(Written by Babette Wils in 2006) Nine years ago, my husband and I discovered a new passion: fresh, local food. We found it tasted much better, and there was an interesting variety within each fruit or vegetable that we had not known about – different tomatoes, apples, peaches, even potatoes. We also felt good because we knew it was good for the earth and good for our community because we were supporting local farmers.
Our passion started quite innocently, buying during the summer season at the local market, but each year, we have expanded our local food repertoire. It is easy enough to fill up on local food from June-October – the CSA takes care of that – but our learning process has been in extending the local food season to include November, December, and even right though to May. In the course of these years, we developed eight different strategies for eating local food year round.*
Last year, I decided I wanted to share the strategies, and organized a small food co-op that would provide ten families with local vegetables and fruits from November through February. I called it the New England Local Winter Food Co-op. Our co-op was structured a bit like a CSA. I estimated how much we would spend, and each family paid up front for four distributions. I then used our pooled funds to do all of the shopping, canning, freezing, and distributing. If you were more sensible, you would make it a co-op where you share the work!
I did all of the purchasing at local farms – a great resource for finding farms is www.buylocalfood.com. I bought a lot of things wholesale or by the bushel in the summer/fall/winter (potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips, squash, rutabaga, corn, strawberries, peaches, apples), and stored or canned them (strawberries, peaches, apple butter), and froze some (corn, basil cubes, carrot soup). Every month, I drove to Sherborn Farms, Bolton Farms, or Marino Farm in Natick to buy fresh eggs, greenhouse vegetables, and some bushels of apples.
I kept track of my spending, and at the end, we even had money left over, which we were able to plow back into the local food enterprise, by donating it to our local favorite, the Waltham Fields Community Farm. Eating local food has been a lot of fun. We have gotten to know our community better, made some food-friends, met some really funny farming folks, become more creative (another way to use turnips, please!), made some contributions, and we became healthier. It feels a little like coming home to real food again.
Eight Strategies for Eating Local Year Round
Here is a list of our eight strategies. You can take your pick and use any of them; do it yourself, or join with a group of like-minded friends and fellow-eaters to spread the work.
- From June-October, take a CSA share, or, if you can’t, then shop at farm stands and farmers markets (this is the easiest one).
- Take a fall share at your CSA. Usually these are two distributions in November and December, full of cold-weather crops like leafy greens, apples, roots, squash, onions, radicchio, leeks, celery. The distributions are just in time for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and Christmas and are delicious.
- Plant fall and winter vegetable crops and leave them in the garden even when the temperature drops. I kept a big bed of celery going for the coop until December by putting a thick bed of leaves or straw around it when frost started. Other winter crops we’ve had include leeks (will last all winter with enough mulch around them), carrots, celeriac, parsnips (last until the ground freezes and you can’t get them out), Brussels sprouts (our latest pick: January), and, my favorite: kale. Russian Kale will last all winter and right into spring, it will get snowed under, and when that snow melts, it pokes its leaves right through like a real trooper, possibly even a little sweeter for the weather.
- Freeze summer and fall fruits and vegetables. You probably go out and pick strawberries, blueberries, or raspberries. Next time, pick some extra pounds. You can just put these in a bag into the freezer (don’t wash) and take them out for pies, sauces, or over your cereal all winter. We also process some food for freezing – we have had reasonable luck with sweet corn - 5 bushels for the Coop provided an afternoon of entertainment. Peas, and beans, homemade salsa, parsley and basil work well. For the herbs: cut up in a blender, and put into ice-cube tray with olive oil, store in a bag when the cubes are frozen. I also made and froze 20 quarts of carrot soup for the winter Coop, when it turned out I had to do something quick with a bushel or two of carrots. But our all-time favorite, the stuff that swoops the warm sun right into our kitchen when the sky is lead-gray, are tomatoes. Take very ripe, very yummy tomatoes (we love the Ukainian blacks? and Brandywines), drop in boiling water for a few seconds so the skin comes off easily, squeeze out the juice (it’s nice to drink!), then cut up and cook down in a saucepan. Cool and freeze. Use it for sauce and soups. It’s a bit of work, but it’s worth it! Freezing food takes some time up front, but saves time down the line when you take it out of the freezer and it’s ready to go.
- Can fruits and vegetables. This is something your mother or grandmother might have done. We do a big batch each of strawberry preserves, blueberries, peaches, and apple butter every year. The best results are obtained when you pick your fruits, really ripe and can them that evening (except apples, which can wait). We used to use pectin, but now we’ve gone to a simpler recipe: two parts of mashed fruit to one part sugar (say 12 cups and 6 cups), put them in a big saucepan and simmer down for about an hour. What this does is deliciously concentrate and intensify the flavor. Put into sterile jars, and process in boiling water for 10 minutes, turn the jars upside down to cool (this ensures a good seal). Canning is a really good way to use up green tomatoes and tomatillos too (look up a green tomato chutney in your cookbook).
- Store winter vegetables. We have a small room in the basement that stays around 40 degrees and we’ve also used a friend’s refrigerator that stands in the garage where it stays cool more or less naturally in the winter. In the fall, we drive out to farms in bushels of potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips, squash, rutabagas, celeriac. The potatoes, onions and rutabagas stay in the 40 degree basement. The carrots, celeriac, turnips and parsnips we had more luck with in the refrigerator. The squash needs a cool, dry room in the 60s. We used our guest bedroom and the stairs to the attic.
- Plant perennial spring crops. It is very hard to extend last year’s harvest into the next spring, and besides, even though the roots and the squash are really good in the fall, by April, they are getting a little boring, and you want something fresh. So we bring the spring season forward, and what a better way than with food that comes back each year by itself. We have rhubarb, asparagus – such a glorious, fresh treat in May! The first heralds of the new season, with promise for more to come. This year, we started new experiment a bed of native ostrich ferns for fiddleheads in a shady wooded spot.
- Finally, although most farm stands close shop in late October, there are a few that stay open. There are farms in Natick, Sherborn, Bolton that have a winter supply of homegrown apples and cider (and they manage to keep them fresh too), as well as local honey, jams, cheese and eggs. One farm in Natick grows cold-weather, organic crops in their green houses all winter – I used them to supply our coop with some bags of fresh, local, organic mesclun lettuce in February (how’s that for improbable!).
New England Local Winter Food Co-op’s Shares