Jessica Prentice, Maggie Gosselin, and Sarah Klein created the Local Foods Wheel to help us all enjoy the freshest, tastiest, and most ecologically sound food choices month by month. Here are seven of Jessica’s winter favorites. You can learn more about the Local Foods Wheel and the group’s other ventures at localfoodswheel.com.
Imagine this: You love sweet things but aren’t allowed to have refined sugar. That was the situation when my not-yet-2-year-old son on his second Christmas morning pulled a box of raisins out of something called a Christmas stocking. He opened that special little box that Santa had brought him and savored the raisins one by one, utterly overjoyed that no adult was stopping him from eating them. He got other gifts that morning, but they all paled in comparison. Like so many grownups, I have never experienced that unmitigated pleasure, but recently, I’ve discovered delicious raisins, grown and dried at smaller scale local farms, that are larger, moister, and more complex in flavor than mass-produced raisins. In the heart of winter, when the delights of stone fruit, berries, and melons are a fleeting memory, raisins are a truly special treat
The Massa family has been growing rice at their small farm near Chico for generations, but the current family scion, Greg Massa, has led a visionary transition to more ecological farming techniques. He also spearheaded direct marketing to customers, so you’ll find Massa Organics at several East Bay farmers’ markets. One thing people often don’t know about brown rice is that it is both much more nutritious and more delicious if soaked before cooking. Brown rice—like other grains—contains phytic acid, which blocks the absorption of minerals into the body. Most of the phytic acid is in the bran, and so brown rice contains more of it than white rice. Soaking overnight before cooking deactivates much of the phytic acid in rice. If you save a small amount of that soaking water before draining the rice and add it to the soaking water the next time you soak rice, you will deactivate even more phytic acid. After just four rounds of soaking and saving back some of the water in this way, you can deactivate about 96 percent of the phytic acid per batch. Rice soaked in this way is also easier to digest and tastier to the tongue.
Before industrialization, many homesteaders and small family farmers would fatten up a hog or two during the autumn to be slaughtered, butchered, salted, and smoked for winter. A prized part of that hog would be the two hams: the tops of the hind legs, which would be smoked, wrapped, and hung in a dry place, such as the attic. A whole ham might be roasted for Christmas dinner, and then the bone would go into a big pot of soup or beans, with the leftover meat stretched for as many days as possible. It’s easy to take ham for granted nowadays, as factory farming and processing have degraded it to an inexpensive and ubiquitous luncheon meat. But local, “artisanal” hams are now becoming available, and since they can be a bit pricey, you’ll savor every delectable bit of it and get some sense of how special ham was, once upon a time.
On rainy winter days, there are few foods that seem more welcome and comforting than mushrooms. Even the humble crimini, aka brown button, isn’t expensive or hard to find, so it easily becomes the star of dinner. Mushrooms love butter, thyme, cream, beef, wine, and tomatoes. They shine in risotto, in chicken and rice, with pasta, in a soup with beef and barley, or in a simple creamy mushroom bisque. Another grain with an affinity for mushrooms is kasha (toasted buckwheat). In a traditional Jewish kasha varnishkas, kasha and mushrooms sing a warm song of a cold faraway place that wants to be remembered.
Dried beans were another crucial wintertime food in days of yore, when they supplied much-needed calories and offered a balance of protein and carbohydrate. In combination with rice, beans are something I could eat every day for lunch without complaint—particularly if I have a good aged cheese to grate on top and a dollop of sour cream. Although shelling beans grow well in our foodshed, few of our small, local farmers can afford to grow, harvest, dry, shell, winnow, and bag them for winter, since the high costs of labor and equipment make them too expensive for customers used to buying beans for nearly nothing. If you are willing to pay the higher premium, look for excellent heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo, Tierra Vegetables, Full Belly Farm, or Iacopi Farms at farmers’ markets and a few retailers. Or try growing your own: that pot of winter beans will then seem as precious as it was for your ancestors.
