February isn’t exactly the best time for fresh produce. Far from it, in fact. That doesn’t stop the most die-hard chefs who are determined to cook the best seasonal foods possible, however. “Right now, it’s all about how to make the common vegetable the feature of the dish, not a background component to something else,” says chef Jonathan Perno of Los Poblanos in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “The winter forces you to get out of your comfort zone.” While not much is popping out, many crops are grown to store and supplement the cold season. You can find beets, carrots, potatoes and beans lining the stalls in the green market. At Los Poblanos, Perno benefits from the restaurant’s inn and surrounding farmland. Come February, he is breaking out bags of starchy bolita beans, spicy Creole red garlic, white-fleshed Japanese yams and small, blush-colored potatoes.
Though this little brown bean originated in Spain, it’s one of the first crops the settlers brought with them when they came to New Mexico. Though it’s not as popular as other legumes, it remains a local favorite and a hearty plant that grows well in the area. Much like the pinto bean, the bolita is a small, creamy oval of starchy, hearty goodness. You can soak and stew the beans (with or without a ham hock) and then use them however you please. At Los Poblanos, Perno uses bolitas in salads, cooks them down to make refried beans, dresses the legumes up with herbs, oil and vinegar to make a warm, German-style salad and more. If you live in the area, you may still find bolita beans in the market — dried of course. Other beans also can be found in bulk right now; just look for smooth skin. Even though they aren’t fresh, you still want beans that look like they did when they were picked. That means if they’re shriveled and dusty, they aren’t going to taste good.
Rose Finn Apple Potato
The name of this delicate fingerling potato sounds like a fairy-tale food, something princesses eat during flower-filled picnics, or a name a celebrity might give a child. But just because this heirloom tuber has a sparkly moniker doesn’t mean it should be overlooked. Quite the contrary, in fact: This root offers a rich, buttery flavor, mild sweetness and a thin skin you don’t have to peel off. You want the pinkish casing to remain, because when roasted, it crisps nicely and produces a pleasing pop upon the first bite. As a bonus, unlike many brilliantly hued vegetables, the skin brightens when you cook it, which can add a festive burst of color to any winter plate.
While many people think of bright orange and reddish hues when they think of yams, the Japanese varietal has a pale inside, almost the color of a manila envelope. The root was first cultivated in China and Japan and later came to Hawaii by migrating farmers. You’ll want to peel the bitter skin from this variety to better enjoy the starchy, sweet flesh. This yam also proves drier than other types, a quality Perno says makes it perfect for roasting and packing up for a hike. He also likes to roast the tubers over coals and use them as a side. Pair the light-colored Japanese yams with other, brighter versions, and you have a beautiful, hearty dish packed with tons of nutrients. When shopping for these pale-fleshed tubers, make sure you know what you are getting. Their skin is garnet-colored just like most roots in this family, so the only way you know they have a light inside is by cutting into one or asking the grower. We suggest the latter, or that friendly farmer might not be so nice anymore.
Creole Red Garlic
These beautiful hard-neck bulbs come in a fun, light red color and taste like a combination of shallot and garlic. They need a lot of sunlight when growing, so New Mexico is a great place to cultivate them. “Right now, I cook with a lot of garlic,” says Perno, who likes to puree, roast and pickle his cloves. This particular type of garlic, says Perno, “has a good storage life and lends a nutty flavor to food when roasted.” Use it raw, cook it down, roast it whole or throw it into a stew. Or use the mashed-up plant as a binder, like Perno does with his special egg-noodle cake. Really, you can do anything with garlic, no matter what the variety. If you can source multiple types from your local farmers’ market, do it. It’s fun to play around with heirloom strands and see what each one can offer. To choose the best garlic, make sure it’s firm to the touch, the skin remains tight around the cloves (some flaky skin around the bulb is okay), and there isn’t a dusting of gray mold on the husk. From there, whole bulbs of garlic can stay good for months if stored in a cool, dark and dry place, which is why you still see them in the markets at this time of year.