Kitchen 101: Fruits, Vegetables & Herbs
I’d be remiss if I simply focused on imparting technical knowledge in the Kitchen 101 series here at Chasing Delicious. I’d be downright neglectful if I didn’t talk about ingredients, particularly the biggest misconception about produce today: that it is naturally available year-round. Though you may be able to find just about every type of fruit, vegetable, and herb in the grocery store every day of the year, a majority of this produce is not in season. If you are buying strawberries in December, you are likely purchasing a fruit that was picked six months ago and stored in a climate controlled facility ever since. Or you are buying a berry that has spent the last few weeks in a shipping container as it treks halfway across the globe from somewhere in the opposite hemisphere. This extra time between picking and eating means loss of nutrients and flavor.
Time spent in transit or storage is not the only inflated aspect of buying produce out of season. Massive refrigerated storage facilities and cross-globe journeys are expensive. There is a reason you can find strawberries for a dollar in summertime but are hard pressed to find them for less than four dollars six months later. If you’re an environmentalist, you’ll want to take heed, as the carbon footprint associated with out of season produce can be astronomical when compared to their in-season companions.
The biggest problem with buying out of season produce, and the focus of this article, is the lack of freshness and sacrifice in flavor and nutrients. There are far too many, far too boring reasons to elaborate on this point, but I will say there is a reason many high end restaurants and a growing number of self-identified food-obsessed eaters around the world only buy produce when it is in season. You save money, contribute a smaller carbon foot print, are getting a better product that typically tastes much better, and you know it hasn’t been sitting for half a year in a facility.
My favorite part about abiding by an ingredient’s natural availability is what I like to call the Thanksgiving effect. Most of us only eat those famous turkey-day dishes (stuffing, cranberry sauce, a dozen pies) on thanksgiving because the meal, and each particular dish, is more special that way. Approaching fruits and vegetables with the same zealous attention to seasonal availability makes that tiny dewberry window in May all the more special.
That being said, there are many factors that effects a particular ingredients season. The strawberry season down here in Texas is much different than it is up north. Location is not the only variable that plays a part. Seasons can change from year to year as weather, pests, bumper crops, and soil conditions can all play their part as well. Then there are certain vegetables and fruits which have so many varieties, or such a long growing season, that they can be considered to be in season year-round as well.
Tips for sourcing in season produce
While these charts will provide you with a general understanding of what is in season when, there are three additional steps you can take to ensure you are eating in season produce that is at its freshest.
First, I suggest taking the time to befriend the produce manager at your local market or store. They often work directly with distributors, or if you have a good market or store then they will even work directly with farmers. These are the people that can tell you the quirks of that year’s season. If you are unsure, call them up and ask if the produce they’re receiving is farm-fresh from your hemisphere or if it has been sitting in storage, or coming from a far away country. It also doesn’t hurt to know your store or market’s operations or general manager either – Is your store not carrying a particular variety you just must have? Don’t be afraid to ask them to order it for you.
Second, become good friends with some local farmers too. It is almost impossible to grow decent produce out of season on a small scale and in most climates. Many local farmers won’t have the resources to store produce for long periods of time either, so the produce you see at their stand was likely picked just a few days ago. Approach the farm with due diligence as well. Visit the farm and be nosey about how they manage their operations.
Third, and this is your best bet, grow your own produce. You will quickly learn, especially if you live somewhere with weather extremes (like Texas or Canada with their hot and cold weather extremes respectively), that it really is quite difficult to grow delicious produce out of season. This first hand experience and understanding will give you pause when you go into the store to buy tomatoes in January.
Fruit from a botanical sense can mean a very different thing from fruit from a culinary standpoint, as both are incredibly vast, and often contradictory categories. In the kitchen, if it’s sweet and grows on a plant then we call it fruit. Because of this there is no unified fruits season, or characteristics for fruits as a whole that will help you identify good, in season fruit. (By the way, fruit from a botanical sense is any part of a flowering plant used to disseminate seeds – and yes, tomatoes, wheat kernels, beans, and many other “vegetables” or “grains” are indeed fruit.)
When looking at fruits, consider color, size, shape, and blemishes. Most fruits are typically very bold and vibrant when ripe, so dull-colored fruit can be a sign of an unripe or undeveloped fruit. You’ve spent your life around produce, so any fruit that looks abnormally small or large is probably a sign that it may not be in the best condition. And anything with a blemish, bruise, hole or other out-of-the-ordinary mark should be avoided.
