I never used to think of food in terms of season. Sure, there were dishes that were more suited to winter, and those more suited to summer – especially when one lives in the desert where the temperatures routinely climb above 100° and the very idea of turning on the oven can make you faint from heat exhaustion. Salads were for summer; stew, chili, and soup were for winter. It was pretty simple. My eyes were opened by a chef in San Diego by the name of Michael Stebner (now at True Food Kitchen in Arizona). It was in a cooking class I took from him; he mentioned that food that grows in the same soil at the same time will taste good together. The example he used was that of tomatoes and zucchini. At the time that wasn’t really a tempting thought as my experience with tomatoes and zucchini involved stewing them, not a favorite dish of mine.
It was my introduction to the slow food movement and while it sounded good, I wanted proof – proof that didn’t involve a disagreeable memory from my childhood. So I started paying attention. I started shopping at the small farmer’s market near my place in the Hillcrest neighborhood in San Diego. Before I got half started with this, I ended up moving back to Seattle. Home of Pike Place Market, more farmer’s market than you can imagine, and incredible agriculture within an hour’s drive of the city. One memorable visit to Sosio’s in the Market, I asked after apples. It was mid-October and apples are fall fruit, yes? I wanted Honey Crisp. My lovely produce guy just shook his head, out of season. What? Honey Crisp go fast. How about a nice Braeburn? A few weeks later I wanted artichokes, I had seen a recipe. Sorry kid, he said, out of season.
Brussels sprouts, beets, eggplant, winter squash, parsnips (parsnips?), those he had and in abundance. What he didn’t have was artichoke. The fruit selection was even more dismal; pears, there were some. There were some pomegranates from California. There were persimmons. Persimmons. Ah, persimmons, suddenly memories of persimmon cookies and persimmon pudding came back. The bounty of the annual Christmas box from my Fresno relatives, the smell of cinnamon and cloves, and the chewy, sweet cookies. Persimmons meant winter to me; which got me to thinking about this whole seasonal eating thing again.
So here it is the beginning of December; the dark cold days have begun in earnest. What do I crave? A nice meaty stew with parsnips, carrots and celery; a pot roast with roasted vegetable gravy; eggplant in any number of glorious ways, roasted squash, Brussels sprouts. Good, hearty, winter food from good, hearty winter produce. Some of it was new to me, even with my adventurous cook of a mother. I had never had a parsnip until about two years ago. Eggplant was something that I feared cooking after several disastrous attempts; winter squash had always been the overcooked orange mess that was the result of my mother not liking the stuff. Brussels sprouts were always steamed and served drowned in vinegar.
Had anyone told me, at the tender age of 10, that I would get excited over roasted squash I would have laughed at them. There was an entire decade when the very mention of eggplant could make me blanch. Had anyone told me at the age of 30 that I would be cooking anything as adventurous as a homemade tomato sauce I would have thought them insane. And yet here I am, cooking, eating and enjoying all of those foods that I hated.
This thing is a bit of a learning curve. There is a restraint involved at the outset – no really, that watermelon looks really, really tasty. Those hot house veggies look very pretty. Sometimes you just want an artichoke. Or an apple. Or whatever it is that strikes your fancy that just happens to be in the produce bins. Yet I have learned that there an additional bonus to this seasonal eating thing – not only do I get to feel good about the impact my food choices have on the environment, the food just tastes so much better. The stuff trucked in from five states away, or flown in from Chile, or New Zealand or wherever else on the globe that has that particular thing in season – it just doesn’t have the flavor, and it certainly doesn’t go as well with the other things I am cooking.
Maybe it is simply my own developing taste but I want the food I eat to be grown at the same time in the same region. I get it now, Chef Stebner. It took a while, but I finally get it.