When one thinks of a busy farmers market full of foodies and families wandering among tables piled high with fresh, local fruits and vegetables, one does not typically think of the Lowcountry's chillier winter months. But local chefs and growers say the area's year-round markets have more to offer this time of year than many realize.
"You have your winter greens, lettuces, collard greens, kale, root vegetables like turnips," said Kit Bruce, founder of the Port Royal Farmers Market. "There's a lot going on. There's a lot more we can grow here than just corn and soy beans. South Carolina is an agricultural state."
Broccoli and cauliflower and some varieties of winter squash can also be found at any of three local year-round farmers markets in Port Royal, Bluffton and Pick Pocket Plantation in Beaufort. The Farmers Market of Bluffton on Calhoun Street reopens Thursday, according to the market's website.
Temperature often dictates the kinds of vegetables vendors can grow and sell, and the area's cooler winter weather is good for broccoli, cauliflower and other somewhat temperamental vegetables, said York Glover, a Clemson Extension agent.
"Those have been difficult to grow in this area because they are not good in the heat," Glover said. "If it gets too hot, they will start to bolt and turn to seed. You need those chillier temperatures to give you a good, compact head. Broccoli and cauliflower seem to be doing really well this season."
Mild winter weather and few, if any, overnight frosts also helped tomatoes stick around a little longer than in past years, Glover added.
"I know of some farmers who had tomatoes into the first of December," Glover said. "That's unheard of. Usually, around that time of year, we would get a good freeze that would wipe those out, but that weather never came. The quality isn't there but some of these farmers had vine-ripened tomatoes in December."
Though farmers markets typically slow this time of year, area chefs say they welcome the arrival of winter weather and its seasonal vegetables.
"I love butternut squash and brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes," said Gary Lang, executive chef at Breakwater Restaurant in Beaufort.
Lang said one of his favorite winter dishes, and one that appeared on the restaurant's winter menu last year, was braised shortribs with collard greens.
"It reminded me of when I was a kid and my mother would put a pot roast in the oven right before we went to church," Lang said. "We would come home and you could just smell that braised meat. That shortrib dish reminds me of Sunday afternoons growing up. It's a great winter dish."
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 pounds winter squash roughly chopped
1 large onion, chopped
6 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup chopped basil
1 1/2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Juice of 1 lemon
Sour cream or plain yogurt
Heat the oil in a large saucepan or stockpot, add squash and onion. Saute for 5 minutes or until onions are translucent and squash is crisp tender. Then add stock, bring to a boil, reduce heat and partially cover and cook for 25 minutes. Add basil during the last 5 minutes of cooking. Mix the butter and flour together into a paste. Remove 1 cup of simmering stock and whisk in butter mixture until smooth. Add back into soup, stir until thickened. Remove soup from heat to a blender and puree until smooth. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Add lemon juice and serve with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.
Source: Bluffton Farmers Market
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBGPatrick.