It is exciting to me that so many more people are making their way back to seasonal eating. For those people dedicated to eating as locally as possible this isn’t something they have to think about because eating locally forces you to also eat seasonally. Learning to eat seasonally isn’t easy when nearly all grocery stores are always stocked with tomatoes and summer squash in winter. How do you know what’s in season? Different regions are going to be a little (or a lot) different. In Florida right now it’s strawberry season but by the time it’s strawberry season where I live, in the Pacific Northwest, it will be much too hot for strawberries in Florida. So I can’t tell everyone what’s in season for their area specifically. I can only give some general guidelines to help you find out what’s in season where you live.
Here are some tips to discover what’s in season where you live and following that I will list what’s in season specifically for my area.
Shop your local farmer’s market: this is the number one way to discover what’s in season. Though many farmer’s markets close during winter, be sure to do some research including nearby towns or cities that may have year-long markets that you can visit. A winter farmer’s market will have only the produce that could be grown in your region and stored (such a root vegetables) in winter. At the one farmer’s market in Portland that’s open all year many vendors have produced their own jams and pickles and sauces from the produce they grew in summer so you may not be able to buy tomatoes from them but you can buy salsa produced locally. Even if you don’t make a habit of regularly shopping at a winter farmer’s market, go to one to educate yourself.
Ask what produce is local at your regular supermarket: many large supermarkets will carry a few local items even if they aren’t labeled as such. Be sure to talk with the produce manager to find out if they carry anything local.
Read garden books about your region: here in the Pacific Northwest we have a fantastic garden guide (but only for regions west of the Cascades) put out by the Seattle Tilth that is a month by month guide to what to plant and when. Even if you don’t garden you can easily see what grows during different seasons in your specific climate. Look for climate specific guides.
I would love to see some Southerners and Southwesterners compile a region specific list of what’s in season for them in winter. The list I give below should roughly apply to most of the top 2/3 of the United States but will not apply at all to people in the South and Southwest for which I apologize! If any of you out there have been working on this topic and studying your region for seasonal eating and can provide a detailed list, I would love to publish it here.
What to eat in mid-winter:
Fresh eating: (either pulled from your own garden or bought from the store, these items should be available picked fresh)
citrus (though it comes from the southern states if you buy them, winter is their season)
mache (corn salad)
Asian greens (tatsoi, mustards, bok choi…etc.)
persimmons (depending on region, may be done by early winter)
mushrooms (if you have a local cultivated source)
From the root cellar: (even if bought from local farmers, most likely these things were harvested in fall and stored)
kiwis (usually harvested in late fall and ripen in storage in winter)
From the pantry:
We have become very accustomed, us modern people, to eating tomatoes in winter and apples in summer but it isn’t natural and except for the root vegetables that store well nearly all year, no produce is at it’s best when it’s no longer in season. Winter is a harsh season, especially for people living in the extreme north. Our diets should become more limited in the winter. When you spend all winter eating mostly greens and root vegetables punctuated by things you preserved for the pantry, you will look forward a great deal more to the change in diet the spring brings with asparagus and radishes and lettuce. It may sound bleak if you’re used to eating lettuce salads all winter but unless you’re eating lettuce from your own green house, it isn’t natural to eat lettuce in midwinter. It’s a time for soups and root vegetable roasts. While it may seem counter intuitive to some people, eating preserved food (particularly made by you) is healthier than eating out of season vegetables. It takes a big shift in habit but I think you’ll find that when you eat seasonally you become more connected to your own region, the earth’s natural cycles, and your food will taste better and provide more optimal nutrition for you.
While I eat mostly seasonally and still stick mainly to locally produced food, I do have exceptions. What I learned from going mostly local for ten months (a couple of years ago) was that there are a few things in my diet that I don’t want to live without. Avocados and citrus do not grow in my region so buying them means I’m always getting them from hundreds of miles away. Though sweet potatoes can grow here, this isn’t their ideal region and very few people grow them. Tropical fruits such as bananas don’t grow here ever. Pomegranates are another thing that I used to enjoy but which don’t grow where I live. While I was being more strictly local I bought none of these things. What I learned was that I can live life without bananas. I can live life only buying sweet potatoes at the same time my organic CSA has them (we don’t get a lot of them, I bought some extras), and I can live without eating citrus often. But I cannot live without eating avocados. I cannot live without imported coffee and olives. While I was doing my local challenge I had a small list of imported foods that I allowed myself to have such as coffee, tea, oil, sugar, and some other essential items.
I consider imported items as a flexible list but a list that must remain roughly the same size at all times. So while I’m buying avocados, I don’t buy other non-regional produce such as other tropical fruits. If I really want to buy bananas for a special occasion (I bought them for the first time in two years a couple of weeks ago) I don’t buy some other non-regional item. I am happy with the balance I’ve reached for now. I am constantly looking for closer sources for things like oil and while cost is obviously a factor since I have very little padding in my budget, I can’t always afford to buy things made closer to home. However, I found an olive oil that’s produced in California (organic!) that costs only slightly more than the cheap imported olive oil I can buy at my discount grocery store*. California is a lot closer to me than Spain or Italy so buying from California not only reduces the number of miles my food had to travel to get to me, it also supports the economy of my own country.
Seasonal eating has given me a greater appreciation for the food I cook and the flavors I associate with each month of the year. I would like to end this article with a little list of the foods that you shouldn’t be putting in your grocery cart unless you live in one of the southern regions in which these things might be showing up at your local farmer’s markets:
Not in season in winter:
berries of any kind
peppers (unless preserved)
Happy seasonal eating!
*I should note here that even at my discount grocery store the olive oil is surprisingly expensive. If a Trader Joe’s was closer to me I’d probably buy theirs because it’s such a great price. But I heard from a friend that even Trader Joe’s has some California oils available.