Local Eating with Spring on the Horizon
By Jonnah Mellenthin Perkins | Photos By Jonnah Mellenthin Perkins 0
Truly committing yourself to sourcing your food from local producers can be quite an undertaking. As a vegetable farmer, I have a stubborn aversion to buying anything that we grow on our farm. For what I can't get from our farm, I love supporting other farmers. If it can be produced locally, it should be sourced locally. This lofty ideal is easy for most of the year in Wisconsin. However, there is an awkward time on our farm at the end of winter before the early season produce is ready. By the end of February we have been eating our storage vegetables for five months and my palate is longing for the arrival of spring.
We have chest freezers full of beef and pork from the steers and hogs we graze and walk-in coolers full of the previous year's late season harvests. Our final CSA delivery is in mid-December, when we send a few trucks around Madison to deliver hearty late-season vegetables to our Storage Share members. I’m a believer that eating can be interesting year-round if you focus on what’s available. Being present in the season can also be enhanced by preserving summer vegetables.
This year I slipped into a rut with our cooking. Dinner was either stir-fried root vegetables with beef, tomato-sweet-corn-beef soup, or shredded root salad with roasted beef or pork. These are lovely meals in December and January but I wanted to add something green! I set out to the winter farmers market to see what I could find from my fellow farmers.
On a warm Saturday in February, I took the kids to walk through the small indoor market at the Senior Center on West Mifflin Street. We were greeted by live folk music and chattering Madisonians. As someone who tends to spend most of my time out in the country, this buzzing frenzy was energizing. Our farm sells our produce almost exclusively through our CSA program, so farmers markets are something I don’t experience very often.
I went straight to the Garden to Be table and got to talking with farmer Scott about microgreens production, something I know nothing about. He set me up with a few ounces of the Farmhouse Mix which consists of pea shoots, sunflower shoots, buckwheat shoots and several varieties of microgreens including china rose radish, daikon radish, mizuna, collard, and mustard. The Farmhouse Mix changes depending on what is available at the time of harvest. Scott produces greens throughout the year in his heated hoophouse and said that each season poses unique challenges. Even in the depths of winter, Scott’s hoophouse is humming along growing delicate greens.
Next I visited my friend Bill from Snug Haven Farm, known for their winter spinach. My mouth salivated at the site of the vibrant, green spinach mounding out of the crate. We grow spinach on our farm but do not manage a winter hoophouse. Before I could compliment Bill on his beautiful greens, he started talking about a multi-farm food donations project he wanted me to get involved with. As he handed me a bag of spinach, Bill said that we could feed everyone in Dane County with the imperfect vegetables from the area farms. That is what I love most about our local farming community—the never-ending enthusiasm for responsible food production and the passion to bring quality produce to everyone who wants it.
My last stop at the winter market was to Herb ‘n Oyster Farm to admire the mushrooms: shiitake, oyster, lion's mane, and reishi. This farm grows mushrooms for the top restaurants in Madison and sells at the farmers markets all year. I took a quarter pound of the oysters and this final item rounded out my improvised shopping list. I left the market alive with inspiration not only for my culinary plan but also a new energy to take with me into our own growing season.
Back at our farm, I went into the coolers for the bulk of the vegetables for our dinner. I grabbed carrots, winter radish, celeriac, leeks, yellow onions, and potatoes. When I got to the kitchen, I pulled out a pastured chicken from StoneHaus Farm to thaw. As I lay in bed that night, I conjured up a simple dinner I would prepare for my family the following day.
On Sunday afternoon, I put the chicken in the oven to roast with nothing more than salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. I chopped the carrots, onions, celeriac, leeks, and potatoes and cooked them in a pot with thick homemade chicken stock and water. Once soft, I pureed the vegetables until they were smooth and added salt and plenty of pepper. The oyster mushrooms I sautéed in sesame oil and nested on top of the raw spinach and microgreens. The salad was topped off with shredded winter radish and a tamari red wine vinaigrette. (Click the photos below for Jonnah's recipes!)
We sat out on our porch with our colorful late winter meal. It was perfect, not a thing was missing. The sun was warm for February and the smell of mud hung in air. This filled me with excitement for the rigorous farm months ahead. Soon we would be eating rich greens of our own, followed by the bounty of summer vegetables, and then the comforting harvests of the fall. I'm sure next winter I'll become tired of our winter availability but with a little extra creativity there is no reason to ever be bored with eating locally in Wisconsin in all seasons.