The Winter of (Foodie) Discontent — Nowadays, you can eat pretty much any fruit or vegetable you want, all year long. But should you? During the summer and fall, farmer's markets are brimming with local, organic food that was harvested within 24 hours and is usually at the peak of its freshness, flavor, and nutritional content. In the winter and early spring, however, you often have to rely on out-of-season produce that's traveled an average of 1,300 miles to get from commercial farms to your dinner table. The process is not only bad for the planet, but it also means you wind up with bland produce that's mealy and low on nutrients.
While some out-of-season eating is inevitable, there are certain fruits and vegetables you're better off buying frozen. Frozen produce, like fresh produce, has usually traveled long distances to get to your plate, but it at least was picked at the height of freshness and, studies have found, sometimes has a higher nutrient content than fresh produce (just watch for added salt, added to many frozen veggies). For an expert's take on what should only be eaten in season, we turned to Chris DiMinno, the chef at Portland, Oregon's modern gastropub Clyde Common.
DiMinno is adamant about eating fresh tomatoes when they're naturally ripe and delicious. "Eat them between early August and mid-to-late October, says DiMinno. "They can only gain their full potential sweetness and tenderness in the middle and late summer months." In the winter, bypass the cardboard-y orbs in the produce section and look for jarred, crushed tomatoes instead. Jars don't contain the toxic chemical BPA, which is used to line tin cans, and you can find organic jarred tomatoes made by Bionaturae and Eden Organics.
Fresh peas aren't easy to find, and with good reason; the true pea season, according to DiMinno, is only about two weeks long. "Only eat them in early spring, when they are the sweetest and the most tender. Other times of the year, fresh peas can be starchy, with little to no flavor," says DiMinno. If you're a diehard fan of peas, the chef advises stocking up on them in the spring, and shelling your peas and freezing them while their sugars are at their peak. If you're stuck with store-bought, look for Columbia River Organics frozen green peas, sold at Whole Foods stores. They contain no added salt.
Another truly seasonal vegetable, asparagus is only good in early to mid spring, before the stalks become too woody. Otherwise, you just wind up with bland, limp stalks. Most out-of-season asparagus is grown in California or Washington, which could be local depending on where you live, but the U.S. also imports a fair amount from South America. Frozen asparagus, which doesn't usually contain added salt, is good in cooked dishes, or for a twist, try pickled asparagus, which you can find at certain specialty grocery stores and farmer's markets.
04. Wax Beans
Summer gardens often overflow with colorful wax beans, and it's the best time to savor them. Says DiMinno, "These are only good in the summer. Before and after, they can get very fibrous and have terrible color." If you prefer fresh, squeaky beans, you may be better off living without them until next summer, but in most recipes, wax beans can be used interchangeably with green beans, which Columbia River Organics sells without any added salt. Going with frozen is extra important with green beans, as tests from Consumer Reports have shown that canned green beans contained the highest levels of BPA of any canned food.
Enjoy it while it lasts—corn is only at its prime in the late summer and early fall. Corn's sugar content is at its peak in September, says DiMinno, adding that it's best grilled or roasted in its husk and peeled afterwards. This helps the corn retain moisture and flavor. In the off-season, look for frozen corn. It's easy to find organic, nowadays, without added salt.
Since every season has a mushroom, you can enjoy them year-round; just don't stray outside each variety's season: "Morels in the spring, truffles in winter and summer, chanterelles in the fall, lobster mushrooms in summer," says DiMinno. Because mushrooms are highly absorbent, don't clean them with water; instead, trim off the bottoms and clean off any residual dirt using a pastry brush. For a deliciously different side dish, make Marinated Mushrooms with Coriander.
Although lots of lettuces can be found year-round, DiMinno says that the best lettuces grow in late winter and early spring when it is still chilly outside. This allows the lettuce to achieve the maximum level of crispiness, as well as the highest sugar content, making early spring the best time of year for sweet, crunchy salads. In the off-season, rather than buy bagged lettuces, consider using lettuce alternatives like kale, as in this recipe for Black Kale Salad with Currants, or red or green cabbage, as in this Autumn Salad. The season for both of those greens lingers into the winter.
Peaches are a fruit with a fleeting season, and they don't hold up well when transported. For truly ripe, flavorful peaches, DiMinno says enjoy them only in the middle of summer. Other times of the year, look for peach butters (which can be made without extra sugar) and preserves made locally; don't even bother with frozen, according to a taste test hosted by the San Francisco Chronicle a few years back. "No flavor," was the general consensus among all their taste testers, who sampled frozen peaches from Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's, among other brands.