There was a time, not all that long ago relatively speaking, when "eating seasonally" was not a catch-phrase or a "food movement" or even a choice -- it was simply the way humans received their daily nourishment. Tender greens appeared in the spring, tomatoes and corn were abundant in the warm summer months, and root vegetables flourished in the fall and winter. Chickens laid their biggest and best eggs in late summer, and made a fine roast in December; sweet and tender spring lamb was just that, and slow-cooked mutton warmed the winter nights.
Nowadays, of course, we have supermarkets that are jam-packed with every conceivable foodstuff known to man and then some. Too cold in your neck of the woods for asparagus? No problem, we'll fly it in from Peru. Wrong time of year for peaches? Fear not, New Zealand has a terrific crop they're willing to share. This must be a good thing, right?
Not necessarily. Everything comes with a price, in some instances literally. Higher costs, environmental damage, and loss of taste are only a few of the more evident ones in this scenario.
On the practical level, transporting food long distances of necessity increases the cost. If you have to pack a case of asparagus, load it on a truck and get it to an airport, fly it to another country, transfer it to another truck, and deliver it another several hundred miles away -- well, that's gonna be pretty pricey asparagus. Compare that to some seasonally-correct broccoli that was harvested on a local farm and took just one day and maybe sixty miles to reach your table.
Then ponder the fossil fuel consumed in that aircraft and those trucks, and the emissions created in the atmosphere, and suddenly your dinner vegetables are contributing to wide-ranging pollution. And since large-scale farming is unlikely to adhere to sustainable and organic principles, further degradation of the environment may be occurring in the growing process itself.
Finally, consider this fact: any foodstuff that has to travel further and longer will have to be picked sooner and less ripe than its local counterpart. Yielding blush-ripe peaches cannot endure the rigors of massive packing crates and tumultuous travel; hence, they are picked when they are still pale and hard, instead of developing gently to perfection on the tree. And fruit that is not allowed to ripen properly is not only going to lack full and delicious flavor, it will be more difficult to digest compared to a naturally ripened one.
So here are a few suggestions for getting back to nature, even if in a limited way:
First and foremost, shop at your local farmers market and the mom-and-pop health food store down the road; that's where you're most likely to find the best and healthiest local produce.
Read the signs at the grocery store; origins of food should be labeled. Choose the ones that are as local as possible.
Plan your menus with an eye to the time of year and select dishes that reflect the natural flow of the seasons. Your family will enjoy them more, and you'll be doing your part to help preserve the environment and support businesses in your own community.
Consider joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program if you can. Essentially, this is a farm or group of farms where local patrons buy a "share" from the farmer, and receive a portion of whatever the farm produces, depending on the season. According to the USDA there are at least 13,000 such programs in the U.S. alone.
And try these seasonal dishes to get your "local" on!
Quintessential Winter Salad
This satisfying and brightly-hued salad makes the most of winter vegetables and fruits to pack a nutritional wallop and delight the palate...
1 bunch black Tuscan kale, ribs removed and leaves finely shredded
2 ruby grapefruits, peeled and segments removed from membranes
1 large avocado, peeled and cut into chunks
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1 tablespoon finely grated Manchego cheese
2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Make dressing: in a small jar, combine lemon juice, mustard and mint, shake well. Add olive oil, shake well again.
In a bowl, toss the kale with 4 tablespoons of the dressing; add pine nuts and Manchego, toss to combine. Divide among four plates.
Heap the grapefruit segments and avocado chunks on top of the kale; drizzle lightly with remaining dressing and sprinkle pomegranate seeds over all.
Roasted Cauliflower Puree
Roasting intensifies the flavor of this delicate treat...Serve with pan-seared chicken breasts and steamed spinach for a perfect weekday dinner...
1 large head of cauliflower, cut into small florets
1/4 cup orange olive oil (or plain olive oil if you can't find it)
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice*
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons microplaned orange zest*
1/3 cup 2% organic milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
*one large navel orange should be perfect for this; microplane the zest you need, then juice the orange.
Preheat oven to 400.
Arrange cauliflower in a single layer on a foil-lined baking pan. Whisk together the oil, juice and cumin, drizzle evenly over cauliflower. Roast until lightly browned and cooked through but still firm, about 20-25 minutes.
In a food processor, combine cauliflower, zest, milk, salt & pepper; process until a coarse puree is obtained. Transfer to a saucepan and keep warm until ready to serve.
Serves 4-6 as a side dish.
[ Note: A version of this post appears in my "Eat Smart" column in the November issue of Better Nutrition Magazine. ]