10/4/13

Seasonal

There are certain ingredients that are worth seeking out when they're in season. Tomatoes, any kind of fresh berries, fiddlehead ferns, and pumpkin. It's not to say that you can't eat them out of season. I've seen those plastic containers of the fancy tomatoes in the market. They smell just fine, meaning that they'd likely taste OK too. I've seen butternut squash pretty much year-round. I've seen Brussels sprouts  in the middle of summer.

And I'm not saying that you should never eat those specific foods unless they're in season. If you want a tomato sauce, tinned tomatoes are lovely. For a berry based smoothie, frozen berries are a triumph. Brussels sprouts in summer work just fine if you can get those packets of frozen ones from Trader Joe (who seem to have them all the time, at fairly reasonable prices). However, there is something to be said for anticipating the season of those foods, waiting for them to come into their own, and then pouncing at your farmer's market or produce cart, and eating them fresh for that short time that they're available.

I find that the out-of-season fresh versions of seasonal foods tend to pale in comparison to the preserved version (tinned, frozen, etc), which only give you a glimpse of what the foods taste like when in season. There are other foods where the season really doesn't seem to affect anything. In some cases, it's because the flavour has been bred out of that food for so many years, that getting them out of season or in season doesn't make a difference, as the food itself tastes like nothing. The banana is one such example.

I remember being in India, where the fruit vendors would be out in force at the market. My mother would buy those teeny tiny bananas. They were the size of two of your thumbs held side by side. They had extremely thin skin, and would ripen very quickly. You could smell them from the front door. You opened one up, and took a bite. Instantly, this creamy, custardy sweetness would fill your entire head. It was intensely sweet, with a mild hit of sourness (very very mild). I'm thinking of those little bananas, and my mouth is watering at the thought. And then we'd come home to the USA, and have the typical bananas from the grocery store. They'd smell like nothing until the skin was so brown that you don't want to eat it anymore. They'd be sweet~ish, but have no other flavour. So disappointing.

The same goes for spinach. You will never convince me that the tiny little buttery leaves of "baby spinach" that come in the packets at the supermarket will ever taste nearly as delicious as the leaves of the thorny spinach that grew in my mother's garden, or reddish green leaves of the "wild" spinach (as it's called at the Indian store) that I would find from time to time when shopping in Jackson Heights, Queens. Yes, those varieties take a bit more work (and washing) to eat, but when you take a bite of the cooked dish, you see what you're missing.

There are some vegetables that are delicious regardless of the season, because they're grown in places where the climate is conducive to such things year round. Onions, garlic, dark leafy greens (kale, collard, mustard, radish, beet, etc), broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, and bell peppers are pretty tasty no matter what time of the year they're sold. Potatoes, yucca, yam, and sweet potatoes, seem to be lovely no matter the time of year. Same goes for carrots, cabbage, bok choy, chayote, plantains (I prefer the green ones, because you can eat the skin), and button mushrooms.

What I'm trying to get at is that there are times when eating seasonally is your best bet. When you're shopping at the grocery store, or farmer's market, or wherever you tend to shop, your best bargains will come from produce that's in season. Why? Because in-season produce tends to arrive all at once, in great abundance. When you have boatloads of it, you need to sell it off now, because it's going to go off on you if you don't use it immediately.

I recall being at Fairway Market on 125th, and they were selling zucchini for about $1 a pound, give or take. It's an atrocious price, because the stuff grows like a weed, and after you plant zucchini once, every single person you know will never want to touch the stuff again for as long as they live. Seeing something that grows so obnoxiously well being priced at that cost turned me off, until I wandered over to the Manager's Specials cart. They had a giant container of zucchini (about five or so pounds) priced at $1.50. That'll do just fine, thanks. I bought it, and used it all up that night, because when you roast the stuff, it shrinks down a bit.

That's what I'm getting at though. When you do see in-season produce being marked up at a high cost, just look around a little bit more, and you're likely to find it cheaply somewhere. I recall looking for fresh cranberries last year. Every store I went to had those tiny little bags from Ocean Spray, costing about $3. It's barely a half pound, and it was costing $3. I wouldn't accept that for an answer. I just happened to be at Whole Food for something else, and saw that they had an organic version of the tiny little Ocean Spray bags, costing around $4 and change. I ignored it, and kept searching. There it was! They had loose cranberries on sale for a little under $3 a pound. Done and done!

There are other times when eating only what's in season would result in a boring, nutrient deficient sort of meal, especially if you live in the frozen North, where nothing but nasty attitudes grow during the winter. There's a happy medium between eating strawberries in December, and avoiding dark leafy greens during the summer because it's not strictly in season. You sort of balance the need for shopping locally and seasonally with the difference in price and taste. Regardless of how in season or not it is, kale is going to be expensive. (In my mind it's worth it though, because it's so tasty.) No matter what the season, bananas aren't growing in Central Park. Wherever it is they grow, we're importing them anyway. Eat bananas whenever you want.

But for those few things that are still truly seasonal, I hope you join me in anticipating them all year, and then pouncing when they're at their best.
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