By: Diane Wright Hirsch
Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety
OK, I admit it…. I just cannot eat totally “local” and “seasonal” during the winter. It’s just too hard at this time of year. And, also, so many cold weather menus and winter celebrations revolve around aromas, flavors and sensations that come from foods that do not grow in New England.
While you can still find locally grown root vegetables, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and apples, nary a Clementine or pomegranate, (they are seasonal, after all) is produced in Connecticut. Sure, I love hot locally produced apple cider and winter squash soup, but often I am reaching for cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to give seasonal flavor. A little bit of the imported stuff sure adds to the enjoyment of a seasonal diet when variety of locally produced foods is limited. So bring on just a taste of the far away and console yourself with the knowledge that some of these foods are seasonal—somewhere. Also, the transportation of the spices of life can’t possibly put too much of a strain on our oil reserves.
Some of my favorite winter imports
Clementines: December just wouldn’t be December without a box of Clementines on my counter. We go through boxes and boxes in just a few months. An easy-to-peel citrus fruit devoid of seeds (usually) and sweet and juicy…who could ask for anything more? Clementines are a fruit of the mandarin family, whose origins could have been in China or Algeria, depending on who you ask. Much of the fruit comes to the United States from Morocco and Spain. While Europeans have been blessed for years with the availability of this orange gem, the market in this country was created when there was a failed Florida citrus crop in the late 1990s. California Clementines are also available.
Cinnamon: The intense flavors of spices come from seeds that are dried and ground (the leaves of aromatic plants are referred to as “herbs”). Cinnamon has a long and interesting history. It was once so precious that wars were fought over it! Originally grown in Ceylon, a colony at various times of the Dutch, French and English, by the 1890s, Borneo, Sumatra, and Java were among the countries that cultivated cinnamon. Today it is also grown in South America and Caribbean countries. This spice is derived from the bark of a bush in the laurel family. You may use the ground form or the cinnamon “stick”, a curled up piece of the bark, also called a “quill.”
Pomegranates: The pomegranate is native from Iran to the Himalayas in northern India and has been cultivated throughout Mediterranean region since ancient times. Today, it is grown throughout India and the drier parts of southeast Asia, Malaya, the East Indies and tropical Africa. Spanish settlers introduced the tree into California in 1769. In this country it is grown for its fruits mainly in the drier parts of California and Arizona. While produced most commonly for its juice or fruits that can be eaten out of hand, all parts of the tree have been used as sources of tannin for curing leather. The rind and flowers yield dyes for textiles. Today, pomegranates are sometimes included in lists of super foods. This is because they are full of anti-oxidants, which may be of benefit in staving off cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.
Nutmeg: I chose to feature nutmeg, because after all, we are the Nutmeg State! This could have been because trading ships brought nutmeg to our shores or, perhaps more interestingly, because peddlers used to try to pass off wood carved into nutmeg look-alikes to unsuspecting Connecticut settlers. Nutmegs come from an evergreen tree that is indigenous to southeast Asia. The nutmeg is the egg-shaped seed of the tree that is dried and sold whole for grating or as a ground spice. The cuisines of many countries, including India, the Middle East, Europe and Japan all enjoy a touch of this sweet spice. Our Connecticut holiday tables are likely to be graced with mulled cider, pumpkin pie and eggnog redolent with nutmeg. Today, nutmeg is produced primarily in Indonesia and Grenada.
Try a little nutmeg on your locally grown brussels sprouts. Of course, you will need to sprinkle some on the eggnog you make from Connecticut eggs and milk. Cinnamon in your cranberry sauce….a Clementine for an afternoon pick-me-up…..and a sprinkling of pomegranate berries on the salad made with farmer’s market spinach can add color, flavor and even some valuable vitamins to a New England winter meal.
Cilantro: Well, this herb is not commonly associated with winter, but as we are often cooking up chili or black bean soup during the colder months, I often head to the produce aisle for a bunch of cilantro. Cilantro is generally imported from Central America year around, but sometimes can be bought locally grown in the summer. And, of course, freezing the summer crop would be a good alternative to buying imported cilantro in winter. Unfortunately, cilantro (or coriander as it is sometimes called) has also been associated with more than its share of foodborne illness outbreaks. So, be sure to wash well before using, in cold running water. And if you have a compromised immune system, you might want to forego the cilantro altogether.
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