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Winter’s Farmers Markets: Healthy, Seasonal and Budget-Friendly Suggestions

photo: ibm4381 

Winter’s produce selection at the supermarket can be uninspiring: mealy tomatoes, pale strawberries and blah cucumbers. But make no mistake — if you want to get fresh, healthy and seasonal produce, the winter farmers’ market is a much better bet.

At first glance, the selection can be a bit intimidating at this time of year. Unlike the broad bounty of fall and summer, winter farmers’ market fare is largely root vegetables and tough squashes. Compared to lackluster out-of-season supermarket fare, however, it’s both cheaper and more flavorful, especially if you’re armed with the right recipes.

Here’s what fresh, cheap seasonal produce chefs around the country are buying now, and their suggestions for how home cooks can prepare it for maximum flavor. (Have more ideas? Post a favorite recipe in the comments.)

Winter squash

These versatile veggies have their fans: “I’m in love with winter squash,” says Chef Mark Alan Mollentine of Chef Mark’s Kitchen products.

Says Claire Fountain of “For the Taste of It”: “I’m obsessed with any and all winter squashes.” Extreme? Maybe, but they work in everything from salads and stews to puddings and pies. (Check out some of Chef Mark’s recipes here.) There are also numerous varieties, from the more familiar Butternut, Acorn and Spaghetti to more unusual Turban, Kabocha and Blue Hokkaido.

Fennel

The mild licorice flavor of the bulb and greens adds a kick to salads and sautés. Mix it with potatoes in a gratin, or roast it simply with olive oil. (Frugal Foodie bakes slices of the bulb with tomatoes and garlic until soft, and wilts the greens to serve as a side with fish.) Nutritionist Jackie Keller, the founder of NutriFit makes a citrusy salad of sliced fennel, Granny Smith apples and cucumbers. Dress with a mixture of three tablespoons orange juice, two teaspoons walnut oil, a tablespoon each of chopped fresh mint and cilantro, and an eighth of a tablespoon paprika. Serve in lettuce cups, she suggests.

Potatoes

Even a simple baked or mashed potato can get an upgrade with specialty varieties such as German Butterball, Purple Viking or Mountain Rose. “Potatoes are always a favorite of mine,” Fountain says. “They are fat-free and delicious.” She uses them in a cheesy tart.

This winter staple also calls out for another winter staple: soup. Private chef Alexis Colantonio, the owner of Pure Natural Kitchen, makes a potato soup with watercress that’s hearty enough for cold weather but skips the cream found in heavier versions. Pour two to four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil into a pot set on medium heat. Allow the oil to heat through, and then add two diced onions and a pinch each of sea salt and pepper. Cook until onion softens, about five minutes. Add one pound diced butter potatoes in the pot and toss to coat in oil. Cook for about five minutes. Add six cups of vegetable stock and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Put the potato-onion mixture in a blender (in batches if necessary) and puree. Top with watercress.

Persimmon

If you live in warmer climates, you might encounter these fragrant, sweet fruits at the market — those of us up North can find decently priced (although not inexpensive) ones at specialty or gourmet food stores. The best way to eat them is the simplest: sliced up on their own, or added to fruit or savory salads.

They also work particularly well in crumb cake, Keller says. Her recipe: Mix three cups fuyu persimmons, two tablespoons fresh lemon juice and a quarter cup dark brown sugar in a saucepan. In a separate bowl, dissolve two tablespoons cornstarch in a quarter-cup water. Add to the persimmon mixture and cook, stirring, until it thickens, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. In a mixing bowl, cream together a half-cup of margarine and a cup of light brown sugar. Slowly add a quarter-cup egg substitute and beat well. In a separate bowl, sift three and a half cups of the flour with a quarter-teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon each of baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon. Add the flour mixture, along with a cup and a half of reduced-fat buttermilk and a teaspoon vanilla extract, to the margarine mixture and beat until mixed.

In another mixing bowl, combine three tablespoons margarine, a half-cup each of flour and light brown sugar, and a quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon. Using your hands, combine the mixture until it resembles fine crumbs. Spread half of the batter in a 13” by 9” pan sprayed with canola oil cooking spray. Spread the persimmon mixture over the batter. Drop heaping spoonfuls of the remaining batter over the persimmon mixture, about 1-inch apart. Sprinkle the crumb mixture evenly over the surface. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.