What to Eat Now: January
Mid-winter has settled in, but its chill makes the best fruits and vegetables of the season only more precious as cabbage, rutabaga, oranges, celeriac, and Meyer lemons bring bright color to a frozen gray world.
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The holiday razzle-dazzle frazzle has finally passed, and the quiet stillness that comes from a blanket of snow and bare branches pointing up into a cold gray sky has settled across the land. Mid-winter is upon us, but that doesn’t mean we have to stare down into bleak bowls and sad plates. This period of limited light, dour healthy-eating resolutions, and icy chill is actually one of the best times of year to sit down and eat. It takes work for any vegetable to grow in winter, which makes the reward that much sweeter. Winter cabbages fight their way through snow, and a frostbitten effort is required to harvest and transport the scarce produce to their destination: your warm hands.
Food and the effort we make to prepare it is most precious in January, as treacherous icicles, slippery walks, and hungry birds just outside the window remind us: Each dish and bowl, warm, colorful, and steaming, is a triumph — of hard work, of yearning — and an act of faith that the trees, soil, and plants will come alive again. As we fill our bellies with delicious comfort and hard-won nutrients to ward off (or help cure) the flu, let’s bear in mind what Albert Camus wrote: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” So, warm your belly and your heart with rutabaga, cabbage, oranges, celeriac, and Meyer lemons in the recipes below.
This matriarch of the brassica family is, as many hot menus show, the coolest veggie on the block. Err, plate. Move over, cauliflower steak — cabbage is the new queen! In the beginning, cabbage was spindly, with no head, and looked more like its later descendant, kale (Europeans in some coastal areas still harvest and eat the wild varieties today). Ancient Greeks believed cabbage sprang from the sweat of Zeus, the greatest of the gods, while he was thinking very hard. Given the profoundly funky smell of boiling cabbage that lingers even today, it’s not a bad theory!
Mind your head
There are a dizzying array of cabbage varieties, European and Chinese (a different species that dates back more than 5,000 years). Both types are high in fiber, provide a generous dose of vitamin C, as well as A, B, and K, and are associated with lower rates of cancer, with clearer skin, and with reduced inflammation. Ancient Romans thought cabbage could ease hangover pain — so, if you had too much fun on New Year’s Eve, the German tradition of feasting on pork and sauerkraut to start the new year may help. You can even pound crushed cabbage leaves into a paste and fold it into a cloth to make a compress for headache or migraine relief.
The crimson tide
Cabbage is also one of the most affordable vegetables at any market. At the top of the year, seek out the January King variety of savoy cabbage if you can. Its color changes as it grows, and the final majestic purple and green leaves look almost floral, like a mid-winter rose. When red cabbage is exposed to an alkaline environment, it can go from ruby brilliance to a strange pale blue very quickly, but putting a bit of acid back in can save the day. Try vinegar, citrus, or wine for an easy fix that also adds some flavor complexity.
Pick and choose
When buying cabbage, look for firm, tight heads and crisp leaves with no brown edges or spots. They should feel heavy in your hand and will last about a week in the refrigerator when securely wrapped. Cabbage is versatile: Resolve to go beyond coleslaw or Zeus's stinky boiling. Try roasting it in wedges to concentrate the flavor and remove bitterness. Cabbage also shreds easily and adds a bright crunch to a stir-fry, and cuisines across the globe have found delicious ways to pickle it!
A cross between a turnip and a cabbage, this vegetable with a slightly silly-sounding name is also a member of the brassica family. It's sometimes called a Swedish turnip (or simply a Swede) as its name comes from the word rotabagge in Swedish. While this root is not a turnip, you can swap it in for turnips in many recipes.
This slightly sweet vegetable, called a “neep” in Scotland, is the less attractive cousin of the turnip. You should peel away its waxed, slightly rough pale-yellow skin before using the rest in a dish. The interior flesh has a surprisingly delicate texture and may be the same color as its ombre skin or veer into a gentle orange sunset. When shopping for rutabagas, seek out heavy, dense globes with smooth skin and store them in plastic in the vegetable bin of the fridge.
