It’s no secret that vegetable and fruit production slows in the cold weather, and in many states they only produce the heartiest of crops including potatoes, yams, winter squash and cabbage. However, if you are lucky enough to live in California like chef Matt Greco of The Restaurant at Wente, you have a whole lot more options at the local farmers market.
On a recent chilly Saturday, I trailed Greco as he made his rounds in the Pleasanton Famers Market in Livermore Valley. There he picked up crisp Yali pears, pomegranates and bright orange persimmons, all of which he incorporates into his winter dishes at the restaurant. Also on the menu are tasty bites made with apple, a fruit you can still get across the country and the star of his curry apple butter, which he shared with us below.
“When we find a product we really like, we saturate it on the menu,” says Greco, whose current menu features all the fruits he just picked up. This winter, though, with the sweet California climate and a stunning garden behind the restaurant, the chef looks forward to cooking with quince and citrus like blood orange, Meyer lemons and oranges, many of which he gets from the front lawn of the house of his boss, Carolyn Wente. “Really, that’s the thing about California, how seasonal is it really? We are kind of spoiled.” A lot of the produce found at that sunny shop Greco visits you won’t find up north or on the East Coast, but there are a few winning winter items that make an appearance across the country, and you should definitely look for them in your local farmers market.
Winter greens: Though many of the leafy lettuces have disappeared from the shelves, you can find plenty of greens to make your salads and sautés, including Belgian endive, arugula, collard greens and mustard greens. Endives come in long cylinders of pale green-yellow leaves tightly pressed together, much like a head of cabbage. The flavor of the tender vegetable runs from tangy to bittersweet, and it’s perfect lightly cooked in olive oil and served as a side, or tossed into a lettuce mix with say, mustard greens or arugula, both delightfully peppery leaves that can add a lot of depth to any salad. Arugula can be recognized by its feathery, emerald green leaves that normally run the width of your thumb, and mustard greens tend to have a thicker, larger leaf and look more like curly kale. Collard greens are another story, and this Southern staple comes in bunches of dark green, usually flat leaves that you de-stem, clean and cook down for a long time, preferably with a bit of pork and bacon fat for extra flavor.
Persimmons: You might not realize that when you pick up a bright orange, tomato-shaped Fuyu persimmon, you can usually just bite into it like an apple, or chop it up into chunks for a unique take on pico de gallo. The flesh is a cross between a tomato and a mango, not sugar sweet but with a more earthy tone. Just make sure you go for the Fuyu variety. If you find the darker orange Hachiya, the fruit needs to be softer in order for the flavor to come out best, and usually you add this type of persimmon to a cooked dish like pie, chutney or to give a bit of sweetness to a vegetable melody. Oddly enough, this fist-sized food is actually not a fruit, but a berry, so put that piece of trivia in your pocket when you bring a bag of these babies to your next dinner party.
Cardoons: No, a cardoon isn’t a type of nut, but instead, this green vegetable is akin to an artichoke, otherwise known as a thistle. Don’t be intimidated by spiky leaves, the only part of this plant you eat are the stems, which look like a woodier celery bunch and have taste a lot like artichoke hearts. Bake them with cheese for a comforting cardoon au gratin, or toss chunks of this item with olive oil, pine nuts, thyme, salt and pepper and roast for 20 minutes for an easy and unique side dish.
Apples: Okay, you may be thinking you know all you need to know about apples, so why bother including it on a winter produce list? Well, normally when you walk into the farmers market you may have noticed that you don’t just have your basic Granny Smith and Honey Crisps filling the bins, no, there tend to be dozens of types of apples all with a distinctive flavor and special purpose. In fact, in the United States alone grows 100 types of commercial apples, and they come in shades of red, green and yellow. This time of year, look for some of the late harvest varietals including the crisp and not-too-sweet Sierra Beauty and the green-yellow Newtown Pippin, which is a great fruit for turning into a dry cider. The red-gold Winesap is good for baking, and the bright green Rhode Island Greening is shoe-in for applesauce. If you don’t know about the apple being sold, ask your farmer to explain the varietal and what you should use it for, after all doesn’t it sound cooler to bring a Pink Lady Waldorf salad to the next feast than just a plain old apple.
Curried Apple Butter
Courtesy of Matt Greco of The Restaurant at Wente
Apple butter is great not only for slathering on fresh bread or toast, but also as a glaze for ribs, chicken, and as a condiment for a hearty meat sandwich. The curry in this recipe adds a bright kick that can really spruce up whatever you put it on. Plus, it makes a great gift, as long as you let the person know to eat it fast, a jar of this last about a month in the fridge.
20 large-sized apples, peeled, and cut into chunks (or 30 medium-sized, try Winesap, Jonathan, Liberty or Cortland)
2 ounces ginger peeled and diced small
1/2 pound butter
4 1/2 ounces curry powder
- Brown butter and add ginger, slowly cooking until ginger is tender.
- Add apples and 2 ounces of curry, cover, and cook down, about 15 minutes.
- Once soft, break up the apples with masher.
- Cook until the apples are fragrant and supple, then add the remaining curry powder down, and puree until smooth.
- Jar and store in the fridge.
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