Gardens of wintry delights

Local farmers share tips on how to cook with wintertime veggies, from mushroom ragu to bacon and Brussels sprouts

Jesus Contreras of Cabrillo Farms says don’t boil those wintertime Brussels. Instead, roast them with wine or bacon.

Jesus Contreras of Cabrillo Farms says don’t boil those wintertime Brussels. Instead, roast them with wine or bacon.


During the slog through the latter half of winter, it’s natural to tire of cabbage and turnips and squash and begin to fantasize about the bright tomatoes, peppers and corn that accompany the heat of summer. Unfortunately, a turn to winter comfort carbs can lead to a spare tire and general sluggishness. When you can’t face another boiled turnip, why ask the experts—local farmers—for some wintertime pick-me-ups?

The crop of farmers at the Sunday Central Farmers Market under the freeway, at Eighth and W streets downtown, were blooming with suggestions.

Andy Rogers, proprietor of the “R” farm in Palermo, presided over a small selection of vegetables, including bok choy unusually crowned with bright yellow flowers. He said that you can eat the flower like broccoli and that it’s popular with his “Asian customers.” Rogers’ favorite of the many varieties of kale he grows is Siberian kale, because of “the variety of colors, and it’s tender throughout the winter.” He said he cooks collards and then throws the kale in right before they’re done.

Cultivated mushrooms can be harvested year-round, but what could be more wintry than a mushroom ragu? Mushroom farmer Kris Contreras makes one with three or four types of mushrooms, and adds onions, garlic, chicken broth and a little cream at the end to go on pasta or polenta. She will also divulge her recipe for mushroom soup, when asked, which she said is “the best.”

Rob Montgomery, of Rob’s Natural Produce, gets a sparkle in his blue eyes when asked about his Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes. He said that they’re good raw in salads, or mashed like a potato, but that he prefers them in a potato-leek soup, because it brings out the sunchoke’s artichoke-like flavor. (Luckily, he was also selling delicate, young leeks at the rock-bottom price of two bucks a pound.)

He went on to say that sunchokes are a medicinal plant that can balance blood sugar, and that his Persian customers shred them and store them in vinegar to put on salads and falafel, but that he hasn’t “tried that yet.”

In addition to lovely wreaths of tiny purple heather and the season’s first ranunculus, Cabrillo Farms only stocks one winter vegetable: a veritable mountain of Brussels sprouts. Farmer Jesus Contreras admitted that people can be resistant to Brussels sprouts, because they “are used to eating them boiled, which is not really good” and brings out the unpleasant aroma. Sales have picked up since they started giving out recipes for roasted Brussels sprouts with wine or bacon. There was a small crowd picking through the pile, so his sales pitch seemed to be working.

In contrast to the riot of color at the Cabrillo Farms booth, the vegetables over at Suyenaga Farms were all some combination of deep green or white. Farmer Jean Wong said her favorite choice there was the spinach-mustard hybrid known as komatsuna. It has the green leafiness of spinach, but the stems have the spicy bite of mustard. She said she eats them raw or steamed, in soups, or even throws them in the juicer.

Presiding over jars filled with sprouted grains that somehow look totally ’70s, silver-haired and slim Ruthanne Jahoda of Shared Abundance Farm also grows a small selection of winter greens. She likes the more mature winter arugula added to a braise for color and flavor, and said she lets it go to seed because the flowers are delicious and nutritious. Jahoda also recommended a salad of tender winter greens chopped up fine with avocado, red onion and sprouted lentils, peas or alfalfa. Groovy.

Beatriz Jimenez of Jimenez Farms in Stockton wants to rescue you from boring turnips by suggesting you eat them “raw, just put a little salt and lemon and eat ’em as they are.” And if that doesn’t do it for you, hold on—she assures me that asparagus, her first spring crop, should be in by the end of February or early March.