A Guide to Winter Produce

How to buy and eat the best of the season, according to chefs
January 9, 2019 Updated: January 9, 2019

Despite the cold weather and seasonal gloom, winter hides a surprising abundance of produce to enjoy. Bright citrus abounds, adding sunshine to any dish; hearty root vegetables surface ready to shine, roasted or pureed into comforting goodness; and complex winter greens, kissed by bitterness, present plenty of competition to their summer counterparts.

Some seasonal vegetables—among them kale, cabbages, parsnips, and beets—taste even better after a winter frost, as they send sugar production into overdrive to make a sort of natural antifreeze. Take it as a lesson in resilience from nature: overcoming a bit of hardship makes life all the sweeter. 

Here are the winter fruits and vegetables chefs are most excited about right now, plus their tips for choosing them at the market and making the most of them at home.

Beets

Clare Langan
Celebrity chef and TV culinary producer, Scraps: Parts Uneaten
New York City

The winter produce I am most excited for are beets. Whether red, golden, or the candy-stripe Chioggia, they add a pop of sweetness, color, and earthiness to your winter diet.

In Season: Beets are at their peak in from early summer through winter. The greens are best before the deep winter frost, but the beet roots themselves are great cold-storing vegetables and last for a long time.

How to Buy: When buying beets with their greens (which you should—they are free greens), look for hard roots and vibrant greens. The roots should feel firm and may be covered in a little dirt—that’s okay! Beets should taste sweet, a little nutty, and decidedly earthy.

How to Enjoy: The flavor of beets is most concentrated when roasted, as opposed to boiling. Delicious in salads and grain bowls, or pureed into hummus. You can also eat beets raw. Peel the skins and very thinly slice using a mandolin. If you have a spiralizer, use it to make beet noodles. They roast super quickly in the oven and make an addictive crunchy addition to a salad or unconventional pasta.

Beet and Hazelnut Hummus

Makes about 2 cups

  • 2 medium red beets, scrubbed
  • 1 sprig thyme, plus 1 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves
  • 1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained
  • 1/3 cup toasted hazelnuts
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat oven to 425 degrees F. Put beets in a shallow baking dish. Cover with about 1/2 inch water. Add thyme sprig. Cover tightly with foil and roast for about 40 minutes until easily pierced with a knife. When cool enough to handle, remove the skins with a damp paper towel.

Put beets in a food processor along with thyme leaves, chickpeas, hazelnuts, olive oil, balsamic, and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Process, scraping down the sides when needed, for about 2 minutes. With the machine running, stream in about 1/4 cup ice water until smooth. Season with more salt and pepper to taste.

Serve hummus with raw vegetables, crackers, or warm pita bread.

Recipe courtesy of Clare Langan

Cabbage

Greg Proechel
Executive chef, Ferris
New York City

I love cabbage, and it reaches its optimal sweetness and tenderness this time of the year, which makes it easy to use raw or very lightly cooked.

In Season: Autumn through winter (September through February), but its peak season is in December, when more varieties come out, like dew drop (caraflex) cabbage, which is perfect.

How to Buy: Look for firm, clean, and uniform-in-color pieces. When looking for dew drop, make sure the cones are very tightly wound. It has a sweet smell to it as well.

How to Enjoy: Charred on a grill or roasted at a very high temperature for a short amount of time. I like to season it vigorously with acid and either smoke it or use some smoked olive oil to play off the char flavors. It also has a very long shelf life and any leftovers can be pickled and made into slaw, and that makes it last even longer. Lacto-fermentation is a great way to store this great product as well.

Cauliflower

Doug Psaltis
Chef and partner, RPM Steak and RPM Italian
Chicago

I’m most excited about cauliflower. It’s such a diverse and healthy vegetable, one you can roast whole and serve as a main dish, as a mash or puree in place of potatoes, and so much more.

In Season: Cauliflower is fairly widely available year-round, but look for winter cauliflower, which is harvested November through May.

How to Buy: Look for compact heads of cauliflower that are firm, clean, and white. Avoid those that have any dark spots or brown coloring.

