February 23, 2014

5 Ways to Maximize Your Winter Produce

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Just because it's winter doesn't mean you have forgo fruits and vegetables until the first flowers of spring poke their heads above ground. Sure, it's expensive to buy imported strawberries in the dead of winter, but that doesn't mean you can't eat healthy produce without blowing your budget.

“Winter is not a time to skimp on produce. There is an abundant variety of low-cost options,” says Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association.

In fact, one of the nice things about late winter produce is that it doesn't need time to ripen and isn't delicate like summer's tomatoes, berries and melons. Winter squash, apples and root vegetables can stay in the drawer of your fridge for a few weeks before they go bad.

Here are some expert tips for making the most of winter produce:

Tend to Your Bounty

Winter greens like kale and mustards will start to wilt after a few days. To prevent that, make sure to trim, cut, wash and spin dry as soon as you get home and store in a Ziploc bag. If you don't have a salad spinner, then don't wash until you're ready to eat. Most fresh products don’t respond well to excess moisture.

Know Your Geography

In today's global economy, all sorts of produce are available everywhere, but that doesn't mean you should eat everything year-round. “I mostly don't buy tomatoes in winter, because I know they will be inferior because they are out of season. If I bought plum tomatoes in the winter I would use them only to make a sauce, but I would not use them for a BLT,” says Darryl Mosher, an assistant professor with the Culinary Institute of America.

If you insist on eating out-of-season fruits and veggies, you're likely to pay more for lower-quality items since they’re probably shipped from some warm locale far, far away. Your in-season local produce will depend on where you live (February is a great month for avocadoes and cauliflower in Florida. While it’s better for collard greens and kohlrabi in Arizona, the growing season is dormant in Maine in February). To check what’s in season where you live, try the handy Peak-Season Map from Epicurious.

Practice Your Flexibility

While you want to put your family's favorites on the list, be flexible when you go to the store. If you’re willing to adapt your shopping list to what's fresh, available and on sale, you might be surprised by how much variety there is. To capitalize on savings, check out the promotions and tweak your list if it means getting deals. There are numerous apps to help you. Here are a few suggestions.

Try replacing some favorites with other items that fill a similar niche in your menu. “The price of berries goes through the roof [during the winter] where I live, so I usually switch to pears, kiwi and clementines instead. They are all quite flavorful.” says David Bakke, a writer with MoneyCrashers.com.

Be Creative

“The trick to variety in the winter is expanding how you think about using the produce – like putting spinach in soup or spaghetti sauce. Throw some broccoli in your stew,” says Means. Other places to hide veggies? Macaroni and cheese, stews, soups, and casseroles are some examples.

One way to mix up your diet and make your veggies feel warm and cozy is to roast vegetables you eat raw in the summer, like carrots and squash. “Drizzle them with olive oil, seasonings or a dusting of Parmesan,” she says. Roasting is very forgiving, so take advantage of slightly wilted or soft veggies like turnips, carrots, potatoes and parsnips. They'll be marked down, but still have plenty of flavor.

Another way to stretch your grocery budget is to add produce to your recipes to supplement the amount of meat you use, such as adding filling veggies like mushrooms or cauliflower to a lasagna and using less (or no) meat. “Produce is less expensive than most people think. Items like potatoes, cabbage and winter fruits (like citrus or apples) are among the most affordable, and come out to just pennies a serving,” says Means.

Avoid Waste

Nothing is a bargain if you wind up tossing it out. Plus, winter produce can be more expensive than summer produce due to inconsistent weather and longer supply lines, says Lindsay Robison, a spokesperson for Whole Foods Market. Although winter fruits and veggies are not always pricier than their warmer-weather cousins, this is all the more reason to be mindful of waste.

Be conscious of shelf life. Potatoes, citrus and apples hold up well, but other kinds of produce like spinach, kale and kiwi don't, so buy only what you need and will use within a week or less, and store properly.

“I save money by buying big bags of onions and sweet potatoes and storing them in a cool, dark place. Root vegetables like beets, turnips and radishes also store well. Remove their tops beforehand, though, as the leaves drain the life from them quickly. But don't throw away those tops. Turnip greens, beet greens, even radish greens are super nutritious and tasty. If you're unsure what to do with them, toss with olive oil and salt, and microwave for two minutes,” says Erica Wides, creator and host of “Let's Get Real: The Cooking Show About Finding, Preparing and Eating Food.”

If you're not going to use something before it goes bad, you can still avoid waste by cooking and freezing it. If one of your veggies is soon to expire, try cutting it up and throwing it in a casserole, soup or stew. If all else fails, you can save your veggie scraps in the freezer to make vegetable stock whenever you have time. (Here’s more advice on how to store produce properly.)

Despite cold weather, there's no need to sacrifice nutrition - or your bank account.

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