BY ELIZABETH DUNLOP RICHTER
What is your idea of the perfect morning for an expedition to the farmers market? The sun is shining, the temperature is 75 degrees, the stalls are filled with blueberries, lettuces, and vine-ripe tomatoes. You chat with the farmers who grow fresh fruits and vegetables organically less than two hours away. You pick up a dozen multi-colored eggs gathered from the nests of free-range chickens. Summer in Chicago!
But what about January? There’s no need to mourn your weekly shopping expedition to Lincoln Park’s Green City Market. Even in the dead of winter, the market thrives indoors. Admittedly, the produce offerings aren’t identical, but the choices are bountiful and 32 farmers and vendors provide the freshest, tastiest locally produced food in the city.
Chicago’s independent nonprofit Green City Market is a year-round enterprise. October through December the market moves from its outdoor location in Lincoln Park to the Notebaert Nature Museum every Saturday morning. From January through April, when produce is more limited, the market is open every other Saturday morning until it moves back to Lincoln Park in May.
Many products available in the summer are not restricted to warm weather, so you can always find locally raised meats and poultry (sold frozen all year round), artisan cheeses, eggs, honey, freshly baked breads, delicate pastries, tofu, flours, and grains. A number of farmers preserve their summer fruits and vegetables in colorful jars of salsas, jams, pickled beets, mushrooms, sauerkraut, hot sauce, and tomato products. Other items like homemade soaps, candles, and vinegar are likewise on display.
Tom Corrado is a blueberry specialist. Winter presents a major challenge for the founder of Joe’s Blues: “Everyone loves blueberries fresh in the summer, but there are almost 10 months of the year when they aren’t fresh, at least the ones from Michigan, which we feel are the sweetest and best blueberries in the country,” he shares. Out of season, Corrado offers frozen blueberries, which he maintains are just about as good as the fresh ones, plus blueberry cream, soap, preserves, and vinegars.
But even in winter, the variety of fresh produce that delights the eye and the taste buds. The market website lists what fruits and vegetables are currently available: beets bok choy, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery root, garlic, herbs, kale, microgreens, mushrooms, onions, parsnip, peppers, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, salad greens, shallots, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, turnips, apples, cranberries, and pears. Some are grown in green houses, while others like sweet potatoes, once harvested, can be stored at carefully calibrated temperatures to provide just-dug quality.
The winter market attracts about 1,000 shoppers each market day, considerably fewer than the 10,000 who come to the summer market on a beautiful Saturday. There are also fewer vendors, but all product categories are represented. For Melissa Flynn, the market’s executive director, the issue for the winter market is letting people know it exists: “It’s getting people to experience what is available and being part of it,” she says. “It’s making sure that everyone feels a welcome space, so whether you’re a foodie…or don’t know the difference between a rutabaga and a kohlrabi, [you’ll] want to come to the market.”
Flynn is thankful for the regulars: “I will say our winter shoppers are very loyal shoppers.” One such loyal shopper is John Notz, one of the market regulars (along with his wife, Janis) and good friend of Kinnikinnick farm owner David Clevendon. He has his favorites: “I like the baked goods and I love the sausage,” he reveals, noting that he also opts for eggs. Clevendon is known for his colorful Araucana chickens that lay lovely pale blue and green eggs. The winter market has played a big role in his business, originally growing summer produce only. “The Winter Market basically saved our farm,” he says. “Once the winter market started, we added livestock, and chickens and eggs and started selling year round…and now we have an entire year’s income.”
The importance of farmers markets for local farmers can’t be overestimated. Concern about the impact of chemicals in our food, the environmental cost of airfreighting out-of-season produce and the cardboard taste of tomatoes and strawberries trucked or flown thousands of miles to market have inspired a new generation of consumers who demand safe, delicious, sustainable food. Small family farms survive through these farmers market customers and the local chefs who buy for farm-to-table restaurants. Steve Freeman of Nichols Farm in Marengo, Illinois, reports that during the winter close to 100 restaurants, like Spiaggia and Frontera Grill, continue to make purchases. These relationships are critical for the small family farmer.
Zachary Engel, chef/owner of Galit on Lincoln Avenue and voted Rising Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 2017, is committed to local, sustainably raised food. He believes restaurants have a professional obligation to support local farmers: “I had to make sure we were spending as much money as we could at the farmers market every week as soon as it was available to us. If I can take something and make it work, I have an obligation to buy so they can make their money.”
Retail customers are looking for freshness and taste. Kelcie Dolan, who lives in the West Loop, likes the seasonal options. She explains, “I was looking for foods that are winter-appropriate, and so I wanted to buy something that was grown for the proper time of the year.” Her picks? The radishes, carrots, and apples. Media strategist Sarah Conklin shops here when she’s not volunteering for Club Sprouts, the market’s way to introduce children to fresh vegetables: “Most of the time it’s something they wouldn’t have eaten at home or refused to eat with their parents. We cut [a vegetable] up and let them play with it.” More often than not, this leads to sampling of the produce in question. Parents report great success.
And if you just want a tasty Saturday lunch, the market offers prepared food using market vendors’ products. Whether you crave Gayle Voss’s grilled cheese sandwiches or Zullo’s crispy fruit-filled hand pies, you’ll find the sustenance to carry you through the weekend.
Many market shoppers consider themselves “locavores,” avoiding any fruit or vegetable not in season. It’s challenging to eat only what’s currently available, but the rewards are not only delicious, healthy meals but the knowledge that one is offering farmers a bridge to the next growing season. That being said, what to do with some of these offerings may puzzle home cooks. The Green City Market Cookbook (available for purchase at the market) is organized by season with plenty of winter suggestions. Here’s a sample:
RED CABBAGE WITH APPLES AND BACON
Serve this winter dish to brighten up roast chicken, pork, or salon or just about any seasonal entrée. It may be prepared ahead and reheated just before serving. I love the colors of the red cabbage and apples, and the sweet and savory flavors are delicious. —Dana Benigno, former executive director, Green City Market
2 thick slices bacon, chopped
1 small onion chopped
4 cups chopped red cabbage [other kinds of cabbage may be used]
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
¾ teaspoon salt or more to taste
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tart apples, such as Honeycrisp or Granny Smith, chopped
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Serves 8 (with ½ cup servings)
- In a large, deep skillet over medium heat, sauté the bacon and onion for 6 minutes, until the onion is softened and the bacon is beginning to crisp at the edges. Add the cabbage and sauté for 6 to 8 minutes, until tender. Stir in the vinegar, salt, and black pepper.
- Stir in the apples and sauté for 5 to 6 minutes, until the apples are heated through and crisp-tender. Remove from the heat.
- Transfer to a bowl and serve immediately or chill for later use.
From January through April, the market is held every other Saturday (8:00 a.m.- 1:00 p.m.). The next market day is February 1. For more information on the market’s educational programs and special events, go to greencitymarket.org.