by David Kitai
Ask any leading chef today how they source ingredients and shape their menus and one of the first things they’ll say is seasonality and tied up in that is locality. That oft-overused concept is meant to drive chefs to innovate based on what ingredients taste best at each time of year. In a world where strawberries from Chile can arrive in Canada in February, why do we have to care about seasons? The choice to be seasonal involves a choice to source locally and force oneself to cook as their ancestors did, based on the whims of the local climate and the work of your local farmers.
Cooking with the seasons sounds nice and romantic, but why put yourself through all that extra work just to respect some new quasi-dogmatic food philosophy? Because when you get it right, cooking in season will be simpler and far more delicious than you could imagine. As Mario Batalli says, when American chefs first started studying in Italy in the 70s: “The [best] moments were never based on truffles or super-intense technique. It was more like, ‘God, this is spaghetti and zucchini, and it’s this good?’ It was because there was no noise in it. It was spaghetti and garlic and zucchini in season.”
The restaurants I work at take seasonality to an extreme degree. After December, nobody uses a fresh tomato until springtime. Menus change several times a year, an autumn pumpkin and smoked cheese croquette is replaced by one made of cornmeal and blue cheese. Beetroot leaves replace spinach, which had, in turn, replaced kale. Even our cocktail program is affected by the seasons, our daiquiris and mojitos go out the window when locally-grown limes go out of season. That means all of us: cooks, bartenders, and sommeliers have to be dynamic and inventive, creating recipes and choosing new pairings based on the changing seasons.
So how does a student learn to cook with the seasons?
Thankfully there are a few handy resources available. If you’re in Ontario, Foodland Ontario has a guide showing what fruits and veggies are available in what months. Farmers markets are also a great place to learn what’ll be best and when.
Most important, for me at least, is getting through the long winter months on a diet beyond smoked meat and root veggies. That means relying on age-old preservation techniques: pickling, fermenting, candying and curing. Before we had freezers we used salt, sugar and bacteria to keep our foods through the winter. If you grow tomatoes in summer, take your biggest harvest and cook them down into a basic sauce, can them and eat them through winter. In spring, when the best fresh shoots of ramps and asparagus appear, harvest and pickle, getting through the hot summer with fresh spring greens. Sometimes these preserved foods taste better than their fresh counterparts.
Seasonality is one of the few food buzzwords that hasn’t totally lost its meaning. Learning to cook with the seasons will force you to be inventive, knowledgeable and produce dishes more delicious than you could imagine. Don’t eat a strawberry in February, odds are the jam you made back in summer tastes better.