Eating Seasonally

tomato-vine

Fresh tomatoes on the vine – AdobeStock

I read an article recently about a well-known chef who argued the value of coaxing out flavor from a batch of winter tomatoes. He demonstrated how by slicing, seasoning, and roasting his off-season produce would essentially raise the flavor profile by caramelizing the sugars therefore concentrating the flavor he could produce a finished product rival to an August tomato.

My first thought, “What a wonderful skill, good for you”. I do not argue the point he was making, he has been trained and practices the principles of manipulation by preparation and technique.  Something I admire yet rarely do myself. Furthermore, I don’t really have that kind of time.

I think back to my early days in the produce business, I was the general manager for a small, all-organic produce stand at a public market in Napa. I remember this June afternoon during one of my first few weeks with the company. I had just returned from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market with a cache of primo stone fruit grown near Mt Diablo. The vendor gave me a few peaches from the varieties I had purchased. He wanted me to be sure to have a worthy sample since I’d bought cases. I was walking across First Street in Napa back to the store and had the large, perfectly ripened peach in hand. Half way through the crosswalk, I took my first bite. It was if I was eating a peach for the very first time. The first sensation was of the juice dripping down my chin. I had to side step from getting it all over my clothes. The sweet tang of peach flavor was spilling out from all directions, it was exquisite! My very first lesson in eating seasonally. Until that moment, I believed as the tomato cajoling chef had written, that proverbial apples were apples and easily substituted in recipes (more ranting about varietal flavor profiles in upcoming blog). The experience changed the way I looked at eating, that the experience of seasonality was real and that there was no technology that could fool mother nature.

Seasonality too, has a more esoteric nature. The time of year can be directly linked to our memory and cycle of the calendar. Smells of pine, cinnamon, and peppermint surely remind us of Christmastime. I feel the same way about produce. During the tomato season, we are so anxious for the experience of the fruit. Everyone I know tries to plant early as possible to get that first taste of the season as early as possible. It’s part of the anticipation, the longing. By denying ourselves the off-season knock-off produce, it makes us appreciate the true season and the accompanying true flavors. I rarely eat strawberries outside of June, I love them so much I feel any other time of the year simply is a letdown. Band together and shun the off-season produce, learn to love your produce in the season it was intended to be enjoyed. The creative chef who was so skilled in his mastery of tomato manipulation might well be tasked with a different form of creativity. A creativity with seasonality. I find many folks believe winter fruits and vegetables to be a type of “low availability” assortment. Personally, I find the winter produce to be of an amazing diversity of flavors, textures and nutrients (needed by our bodies during shorter winter sunlight hours). You might be thinking, “Great. Winter squash and sweet potatoes, again”. I invite you to visit your local food resources and find vegetables and fruits that are in abundance, ask the farmers and the clerks how they prepare this oft-overlooked bounty. The chicory family (see article in another post) boasts huge diversity and variety with little showing up in the mainstream grocery store. These are radicchio, endive, castelfranco, escarole, frisee, dandelion, and Pan de Zucchero, just to name a few, are mystifying to the hoe chef.  Imagination and flavor balancing in preparation of these sometimes-bitter leafy vegetables can be the most wonderful surprise. My favorite technique involves a salad preparation of as many chicories as I can find mixed with daikon radish and pickled carrots with roasted beets. To balance the texture and the sharp taste I use a warmed olive oil dressing and garlic. If my guests are adventurous in their eating I include a few anchovies in the dressing to mimic the Italian dish Bagna Cauda and melt a few tablespoons of butter before tossing it all together with the salad. Eat this salad and I suspect you might too start looking forward to the bounty of the winter season produce.

One final notation regarding seasonal eating. There exist among us, various degrees of palate refinement. Some people have the gift (or curse) of possessing what is known as “super taster” skills. The olfactory and taste buds in these super tasters is heightened. On the other end of the spectrum, I believe, there is a type of taster that is more textural. For a textural taster their experience may be more inclined to crunch, tenderness, or those qualities more related to texture. Most of us fall somewhere between on this Kinsey type scale. I think, the ability to taste has a great deal to do with the seasonality/local discussion about our food.

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