Food & DrinkFood Features

Don’t Sleep on the Greens of the Winter Farmers Market

It's not just a summertime thing

Vegetables for sale at Mecklenburg County Market
A look inside Mecklenburg County Market, the only local farmers market that’s open seven days a week. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The farmers market used to be more of a summertime thing. When the landscape turns brown and white, our thoughts don’t rush off to the next farmers market. But don’t sleep on — or through — the winter farmers market. The colors of fresh veggies seem all the more vibrant against the grim backdrop of winter, and the flavors are like much-needed tastes of sunshine.

I live in Montana, which is about as close to Canada as you can get without a passport, and even there the diversity of produce at the winter farmers market is astounding. Here and now in the middle of a Montana winter, I just ate a glorious salad of local greens that looks like it came straight out of July.

In Charlotte, The Bulb holds mobile markets and pop-ups in food deserts and other underserved communities year-round, offering free produce and groceries to folks who earn 50% or less of the average median income. You can keep up to date on where they’ll be by following them on Instagram @thebulbmobilemarkets, where they release weekly schedules. 

Charlotte Regional Farmers Market on Yorkmont Road operates in the winter, and though they recently had to close due to icy conditions, at the time of this writing they were scheduled to reopen on Jan. 25. 

South End Market on South Boulevard is open 8 a.m.-1 p.m. every Saturday of the year. Though the popular Kings Drive Farmers Market in Midtown doesn’t operate in the winter, just a block over on Harding Place the indoor Mecklenburg County Market is open seven days a week, all year long. 

Davidson Farmers Market in north Mecklenburg County operates 9 a.m.-noon every other Saturday from January through March 19, while Matthews Community Farmers Market to the southeast operates 8-10 a.m. on Saturdays from December to March.

Piedmont Farmers Market — also known as Winecoff Farmers Market — in Concord is open on Saturdays year-round, running from 9 a.m.-noon from October to April. 

We owe this winter bounty to a perfect storm of changes. Warmer temperatures have tilted the growing field toward winter growth, furthered by advances in greenhouse technology, and funded by increasing hunger for local food, which makes it increasingly worthwhile for farmers to pay for heat — in return for year-round profits.

Northern farmers have been inching in this direction for years. Before it became common to pay to heat their greenhouses, farmers were extending their growing seasons with tricks like building little hoop houses inside big greenhouses, and covering these greenhouse crops for extra warmth. Back then, if a farmer heated a greenhouse it was usually to start finicky plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, in order to give them enough of a head start that they would bear fruit.

A variety of vegetables at Mecklenburg County Market
A variety of vegetables at Mecklenburg County Market. (Phot by Ryan Pitkin)

It was about two years ago that I noticed a sharp increase in the winter market greenery. The daring farmer had no trouble selling her tender greens. I noticed the other growers taking notice of her success, and the idea spread like weeds.

Today, the winter greenhouse bounty at the mid-January market includes arugula, bok choy, broccoli, lettuce, kale, parsley, cilantro, and celery. The usual winter storage crops are for sale too, as well as protein-rich foods such as dried beans, cheese, eggs, beef, pork, chicken, and even local saltwater shrimp from a guy who grows them in a tank. And there are baked goods and condiments and value-added delicacies like maple syrup, hot sauce, dried tomatoes and other fruit.

With raw ingredients such as these, we have many options for making a satisfying winter meal. I like to make a hearty winter-style stew with meat, potatoes, carrots, celery and onions, and serve it with as many raw garnishes as possible, like chopped raw onion and fresh parsley or cilantro. It’s a northern version of pho — a Vietnamese meaty stew with fresh herbs.

Another way to enjoy this bounty is to add winter greens to potato salad, along with shredded carrots, hard boiled eggs, garlic and onions, add kale, parsley, and whatever else you can score that makes sense. Alternatively, make a grain salad, with cooked wheat or quinoa tossed with chopped parsley, garlic, onions and cheese, all tossed in a tangy vinaigrette.

Those recipe ideas all lead to a satisfying, hearty place. But now that winter is the new summer, why not go with a straight green salad? The only thing glaringly absent from a bowl of winter greens would be the luscious tomatoes of summer. We make dehydrated tomatoes at home, in the peak of summer when fresh tomatoes are cheapest. In a salad, these dried tomatoes offer a similar sweet tang to the summer version, but with less juice.

In Charlotte, we’re lucky enough to have the Mecklenburg County Market, which sells hydroponically grown heirloom tomatoes year-round. 

Tomatoes at Mecklenburg County Market
Mecklenburg County Market sells heirloom tomatoes year-round. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The farmers markets of summer get all the glory, but pound for pound, the winter markets have more guts. These off-season centers of homegrown commerce are like the distilled essence of their summer counterparts, smaller but more potent. Cuter, with more hot cocoa.

Here’s a recipe for a tangy dressing that goes great on fresh greens, and is easily customized into enough different variations to dress any salad.

Tangy Winter Salad

The first time I made this salad I ravaged it like it was steak drenched with wine sauce, and I had just come home from war. The dressing recipe comes from Sweet Peas and Saffron, and includes several variations, which I will note below.

You probably won’t have access to the exact same array of leaves that I got last week at the market. It doesn’t matter. Get what you can. But for the sake of education, here is what I used.

A tangy winter salad
A tangy winter salad. (Photo by Ari Levaux)

Tangy White Wine Vinegar Dressing

What you need:

  • ½ cup white wine vinegar
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • Salt and pepper to taste (don’t skimp on the salt)

What to do:

  1. Combine and mix the ingredients.
  2. Set aside.

Variations on this dressing
Asian variation: add some toasted sesame oil
Chile Lime variation: add some chili powder, garlic and lime juice
Fajita sauce variation: chili powder, paprika, cumin and lime juice
Zesty lemon version: lemon juice and zest

Salad Recipe

I’m hesitant to give a specific ingredient list, because your instructions are simply to go get greens at the winter farmers market and build a salad around them, dressed with one of the above variations, along with onions, cheese and garlic, which you can reliably find at most winter markets. I’ll leave the quantities flexible, too. It’s a salad, not a croissant.

What you need:

  • Greens (I used red leaf lettuce, curly kale, baby spinach, arugula and parsley)
  • Sliced onions
  • Dehydrated tomatoes, if you got’em
  • Pressed garlic
  • Hard cheese like Romano, grated; or crumbled feta
  • Tangy White Wine Vinegar Dressing, above (original version, no variation)

What to do:

  1. Remove the ribs from the kale leaves.
  2. Massage the remaining foliage by squeezing and mashing it between your hands.
  3. Rip or cut it down to bite size pieces.
  4. Chop the lettuce and parsley as well. Leave the arugula and baby spinach whole.
  5. Add the leaves, onions and dehydrated tomatoes to a large salad bowl and toss them with the pressed garlic.
  6. Toss in the salad dressing.
  7. Add the cheese to the top and toss again if you wish, or let the cheese mix as you serve it.

Ryan Pitkin contributed to this article, with help from Charlotte on the Cheap.

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One Comment

  1. Most of the “farmers markets” in Charlotte (Meck Co, Simpsons, Yorkmount) “source” their product at wholesale stores (Restaurant Depot, Chef’s Store) in the area. Not all of their product, but you would be surprised at the percentage that comes from these places. They take off the stickers that show the country of origin so you can feel good about buying a zucchini off a table instead of at a grocery store.

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