What to Eat Now: January
Mid-winter has settled in, but its icy chill only makes the best fruits and vegetables of the season more precious: cabbage, rutabaga, oranges, celeriac and Meyer lemons bring bright color to a frozen gray world.
When the holiday razzle dazzle frazzle has finally passed, the quiet stillness that comes from a blanket of snow and bare branches pointing up into a cold, gray sky settles across the land — and into our flesh and bones. Mid-winter is upon us, but that doesn’t mean we have to stare down into bleak bowls and sad plates. This time of limited light, dour healthy-eating resolutions, and icy chill is actually one of the best times of year to sit down and eat. It's a great effort for any vegetable to grow in winter, making the final reward that much sweeter. Winter cabbages fight their way through snow, and valuable effort is required to harvest and transport the scarce produce to their final destination: your warm hands.
If anything, food is most precious in January, as treacherous icicles and hungry birds just outside the window remind us: Each dish and bowl, warm, colorful and steaming, is a triumph — of hard effort, of yearning, and an act of faith that the trees and soil and plants will come alive again. And as we fill our bellies with delicious comfort and hard-won nutrients, to ward off (or help cure) the flu, we are reminded that Albert Camus wrote: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” Warm your belly and your heart with rutabaga, cabbage, oranges, celeriac and Meyer lemons in the recipes below.
This matriarch of the brassica family is, as many hot menus show, the coolest veggie on the block. Err, plate. Move over cauliflower steak, cabbage is the new queen! In the beginning, cabbage was spindly with no head and looked more like its later descendent, kale (there are still some coastal areas across Europe where wild varieties are harvested and eaten). The ancient The Greeks believed cabbage sprang from the sweat of Zeus, greatest of the gods, while he was thinking very hard … given the profoundly funky smell of boiling cabbage, it’s not a bad theory!
Mind Your Head
There are a dizzying array of cabbage varieties, both European and Chinese (which are a different species that dates back over 5,000 years). Both types are high in fiber, provide a generous dose of vitamin C, as well as A, B and K, and are associated with lower rates of cancer, clearer skin, and reduced inflammation. In ancient Rome, cabbage was thought to ease hangover pain; so if you had too much fun on New Year’s Eve, the German tradition of feasting on pork and sauerkraut to start the new year may help. Crushed cabbage leaves can even be pounded into a paste and folded into a cloth to make a compress for headache or migraine relief.
The Crimson Tide
Cabbage is also one of the most affordable vegetables at any market. At the top of the year, seek out the January King variety of savoy cabbage if you can; its color changes as it grows, and the final majestic purple and green leaves look almost floral, like a mid-winter rose. When red cabbage is exposed to an alkaline environment it can go from ruby brilliance to a strange pale blue very quickly — but adding a bit of acid back in can save the day. Try vinegar, citrus or wine for an easy fix that also adds some flavor complexity.
Pick and Choose
When buying cabbage, look for heads that are firm, tight, and have crisp leaves with no brown edges or spots. They should feel heavy in your hand and will last about a week in the refrigerator when securely wrapped. Cabbage is versatile: resolve to go beyond coleslaw! Try roasting it in wedges to concentrate the flavor and removes bitterness. Cabbage also shreds easily and adds a bright crunch to a stir-fry, and cuisines across the globe have found delicious ways to pickle it!
This vegetable with a slightly silly-sounding name is also a member of the brassica family, and is believed to be a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. It's sometimes called a Swedish turnip, or simply a Swede — its name comes from the word rotabagge in Swedish. And while this root is not a turnip, it can be swapped in for turnips in many recipes.
This slightly sweet vegetable, called a “neep” in Scotland, is the less attractive cousin of the turnip with a waxed, slightly rough, pale-yellow skin that should be peeled away before using in a recipe. The interior flesh may be the same color as its ombre skin or veer into a gentle orange sunset, and has a surprisingly delicate texture. When shopping for rutabagas, seek out heavy, dense globes with a smooth skin, and store them in plastic in the vegetable bin of the fridge.
