Eating seasonally in winter
“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”
– William Blake
Nowhere outside of Colorado have I seen as elegant and distinct a transformation as the changing of our seasons. We are blessed on our high mountain valley to experience all four seasons at their utmost supremacy. From spring to summer, and fall to winter, the mountains and their bounty capture the attention of every being that walks among its changing trees. There is much to learn from this pattern of nature, from the fresh buds in the spring and the romantic colors of the fall, to the snow-covered branches in the winter. If you look below these branches and into the tree, sleeping animals rest through the cold, then feed in the spring, play in the summer and forage in the fall. It is a rhythm that never seems to fail; not only one to admire, but one to embrace. Including our own lifestyles and patterns into the seasonal model can greatly increase quality of life, happiness and physical health, especially when it comes to the way we eat.
Seasonal eating is easy in spring, when baby greens, tender vegetables, sprouts and herbs revitalize and cleanse our bodies. It’s even easier in summer, when a wide variety of fruits and vegetables overflow baskets at the local farmers markets. The plethora of quick-digesting fruits and vegetables helps aid and sustain the energy levels needed to fully enjoy the warm summer days, whether that means lying in the sun or taking a hike. In autumn, when the harvest season presents itself as the delicious earnings of the year’s labor, the seasonal eater can enjoy everything from greens to grains, berries to broccoli, roots vegetables to tree fruits, and forest edibles including mushrooms, osha root and yarrow. But when farmers markets close and gardens lie under a blanket of snow, how does one eat seasonally in winter?
Even in the coldest, snowiest months of the year, seasonal eating promises surprising and delightful tastes, with a smaller environmental impact. Tomatoes in December are often required to travel hundreds or thousands of miles before they reach a Colorado grocery store. They are picked before ripening, before developing all of their nutritional potential and lose nearly all of this value and taste while in transit. With a little creativity, you can create wonders with familiar seasonal ingredients—root vegetables, winter squashes, kale and other winter greens, along with preserved foods and maybe some sustainable meat. By understanding the winter palate, one can fully embody the winter season and in doing so, improve both health and prosperity.
When the animals start to fatten up and prepare their nests for the winter, the nights become longer, the days become cozier; the brisk wind turns to a cold chill and our own cravings shift from salads to soups. Listen to your body: this natural tendency to turn toward warming foods—foods that take longer to grow and longer to digest—is the body’s way of ensuring optimal nourishment and preparing for the cold months to come.
It’s not by chance that the fruits and vegetables of winter are natural health foods and nutritional powerhouses — rich in vitamins and minerals designed specifically to strengthen the immune system at a time when the common cold and flu are circulating. Winter greens contain much needed vitamins C, A, K, beta carotene, folate, and iron. Root vegetables, such as beets and turnips, contain vitamin C, a variety of B vitamins, manganese, magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorus. Citrus fruits ripen in winter (our closest source is Arizona) and are notably high in cold-kickin’ vitamin C.
Social gatherings that center on food can provide comfort that can cheer up seasonal sadness, but the food itself can improve the mood as well. With the loss of sunlight, our bodies produce less of the “happiness” hormone called serotonin. Serotonin is made by tryptophan with the help of B vitamins. Complex carbohydrates in root vegetables, ancient grains, and potatoes are high in tryptophan. Spinach can provide the necessary B vitamins. Adding nuts like walnuts, pecans and almonds can help your body absorb these fat-soluble vitamins and increase the serotonin hormone production.
Preserved foods and storage crops form the staples of the winter diet. Canning, drying, freezing and fermenting allows foods with an intense nutrition-per-calorie bang (think peaches, plums, cabbage, beets, and kale) to be enjoyed when the garden is bare.
Many fresh foods will also keep well into the winter with proper storage. Hearty roots like carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic, as well as squash and robust apples are referred to as “storage crops” because they can be kept in a root cellar, basement, garage, or cold section of the home and will remain a source of fresh produce for months.
Dried grains, beans, and other legumes are high in fiber, provide a steady source of slowly digested protein, and are packed with B vitamins, folic acid, zinc and iron.
Meat from pastured, healthy, happy animals fed a natural diet full of grass and greens can provide a nutritionally dense food source; however, it is important to remember that animals themselves are seasonal. Each fall animals feel the cold coming as well and will naturally eat more calories to fatten themselves up, making fall the perfect time to hunt and store your local meat. Hunting in the fall can provide enough natural, organic, local meat for a family for winter and beyond.
While year-round growing is easiest in a greenhouse, it’s not impossible if you don’t have one. Herbs, sprouts, and microgreens are packed with nutrients, can be grown on a windowsill, and will provide a burst of refreshing variation into your winter diet. Sprouts are simply the first shoot of a plant’s seed, easily grown in small batches in less than a week using only water, rinsed once a day and kept in a drainable container kept in the sun. Microgreens are a more mature sprout —the shoots of salad vegetables such as arugula, beet greens, Swiss chard, and spicy mustard greens. Plant seeds in small containers of soil and harvest just after the first true leaves have developed for a winter salad. The growing and harvesting cycle takes about two weeks so you can keep a continuous supply all winter. Common kitchen herbs such as thyme, rosemary, parsley, cilantro, and basil grow well in pots on a sunny windowsill, too. In the winter especially, your herb garden can be a source of warming herbs and spices for your meals.
As the plants lay dead on the ground and bears are deep in hibernation, we walk and play atop the snow, embracing the fluffy powder and winter playground. Even though we may be out skiing, in nature, the energy of winter is storage. Reflected in our bodies, winter is the time for retreat, reflection, and protecting energy reserves. Choose warming foods to strengthen the kidneys, blood, and inward (yin) energy. Don’t fret if you haven’t spent your fall days preserving summer foods. Making choices as you shop that reflect seasonal availability can have a profound and lasting effect in your body’s health. Lean toward foods that are dried (think: beans, apricots, grains) or fermented (sauerkraut, sourdough breads, miso, yogurt). Develop a fresh and exciting love for squash, soups and stews, dark leafy greens, and roasted roots. Cook fruits with warming spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger. When you eat the palate of the winter season and the preserved foods of a local summer garden, your winter activities are well-fueled. With seasonal and nutritious food as our base, we can enjoy the transformation of the seasons and the vast and varied playgrounds of each. From skiing and snowshoeing to mountain biking, hiking and rock climbing, connecting to the lifestyle of each time of the year can help us squeeze the most and the best out of every season.
In the words of famous poet Walt Whitman, “Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons: It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” This is what eating seasonally and locally is about: less time between harvest and plate, more nutrition for better performance, better taste and a stronger connection to the area and world we live in.