Mashed rutabagas are fluffier than potatoes and also make an interesting french fry swap-out. They purée beautifully into soups with a satisfying body and crisp up nicely when sliced and roasted. This humble root vegetable is worth taking for a culinary test drive — it’s got some nimble moves, as the recipes below prove.
This cheerful cold-weather citrus pops with bright color — and vitamin C — in a white winter wonderland. There are two main species: Seville oranges (also known as bitter oranges) and a dizzying rainbow of sweetness from the rest. Its wild ancestors likely come from the region where lndia presses up against China. Early Chinese writings indicate that oranges were initially used for their fragrance, which the fruit released when people held them in warm hands. Indians considered the orange a healing fruit, as first mentioned in a medical text from around 100 AD. The fruit’s name, naranga, is the origin of the modern English word.
Just as it’s hard to find a rhyme for “orange” (let us know if you do), it’s also difficult to come across a bad variety to eat — even the sour ones serve a purpose! Navel oranges, grown in Florida and California, taste bright, tart, and sweet. Blood oranges, originally from Sicily, taste more complex and look like a tiny sunset if you peel away their membrane. Cara Cara oranges have a clean, candy-like sweetness. Valencia oranges are lovely to eat out of hand and are absolutely superb for juicing. The Mandarin category boasts smaller varieties, like the clementine (so good it has its own song), sweet seedless Japanese satsuma oranges, and tangerines, which have an amazingly fragrant rind.
Store your oranges in the refrigerator for longer shelf life — they'll keep for a week at most at room temperature, but stay fresh for several weeks in the cold. When zesting an orange, be sure to stop once you hit the white bitter part called the pith.
Celeriac, also known as celery root or knob celery, descends from a wild variety of celery and has been cultivated in the West for about 500 years. Unlike celery with its somewhat bitter edge, this edible root has a mellow, cozy quality with gentle notes of parsley. Delicious raw and cooked, it comes as small as an orange or as large as an acorn squash.
An acid bath
When you’re buying celeriac, the firmer and less spotted it is, the better. Pick ones with fewer dangling rootlets or bumpy knobs (this makes them easier to peel) and avoid any green leaves left on top (they’re inedible). Store in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator in a plastic bag for up to 10 days. To prepare, peel the celeriac with a small strong knife, then quickly grate, shred, or chop it before tossing it in a bowl of water and lemon juice to keep it from browning.
Smooth as snow
Celeriac’s rough and nubbly tan skin belies the sweeter snow-white flesh hidden below the lumpy surface. Don’t let its ugly exterior fool you — a delicious and comforting snowy delight awaits within. Celeriac has a luscious texture and is incredibly versatile: You can braise, boil, bake, or saute it or serve it raw grated, shredded, or very thinly julienned.
At the beginning of the 1900s, the U.S. government sent Frank N. Meyer, an "agricultural explorer" (now that’s a cool job!), through Asia to discover and bring back new plant species. One of the immigrants he introduced at home was this exquisite gentle fruit, a hybrid of a lemon and an orange. In China, people viewed these lemons only as fragrant ornamental indoor trees — the fruit’s popularity as an ingredient is a somewhat recent American phenomenon. For more than 90 years, the trees grew mainly in family backyards up and down California, Florida, and in a few spots in Texas. While Californians have been using Meyer lemons for over a century as a sweeter, less acidic alternative to standard lemons, Martha Stewart’s enthusiasm for starring the sunny round fruit in her recipes has catapulted it into the national consciousness in recent years.
The whole fruit
The skin of a Meyer lemon is soft and thin, with almost no bitter white pith, and you can eat it as-is. However, that same supple, smooth skin makes it difficult to transport across extended distances, so when you do find them, snap them up as they won't be around for long. Pick ones that feel heavy with juice and store them for up to two weeks in a plastic bag in the fridge. Enjoy cutting one open and embracing the whole fruit in the sweet recipes below.
Hungry for more?
Check out other articles in our monthly fresh produce series.