The last time I ate broccoli was five months ago. I am now stalking my broccoli plants looking for a hint of a head. Protecting it from insects and making sure it has the right amount of water as the weather cools. My planting schedule tells me that I should harvest it in the middle of November, but you never know with the natural world. My early lettuces bolted in the heat of September before they were big enough to make a salad for two people.
I haven’t eaten broccoli, not because I didn’t want it, but it doesn’t grow very well in the summer months where I live.
I know I could go to the store or the farmers’ market. It grows well within one hundred miles of my home. The local food police won’t show up and take it away.
The first reason I choose not to eat it is that I have access to so many other vegetables in the summertime.
We have tomatoes, green beans, corn, and squash in the summer that we can’t grow in the winter. Why would I go out of my way to buy broccoli when I can eat other vegetables that are around now.
I do work at a vegetable farm and grow vegetables at home, enhancing my situation.
If you live in the city or don’t have time to garden or shop at the farmers’ market, why would you bother eating like this?
Why not eat whatever you want if your grocery store has it? Why go through any deprivation?
This brings us to the second reason I don’t eat produce out of season. It tastes better. And when I finally do eat it, I am rewarded with a better flavor.
I know what you’re thinking. All broccoli tastes the same. Perhaps to an untrained tongue, and broccoli might not be the best example of seasonal eating at its best. But when you understand where your food comes from, making a few choices to not eat food out of season becomes a way of life that improves the food on your plate.
The store is serving you.
When I am asked the famous question, “What one food I would want on a desert island? if I could only have one.” I always say strawberries. To me, they are the perfect fruit. Not too sweet with a little acid to balance the flavors. I could eat strawberries every day.
The stores and the farmers know this. And they have figured out how to offer me strawberries every day. For a price, that is a little expensive at some times of the year, but many can still afford it.
The stores want to sell me strawberries, and farmers have grown their businesses by learning how to succeed in less than optimal conditions.
They bring strawberries to market year-round by using new varieties, optimizing harvest, storage, transportation conditions, and using chemicals to prevent fungus and mold from growing when the strawberries get wet.
Produce doesn’t taste the same every day.
Regardless of how many factors farmers can control, they can’t change the amount of sunlight or heat that ripens a fresh berry. Strawberries, and all produce grown outside, will be different throughout the year, depending on the conditions.
Strawberries like the weather not too hot and not too cold, and they need water to grow, but they don’t like to get wet. That’s why California is a perfect environment. The ocean keeps our climate mild, and we live in a desert, but the Sierra Nevada mountains give us snow that makes a natural water storage system. Like any business, farmers will try to control the conditions they can to harvest more produce and sell more goods.
Why you should try it.
Modern food science does a great job of getting us fresh produce year-round. But farmers have to make compromises to give us the selection we desire. There is a level of mediocrity that we have accepted to buy food picked two weeks ago.
The produce in the store cannot always be great.
By understanding when the optimal times to grow fruits and vegetables in your region, you can eat better quality produce.
In the spring, potatoes and apples are old. In the winter, melons have been in storage or shipped from long distances. In the winter, lettuce is significantly more expensive because of the travel time from warmer regions.
Even I bought avocados from Costco in August. They never ripened because they were picked too green six months ago. Avocados are a winter crop, by the way.
By knowing when produce is ready locally, you can make choices to improve your meal and more easily get over the disappointment of a poor purchase.
When you learn about your local food environment, you realize that your produce can’t be exactly the same twelve months of the year.
Seasonal eating in real life.
I eat seasonally because I work on a farm, but there is a reality for the rest of the world. Once you learn when to find the best fruit and vegetables, you will need to let these concepts into your kitchen.
The supermarket choices make it easy to have what we want but hard to decide what to eat. When you eat in season, the vegetables and fruit tell us what is available.
How can you learn what is in season? Find a certified farmers’ market. A farmers’ market’s original mission is to provide farmers a way to sell what they grow directly to the customer. Farmers know what is available and what isn’t. They make the decisions about what to plant and what to harvest.
Next, you will need to learn how to cook with produce.
If onions are not in season, can you use leeks or green onions? If potatoes are not available, are you ready to try a parsnip, rutabaga, or celeriac?
Learning to make substitutions when you don’t have the specific item called for in a recipe becomes essential.
Eat better by eating in season.
In the grocery store, we see a display of the most common vegetables in their most common state.
At best, the produce was shipped around the world. At worst, the crop has been in storage many months or was grown using pesticides to kill the insects that thrive when the conditions are not ideal.
There are no rules.
The local food police are not coming to get you. The worst thing you can do is to have rules about the food that you eat. Food is not good or bad.
I want you to understand where your food comes from so that you can eat better. The result is that you will notice the changes in your food when it comes from different places at different times of the year.
Food tastes better when it is in season.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her on her blog Food Demystified, Twitter @juliehouse, and Facebook @fooddemystified