The challenge of seasonal eating

The challenge of seasonal eating

Here it is a new year, according to the calendar. But it's virtually "the middle of nowhere" for local produce, in the words of Applegate farmer Mary Alionis.

To be fair, I knew starting a column on seasonal eating in the dead of winter would be a challenge. But writing about the concept is far simpler than actually adhering to a truly seasonal menu, day in and day out, for want of sunlight and hospitable temperatures that spur plant growth.

Mary Shaw knows all about the challenge. After years of cooking and eating health foods, whole foods and local foods, the culinary educator for Ashland Food Co-op embarked on a mission last year to eat only seasonal foods.

It's an easy regimen in late spring and early summer and practically impossible to foul up in late summer and early fall. But winter and early spring are another story entirely. Shaw chronicled those spare months with nearly infinite variations on coleslaw.

"Think about ethnic vinaigrettes and dressing styles," says Shaw. "The dressing will lead you to what else should go in the slaw.

"I add different things to it during the week."

Why coleslaw? For the seasonal eater, winter is the time of storage vegetables: squash, hardy greens and root vegetables such as beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, potatoes and onions. But let's not forget cabbage, a welcome source of fiber next to starchier storage crops and invaluable for its high vitamin-C content. Sauerkraut, as in the traditional, fermented kind, was invented to keep cabbage edible when so many other foods were scarce.

In the Rogue Valley's relatively mild winter climate, farmers like Alionis and the Fry family of Talent can keep cabbage and a handful of other vegetables going almost straight through the darkest, coldest days. They're still supplying Ashland Food Co-op. Alionis stocks the widest array of produce at her farm stand on Highway 238 and furnishes a commendable variety to Rogue Valley Local Foods, the online growers market (www.roguevalleylocalfoods.org).

Gardeners who plan ahead can harvest winter cabbage, too. Much to the lament of my mother-in-law and partner in gardening, we haven't quite figured out how to maintain a winter garden yet. I take some comfort in the knowledge that Shaw, a longtime gardener, has poor luck with cabbage.

So if you lack cabbage, consider any other green, leafy, winter-hardy vegetable — kale, chard, collards, even turnip and beet leaves — in this pad Thai recipe. Just as Shaw has nearly infinite variations on coleslaw, I look to pad Thai as a year-round vehicle for whatever seasonal vegetable I have on hand.

The secret to my own recipe is a sauce made from all-natural peanut butter, fish sauce, rice-wine vinegar and other Asian spices. A mild version can be made according to the quantities in the accompanying recipe. Replace the tamarind juice with 1/4 cup peanut butter and about 1/4 cup water from soaking the noodles. Combine that mixture with the remaining sauce ingredients. Make it spicy with hot chili sauce, such as Sriracha.

I always say I could put peanut sauce on anything and my husband would eat it. So what better way to disguise suspicious vegetables?

This recipe is lighter than mine and supposedly a more authentic version of the quintessential Thai dish. Make it even more seasonal by replacing some or all of the shrimp with fresh, cooked Dungeness crab meat.

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