It is still, technically, winter. Every 50-plus degree day makes it harder and harder to remember this—every time you run out of the office for lunch and debate whether you really need your coat, instead of wrapping yourself in every piece of clothing you own before braving the elements—but winter is sticking around until at least March 19; longer, if you believe that poser Punxsutawney Phil.
And while we’re supposed to spend these months reveling in heavy stews and root vegetables, cheese-covered casseroles and fresh-baked everything in order to build up our natural insulation and soothe ourselves into a state of semi-hibernation, this year it just doesn’t seem right. After all, without that massive cable-knit sweater to hide under, it’s harder to ignore the fact that those comfort foods make regular clothing a lot less comfortable to fit into.
Luckily, though the root vegetable reigns supreme in anyone’s description of seasonal winter offerings, there are a number of ingredients only available in these dark months that are anything but heavy.
Though the Maine fishing season closed about 12 seconds ago, a last-ditch pilgrimage to your favorite locally sourced sushi restaurant may still grace you with this delicate, lingering morsel, all tender flesh and honeyed salt flavor, often with the fried head to remind you that this is no poached pink prawn like your usual ebi, long divorced from this mortal coil. The fried sweet shrimp head tells you he was alive and kicking (really—have you seen all those little legs?) but moments ago—and it’s a crunchy treat, to boot. For a step above, try Niko (170 Mercer St., betw. Prince & Houston Sts., helloniko.com), where the little guys are flash-fried in their entirety and served with sriracha salt.
In the Northeast, we’re so divorced from the climate that makes citrus groves possible that it seems impossible that the fruit is grown like any other. Oranges come bagged up and pre-stickered with that cute little Sunkist logo, don’t they? Well, no, and they have a season, too—we’re in the middle of it.
Grapefruits taste extra sweet right now; oranges have a complexity of flavor and come in varieties other than “navel” and “juice.” Order some for yourself direct from the source from farmers like Cindy and Pete Spyke of Citra, Fla. (floridaorangeshop.com), low-impact, sustainable family farmers who grow oranges you didn’t even know existed. Or try a Vietnamese classic, grapefruit (sometimes pomelo, a comically enormous, sweeter grapefruit-type fruit) and shrimp salad at Xe Lua (86 Mulberry St., betw. Bayard & Walker Sts., xeluanewyork.com).
Yes, right now this crucifer often falls under the umbrella of cheese-coated comfort, but that’s mostly because people don’t know they can’t just treat broccoli’s albino cousin the way they would its more vibrant kin. Cauliflower, when maligned, ends up tasting as pale as it looks, but it has a sweetness and nuttiness that will come out if you treat it right.
Creative chefs are roasting or braising it to get that flavor; one mad genius, Amanda Cohen at Dirt Candy (430 E. 9th St., betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A, dirtcandynyc.com) is deep-frying it and serving it with waffles in a nod to the soul-food classic chicken and waffles. Cut with winter-bright horseradish and dressed with maple, the dish is the epitome of the forced creativity of the lean indoor season.
So don’t despair. Though there are still dark days of winter ahead of us—and that cold weather could still be lurking—Mother Nature hasn’t completely abandoned us. There’s better food in season right now than heavily discounted Valentine’s Day candy and bread; take advantage and you’ll be ready for spring when the real thing comes along.
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