How to Enjoy: I especially enjoy cauliflower roasted whole in the oven and covered in nutty, melted Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. First, steam the whole head of cauliflower until al dente, then cover with Parmesan and roast until caramelized and golden brown. When properly cooked—in this case, roasted—cauliflower should have a sweetness to it with a caramelization that is deep, earthy, and nutty. It should not taste at all sulfurous. 

RPM Roasted Cauliflower

Makes 1 whole head

  • 1 head cauliflower, about 2 pounds
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)

In a large pot fitted with a steamer basket or insert, add enough water so that it reaches just below the insert (being careful not to let it touch). Heat the water over medium heat to a rapid simmer. Add the cauliflower to the steamer and cover with a tight-fitting lid; steam until softened, about 12-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes; season to taste with salt and pepper. Set the marinade aside.

Remove the cauliflower from the pot, pat dry, and let rest until cool enough to handle.

Transfer the cauliflower to a roasting dish; drizzle with the marinade to lightly coat, then sprinkle with a generous amount of cheese. Roast the cauliflower until cheese has turned golden-brown and the cauliflower is slightly charred in spots.

Garnish with parsley, if using, and serve.

Courtesy of Doug Psaltis/RPM Restaurants

Citrus Fruits

Pamela Morgan
Chef and cookbook author
Southampton, New York

I love citrus when in season in the middle of the winter—blood oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes. The colors make me happy in the dead of winter, with all of its gray.

In Season: January through March.

How to Buy: Grapefruits, oranges, lemons, and limes should look plump and feel heavy, and about to burst with juice. Make sure it’s firm by gently giving it a squeeze.

How to Enjoy: I love to squeeze lime juice on almost anything. I use lemons in vinaigrettes and for marinades and in sauces, and to give that bit of acid flavor to most dishes—on fish, in soups, in cocktails, etc. Blood oranges are so beautiful and exotic with their crimson-colored flesh. They are fantastic simply juiced, and they lend themselves to sauces and salsas because of their sweet-tart flavor and color. Grapefruits I love to eat with a sprinkling of sugar. But if it’s truly perfectly ripe, like the Ruby Red grapefruits from Texas, it doesn’t even need sugar.

Roasted Salmon With Blood Orange Salsa

Serves 2

For the blood orange salsa:

  • 2 chopped blood oranges (peeled, separated into segments, and halved)
  • Juice of 1 blood orange
  • 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons minced red onion
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 grapefruit (peeled, separated into segments, and halved)
  • 1 lemon (peeled, separated into segments, and halved)
  • 1 teaspoon agave syrup
  • 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely minced, additional teaspoon for garnish
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the roasted salmon:

  • 2 fillets of wild salmon, about 7 ounces each
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon agave syrup

In a glass bowl, combine all of the salsa ingredients, except the salt and pepper. Stir well to combine. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. You can make the salsa a day ahead, if you like.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Season both sides of the salmon with salt and pepper. Place the salmon in a shallow baking dish and marinate with the cumin, lemon juice, minced garlic, olive oil, and agave. Let the fish marinate about 25 minutes.

When you are ready to roast the salmon, simply leave it in the same pan it’s been marinating in and put it into the oven for 10-12 minutes (15 minutes if you prefer your salmon a little more well done). Then turn the broiler on, and broil your salmon for 4 minutes to create a nice caramelization on the top of the fish (this last step is optional).

When your fish is done, top it with the delicious salsa. Garnish with the fresh cilantro and serve.

Recipe courtesy of Pamela Morgan

Collard Greens

Mike Brewer
Executive chef, Copper Vine
New Orleans

Like everything else in New Orleans, our produce seasons are slightly different than everywhere else. We pretty much have winter and summer with a few weeks of spring and fall peppered in there. So for us, winter produce is pretty cool—I love that we get beautiful collard greens and Brussels sprouts in the winter.

In Season: December through March.

How to Buy: Collard greens should be dark green and about eight to ten inches long.

How to Enjoy: Collard greens are hearty and thick. When eaten alone and raw, they may have a bitter flavor. To cut the bitterness, you want to cook them for several hours, which is why I freeze my fresh greens a day or so before I’m ready to cook them. This way, they’re delicious and taste earthy but not bitter. I love them every way! But I tend to braise them so they get a great flavor. Serve alongside some pork or chicken, and you’ve got a great meal!

