Eating fresh vegetables and fruits when and where they grow naturally provides plenty of benefits. Often, fresh produce is less expensive and more flavorful, and you’re helping local farmers flourish and, in turn, grow more fresh food to make available to more people.
Let the Seasons Determine Your Menu
“Seasonal is the way I learned how to cook, it’s a natural way of life, not a new concept,” says Tim LaBant, chef and proprietor of The Schoolhouse at Cannondale, a restaurant in Wilton, Conn., where each menu is based on what’s available that day. “Everybody in history before the 1900s has eaten seasonally. It’s more like going backwards to figure out what’s right. As you cook, you start to think about food and where it comes from. What’s important to me is keeping it seasonal and local; the more connected to the food I am, the more inspired I am.”
Creating seasonal dishes, says LaBant, just means that when strawberries or asparagus or corn are in season, you use them. “All foods have a season. As leaves change and I smell the first fire in a fireplace, I think about squash and pumpkin. Like a kid getting excited around Christmas, in August I get excited about tomatoes,” he explains.
To taste firsthand the advantages of eating seasonal dishes, LaBant suggests buying two or three organic apples from small farms or fruit growers and the same number from the supermarket, and comparing how they taste. “If you’re eating an apple in the fall, it has a lot more flavor than the ‘super’ apple,” says LaBant, adding that it’s also good to support the small farmer who’s trying to grow food the healthy way.
LaBant works directly with a local farmer who supplies three restaurants and a few families from her two-acre farm. He takes as much produce as he can, and then he creates his menu, depending on what foods he can get. On occasion, the produce mix might not yield enough ingredients for every salad, for example, to look identical on a given night, but each will have a great medley of fresh ingredients.
LaBant translates his approach for the home cook this way: “Try not to come up with the perfect recipe, then force the ingredients into that recipe.” In other words, let what’s fresh and available determine your meals — don’t decide to make a peach cobbler in January when peaches aren’t in season.
LaBant also recommends starting your own garden, even if it’s small, to understand the connection to food. This teaches you to appreciate what farmers go through, and you’ll see firsthand that good food isn’t necessarily picture perfect, and that taste isn’t affected if the vegetable happens to grow a bit misshapen. You’ll also become more creative when your tomato crop ripens overnight. “All of a sudden, you have 25 pounds of tomatoes for a family of four, and you have to think of what you can do to use what you have when you have it, instead of wasting it,” he says.
Which Foods to Buy and When
Many areas of the country are known for certain foods grown at certain times, but generally, fresh vegetables and fruits are associated with a particular season:
- Spring: Early fresh vegetables include asparagus, radishes, delicate leafy greens like mache and arugula, fiddleheads (a type of edible fern), ramps (a mild, soft onion), mushrooms, strawberries, and peas — first the shoots and flowers, then pea pods, and full-grown peas.
- Summer: The produce bounty includes “stone fruit” (peaches, apricots, and nectarines), cherries, raspberries, blueberries, beets, zucchini, summer squash, string beans, cucumbers, carrots, blackberries, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, corn, okra, melons, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes.
- Fall: This is the season for apples, pears, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and mustard greens — heartier produce that won’t die if there’s a cool night.
- Winter: Now is the time for root vegetables, including turnips, winter squash, celery root, parsnips, sweet potatoes, carrots, and rutabagas.
Making Sure It’s Locally Grown
There are ways to determine if the produce in your farmers’ market is in season and grown locally. First, farmers’ markets have rules that govern what can be sold. If it is a “producer only” market, vendors must have grown or made the foods they are selling. If “carrying” is allowed, vendors may carry or sell products made elsewhere. To ensure freshness, some markets limit the distance from which a farmer or vendor can travel. Farmers also have to adhere to national, state, and local laws about everything from food handling to labeling.
LaBant also suggests that you engage farmers in a conversation. Besides learning about what crops they grow, this gives you the opportunity to develop a good customer-supplier relationship. “To get to know your farmers, strike up a conversation. Ask a question that doesn’t have a yes or no answer. How many acres is your farm? Are you all natural and sustainable? What kind of irrigation do you use? Do you weed by hand? If they’re passionate about it, farmers will give you long-winded answers, but you can learn a lot,” says LaBant.