Last year, I focused on eating more healthy. This year I’ve focused on eating increasingly seasonally and local. This made everything coming out of my kitchen taste more delicious, with little effort and many benefits beyond taste. One of my favorite books from this year on nutrition was “The Dorito Effect” (my review) which raises the question: What happens when knowledge of chemistry and artificial flavouring outpace that of farming and human health (aka the world today)? It argues that foods have become increasingly bland due to focus on yield, consistency and colour rather than flavour. Chickens we eat now are essentially giant babies at 5-9 weeks old, which lack the complexities of taste introduced by age. Vegetables have less minerals and vitamins than they did 50 years ago. The reason your grandma’s recipes call for only salt, pepper and butter is not because she were culinarily inferior, but that meat back then simply needed less to taste good. Unfortunately today we chase the ultimate spice blend to throw on bland meats, instead of seeking out the better cut. We compensate for watery vegetables with ranch dressing and by eating more. Flavour is information about the contents of foods, and blandness is a strong warning it’s not good for you. Our evolutionarily tuned taste-buds are confused by the overcompensation of blandness from spice and artificial flavour. This boils down to my first argument for guiding food decisions by season and locality, quoting the Dorito Effect:
“Cooking is the easy part. The hardest thing about cooking is finding the right ingredients”.
Most chefs would agree with this. In the Blue Hill Restaurant episode of Chef’s Table the majority of the episode shows Dan Barber talking about how important quality produce is. He talks to a farmer about breeding the perfect butternut squash by making it smaller, so it’s less watery and therefore more intense. The farmer’s eyes glow with joy, as he tells Dan it’s the first time anyone has ever told him to breed for flavour.
Sourcing locally means that vegetables travel less (on average grocery store items travel somewhere around 2,000 km). Instead of departing the fields premature and ripening in transport, they’re picked when they’re ready and at their tastiest. This goes hand-in-hand with guiding choices by season, as this is only possible when produce is in season near you. Ever tasted mangos in South-East Asia? Tomatoes fresh off the stalk in Italy? Olives off the tree in Spain? Asparagus from a road stand in Denmark? How incredible was it? If you learn to eat the vegetables that grow around you, you can experience this year-round, replacing the cardboard-tasting tomatoes you can pick up during the winter (depending on where you live). At the end of the day, this is the biggest reason I pay attention to season and locality: it simply tastes better.
Eating local and seasonal doesn’t necessarily mean organic, but often does. Exposing yourself to less chemicals that we generally don’t know what does to our long-term health, isn’t a terrible idea. Pesticides and antibiotics can have nasty consequences, even short-term, on our bodies and are used freely in agriculture all over the world. When food travels less, it doesn’t just taste better, you also support local economy and contribute less to an insane food logistics system (with whatever capitalistic and environmental consequences that may have). The biggest problem with food supply is not producing it, but the logistics. If we became better at eating what grows around us, that’d be less of a problem. In my case, it ended up being cheaper too.
To eat seasonally, you need to keep an open-mind to experiment with new vegetables. You’re not going to eat asparagus in October, or fresh tomatoes in February. You may not have much experience with collards, rutabaga and sunchoke—but they can all be delicious. When asparagus came in season in Ontario this late spring, I ate them every day (only for dinner, I had other vegetables for lunch) for three weeks experimenting with different preparations (sautéed asparagus, cremini mushrooms, garlic, lemon juice, shallots, olive oil and shrimp ended up being the winner). In addition, I forgot what normal pee smells like. It’s an extreme, but it’s a great way to commit to different preparations of the same vegetable. Your grandparents and national cuisine are great sources of inspiration for recipes with the more adventurous vegetables, because long ago you didn’t have a choice but to source local and seasonally. Another great way is to look at what other ingredients you like that go well with something (and are also in season), and build a recipe from there: Beets go well with salty cheese, walnuts, and bitterness and you end up with a delicious arugula goat cheese beet salad with walnuts where everything will be fresh in the fall (if you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world that can grow walnuts, fresh walnuts are incredible). The Flavour Bible is an excellent resources on pairing flavours, or IBM’s Chef Watson. Pairing a couple of flavours and browsing the Internet for recipes using those for inspiration is another great trick.
For meats seasons don’t matter quite as much, but still plays a factor. Especially when it comes to game meat, which is incredible and I envy you if you have access to it. I order my meats off of local farms just like vegetables and fruits.
You also need to track the seasons. Do you have any idea what’s good in June? October? March? You can build a flashcard deck of vegetables and their seasons, or simply use a site like Eat the Seasons. Farmer’s markets follow the seasons, so they’re generally a safe bet. They usually have an overview on their website about what’s in season. Grocery stores often don’t, but they tend to have a part of the produce section dedicated to vegetables and fruits grown locally (and therefore, are in season). Personally, I created a spreadsheet to track availability in Ontario.
I order my vegetables directly from local farms. Getting a big basket of assorted vegetables is generally not the way to go, as you’ll be overwhelmed with the amount of things you’ve never cooked before. Instead, find somewhere you can customize the basket’s contents. A farmer’s market is another good option. Plan beforehand what you’ll buy from what’s in season. Investing in this knowledge will come in handy for the rest of your life. This stuff can’t be unlearned.
I hope you’re now convinced that the reason restaurants often outperform your kitchen, is because they track season and optimize for locality. Farm to table is not about being hipster, it’s about producing the best possible taste that time of year. If a restaurant has the same menu year-round, they don’t track seasons. That’s a bad sign.
My goal for 2016 is to not go to the grocery store for produce, but source everything by season and availability from locals.