The time I went nearly six months without buying a fresh tomato was revelatory.
I’d grown a bumper crop of tomatoes that summer. What we didn’t eat raw or cooked, I canned. And canned. And canned.
The pantry stash lasted until January. Man, was that a sad day when I pulled the last jar off the shelf.
Grocery store tomatoes taste terrible in winter. They’re mealy, and have zero flavor. I pledged not to purchase a single one until tomato season came around again. Never have I appreciated a sun-kissed tomato more than the day that first crop arrived at my farmers market the following June.
That 2002 tomato-deprivation experiment taught me a powerful lesson: Cook seasonally — not just because the food tastes better, but to stay mindful that most crops don’t grow year-round, and to appreciate each time they rise again from the dirt or dangle from trees and vines.
Hoop houses extend growing seasons, and greenhouses enable year-round cultivation, but a winter tomato tastes nothing like a summer tomato. Why buy it, when other produce is ripe right now?
This time of year, the soil and climate in this state are conducive to hearty greens, cabbage, winter squash and root veggies. I recently celebrated this bounty by cooking with Holly Chute, executive chef of the Georgia Departments of Agriculture and Economic Development, and the face of the Georgia Grown program, which highlights food and beverage commodities from the state. (Georgia Grown also offers a seasonal food guide on its website).
As we tossed collards in a salad version of a hoppin’ john, turned beets into a veggie Reuben sandwich, and made an all-Georgia side dish with sweet potato, satsuma, pecans and pomegranate, we chatted about the state’s agricultural scene.
I was surprised to learn about the lack of parsnips raised in these parts right now. Woodlands Gardens, near Athens, is one of the few farms currently growing the root vegetable (and selling it Saturdays at the Freedom Farmers Market on the grounds of the Carter Center).
If there were a demand, other farmers probably would grow parsnips, Freedom Farmers Market manager Holly Hollingsworth told Chute.
In comparison, collards are as easy to spot as kudzu along the highway. Kroger, Walmart — and, soon, Whole Foods — carry fresh collards grown by Baker Farms. The Norman Park grower-shipper of leafy greens and other vegetables also offers 1-pound serving-sized bags of Rootables — prepackaged and washed turnips and beet roots. In the past, Baker Farms beets and turnips were sold in 25-pound containers, which necessitated repackaging by grocers. The new packaging is a win-win for everyone: convenient portion sizes for consumers, reduced handling (the product is washed and packaged on the farm, removing the need for grocers to do so), and increased brand awareness for Baker Farms.
As we sliced, charred and juiced ripe satsumas for a sweet potato mélange, Chute gave me a primer on Georgia citrus, particularly the burgeoning growth of the satsuma industry.
According to a 2019 Georgia Citrus Growers Association report, about 100 growers in 32 counties in South Georgia have planted satsuma trees. Most are small landowners whose plants are less than 5 years old, but there are a few commercial growers of this seedless, easily peeled mandarin variety.
Through the end of the month, you can find bags of Georgia-grown sweet satsuma mandarins, labeled Besties, at Publix, Kroger and Walmart. You also can purchase satsumas, clementines and mandarins online, directly from Franklin’s Citrus Farm in Statesboro.
Also in South Georgia, growers in Alma, which is blueberry country, have expressed interest in using pomegranates to extend their growing seasons with a crop that would not compete with blueberries. Chute’s tip: Look for pomegranates from family-operated Alma Fruits.
Oh, and one tip from me: If you aren’t putting yourself through a tomato-deprivation experiment this winter, you can find Pure Flavor’s grape tomatoes, grown in their Fort Valley greenhouses, at your nearest Whole Foods.
New Year’s Day Collard Green Salad
This salad takes inspiration from hoppin’ john, a classic Southern dish of rice, black-eyed peas, smoked pork and onions that often is served on New Year’s Day.