Mashed rutabagas are fluffier than potatoes, and also make an interesting French fry swap out. They puree beautifully into soups with a satisfying body, and crisp up nicely when sliced and roasted. This humble root vegetable is worth taking for a culinary test drive; it’s got some nimble moves, as seen in the recipes below.
This cheerful cold-weather citrus shines with a bright pop of color — and vitamin C — in a pale white winter wonderland. There are two main species: Seville bitter oranges and a dizzying rainbow of sweetness from the rest. Its wild ancestors likely come from the region where lndia presses up against China; early Chinese writings indicate that oranges were first used for their fragrance, which they released by holding in a warm hand. In India, the orange was considered a healing fruit, first mentioned in a medical text from about 100 AD; its name, naranga, is the root of the modern English word we use today.
Just as it’s impossible to find a rhyme for “orange” (let us know if you find one), there’s also no bad variety to eat — even the sour ones serve a purpose! Navel oranges, grown in Florida and California, taste bright, tart, and sweet; blood oranges, originally from Sicily, taste more complex and look like a tiny sunset if you peel away their membrane; Cara Cara oranges have a clean, candy-like sweetness. Valencia oranges are lovely eaten out of hand, but are absolutely superb for juicing. The Mandarin category boasts smaller varieties, like the clementine, sweet seedless Japanese satsuma oranges, and tangerines, which have an amazingly fragrant rind.
Store your oranges in the refrigerator for longer shelf life — they'll keep for a week at most if kept a room temperature, but stay fresh for several weeks in the fridge. When zesting an orange be sure to stop once you hit the white part, called the pith; it’s where the bitterness begins.
Celeriac, also known as celery root or knob celery, descends from a wild variety of celery. Unlike celery’s somewhat bitter edge, this edible root has a mellow, cozy quality with gentle notes of parsley, and has only been cultivated in the West for about 500 years. It can be found as small as an orange or as large as an acorn squash, and is delicious both raw and cooked.
An Acid Bath
When buying, the more firm and unspotted the celeriac, the better. Pick ones that have fewer dangling rootlets and bumpy knobs (this makes them easier to peel), and avoid any green leaves left on top (they’re inedible). Store in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator in a plastic bag for up to 10 days. To prepare, peel the celeriac with a small strong knife, then quickly grate, shred, or chop it before tossing it in a bowl of water and lemon juice to keep it from browning.
Smooth as Snow
Celeriac’s rough and nubbly tan skin belies the sweeter snow-white flesh hidden below the lumpy surface. Don’t let its ugly exterior fool you; a luscious and comforting snowy delight hides within. Celeriac has a luscious texture and is incredibly versatile: it can be braised, boiled, baked, or sautéed; served raw grated, shredded, or very thinly julienned.
At the start of the 1900s, the U.S. government sent Frank N. Meyer, an "agricultural explorer" (now that’s a cool job!), through Asia to discover and bring back new plant species. One of the immigrants he brought home was this exquisite gentle fruit, which is a hybrid of a lemon and an orange. In China, these lemons were only viewed as fragrant ornamental indoor trees; their popularity as an ingredient is a somewhat recent American phenomenon. For over 90 years, the trees were found mainly in family backyards up and down California, Florida, and a few spots in Texas. While Californians have been using them for over a century as a sweeter, less acidic alternative to standard lemons, Martha Stewart’s enthusiasm for starring the sunny round fruit in her recipes has catapulted it into the national consciousness in recent years.
The Whole Fruit
The skin of Meyer lemons is soft and thin with almost no bitter white pith, and can be eaten as-is. However, that same supple, smooth skin makes it difficult to transport extended distances; when you do find them, snap them up as they won't be around for long. Pick ones that feel heavy with juice, and store for up to two weeks in a plastic bag in the fridge. Enjoy the pleasure of cutting one open and using it in the sweet recipes below.
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Check out other articles in our monthly fresh produce series.