Eating in season, winter vegetables feature image

Shopping for local produce in the winter connects us to our farmers, environment and seasonal patterns.

In mid-July, a walk around the Columbia Farmers Market would have shown tables piled high with tomatoes, crates of eggplants, peppers and other summer staples. As the days get colder and shorter and the vendors move indoors for the winter market, the offerings change with the season. Tomatoes are replaced with leafy greens, eggplants with root vegetables and peppers with squash and cabbage.

Eating in season is a key part of eating locally, a practice which has environmental, economic and health benefits. According to a 2003 study by Michigan State University, the average distance produce items travel to reach grocery stores is around 1,500 miles. At the Columbia Farmers Market, every farmer grows their produce within a 50-mile radius of town, mitigating the environmental impact of transportation.

“Seeking out seasonal and locally-grown products can help connect us with our place in terms of climate and possibly even diversify our diets,” says Dr. Mary Hendrickson, associate professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri. Hendrickson explains that for the average consumer, it’s hard to know what resources, like water and fertilizer, were used to grow certain crops in certain regions. “You can find out from farmers what is going on and be connected to your place in a different way,” Hendrickson says about eating locally-produced food.

Corrina Smith, the executive director of the Columbia Farmers Market, describes it as a lifestyle shift. “People kind of have to adapt to eat locally and seasonally all year, but it is 100% doable,” Smith says.

Jim Thomas, who owns and runs Share-Life Farms in Saline County, Missouri, says his biggest sellers in the winter are leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and lettuce. These greens, along with root vegetables and winter squash, are three of the most widely-available vegetables grown locally this time of year.

Vox spoke with Columbia Farmers Market regulars about which winter vegetables they like the best, and why.

Swiss chard

Colorful Swiss chard at the Columbia Farmer's Market

Colorful bunches of Swiss chard on display at the Columbia Farmers Market on Nov. 13. Chard has a similar nutritional content to kale, widely known as one of the most vitamin-dense vegetables.

Swiss chard is often notable by its brightly-colored stems. In the same plant family as spinach and beets, Swiss chard provides high amounts of vitamins A, K and C and is high in fiber. Often, the darker the green, the more nutritious the vegetable. Ben Wells, who works at the Salad Garden, a vegetable farm in Ashland, Missouri, says he prefers Italian Swiss chard, which is milder than other varieties. He recommends grilling it with the “seasoning trinity” of salt, pepper and garlic. Chard can be sautéed, grilled or eaten raw in salads.

Turnips

The cruciferous vegetable turnips are widely available in Missouri during the winter months. With a sweet, mild flavor, turnips are highly versatile in addition to being high in fiber and vitamin C. Wells recommends Hakurei turnips. “The Hakurei turnips are shockingly tender, with a fourth-inch apple-like crispness on the outside and a center that is as tender as a cantaloupe or honeydew melon,” Wells says. “I love to take the turnips raw and slice the roots into medallions, the shoots into small crisp segments, and the greens into tender, nutty shreds.”

Turnips can also be grilled, boiled and mashed like potatoes, or tossed in soups. The versatility of root vegetables allows for creativity. Hendrickson says that this is an added benefit of eating seasonally – there’s no need to ever get bored in the kitchen.

Hakurei and Scarlet Queen turnips at the Columbia Farmer's Market

Hakurei and Scarlet Queen turnips at the Columbia Farmers Market on Nov. 13. Even among vegetables, which are one of the least carbon-intensive aspects of the average diet, root vegetables have one of the lowest carbon footprints.

Squash

Butternut squash purchased at the Columbia Farmer's Market

Butternut squash purchased at the Columbia Farmer's Market on Nov. 13. Winter squash is one of the more dense and filling vegetables available.

Winter squash, often overshadowed by the popularity of pumpkin, is rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C and potassium. Compared to their summertime cousins, winter squash has denser flesh and richer flavor.

Though the skins and seeds are often tossed, every part of the vegetable is usable. Squash can be used in much the same way pumpkin is. Think butternut squash bread or acorn squash muffins. The skins can be roasted and turned into crispy plant chips, and the seeds can be seasoned and roasted to become a salty, crunchy snack. Delicata squash has a thin skin that can be left on when the vegetable is cooked, similar to a potato.

For Smith, winter is all about soup, and she recommends tossing squash in with chicken, turkey and other vegetables to create a hearty, comforting winter dish. Blended in soup or baked and tossed on salad, winter squash has a creamy, tender texture. Spaghetti squash is often used as a plant-based alternative to noodles.

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