Braised Collard Greens

  • 3 pounds chopped fresh collard greens (freeze for 1 day before use)
  • 1/2 pound bacon
  • 1/4 cup Steen’s molasses
  • 2 ounces kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup jalapeño vinegar

Simmer all ingredients over low heat for 2-3 hours until greens are tender.

Recipe courtesy of Mike Brewer

Delicata Squash

Daniele Uditi
Executive chef, Pizzana
Los Angeles

When talking about this season’s produce, I am most excited for delicata squash. To me, delicata squash tastes like a combination of fresh corn and pumpkin. As the name suggests, you can easily eat the skin, as it’s delicate when cooked. It not only tastes amazing but is really good for you, too, because it is low in carbs, rich in fiber, and contains vitamin A and C.

In Season: Fall through winter. I usually find it from the end of October through the end of February. Contrary to its name, this winter squash is grown in the summer and picked in the fall and winter.

How to Buy: I look for color and test the rind of the squash with my fingernail—if the skin doesn’t dent, the squash is ready.

How to Enjoy: It’s good in so many different ways that it’s hard to decide. When I’m home, I roast the squash at 400 degrees F and add crushed hazelnuts, freshly grated pecorino cheese, olive oil, salt, and freshly cracked black pepper. At the restaurant, I love it on a pizza—at Pizzana, we have a special pizza with wood-fired delicata, Asiago cheese, date caramel, pine nuts, and crispy sage.

Fennel

Tanner Agar
Owner, Rye Restaurant
McKinney, Texas

This is an ingredient that many people seem to gloss over. The flavor can be similar to black licorice and that turns people off. Additionally, many people just simply don’t know how to use it. Any ingredient this delicious, and this underappreciated, is something I get excited about playing with.

In Season: December to March.

How to Buy: Should be firm, sort of like buying celery.

How to Enjoy: Shaved fresh in a salad, pickled, and braised in cream. Fennel fronds, the green part that looks like dill, can also be eaten; they make a great garnish.

Juniper-Lemon Pickled Fennel

Makes 4 pints

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons toasted mustard seeds
  • 2 tablespoons peppercorns
  • 1/2 cup dried juniper berries
  • 6 cups white vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons white sugar
  • 3 1/4 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 4 bulbs fennel
  • 4 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 4 bay leaves

Lightly toast mustard seeds, peppercorns, and juniper berries. Crush the juniper berries by placing them under a pan and pressing down firmly.

Place mustard seeds, peppercorns, juniper berries, vinegar, sugar, and salt in a pot over low flame until dissolved.

Julienne the fennel and place equal amounts in 4 different pint-sized mason jars. Put 1 clove garlic and 1 bay leaf in each jar. Pour the liquid into the jars, trying to evenly spread the spices.

Seal and store in the fridge for 2 days. Alternatively, can and keep indefinitely.

Recipe courtesy of Aaron Fuller/Rye

Winter vegetables
Winter vegetables. (Shutterstock)

Parsnips

James Carpenter
Executive chef, Claude’s at the Southampton Inn
Southampton, New York

Parsnips have a wonderful creamy quality, but with a multitude of applications. They make a silky, smooth puree, and their earthy flavor pairs well with winter truffles and local Peconic Bay scallops.

In Season: Best in December through March.

How to Buy: Buy from local organic farms, as we do. Parsnips have firm, thick roots and are not skinny and shriveled; [those] tend to be “woody” and dried out. Blemishes don’t matter. The outside does not depict the quality.

How to Enjoy: I like them diced small and caramelized with butter, which pairs very well with seafood, such as halibut; julienned and fried crispy, for a heightened textural experience; or simmered with other root vegetables, including carrots, turnips, and potatoes, and mashed with butter and nutmeg for a wonderful stoemp [a Belgian side dish of mashed potatoes with mixed winter vegetables] to go with braised lamb shank.

Persimmons

Nick Tamburo
Chef de cuisine, Momofuku Nishi
New York City

Persimmons are one of my favorite winter ingredients to work with. There isn’t much fruit this time of year, which makes persimmons even more exciting as they come into season. We don’t get many persimmons on the East Coast, so we get ours from California.

