Tuesday, February 19, 2013

winter market

not my market.  i'm always too cold to take pictures!

It's that time of year.  I'm feeling my first pangs of annoyance with comfort food.  The smell of roasted meat seems just a bit too roasted.  The mashed potatoes too mashed, and the soup too, well...soupy.  The succulence of winter foods, with their varied ingredients, whether dried, canned or frozen, slowly melted together as if everything were butter, sustains us when it's 25 degrees outside.  But just as the novelty of fresh snow one day suddenly fills you with suffocating weariness, so to the aromatic and savory quality of winter stew eventually grows heavy and old.

It's OK, however.  I just placed my first order with my meat coop (Polyface Farm if you're in VA); sign-ups have commenced for my summer CSA, and word has it, the farmers have begun to look at the ground with expectation instead of resignation. 

Good thing.  A few days ago, I poured the last of my frozen red peppers into a sizzling pot.  The oil spattered angrily at the offending flecks of ice that had flowered on the brittle flesh over the winter.  I reassured myself that there were still at least a few meals worth of chopped green peppers  still waiting for their chance to cut the acid of this year's oddly flavored spaghetti sauce.  But then those disappeared into last night's chili.  Meanwhile, if garlic had legs, it would be on its last.  Each time I reach for a new head, I hope for firm papery bulbs, but am greeted instead with the softness of something gone stale, when I'm lucky--and a blackish green powder when I'm not. 

Steve discovered this dismal state of affairs last night and recoiled at the idea of adulterating his chili with such a substandard specimen.  I saw him sneaking store-bought garlic powder into the pot when he thought I wasn't looking.  Can you believe that? 

Hopefully my winter coop will have garlic this weekend...

While some things run short, asking me to look hopefully at the calendar for the welcome sight of spring poking its cautious nose around the bend, my real panic comes at abundance: how can we still have six jars of peaches left?  And good God - where did all these frozen green beans come from?  I order people to eat, eat! EAT!! for heaven's sake - before those always impatient sentinels we call daffodils catch us with last year's larder, egad:  uneaten. 

The balancing act can be tricky, however.  I have to remind myself that while spring may bring asparagus and snap peas, we still won't see a pear until August.  And just as a white shoe goes bashful after Labor Day, a decent tomato never graces a party until sometime in July.  If I was more organized, I'd make useful notes about how much we eat to assess our needs.  Since I don't, I just stare into the pantry and wonder. 

This year we have more abundance than usual because I made a discovery.  Not the rocket science kind that will leave you in awe of the intricacies of my mind.  More like the obvious, "look, the water is wet!" kind that will make you wonder why you bother with this blog at all. 

"They" have this thing called "winter markets" ("they" being very clever people who are not me).

You'd think I'd be all over that!  I should know the secrets of who has a green house and might show up with carrots in January, or of who has free-range eggs every week--if you get there before 9:30am. 

But I have an irritating martyr-like quality about me that has hampered my participation in winter markets.  When I first began to eat seasonally, I think I saw winter as a thing to be endured with the hatches battened tight against the weather, as if we were bears with no choice but to live off our winter fat. This mama bear was determined to show her fortitude and her willingness to sacrifice for the cause.

I also don't think I understood that farmers actually have stuff to sell in the winter.  Many have meat, cheese and eggs.  Some have green houses where they can grow limited crops.  Others have access to climate controlled storage where they can keep things like potatoes, onions, apples--and maybe GARLIC?  Still others sell locally processed foods like canned fruits and salad dressings, not to mention soap, bread and other locally made wares.

While I always sort of knew this; I somehow didn't really know it.  As a self-proclaimed locavore, how clueless am I?

After finding a winter fruit co-op two years ago, I realized I didn't have to hunker quite so hard.  So this winter, I ventured out of my lair and located a winter market just 20 minutes away.  After breakfast and hot coffee, I struck out with high hopes.  I learned quickly, however, that you shouldn't tarry at this time of year.  The good stuff goes quickly, so if you hope for eggs or anything green and amazing like broccoli, you'd better drag your wool socks and flannel pjs out from the refuge of your bed and hit the tented parking lots in the first hour.  Once you're there, you'll be happy you made the effort, both for yourself and for the stiff-fingered farmers who showed up as well.

On my first day, I found kale, curled and stoic against the cold, lettuce, huddled under a towel in bewilderment, and pickled beats, clamoring to wake me from my winter stupor with their magical blend of vinegar and sugar.  I vowed to return!

Just be sure to wear something warm because even your money will get cold!  When I reluctantly remove my gloves to receive change, the coins fall into my hand like little daggers of ice.  "Thanks" I squeak as I grip my dollars against the thievery of a February wind. 

Doesn't sound fun? 

But it is! 

Even a bread maker like me has to indulge in a loaf at a market like that.  I come home with something I can toast and butter and savor with a huge mug of steamy hot tea.  If I don't embarrass myself by eating it all, we can serve it that night to spruce up a bowl of butternut squash soup.  And if the market allows, a rare sprinkle of greenhouse scallions--little harbingers of the warmer days to come--can go a long way to crunch up such a winter meal with hope and cheer.

Just as I was late in getting to the year-round markets myself, I'm sorely late in suggesting anyone else try them.  But, if there's one thing cabin fever can tell us: there's still time!  So...if you haven't already, get online and check out your options.  Then you can eat fresh, eat local, support your farmer and have an adventure all in one productive trip! 

And for my VA friends:

I've been frequenting an Arlington market, but there are also Smart Markets in Lorton, Bristow and Oakton.
Also for those in VA, you can join the campaign to lower your carbon footprint and support VA farmers by taking a pledge to spend $10 a week on VA produce.

I bet you never thought you'd hear me say this, but Happy Shopping!

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