Sunday, July 1, 2007

Eating Seasonally

No longer do you have to drive to rural areas for the fresh vegetables, fruits, flowers, and seasonal culinary creations of the farms. In the last few years, Farmer's Markets have been popping up and becoming increasingly popular in both urban and suburban neighborhoods. Towns and cities alike have happily sectioned off streets monthly, or even weekly, for nearby farms to provide residents access to locally grown food. While many look at jaunts to the Farmer's Market as occasional quaint outings, however, there are major benefits to regularly frequenting the local markets and to eating seasonally.

Whether or not we realize it, the foods that are grown locally are essentially preparing us for the days ahead. Spring vegetables, like lettuce, kale, asparagus, and spinach, help to clean us out after a long winter. The summer harvest of grains and fruit helps to give us energy for the long days. The produce of autumn, including squash, apples, carrots, and beets, provide warmth and sweetness to help nourish us prior to the long winter. And finally, the winter foods, which generally are stored, like dried fruits, nuts, and other, heavy, dense foods, help to provide resilience.

Intact Nutrients
As soon as a piece of fruit (or any produce) is plucked from the tree, the nutritional breakdown begins. Certain vitamins, particularly vitamin C, are very unstable and though they may be present fresh off the vine, are largely depleted after a few days. Supermarket produce may be shipped from a thousand (or more) miles away. As a result, the produce sits around for many days constantly losing some of the key nutrients.

Since local farms must adjust to the seasonal weather, the fields are also turned over more frequently. Thus, a patch of land that held cucumbers in the summer may hold root vegetables in the fall and winter. This turnover encourages a more nutrient-rich soil, which translates into a more nutrient-dense product (not to mention a tastier product).

Locally grown produce is typically picked the day before arriving at the Farmer's Market. As a result, the produce is picked ripe or at its peak. Moreover, after a day at the Farmer's Market, leftover produce is generally not saved to be sold the next day. Instead it is used for jams and baked goods. On the other hand, supermarket produce is harvested well before ripeness so that it can withstand bulk handling and long range shipping. That means that when supermarket produce first hits the shelf, it is at least a week old. In fact, the automatic spraying of the produce section every few minutes is mainly done to perk up the week-old vegetables. It doesn't help that nutrients of the produce leach out at each spraying.

Fewer Preservatives

Many of the small growers at Farmer's Markets are organic growers, which mean they do not use any synthetic compounds on their fields. Even for those local farmers who do use some chemicals, however, the amount which they use is far less than large commercial farms. Moreover, because local farms pick their produce at its peak, they do not use any chemical ripening agents. And because they get their produce to market almost immediately, they do not need to coat their produce in wax or add any other preservative.

Nowadays, when you walk into a supermarket, you may never know the season. Due to global trade, the supermarkets will always have melon, tomatoes, and tropical fruit. Without any new options, we can easily encounter food fatigue. And when we tire of fruits and vegetables, it is too easy to fall into the rut of treating ourselves with high-fat and high-sugar foods to perk up our food repertoires. However, when we eat seasonally, we can look forward to the juicy summer watermelon or the savory autumn artichokes. Plus, by purchasing seasonal foods, and not splurging on that $10 clamshell of blueberries in the dead of winter, you can also save money.

Incorporating seasonal eating into your lifestyle demands a bit more time, thought, and commitment. As a result, however, you will be rewarded with more robust flavors and loads more nutrients – your body, your palette, and the Earth will definitely thank you!

Seasonal Produce Calendar (New York)

This chart, adapted from the Greenmarket NYC chart, will help you determine the seasonality of your favorite fruits and vegetables.

Season Vegetables Fruit
Winter Dried beans, beets, carrots, collard greens, leeks, onions, parsnips, potatoes, winter squash, turnips Apples, pears
Spring Asparagus, dried beans, cabbage, carrots, beet greens, mesclun, onions, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, rhubarb, scallions, spinach, zucchini, turnip greens Apples, pears
Summer Asparagus, snap beans, dried beans, beets, beet greens, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, collard greens, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, herbs, lettuce, leeks, mesclun, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, radishes, rhubarb, scallions, spinach, swiss chard, tomatoes, turnips, turnip greens, winter squash, zucchini Apples, blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, cherries, currants, peaches, plums, strawberries, raspberries
Fall Snap beans, dried beans, beets, beet greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, collard greens, corn, eggplant, fennel, herbs, kale, lettuce, leeks, lima beans, mesclun, onions, parsnip, potatoes, pumpkin, scallions, spinach, swiss chard, tomatoes, turnips, winter squash, zucchini Apples, blueberries, cantaloupe, grapes, peaches, pears, plums, raspberries, watermelon

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