By Rachel Stone
Flourish magazine, Spring 2010
Though January is often the time for making resolutions, when it comes to the practice of seasonal eating, the spring and summer months are, for many folks, the best time to start. It’s a little hard for most people to get excited about eating lots of beets and turnips, but who doesn’t love tender spring greens and strawberries? My family started eating (very!) locally when we moved into an old cabin in rural California that was surrounded by grape vines, blackberry brambles, and fruit trees bearing apples, pears, and peaches. When the peaches ripened, and we enjoyed those first beautifully sweet bites, any allure that out-of-season supermarket peaches may have held faded away. Though we’ve since left that house behind, those first tastes of local and seasonal peach remind me of what is best about seasonal eating.
Why might you choose to eat in season? Here are just a few reasons:
To put it simply–asparagus and strawberries in season are delicious and quite affordable. Asparagus and strawberries shipped in December are expensive and flavorless. Ditto with peaches. And once you’ve tasted the best that spring and summer have to offer, seasonal eating becomes that much easier come wintertime—you won’t even be tempted to buy those expensive, mealy-watery, mid-winter imports.
Food that’s grown in better soil is better for you. When you choose food grown locally and in well-tended soil, you get food with more essential nutrients. Furthermore, fresher food has more vitamins. So food grown nearby is going to be better in that respect as well.
- Environmental Justice
Eating seasonally and locally can have nearly as large an impact on your carbon footprint as your transportation choices. Steven Hopp (Barbara Kingsolver’s husband and co-author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) notes that if each US citizen were to eat local and organic for ONE MEAL a week, we’d reduce our nation’s oil consumption by over 1 million barrels (barrels!). And there are broader issues of justice with respect to land use. Farmers are often able to make more cash growing crops for export than for home consumption, but this often has a disruptive effect on traditional, indigenous diets, where, as in Argentina, for example, wholesome wild honey is sold for foreign consumption in exchange for cash which is used to buy white sugar.
My introduction to seasonal eating was in many ways ideal. I didn’t have to ask what was in season—I just had to look out the window and see the ripe peaches! For most of us, though, it’s not quite so easy. Here are a few hints toward figuring out what’s in season where you are.
- The “Vegetannual”
If you haven’t already read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s the story of her family’s experiment in growing much of their own food—and obtaining the rest locally—for a year. (But, of course, it was such a joyful experience, they kept going.) In it, and at www.vegetannual.org, she describes an imaginary plant called the ‘vegetannual,’ which can be helpful as a reminder of what’s in season—imagining all the vegetables coming from one plant and moving from the leaves downward. First come the leaves (lettuces, chard, bok choy), then more mature leaves and flowering heads (broccoli, cabbage), followed by increasingly hardened and colored fruits—cucumbers lead to green beans and small tomatoes, which lead to beefsteak tomatoes and eggplants, leading to the melons and winter squash, and finishing with the root vegetables of fall.
- Online Tools
If the vegetannual’s a little too esoteric for you, or if you enjoy a fun web-based tool now and then, check out the peak season map at Epicurious. It’s not terribly specific (it tells you what’s in season in ALL of New York, for example…but what’s local in Poughkeepsie is not really local on Long Island). However, it’s not a bad place to start, and you can search for recipes that include seasonal ingredients.
Knowing what’s in season becomes less troublesome once you get into the groove of where to find your season produce—once you know where to look, knowing what’s in season becomes a matter of going and seeing!
- Grow a Garden
Well, okay, you won’t necessarily be starting one this season. But depending on where you live, sometimes it isn’t too late to get some seeds in the ground! One year our neighbor forgot to water our newly-planted vegetable beds while we went away for a week, and we ended up having to re-plant a month after we’d started. Our garden still fed us very well that season. And there really is nothing like the pleasure of planting seeds, watching food grow, and eating it.
- Join a CSA
Again, it may actually be too late this year to join a CSA—the growing popularity of local and seasonal eating mean that CSAs are often full by spring; so plan ahead for next year, or seek out a CSA that provides fall season shares. My mom and dad, as empty-nesters, found that their CSA share was too large for them to eat; some farms allow you to choose a 1/2 share; my mom found it helpful and fun to split her share (and the cost) with a friend. www.LocalHarvest.org/csa has the most comprehensive directory of CSA programs.
- Go to the Farmer’s Market
Pretty straightforward, once you’ve found your local farmer’s market (www.LocalHarvest.org is the place to go for that as well), and you can often purchase locally prepared jams, honeys, dairy products, and baked goods. However, this is where knowing what’s in season can be helpful—occasionally vendors will cleverly display produce that has been shipped from far away in order to make it appear seasonal and local.
Now we’ve come to my favorite part—eating! When you begin eating what’s local and seasonal, you may come across vegetables that are unfamiliar to you. I vividly remember eyeing that first kohlrabi in my CSA bag in Scotland. (“What is that, and how, exactly, do I go about eating it!?”) And sometimes, your efforts in local eating will be rewarded with more than you know what to do with—we couldn’t eat or even give away all the peaches or tomatoes or green beans that our garden gave us. Here are some resources and tips for enjoying your seasonal food.
