Kitchen 101: Fruits, Vegetables & Herbs
The Produce posters are now available for purchase at The Sweet Tooth Paper Goods Company. Ten percent of Kitchen 101 poster sale profits will go towards supporting education in the culinary arts.
I’d be remiss if I simply focused on imparting technical knowledge in these Kitchen 101 posts without talking about ingredients, particularly the biggest misconception about produce today: it is naturally available year-round. Though you may be able to find just about every type of fruit, vegetable or herb everyday of the year in the grocery store, a majority of those items are not in season. If you are buying a strawberry in december, you are likely purchasing a fruit that was picked six months ago and stored in a climate controlled facility. Or you are buying a berry that has spent the last few weeks in a shipping container as it trekked halfway across the globe from somewhere in the southern hemisphere. This extra time between picking and eating means loss of nutrients, flavor and more.
Time spent in transit is not the only over-inflated aspect of buying produce out of season. Massive refrigerated storage facilities and cross-globe journeys are expensive. There’s a reason that summertime $1 pint of strawberries is magically $8 six months later. And then there is the environment. The carbon footprint associated with out of season produce can be astronomical.
The biggest problem with buying out of season produce though 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 millions of foodies 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 somewhere.
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 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, soil conditions, etc can all play their part as well. Certain vegetables and fruits have so many varieties or such a long season that they can be considered to be in season year-round as well.
Click through to bookmark, print or purchase three posters on the seasonal availability of fruits, vegetables and herbs (for those of us living in the northern hemisphere).
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.
First, I suggest taking the time to befriend the produce manager at your local market or store. They will likely work directly with distributors (and if you have a good market/store then they will work directly with farmers) so they will be able to know the quirks of that year’s season. If you are unsure, just call them up and ask if the produce they’re receiving is farm-fresh from your hemisphere or if it has been in storage. It wouldn’t hurt to know your store/market’s operations or general manager either.
Second, become good friends with some local farmers too. It is almost impossible to grow decent produce out of season and most local farmers won’t have the resources to store produce for long periods of time; 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 is almost impossible to grow good, tasteful 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.
While fruit from a botanical sense can mean a very different thing from fruit from a culinary standpoint, both are incredibly vast 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.
When looking at fruits, look at color, size, shape and try to spot any noticeable 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 or you or the next person who comes along and picks it up. 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. 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.
Cultivars: Take the time to research different cultivars. While some new inventions are truly delicious, many have been created to support long growing seasons and not always for delicious flavor and top-notch quality.
Vegetable is another term that encompasses a very wide range of items in the kitchen. Because of this there is no unified vegetable season, or characteristics for vegetables as a whole that will help you identify good, in season vegetables.
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.
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 it’s 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 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.
Don’t forget to check out The Sweet Tooth Paper Goods Company where the produce posters are available for purchase. Ten percent of Kitchen 101 poster sale profits will go towards supporting education in the culinary arts.