In Season: October through February.

How to Buy: It depends on which variety you’re buying. At Momofuku Nishi, we use both fuyu and hachiya persimmons. For the fuyu, you want a semi-firm, bright orange fruit. Hachiya persimmons are a bit different. If you want to eat it right away, you need to find a super soft fruit—it should feel so ripe that it’s about to burst, almost like a water balloon. If you eat the hachiya when it’s not ripe, it’s incredibly tannic and bitter.

How to Enjoy: Hachiyas are probably my favorite of the two. At the restaurant, we serve both in a salad dressed with yuzu vinegar, puffed farro, shaved bottarga, creme fraiche, and trout roe. I think either type is great with yogurt and granola as well.

Radishes

Kristoffer Toliao
Chef and owner, Cassava
San Francisco

I’m excited about radish of all types: daikon, kabu, breakfast radish, etc. They are sweet when in their prime, can be eaten raw in salads, can withstand long, slow-braise broth soups (which are perfect for winter weather), and absorb any flavor applied to them.

In Season: During cold winter months are the best, from December to February.

How to Buy: Look for no blemishes, and that it hasn’t formed any ice crystals from the inside, which causes it to become soft and not crunchy. At its best, it should be sweet in taste and have a clean crunch.

How to Enjoy: It all depends on the radish. For red radishes or breakfast radishes, they’re really good with butter, eaten raw! Or for daikon or kabu, we like to slow simmer them—with miso, or a sake-soy sauce—in their own broth for many hours (4 to 6 at least) on low heat. Radishes are also great when grated and can be added to vinaigrettes, sauces, dips, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Wild Mushroom-Radish Broth

Makes 4 (6-ounce) servings

  • 5 ounces dried mushrooms
  • 1.75 ounces kombu
  • 2 tablespoons thyme
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 8 1/2 cups filtered water
  • 1 medium daikon radish, peeled, cut to 1/2-inch disks
  • 1 ounce shimeji mushrooms
  • 1 ounce maitake mushrooms
  • 0.7 ounce chanterelle mushrooms
  • 1 red radish or breakfast radish
  • Dill leaves, to taste
  • Maldon salt
  • Pepper

Wrap dried mushrooms, kombu, thyme, and bay leaves in cheesecloth.

Combine water, cheesecloth sachet, and daikon in a stock pot. Bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until daikon is translucent.

Remove the sachet of herbs. Add in fresh mushrooms, and simmer for another 15 to 20 minutes. Garnish with shaved fresh radish and dill leaves. Season with Maldon salt and pepper to taste.

Recipe courtesy of Kristoffer Toliao/Cassava

Sweet Potatoes

Gustavo Tzoc
Executive pastry chef, Junoon

New York City

I get very excited about sweet potatoes in winter. It’s a vegetable that can be used in many ways, savory and sweet—cakes, purees, pies, baked, mashed, candied.

In Season: October through January are months of higher availability.

How to Buy: Medium-sized ones are better, as they have the right amount of natural sugars. Too big are less sweet, smaller are too sweet. The color changes from variety to variety. They should smell a bit like a slightly sweeter potato and should feel firm.

How to Enjoy: As mashed sweet potato with a bit of butter and light brown sugar. It is a heartwarming and homey dessert, and a good side to roasted turkey or chicken.

Japanese Sweet Potatoes

Angie Rito
Chef and partner, Don Angie

New York City

This year, we’re excited about Japanese sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo). They are really beautiful with bright purple skins contrasting a bright yellow interior. We like that these potatoes maintain some firmness when cooked—they have great flavor and sweetness without the mushy texture of regular sweet potatoes.

Japanese sweet potatoes are indeed sweet, but they aren’t quite as sweet as standard sweet potatoes, lending them to many more savory preparations (which is another reason why we like them so much!).

In Season: From the very end of summer until the end of winter.

How to Buy: The skins should be bright purple, and the potatoes should feel firm. There shouldn’t be any visible wrinkling in the skin.

How to Enjoy: In the restaurant, we cook them briefly in salted water with garlic, then fry them to create a crispy texture on the outside, while still maintaining the creamy texture on the interior. They’re also tasty simply baked and served with butter and salt.

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