Cheesemaking is as old as dairying and nearly as important. Making cheese is a way to preserve the abundant produce of mammals grazing on seasonal green grass, and it also transforms the liquid to a solid that is easily transported and consumed anytime and anywhere. Amazingly subtle and complex flavors are created by culturing, clabbering, salting, inoculating, and aging milk from cows, goats, and sheep, and the results are an endless variety of cheeses. In spring and summer, we welcome fresh cheeses, which make a great complement to the juicy vegetables and fruits available in those seasons, but a winter evening in front of a dancing fire calls for red wine and a couple of good aged cheeses. Perhaps my favorite local aged cheese is the St. George made by the Matos family near Sebastopol. If you are able to find your way to their farm on Llano Road, you can admire the cows out in their pasture, visit the cheese cave, where you’ll see shelf upon shelf of aging rounds in their tough protective rinds, and leave with a large wedge at a great price!
A few years ago, I had the good fortune to witness the wonder of ecological mariculture in the beautiful estuary systems of West Marin while out on a dingy with John Finger of Hog Island Oyster Company. During this little excursion on Tomales Bay, we were able to see how oysters—one of our most sustainable and nutritious local foods—are grown. The oysters live in large bags that are positioned so the bivalves spend part of each day underwater and part of it just above the surface. It’s an ideal scenario, since the water flowing through the mesh bags brings the oysters all the nourishment they need to flourish and grow. While fresh oysters are available most of the year in the Bay Area, they seem especially fitting for the holiday season, when many of us indulge in foods that are a bit more luxurious. It’s hard to beat a raw oyster on the half-shell, but I recently discovered fried oysters, and that may now be my favorite way to eat these delectable little mollusks.
Oysters are best freshly fried, so this easy-to-prepare recipe is perfect for an informal gathering where you can cook, serve, and eat all at once. While it’s often recommended to coat all the oysters in the batter before heating the fat and starting to fry, I take the opposite approach, and I’m likely get the fat heating before I have coated even a single oyster. My process is to dip each oyster in the buttermilk, followed by the flour, and then it goes straight into the hot fat. This is not relaxing, but I find it invigorating and challenging. It works best to use a very small pan and do a few at a time. Just assess your cooking personality and figure out which approach you want to take.
16 ounces shucked medium-size oysters
1 cup buttermilk or yogurt
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup flour (white or sprouted spelt)
1½ teaspoons sea salt
½ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
⅓ to ½ cup lard or bacon drippings
Fresh lemon wedges for serving
Homemade mayonnaise for serving
Lay out the oysters on a kitchen towel, spread another towel over and press gently to absorb excess moisture. Line a plate with paper towels or a brown paper grocery bag for draining. Put the buttermilk or yogurt in a shallow bowl. In another bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper, and optional cayenne.
Dip each oyster in the buttermilk or yogurt, shake it off, then dip it in the flour mixture. Set aside on a wire rack or plate until ready to fry. (Unless you are a daredevil like me and prefer to try to prepare them as you go.)
In a cast-iron or heavy-bottomed stainless steel pan, heat enough lard or bacon drippings over medium-high heat to give you a layer of melted fat in the pan about ¼-inch deep. Let it heat until it starts to shimmer, then try dipping the edge of an oyster into the hot fat to make sure it sizzles before adding several oysters to the pan. Do not crowd the pan, but add as many oysters as can easily fit with room in between them. You will work in batches to cook them all.
Fry the oysters until golden brown on the bottom, about 1 minute, then turn them over with a slotted spoon and fry on the other side until golden on that side. Monitor the heat, turning it down if it starts to smoke or the oysters get too dark too fast, or turning it up if they seem to be cooking too slowly.
Transfer cooked oysters to the paper towels or paper bags to drain. Repeat with all the oysters, adding more fat as necessary in between batches to keep the level about ¼ inch deep.
Serve with lemon wedges and mayonnaise and eat at once.