Our hot summers seem far away right now, but Middle Eastern winters are all too short. With ever-present water problems, we treasure every drop of rain and rejoice in the sight of succulent greenery springing up everywhere.
Wild edibles are at their best now. Leafy greens like Jerusalem sage, found in Arab markets, give you green energy to get through the brief cold season. Explore the shuk with Green Prophet and see what winter brings to the Middle Eastern kitchen.
Root vegetables like white and sweet potatoes, carrots, parsley root, turnips, radishes, and celeriac are full and fat. Purple carrots may be found in Arab markets. Try our Moroccan carrot salad with these purple carrots. Fennel bulbs are full and sweet now as well.
When root vegetables are excellent, a simple cooking idea is to chop them into coarse chunks, turn them over in olive oil and your favorite spices with salt and pepper, and roast in a medium oven till done. Spices like paprika and cumin lightly accent the earthy flavor of the vegetables without detracting from their sweetness. Turnips should be peeled before cooking, as their peel is bitter.
Leafy greens are beautiful and inexpensive now too; Swiss chard and lettuce for example. Notable in Arab markets is Marmia, or Jerusalem Sage, pictured above. The Middle Eastern Jerusalem Sage is not a cooking herb nor the decorative garden plant also known by that name, but Salvia hierosolymitana, an edible broad leaf suitable for stuffing.
Artichokes continue to flourish and come down slightly in price. Look for the tiny wild artichokes, Akub, in the coming few weeks – in hilly regions and Arab markets.
Vegetables. Although peppers and tomatoes are best and cheapest in hot weather, there are plenty of both in the markets now. For a foretaste of summer, make some Muhamarra pepper spread. Onions are looking a little sad, but there are plenty. Just choose each one carefully and don’t oversupply yourself, as they’re ready to sprout the minute you get them into your warm kitchen. Local garlic is sprouting freely; here in the Middle East we’re resigned to discarding some of the garlic we stored away to dry last spring.
Fleshy orange pumpkins, zucchini, and local squashes are good now, as are big purple eggplants. These big eggplants are excellent stuffed with bulgur, as in our recipe. The standard winter vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and cabbages are dependably in good shape and with average prices.
Fruit. Strawberries have appeared, but their flavor is weak and they’re expensive. Not worth buying yet unless you can’t resist an early taste of springtime. Citrus fruit continues strong: lemons (and now’s the time to make our salty preserved lemons), oranges, loquats, clementines. Persimmons are in the markets, as are some passiflora. Avocadoes are wonderful right now, although they’re a fruit that’s most often treated as a vegetable. Apples, being an autumn fruit that stores well, continue abundant and sweet. Avoid the imported varieties currently in the markets: they are juicy but flavorless. Who needs imported when local is so much greener (and sweeter), anyway?
Herbs enjoy cool weather too. Fresh za’atar, oregano, and mint are good for using fresh and for drying. Watercress, sage, thyme, sorrel, parsley, coriander leaf, rocket, aragula, and basil are prime for flavoring foods and sauces. Mint is lovely now too, great fresh in tea and for drying.
Foragers’s Notes: Seek edible and medicinal herbs now; their best time of year has already started. Nettles are in full flush. Pick them carefully and hang upside down in small bunches to dry. Any soup or stew is improved with nettles, and a tea of 1 tsp. dried, crumbled herb per cup water, covered and left to cool for 4 hours, brings hemoglobin up (drink 1/2 cup 3x daily).
Young milk thistle leaves also need care in picking as their prickly edges cut. But they’re a nutritious, valuable and free vegetable. Scissor off their edges before cooking. Mallows and chickweed are soft-leaved, abundant, and easy to eat. Cape sorrel, with its sour flowers and leaves, is still a favorite with small children (and grandmothers). Wild mustard can be seen everywhere now. The tender young leaves and flowers are very good, if you like a sharp mustard flavor, especially with fish. Herbs with no great culinary but good medicinal value are out now too: cleavers, fumaria, shepherd’s purse, marigolds.
Edible or Toxic? Look for edible mushrooms after a rainy day, but always – always – be guided by a trustworthy and experienced mushroom hunter. People sicken and die of mushroom poisoning every year. Mandrakes are beginning to push their rosettes up, but I advise admiring, rather than eating, their purple fruit when it does ripen in spring. It is toxic to a degree.
Recipes using these delicious winter vegetables on Green Prophet:
Image of Jerusalem Sage by Miriam Kresh.