Here we are, firmly in the grey days of winter. The trees stand bare and frozen, and cold winds whip at our exposed faces and fingers as we bundle up, trying to get where we’re going as quickly and warmly as possible. Psychologically, we’re deep in the January blahs and depleted by the lack of sunlight. And by this point in the month, many well-intentioned New Year's resolutions have been abandoned, and holiday credit card bills (and their resultant strict budgets) have arrived.
Naturally, at moments like this, we turn to food to soothe us. It’s not a coincidence that winter meals are about stews cooked for hours, slow-roasted vegetables, and thawed treasures from the freezer to remind us of the warm, abundant days of the harvest. At this time, when nothing is growing and our local fare consists of the root vegetables and apples that farmers have managed to store in cellars, seasonal eating is a real challenge.
I am, frankly, tired of apple crumbles and can’t take another sip of a butternut squash soup.
I am committed to local eating and have spent years championing the glory of Ontario’s harvest. We grow an incredible amount of beautiful, delicious food in this province, and we have a deeply committed community of farmers and producers working hard to keep us all well fed. Our investment in local food means better outcomes for our health, for the health of the planet, and for agriculture and small business in Ontario. But my heart and mouth are growing weary of root-vegetable casseroles, and I find myself longing for the warm, sun-ripened fruit of August and the piles of leafy greens that once filled farmers' market tables.
With our limited growing season, and the particularly grim vibe of this January, embrace some imported food. When our local harvest is so limited and our spirits need a lift, that taste of something from a warm, sunny place can really help out.
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It may fly in the face of messages you've heard for years: eating seasonally and locally has become an article of faith in many food circles. It is the right principle, but absolutism isn't helpful. We can reasonably allow room for some imports in our food system. The problematic imports are the ones that supplant crops we do grow in here — when we insist on eating strawberries year-round and fly them in from California in January, because we don't want to wait until the local ones are available in June, or when expect the sad cobs of corn that we bring in from South America in March to be juicy and flavourful as the ones we produce ourselves in August.
So go ahead: this is your green light to make yourself a batch of guacamole with lots of lime and cilantro from Mexico, or a light pasta dinner with hothouse tomatoes. Enjoy it now, when our land is dormant, and then once it thaws, go back to those farmers' markets and dig into what we grow here.
And let’s not forget the brilliance of preserving. Some of us have beautiful summer fruits stored away, canned in jars or filling freezer bags. Some have pantries full of preserved tomatoes for sauce and any number of pickles, chutneys and relishes to offer some relief to these dreary winter menus, and a comforting reminder of sunny summer days that will return. When you do go back to the market get a little extra, and preserve something from this upcoming harvest to open up this time next year.
Joshna Maharaj is a chef and food activist. She appears regularly as part of the food panel on The Agenda With Steve Paikin.
Photo courtesy of Damian Gadal and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version)
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