- What do I do with a Kohlrabi?
Of course, you can always do an internet search for recipes using unfamiliar ingredients, but my very favorite low-tech resource for seasonal eating is Simply in Season, the newest in the beloved World Community Cookbook series that includes the cookbook many of us may have grown up with, More with Less (which itself contains a lot of wisdom on seasonal eating from before it was trendy!). Simply in Season contains a wealth of recipes organized according to the seasons of the year, including an “all-seasons” section that has great recipes for breads, granolas, and lots of other tasty and healthy things.
Putting food by—preserving it for the winter months—allows you to extend the joy of your local harvest. My dear friend Ruth and her copy of Putting Food By (Greene, Hertzberg and Vaughan) introduced me to the art of preserving food. Although canning may seem daunting and does in fact require a measure of precision to do safely, canning high-acid foods (which means many of spring and summer’s lovely fruits) in a large pot of boiling water is relatively simple to begin. And freezing is even simpler. As always, the internet can be your guide here, too—check out www.preservefood.com.
I’ll leave you with two of my family’s favorite seasonal recipes…though perhaps you, like us, relish most of all the simple pleasure of tomatoes, peaches, and strawberries eaten out of hand, or of green vegetables prepared simply with a minimum of adornment. When food is fresh and local, its flavor is something you’ll want to allow to speak for itself.
Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
It really helps to chill all the ingredients in the refrigerator for 1 hour before beginning the piecrust.
For the Crust:
Combine in a small bowl and place in the refrigerator:
1 slightly beaten egg
5 TB ice cold water
1 TB vinegar (white or cider)
Meanwhile, in the bowl of a food processor, pulse together:
3 cups pastry flour (may use up to 1/3 whole wheat pastry flour)
1 cup of very cold butter
1 tsp. salt.
Pour in the wet ingredients and pulse until a dough ball forms. Cut into thirds and chill for half an hour; remove one ball at a time and roll out gently on a floured surface. Each ball will yield a single 9” piecrust; wrapped well, they can be frozen to use another time.
For the filling:
3 cups rhubarb, cut into small pieces
1 cup stemmed and sliced strawberries
1 cup raw (turbinado) sugar
2 TB cornstarch
squeeze of lemon juice; dash of nutmeg (optional)
1/4 teaspoon of salt
Combine well in a large bowl. Pour filling into prepared pie crust; top with a second pie crust and slit to allow steam to escape. Bake at 400 for 20 minutes; lower heat to 350 and bake an additional 30-40 minutes. Cool in a pan on rack. The juices will thicken as the pie cools. Delicious served with vanilla ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped heavy cream.
Inspired by Simply in Season and by the food blog “Simply Recipes.”
Spring/Summer Rolls and Peanut Sauce
For the Rolls:
8 sheets rice paper
8 soft lettuce leaves
4 ounces thin rice noodles, soaked until tender (but not mushy)
A quantity of vegetables:
grated or julienned carrots, cucumber, avocado (if local!), radishes—be creative!
½ cup each fresh mint, cilantro, and basil leaves torn into pieces
(If you lack one or the other, feel free to omit)
Soak 1 sheet of rice paper in warm water for 10 seconds or so, then lay out on a kitchen cloth. Place a lettuce leaf in the middle, and fill it with a finger size portion of noodles, a bit of each vegetable, and some of the fresh leaves. Roll up the rice paper wrapper like a burrito, closing both sides in. Repeat with the remaining ingredients, making sure not to allow rolls to touch, or they will stick together. You can wrap them in a damp towel and plastic wrap and serve within an hour, with peanut sauce (my favorite) or a simple dipping sauce of equal parts soy sauce and rice vinegar with a couple tablespoons of sesame oil stirred in.
For the Peanut Sauce:
Chop finely and sauté together in 2-3 TB of neutral oil (like corn or grapeseed) until very tender and fragrant:
1 small onion
3 cloves garlic
1-inch piece ginger
1-2 stalks lemongrass (optional)
Sprinkle with 1 tsp. turmeric and stir to coat, 1 minute. Then add:
1 can (organic, please!) coconut milk
2-3 TB soy sauce
3 TB brown or turbinado sugar (you can also use maple syrup)
3 TB lime juice
½-1 cup peanut butter
ground cayenne pepper to taste
Simmer, stirring constantly to keep from sticking, and adding water to achieve the desired dipping consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings, and enjoy warm with spring/summer rolls and a dish of raw veggies. Cherry tomatoes taste fantastic dipped in this sauce. My (very young!) children love this dish; it’s fun to eat and a great way to get lots of raw veggies into them.
Inspired by an old Sunset magazine, Barbara Kingsolver, and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
Rachel Stone is mama to two boys, one born in California and one in Scotland, and currently, together with her husband, makes a home in Germany. Upon leaving Germany she will sorely miss, among other things, biking everywhere and eating apple strudel. And the fact that biking everywhere allows her to eat apple strudel. She loves reading, knitting, sewing, writing, eating, and playing outside.