you can still find fresh greens, cucumbers, herbs and even tomatoes at many markets. How do the farmers do it? “During the winter months our farmers rely on crops grown with season extension tools,” says Ithaca’s Rimmel. “High tunnels, low tunnels, row cover (blankets for veggies!) all help them produce a larger diversity of crops, longer throughout the year.” High and low tunnels are temporary greenhouses placed over fall crops or spring starts to protect them and extend the season a few weeks. Farmers also use hydroponic systems — growing plants indoors in nutrient-rich water rather than soil — to produce warmer weather crops like tomatoes and cucumbers year-round.
Meat, Poultry, Dairy, Eggs and Seafood
While many markets sell meat and dairy items year-round, when some of the produce vendors clear out, these items become more front-and-center. Santa Fe’s Burns suggests you arrive at the winter farmers’ market early to grab them. “Chickens don’t lay as many eggs in the winter,” she explains “so vendors sell out fast!”
For shoppers used to the wide variety at supermarkets, the protein case might not seem like a seasonal section of the market. But there are products to keep an eye out for during the cooler months. Turkey is traditionally eaten in the fall after the animals spend summers foraging on grass and bugs (their hormones cause them to retain more fat in anticipation of the winter); the same is true with duck and geese. Grassfed beef will also be at peak flavor in the winter months, because the animals have eaten quality sweet grass all summer long. And while some fish are in season year-round, the selection from your fishmonger will also change with the season, and by location. Bay scallops are in season in New England only during the winter months, while Dungeness crab is a winter specialty on the west coast. For other winter specialty items, talk to the farmers and ranchers at your winter farmers’ market.
Pantry Items and Prepared Foods
Along with raw ingredients, the winter farmers’ market can be a great place to stock up on pantry essentials. Many farmers make what they call “value-added” products, turning bruised or unsold fruit and vegetables into jam, sauce or other prepared foods; drying chile peppers and herbs into year-round flavor-boosters; or freezing items like corn and broccoli when they’re at their peak, so they can be enjoyed in winter. Some markets may also have vendors selling dried beans, freshly ground flours, vinegar, honey and more.
Top photo by @spritzphotos/Twenty20.