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By Susan Accetura
Eat local—eat seasonal—eat a rainbow a day. Summer is one thing, with our gardens full of tomatoes, zucchini, peaches, peppers, raspberries, blueberries, basil, we scarcely need to visit the grocery store at all. A walk through the garden can determine the menu. Autumn abounds with pumpkins, potatoes, acorn squash, apples, pears, quince. But winter in Connecticut? Good luck with that.
These days in the big supermarkets we can find almost every fruit and vegetable any month of the year. When there is no local produce, try to buy produce that is currently in its natural season somewhere, being picked at its peak so it isn’t tasteless. Any self-respecting taste bud knows that a tomato from the supermarket in December bears little resemblance to the one you pick from the garden in August. Traditional New England winter dinners conjure up slow simmers of beef stew, or pot roast, or a long-baked chicken pot pie or mac and cheese, low on sparkle and shimmer, but high on comfort and warmth.
For several years, due in part to my excessive thriftiness and to my parents’ willingness to share some extra quality-time with their grandsons, I’ve had the pleasure of spending a week or two each April in Italy. While there’s no shortage of fine art and architecture, our favorite sightseeing is done at the outdoor markets. In early April we find mountains of artichokes, boxes of asparagus, bunches of arugula. And what is on the menu in the restaurants? Artichokes, asparagus, arugula. What is cooking in the traditional home kitchens? Artichokes, asparagus, arugula, true seasonal eating.
Italian winter menus focus on many of the hardier vegetables that we also see here—cauliflower, cabbage, kale, fennel, beets and broccoli, which they combine with winter pantry staples of dried beans, polenta and rice to create cozy comfort foods. Coin-shaped lentils, a symbol of prosperity, are a New Year tradition. As winter progresses and we start to see colorful citrus from California and Florida, southern Italy and Sicily send juicy grapefruit, brilliant lemons and the spectacular Sicilian blood oranges northward through the rest of the land.
Go ahead and crank up the crock-pot, truss up the roast and throw another log on the fire. It is cold out there, after all. And if you’re trying to keep some fresh, crispy produce that hasn’t simmered in a pot all day, in your diet think outside of the lettuce-tomato-cucumber box. Look for new and exciting splashes of color in the market—try grating some winter carrots and tossing with a splash of lemon and olive oil for a crunchy side dish, add some grated beets for an explosion of purple and orange. Here’s another vibrant salad to keep things fresh, like an unexpected flashy cardinal on a cold gray day, and a reminder that somewhere, the ground is warm and the sun is shining.
Winter Beet & Blood Orange Salad
Serves 2 to 4, but easily multiplied
1 or 2 medium red beets, scrubbed and trimmed
1 or 2 blood oranges, carefully peeled stem to bottom
½ small fennel bulb, trimmed of tough parts (save some of the feathery fronds)
1 small shallot, or ¼ of a small red onion
Your favorite olive oil
Sea Salt, coarse or flaky
Freshly ground black pepper
Note: If you slice the beets really thin (a mandoline is great here), they are thoroughly delicious raw. If you prefer, you can roast them first. Navel oranges, grapefruit, or a combination of the two can be substituted if you can’t find blood oranges.
Thinly slice the beets into rounds and lay them on your plates.
Thinly slice the fennel bulb crosswise and scatter the slices on top of the beets.
Slice or finely-dice the shallot (you can cut back here if you’re not a raw onion fan) and sprinkle on top of the fennel.
Slice the oranges into rounds and place on top of it all.
Drizzle with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Garnish with tasty wisps of fennel fronds.
This recipe is simple yet flashy, and oh so refreshing. The juice of the orange and the zip of the shallot provide a pleasant balance, but feel free to add a squeeze of lemon or lime to taste. And rejoice, we’re halfway through winter.