Tips for picking fruits: Don’t squeeze the damn thing. Not only will this tell you little to nothing about the quality of the fruit, but all it does is damage it for you or the next person who comes along to buy it. Instead pick it up and feel the weight. Most fruits, especially oranges and apples, should feel heavy for their size; this is typically an indication of a dense, juicy fruit.
Take the time to read the sticker on the fruit. Ask yourself, where is it coming from? Whether or not you care about the carbon footprint associated with a particular fruit, its origin will tell you a great deal about how long it has been since it was picked and even if it is in season or not.
Citrus: Most citrus will not ripen off the tree so what you buy is what you will end up with. With limes and lemons, the darker the color the sweeter it will be and the lighter the color, the more tart it will be.
One of the reasons some fruits have such a large growing season is because of the number of cultivars developed. Some fruits though have a naturally long growing seasons and others which typically have short seasons have been successfully grown in areas where the growing season is extended. Then there are locations like Florida and California that have such mild climates, that you can grow just about anything, just about year round.
Cultivars: Take the time to research different cultivars. While some new inventions are truly delicious, many have been created to stand up against disease and handling, and to support long growing seasons. These cultivars often sacrifice flavor.
While color, size, shape, and noticeable blemishes can help you identify good vegetables, many vegetables are naturally void of color, come from the ground so they are covered in dirt, or are irregular in shape. Vegetables that are colorful are typically very bold and vibrant when ripe, so dull-colored vegetables can be a sign of an unripe or undeveloped vegetable. Again, you’ve spent your life around produce so trust your intuition. And as always anything with a blemish, bruise, hole or other out-of-the-ordinary mark should be avoided.
Tips for picking vegetables: Smell can be a very good sense to pay attention to when buy produce, especially for many vegetables. Most will have a delightfully pungent smell – obviously specific to the type of vegetable – so those with no smell might not be fresh or were picked too soon.
Again, read the label on the vegetable. Where it comes from is a big indicator of freshness and whether it is in season in your area or not.
While herbs tend to reflect a more specified type of comestible, they are still varied and cover numerous genus of plants and therefore cannot be classified all together. While in cooking, herbs typically refer to leafy greens or flowers, and spices to the rest of the plant, in botany, and here, I use herb to refer to the plant as a whole including all of it’s parts.
Most herbs are green (as most herbs are some form of leaf), so you should always be on the lookout for a vibrant green. A lighter green, yellow, or brown leaf could all indicate a poor quality herb.
Tips for picking herbs: With herbs, you can trust both sight and smell. Most herbs are a vibrant color at their healthiest and most herbs will also carry a very strong smell. The best indicator for fresh herbs is taste. Don’t be afraid to clip off a leaf and take a taste. I not only do this in the market, but I will do it when I’m at a nursery trying to pick a particular variety of herb to purchase. (You may want to wipe it off or rinse it quickly first if you can find some water.)
Herbs are also some of the easiest edible plants to grow. In fact, many of us probably have some sort of herb growing in our garden already, whether we know it or not. While each plant will require its own growing conditions, most require lots of sun, a warm growing season, well drained and nutrient rich soil, and occasional trimming. You should never let an herb grow flowers (unless of course the flowers are the portion you use) as an herb left to flower will have bitter leaves.
Growing herbs to make spices: Not only can you grow herbs for their leafy greens but you can grow them to harvest spices as well (using the seeds, pods, fruits, stems, etc from the plant). While this take more work and a bit more attention to harvest times the results are well worth the extra work.
I hope this little look into fruits, vegetables and herbs is helpful. Whether you are a strict seasonal-only shopper or not, knowing what produce is in season when can be very advantageous. Not only will you notice a fresher taste and stronger flavors, but you will see a marked increase in savings, and a heightened sense of anticipation and appreciation for each season.
Note about this post: The post is meant to be used as a reference and has been researched and collected from numerous sources including but not limited to: Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg of “The Flavor Bible”, Glenn Rinsky and Laura Halpin Rinksy of “The Pastry Chef’s Companion: A Comprehensive Resource Guide for the Baking and Pastry Professional” and from Bi Friberg of “The Professional Pastry Chef, Fundamentals of Baking and Pastry” Fourth Edition.