Jane Says: Eating Locally and Seasonally Isn't Just the Right Thing to Do—It's Delicious

Embracing produce available in season leads you straight to flavor.

Find the best seasonal foods at your local farmers market. (Photo: NatalieMaynor/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“I’d like to know more about eating seasonally and locally—what foods are good in what seasons?” —Sheila Chapman Smith

Today in the United States, the average bite of food travels about 1,500 miles to your plate. It didn’t used to be that way, obviously. Until the mid-20th century, eating local foods in season was simply how everyone in America ate, and how much of the world still does.

In a happy example of “what goes around, comes around,” however, seasonal and local have become two of the hottest culinary buzzwords going. The fresher and riper the produce, the higher it is in nutrients, and if it’s certified organic—that is, minus the pesticides present in contemporary conventional produce—then so much the better. Generally speaking, there is a close correlation between freshness and flavor as well. It’s also important to realize that when you buy your food directly from small-scale family farms in your area, you are supporting your local economy and the environment; farmland provides cover and food for wildlife, protects watersheds and wetlands, and can help control flooding. All good.

The best (and most delicious way) to educate yourself as to what’s seasonal in your neck of the woods is to shop at a farmers market. Both Localharvest.org and the USDA national database can help you find a market near you, even one that will be open in the colder months. And Locavorenetwork.com has a state-by-state guide of what fruits and vegetables are available when.

In early October, the New York City Union Square Greenmarket, where I shop, is resplendent with offerings that include apples, pears, winter squashes, and pumpkins as well as corn, potatoes, eggplant, green and wax beans, okra, yellow summer squash and zucchini, herbs, umpteen varieties of hot chiles, and sweet bell peppers in every color.

And, of course, tomatoes. On Saturday morning, I lugged home pounds and pounds of them. That afternoon, in the three hours it took to enjoy Renée Fleming and Michael Fabiano in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, I made and froze enough tomato sauce to get us through part of the winter. Another few sessions, and I’ll be all set. Mid-winter, I’ll be supplementing my market provisions (basically apples, carrots, onions, potatoes) at Whole Foods or Fairway, but the tomato sauce in our freezer will be better than anything I could possibly buy.

Freezing tips: Regular glass jars (like those that store-bought pasta sauce comes in) break easily at freezer temperatures. Choose instead either Ball wide-mouth glass jars made for canning or freezing or Pyrex storage containers (the plastic lids are BPA free). Ziploc freezer bags are a BPA-free plastic option. Let the sauce cool completely and then fill the containers, leaving ½ inch headroom to allow for the expansion of food during freezing. Thaw the sauce in the refrigerator before removing it from the container.

You can find the recipe for the late-season tomato sauce I made last year, as well as prep and cooking tips, right here. You’ll also see that I pay homage to Marcella Hazan’s famously great Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter. Since many in the TakePart community avoid dairy, I’ve given another of Marcella’s recipes below, which is delicious on most types of dried pasta, especially spaghetti and penne. “The carrot and celery in this sauce,” Marcella explains, “are put in a crudo, which means without the usual separate and preliminary sautéing procedure, along with the tomatoes. The sweetness of carrot and the fragrance of celery contribute depth to the fresh tomato flavor of the sauce.”

Is your mouth watering? Mine sure is.

Marcella’s Tomato Sauce with Olive Oil and Chopped Vegetables

Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)

Ingredients

2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes

⅔ cup chopped carrot

⅔ cup chopped celery

⅔ cup chopped onion

Salt

⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Directions

1.  Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for a minute or less. Drain them, and as soon as they are cool enough to handle, skin them, and cut them up in coarse pieces.

2.  Put the prepared tomatoes in a saucepan, add the carrot, celery, onion, and salt, and cook with no cover on the pan at a slow, steady simmer for 30 minutes. Stir from time to time.

3.  Add the olive oil, raise the heat slightly to bring to a somewhat stronger simmer, and stir occasionally, while reducing the tomato to as much of a pulp as you can with the back of a wooden spoon. Cook for 15 minutes, then taste and correct for salt. Let tomato sauce cool completely, then freeze in an airtight container. After thawing, simmer for 10 minutes before tossing with pasta.

Marcella’s Embellishment with Marjoram and Two Cheeses

After thawing the sauce above, stir in 2 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried) and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat, swirl in 2 tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, then 2 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese. Stir in 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil and toss immediately with the pasta. Although this variation is excellent with spaghetti, Marcella notes, it is even better with a thicker, hollow shape like bucatini.

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