Buying Produce by the Seasons

Sunday February 12, 2017

Food that tastes good and looks appealing will never be out of style and choosing seasonal produce is one of the essential ingredients that make it so.

Since beginning my culinary career, I have been examining the way the seasons affect my cooking and the power that ingredients have in creating good food.  While certain American chefs are touted for being the first taste makers to advocate a return to eating with the seasons, it is a way of cooking and eating that is as old as the art of cooking itself:  working with the ingredients as they become available seasonally. Our grandparents ate seasonal food because they didn’t have a choice. They didn’t have the option of going to the local supermarket and buying strawberries in January from Chile or asparagus trucked in from across the country.

The vegetable section of a supermarket produce department, farmer’s market, or roadside fruit and vegetable stand is a changeable world, often changing daily due to seasonality and availability. Sophisticated farming and shipping techniques give us varieties in an abundance throughout the year and there are an estimated three times the amount of items available today than just 15 years ago.  But an intelligent shopper will still consider seasonality of importance.  For produce in optimum condition, it is best to select vegetables in their prime growing and shipping times. The more delicate a vegetable, the more important becomes the issue of seasonality and the local growing area.  Most vegetables stop ripening as soon as they are picked, and since they are perishable, for example as with tomatoes, they are picked under ripe for easy transport. This is especially true for long distance shipping. While the vegetables may look good, they did not develop a yummy flavor and appealing texture.

While it is easy to forget the definitions of a season with such a vast year round availability and efficient world-wide transportation bringing food to restaurants and supermarkets, we are, as cooks, always linked to seasonal produce. By eating seasonally and locally, you also help to protect the environment by not consuming foods that take large amounts of fuel and energy to be shipped across the country. It’s all about timing: fresh herbs, many colored eggplants, the myriad of sweet and hot peppers, and corn all summer long; sweet potatoes, root crops like beets, and winter squash in the fall; tomatillos, citrus, and spaghetti squash in the winter; asparagus, fava beans, and peas-in-the-pod in the spring.  All must have their due respect. What’s in season depends on where you live. Growing seasons vary. For example, the produce will be different in Miami from what is grown in Kansas at the same time of the year. Seek out your local farmers’ markets to learn about produce seasonality for your area. I notice farmer’s markets are really the rage now for shopping and in my area, rotate different days of the week and areas.

While some vegetables are available year-round–like peppers, cabbage, mushrooms, and zucchini–many have peak seasons. I encourage you to take the time to seek out the markets that sell really good produce to make a conscious and educated choice. And unless they look really good, don’t bother. But don’t be so intimidated you feel out of luck if you miss a day at your local farmers’ market–many excellent dishes utilize high-quality frozen staples such as artichoke hearts, baby lima beans, green peas, and even bell pepper strips. Every so often I will pick up a bag of pre-cut mixed fresh vegetables for stir frys or a big container of organic baby spinach.

An appreciation for ethnic cuisines and an awareness of the important role vegetables play in good health and satisfying eating have prompted small-scale specialty farmers and merchants alike to offer us less familiar produce, like Chinese long beans, along with our American favorites, such as onions, carrots, celery, and cabbage. Have you ever used fresh water chestnuts in place of canned? They are remarkable!

Unusual and rare vegetables show up in multi-colored tomatoes and mini-vegetables. Careful selection and storage are important if you want the best quality.  Taking time to handpick your produce assures this further. When experimenting with unfamiliar ethnic vegetables, such as chayote, nopales, exotic mushrooms, daikon radish, or kabocha winter squash, take the time to cook them for yourself before serving to guests. That way you can judge their overall character, taste, and texture to see if they fit in your cooking style.

Out of season items are usually very expensive, about twice the regular seasonal price. Respecting seasonality means recognizing that foods are available all year, but recognizing that they are at different stages at different times during that year. Garlic is more mild in the spring and fresh greens are more delicate as well.  Fresh peas only appear in early summer so frozen petite peas are an excellent alternative the rest of the year. The same goes for artichokes. Tinned tomato products are superior to many hothouse and imported fresh tomatoes out of season.

You may not think of dried beans as having a season, but they most certainly do. Dried beans are harvested in the early fall. Fresh dried beans have more moisture than say beans that have sat for a year, using less liquid to cook and having a better texture.  This also applies to split peas and lentils.  Specialty sources for dried beans is one of the fastest growing avenues of specialty farming and market gardening with tasty varieties like Jacob’s Cattle, Zuni Gold, and Gigandes. Flageolets and Tarbais, the epitome of beans that are so popular in French cooking, and Le Puy baby green lentils are now available in the US market, both imported and domestically grown.

Nuts and dried fruits, such as currants, chestnuts, pecans, and dates, as well as freshly pressed olive and nut oils, newly harvested rice and oats, all show up in the fall months and are essential in seasonal cookery.

Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2017

If you copy the text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.

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