For everything there is a season
Walking into a grocery store recently I had to navigate my cart around a six-foot-tall display of beautifully crimson tomatoes that were still on their vines. They were unavoidable and the first thing a person saw when entering the store. They were beautiful…bright red, almost shimmering, and heavy for their size; they smelled nice, too. But I couldn’t help but feel a little disheartened.
The problem I had was not with the quality of the fruit or how they were arranged, the problem was with what time it was. And by this I don’t mean the time of the day but more specifically the time of the year. During this visit—a couple days before this article was written—it was late February and the temperature outside was frigid. Tomatoes are in season during the sweltering dog days of summer, not the middle of winter. How, I thought to myself, is someone that loves to cook supposed have restraint and avoid the temptation of these beautiful little orbs?
I still remember as a child digging elbow-deep into my Christmas stocking, amidst the candy bars and small toys there would inevitably be a fresh orange. My sisters each received one, too. Of course my hand would breeze past the orange as if it weren’t there, desperately seeking more “real goodies.” When I was a little older, I asked my mother why there was an orange in the stockings every year. She said it was a tradition carried over from when her mother was a little girl and to have citrus fruit this far north was considered something really special.
Just stop for a minute and try to imagine that: an orange as something not commonplace but special, an orange as something special because it was in season, albeit in another part of the country. It really is difficult to fathom when supermarkets are bursting with every possible foodstuff from across the globe. And I have to admit, being a professional cook—a person who’s life is often ensconced in food—it’s exciting to enter a store and be confronted by pile after pile of fruits and vegetables…though at what cost?
The tomatoes I saw in February probably were in season on the other side of the equator, or maybe in a greenhouse somewhere. But they didn’t seem special because they are always there. There is never a time when I cannot purchase a tomato locally.
When I think of Spring I do not think of tomatoes (sorry to keep harping on this tomato thing, but it’s the proverbial summer garden vegetable and easy to grow or buy from local producers). Springtime to me means asparagus, leeks, mushrooms, baby carrots, and chives. It also means strawberries, raspberries, peas, baby spinach, various lettuces, and new potatoes. When I think of spring I also envision turning the soil in my teensy garden plot, and planting herbs and vegetables, which I’ll eat in due time. They’ll be something to look forward to.
Personally, when I shop and cook by the season food is more interesting. I’ll use the example of tomatoes again. When I wait much of the year for tomato season, and I get that first bite of one on a hot summer’s day, it is exciting. I would not feel this same way if I had them in February, no matter how crimson and glistening they were.
I am not suggesting that we as Western New Yorkers should subsist on produce that is exclusively from our immediate area, because that would be very difficult for much of the year, but I am suggesting that we at least purchase and cook foods that are in season in our general area of the world. This isn’t as difficult as it seems, because while some produce has short and distinctive seasons, such as tomatoes and peppers, others are naturally available year round (although usually from states with warmer climates and longer growing seasons). Broccoli is a good example of this.
This is mostly a manifesto written to myself—a reminder, really—because for a professional cook, on the constant lookout for variety and inspiration, I believe it is even more difficult to thwart the urge of using out-of-season produce. But for the home cook, too, these vegetables are thrust in your face at a store in much the same way a commercial is on television. I would have loved to have purchased some of those plump tomatoes and a little of the greenhouse-grown basil from the next isle and go home and toss them with pasta, but that’s a dish for summer, when you can see the tomatoes on their vines in your garden not a supermarket shelf.
This is something I struggle with on an almost daily basis. And as a cook it is also extremely important on many levels to continue to cook by the season. The seasons were meant for a reason; the over-availability of certain vegetables can actually dull our appreciation of them. There are many reasons that can be listed, but the simplest is one that I pose in the form of a question to both the reader and myself: if a tomato is available perfectly ripe each day of the year, what would make it special come late July and August. Would it, then, be special at all?
A Few Common Springtime Fruits and Vegetables:
asparagus, arugula, beans, fennel, baby carrots, celeriac, chard, cucumbers, baby eggplant, escarole, fiddlehead ferns, frissee, lettuces, leeks, mache, mushrooms, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radicchio, raspberries, spinach, strawberries, watercress, baby zucchini.