Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What's in Season now?

Winter is setting in but that doesn't mean all the good produce deals are gone. A number of fruits and vegetables are not only at their prime right now, but fairly inexpensive.

Citrus: There was a reason people were excited to find oranges in their Christmas stocking once upon a time. Winter is citrus season in the warmer parts of the Northern Hemisphere and they were still hard to get in cold places until well into the 20th century. Nowadays, there is a bumper crop of any number of delicious and nutritious citrus in US supermarkets. There are navel oranges, grapefruits, satsumas and clementines. Great for eating out of hand or using in recipes.

Kabocha squash from my garden. A delicious Japanese variety.

Winter Squash: We wrote about winter squash back in October. It's still out there. Winter squash is a great keeper but when this year's crop is gone, the price will jump.

Spinach: Spinach thrives in cooler temperatures. As any gardener can tell you, it bolts (goes to seed) with the slightest hint of hot weather. Frozen spinach is cheap throughout the year, but the flavor of fresh spinach is far better. Baby spinach is available year-round too but it is usually three to four times as expensive as fresh bunch spinach. Like other fresh greens, spinach needs thorough cleaning. A lot of sand can hide in those leaves. For tips on cleaning it, see our post on kale. This recipe from a recent class calls for baby spinach, but fresh spinach works just as well if you coarsely chop it.

Onions: Aren't onions in season all the time? Yes, you can get onions year-round and they are usually inexpensive. But, they are harvested in the summer, then stored. They are quite sensitive to raising temperatures (not a problem in commercial storage) so as we move out of winter into spring, they start to sprout and get soft soon after showing up in the supermarkets. This time of year, that's not a problem as temperatures remain low.

Here's a recipe that uses lots of onions: a slow cooker pot roast. Many recipes call for dumping everything in the slow cooker and letting is cook for a long, long time. If you do this, the onions will never get meltingly tender. They will stay crunchy even after hours of cooking. You are certainly welcome to cook it that way but it's much better if you take the time to saute the onions in a bit of oil before dumping it in the slow cooker. Yes, yes, another step, but well worth it.

As with most stews and braises, this recipe is even better chilled overnight and reheated. The sauce also freezes well, though don't freeze it with the pasta. Pasta doesn't freeze well.

Italian Pot Roast with Onion Sauce
(serves 8, cost $14.30*)

1 2-pound piece of beef top round, arm roast, or chuck roast
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil
4 large onions, thinly sliced
1 carrot, finely chopped
½ stalk celery, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons chopped parsley, about 5 large sprigs
1 teaspoon dried sage, crumbled in your palm
10 whole white or black peppercorns
1 cup white wine (alcohol-free is fine)
1 teaspoon salt + a bit more for seasoning meat and onions
1 cup of water
ground black pepper for seasoning meat
2 Tablespoons tomato paste (see Note)
1 pound penne or rigatoni pasta
grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Season meat with salt and black pepper. Place in a 3 to 5 quart slow cooker.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions, sprinkle with about ⅛ teaspoon salt (a healthy pinch), and cook, stirring often, until onions are golden and translucent. Pour all the onions on top of the meat. Add carrot, celery, parsley, sage, peppercorns, white wine, 1 teaspoon salt, and water to slow cooker. Set slow cooker to cook on low for 7 hours.

After 7 hours, remove the meat. It should be quite tender. Shred it and add back to onions. Stir in 2 Tablespoons tomato paste. Keep covered while cooking pasta.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Serve meat sauce over pasta and garnish with Parmesan cheese, if desired.

Note: Look for tomato paste in a tube. It will keep a long time in the refrigerator, unlike an open can of tomato paste.

*Usually, I use local prices to estimate recipe cost. This time I used the USDA's price average for a boneless choice-grade chuck roast, which is $4.57. That's a national average. In my local supermarket, that cut is selling for $5.49/pound, considerably more. The total cost using local prices is $16.10. Which only points out the difficulty of estimating recipe costs. Still, I think it is a useful gauge of costliness of our recipes and will continue to post it.

Adapted from 12 Best Foods Cookbook by Dana Jacobi (Rodale, 2005)

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