Nowadays it’s common to read and hear about seasonality online, in magazines, and on television. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate it myself. I’ve collected some of the lessons I’ve learned in this post.
Seasonality is for everyone
Many ingredients are available year-round in almost every supermarket. It’s not just a feature of the city. If you’re reading this post, then you almost certainly are choosing between non-peak supermarket produce and peak-season local produce.
The perfect is the enemy of the good
First things first. I learned not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Though seasonality strongly affects quality in cooking, every cook trades off quality for gains elsewhere. In a recent interview (somewhere in the first segment, I think), Tom Colicchio describes the tensions restaurant cooks face in preparing for service. Preparing things ahead of time frees up time during service for other tasks. However, preparing things ahead of time can compromise quality. A smart cook compromises thoughtfully. I’ll spend many years learning about this through trial and error.
When it comes to fresh produce, I’ve found places where cheating works. Buying fresh basil from the farmstand in early May seemed to be jumping the gun — I’ve read it’s happiest in the blazing summer sun — but fresh herbs after a long winter are a blessing. I haven’t yet found a source for intensely flavored carrots, but have found a carrot juice that fills out my carrot soup. Tomatoes are just coming into season, but I gave in to the supermarket cherry and grape varieties from a few months ago, especially when the temperature started to pick up. Frozen vegetables in the dead of winter regularly made their way into my freezer.
Why seasonality matters
Most importantly, an ingredient’s quality is a function of whether it is in season locally. Proximity matters because local growers are more likely to select varieties (e.g. bean, pea, or tomato types) for taste, as opposed to durability, the latter being important for long-distance shipping. To my knowledge, taste and durability aren’t correlated much, if at all. This relationship between variety and flavor is fundamental. There is no comparison between globe supermarket tomatoes in December and the farm fresh version in late summer.
Second, the amount of varieties you can choose from is also a function of seasonality. For each vegetable, there is a range of edible cultivars. Within lettuces, for example, there are the familiar Iceberg and generic Romaine as well as the less familiar Deer Tongue and Black-Seeded Simpson. Only a small subset of these edible cultivars is suitable for shipping. If you don’t pay attention to seasonality or only restrict yourself to supermarket shopping, you necessarily miss out. This year I’m growing Pink Brandywine and Jersey tomatoes with the hope that they’ll just be better, but also be different in an interesting way.
At a high level, seasonality matters if you want to give a time and place to your cooking. We already associate foods with holidays. Thanksgiving means turkey. Christmas means ham. The fourth of July means hot dogs and hamburgers. But proteins shouldn’t be the only type of food that enjoy this privilege, especially since quality doesn’t vary too much — at least for a family in our tax bracket — over the year. I’ve learned to look forward to, for example, delicate greens in spring, basil and tomatoes in summer, (Spencer) apples in the fall, and stews with root vegetables in the winter. It’s nice to have another set of seasons, distinct from those defined by my work, to define my year. Cooking with the seasons gives me reasons to vary my cooking in a natural way.
Finally, knowledge of seasonality has made ordering in restaurants more enjoyable. Restaurants at or above some quality level certainly cook with the seasons. Knowing what’s in season — and what doesn’t stay in season for very long — has been a useful guide to what the chef may be excited about and what I should consider ordering.
How to make your cooking more seasonal
In my experience, the main difficulty in cooking seasonally is the shopping. My suggestion is to go to a farm stand or farmers’ market regularly, but only as much as your time, energy, and money allow. Since I live in the suburbs, work at home, and own a car, I make two food shopping trips per week. I prefer to keep a lightly stocked refrigerator, except for condiments and long-keeping items. In the city, you’ll probably manage less. But the important thing is to go.
The next most important thing is to buy purposefully. By this I mean:
- If at a farmers’ market, buy the same vegetable at a few different stands. Whose is better? What qualities matter to you? How do the specimens you bought compare to descriptions posted online or in cookbooks?
- Do a little homework. I consult my gardening books every week or two to get an idea of what I should look for or what questions I should ask. Things that are at their peak or won’t be back again until next year are things you should consider bringing home. There are plenty of online sources if you don’t own any gardening books.
- Taste when you can, especially when you know what you’re looking for. I’ll admit I was daunted by admonitions to taste, taste, taste at the market. I found it awkward to taste something and not know whether it’s a good or bad version, or to taste something and then not want to buy it. I’ve been around my local farmstand long enough that I finally feel comfortable tasting peas or beans before picking them up. This tip is more for the shy novices.
Third, start by cooking your new ingredients simply. For more delicate things I cook them in a pan with some fat and salt. Hardier things I’ll boil first and then add fat and salt in a pan. The idea is to get your bearings. Once you know each ingredient’s fundamental flavor, then work on finding more involved recipes that utilize it. I plan on writing up my experience with peas pretty soon.
Finally, I find it useful to think of getting into seasonal eating as a long-term process. You can’t learn everything in one season. Even restaurant cooks need several years to get their bearings.