It’s officially winter in the Middle East. We’d hoped it would be raining now, but climate change is evident in blue skies and dry ground everywhere. Open-air markets ring with the shouts of vendors and the bustle of shoppers. But even as we wander past a pile of artichokes, imagining how good their hearts will taste hot, with a dab of lemon butter or made into artichoke dip, we’re wishing that the skies would grant us a few months of good, solid rain. See our post on how wintertime droughts are due to climate change.
Still, December’s produce isn’t substantially different from November’s. There are even a few lingering summer fruits, products of hothouses. Bu itt seems that we’re instinctively attracted to seasonal foods, while out-of-season foods look out of place. And winter’s seasonal foods are luscious in the Middle East.
Citrus fruit continue excellent right now.Look for red and yellow grapefruits, lemons, oranges and clementines, both yellow and red pomelos, loquats, and local citrus hybrids. Indeed, citrus trees loaded with fruit can be seen in gardens everywhere.
Pomegranates are still available, probably reflecting the recent culinary fad for them. Buy and juice some for making your own pomegranate molasses. Green and purple table grapes are also out in the markets. Persimmons are fat and juicy now.
Avocadoes are excellent and relatively cheap. Bananas are out in huge quantities, most of them still fresh off the stem and green. Strawberries are still extravagantly expensive.
All the native apple and pear varieties are in full season.
Root vegetables continue fat and flavorful, with lower prices than in November. Buy carrots, parsley root, beets, white and red potatoes, celeriac and sweet potatoes.
The brassicas are beautiful right now: broccoli, cauliflower (easy and delicious recipe using both of them here), red and white cabbages, kohlrabi. Kohlrabi and fennel are especially good, with prices that actually verge on the cheap.
Pumpkins, cucumbers, squashes and zucchini are a bit more expensive, but still very good. Red, yellow and white onions are big and firm. Leeks are bigger and more attractive, but ever expensive. Leafy vegetables like Swiss chard and lettuces continue excellent, as does celery. Artichokes are more attractive than last month, although their price has only crept down. Big, firm, purple eggplants are out and are delicious stuffed with bulgur and dried fruit. Asparagus, another expensive treat, are out now.
Capsicums seem to like both hot and cool weather. Colorful bell peppers and green and red hot peppers are plump and firm, good for making muhamarra spread. Hothouse tomatoes are abundant but prices are naturally high.
Sweet corn is still abundant and still sweet. Radishes are out in all their varieties, from white daikons through squat green ones and round red ones to black Russian radishes that the vendors say to eat for the sake of your kidneys.
The prices of string beans, dark lubia and broad Italian beans have come down, and they’re worth buying now.
Peppery watercress is a seasonal herb that’s in full leaf now. Fat sour grass leaves for making the Russian shav soup are looking good. Worth buying are basil , oregano, thyme, tarragon, scallions, parsley, coriander, rocket, aragula, dill, and chives. As in last month’s market, rosemary, sage, and wormwood (sheeba) for tea are still displayed in bunches.
As in November, mallows, milk thistle, nettles and chickweed have broken through the ground, but are bigger and more worth picking now. A few wild oats (brew a cup of our wild oats tea) are waving their heads in the breeze. Fumaria, a delicate herb with a neutral taste, is out but not flowering yet. Pick it for its liver-supp0rting properties: just put a couple of sprigs in your next cup of tea and fish it out before drinking. Plantains – not the bananas, the low-growing leafy herb – are out; while they’re not especially good food, they make an excellent soothing tea for coughs and sour stomach. Plantain tea also soothes irritated, chapped or acne-tormented skin.
Foragers’ update: wild beets and wild marigolds are already appearing in warmer regions. Look for wild chamomile in the next few weeks.
UPDATE December 2012: The baladi wild eggplants, with their ridged, fan shape, are all over the markets right now. Swiss chard and all leafy greens are beautiful and crisp, having enjoyed a good rainy winter this year.
Brighten overcast days with our seasonal winter salads:
Photo of artichokes by Miriam Kresh.