Insights by Goldie
Seasonal eating in a global marketplace

Sound Consumer | November 2005

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

For many years I've taught PCC's free Walk and Talk and Taste Tours (previously called the Natural Foods Kitchen classes). There's always an especially lively discussion with students when we arrive in the produce section.

We talk about what's in season locally and, after surveying participants' information and interest level, we usually discuss what's involved with trying to practice "seasonal eating" throughout the year here in the Puget Sound foodshed.

A major focus of our discussion is the mounting evidence that it's important to prioritize and plan meals featuring Washington-grown foods, as well as those from other parts of our bioregion, such as Oregon and northern California, when Washington-grown is less available. PCC's priority also is to provide organic and sustainably grown foods from family farmers.

It's always heartening to hear feedback from class members that this focus heightens their awareness and understanding. The power of their purchases becomes more evident as we talk about the numerous health, economic, environmental (and taste!) benefits of eating mostly in-season and regionally produced foods.

This type of discussion flows much more easily in PCC's produce aisles than it would in most grocery stores. After all, PCC provides ample opportunity for shoppers to make sustainable choices by working with numerous local and regional producers of a wide variety of foods.

Additionally, PCC produce always is labeled to show place of origin — even the farm and farmer when possible. This further reinforces shoppers' ability to choose foods grown closest to Puget Sound and reduces petroleum used for long-distance transportation.

Shoppers who choose local and regional foods are also directly supporting an expansion of regional agriculture and the region's farm families. Now, more than ever, it is truly critical to keep sustainable family farmers in the business of farming!

But the most immediate and pleasurable reward of seasonal eating is in the pleasure of the palate. The reassurance that the food is fresher, more flavorful and nutritious is served up like a big bowlful of motivation.

Eating with the seasons, however, does present challenges, especially when our regional harvests are over or very limited, as they are from November until next spring when early green peas and asparagus begin appearing from regional producers.

The more closely we adhere to eating seasonally in the coming months, the more we will appreciate and rely upon the local fruits held in winter storage (such as apples and pears); dried fruits; fresh, cold-weather, hearty dark greens (including many types of kale, collards, Swiss chard, leeks and cabbages), and the hard-shelled, colorful varieties of winter storage squashes, garlic and onions.

Other standbys are the wonderful and highly underrated roots and tubers. Many are produced locally — some could be left in the ground for winter harvests, others harvested in the fall for local storage facilities — enough to carry our region through to spring. This was the common practice in our mild climate until a few decades ago.

Now, however, many of the roots, including carrots but also the lesser known parsnips, rutabagas, turnips and burdock, will come from beyond our immediate region as we move through the winter season. All are definitely delicious stalwarts that deserve many a stint in this season's warming soups and stews, as well as herb-roasted straight-up.

Roots such as carrots or beets are familiar and delicious winter fare, but parsnip, turnip, rutabaga or burdock are not in the culinary vocabulary of many shoppers. Potatoes are popular, but other tubers — even yams or sweet potatoes — frequently are prepared only for winter holidays.

Many shoppers may have never tried Jerusalem artichokes, also called "sunchokes" because they're in the sunflower family. But they're delicious eaten raw and crunchy, or boiled or baked like potatoes. The skin is completely edible.

Winter squashes are sometimes avoided by shoppers who feel they're too large for small families, or because the hard-shells may be too difficult to pierce or peel. I recommend they choose a smaller-sized variety.

As for cutting concerns, the squash can be baked whole usually for 45 minutes or so at 350º F until it feels soft. After cooling slightly, it can be cut easily, the seeds and pith scooped out, and mashed or puréed. Or ask the produce staff in the store, and they'll be happy to cut large varieties in two or more pieces for you.

With spring still months away, eating seasonally during this time will involve the steepest learning curve for many, and can be quite challenging for most. After all, we live in a world of "global supermarkets"; it is possible to purchase produce that's totally out of season here, but available throughout the year.

Small wonder that there is confusion for the term "seasonal" — especially when it frequently is used to describe another season somewhere else! Examples are the advertisements that herald arrivals of "new seasonal" citrus varieties, such as the wonderful organic Texas grapefruit I look forward to every year.

Certainly, they and some other off-season exotic produce items — organic citrus and bananas especially — will find their way into my grocery basket. They are wonderful and overall are not only nourishing but also keep us on our "mostly in-season" track, keep winter menus perked up, and strengthen my "mostly seasonal" resolve.

Conversely, I've found that it takes only a couple of experiences of caving to the mid-winter temptation of buying "fresh" green beans, corn on the cob or "winter" tomatoes. It quickly reminds me that those choices promise much and deliver very, very little.

In addition to not tasting as I remembered last summer's bounty, what is the cost to our planetary health? To arrive at our grocery basket, they may have traveled 2,000 miles or more. Part of our learning curve is to ask oneself each time, "Do I truly need this?"

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