Jessica Prentice, Maggie Gosselin, and Sarah Klein created the Local Foods Wheel to help us all enjoy the freshest, tastiest, and most ecologically sound food choices month by month. Here are seven of Jessica’s seasonal favorites. You can learn more about the Local Foods Wheel and the group’s other ventures at localfoodswheel.com.
A transformative moment in my food-consciousness evolution came about when I was in Paris visiting a friend who was there for graduate school. She invited me to lunch at her university, and I was curious to see what institutional food would be like in the land of gastronomie. As we entered the dining hall, we were ushered to one of the many long and carefully set tables. As baskets of bread, dishes of butter, and carafes of water and red wine arrived, I found myself silently wondering, “Red wine at lunch? Red wine at a university cafeteria?” Then came the main course: enormous bowls mounded with steaming hot mussels. Appreciative murmurs of “moules!” resounded as we ladled the mollusks onto our plates, and like everyone at the table, I devoured mussel after delicious mussel, sopping up the tasty cooking broth with buttered bread and quaffing the wine. There was salad, too, and dessert, and coffee, but I was just stuck on those mussels and the question rolling through my head: Why don’t we eat like this in the United States? Here in the Bay Area we are blessed with plenty of local, sustainable, nutritious, delicious, inexpensive, quick and easy to prepare mussels, so let’s eat them!
Broccoli, a cool-season crop, is available pretty much year-round in the famously mild Bay Area. The name is the plural of the Italian word broccolo, which refers to the flowering top of any plant in the brassica genus. In U.S. markets, we mostly just see the familiar thick-stemmed Calabrese broccoli, with a few other types, such as romanesco, broccolini, rapini, and sprouting broccoli appearing at farmers’ markets and specialty grocers. I love them all, and am delighted when dinner includes a generous helping of blanched, buttered, and salted broccoli. One of my favorite quick and easy dinners is a baked potato topped with a pile of steaming hot broccoli and a generous amount of rich homemade cheesy béchamel—a sauce every busy person should master for its ability to turn a humble starch (potatoes, macaroni, toast) into a quite satisfying meal in a few quick minutes.
When I was growing up, peas were one of my favorite foods. We always bought them frozen, and my mother threw them into everything. I loved them hot and buttered as well as studding rice pilafs, soups, and casseroles. As a teenager, I even ate them frozen. My current locavore self feels a little ashamed when I find myself nostalgically stashing a bag of frozen peas in the freezer, but when the summer’s crops of fresh shelling peas arrive, I gladly buy a big bag from the farmers’ market. During the 45 minutes I spend stripping them out of the pod, I ponder the purchase of that Texas Pea Sheller in the Lehman’s catalog, which can shell pounds in a matter of minutes. When shelling them by hand, I think about how each pea seems precious, and how the act of shelling stands as a potent contrast to our cultural attachment to convenience.
Cilantro, an iconic flavor of the global South, is equally comfortable in Latin, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian cooking. In the Ayurvedic system of traditional medicine, cilantro is one of the premier cooling herbs. It naturally balances the warmth of ginger, the pungency of garlic, and the heat of dried, smoked and fresh chile peppers. As the early tomatoes start coming, I enjoy making the first fresh salsa of the season with plenty of fresh cilantro, a squeeze of lime, a little minced red onion, and some pinches of dried chile from the year before. Then I fry some wedges of fresh corn tortillas (try those from Primavera or Rancho Gordo) in lard for homemade chips, and dig in. Cilantro also makes a fabulous chutney, and it’s worth exploring the way Persian cuisine features the assertively green herbaceousness of chopped cilantro with equal amounts of parsley and dill in soups, stews, and egg dishes. In our garden, cilantro always seems to bolt too soon. But it then offers a second harvest: coriander seeds that can be dried and toasted for delicious flavor.
I recently learned that lemongrass is easy to grow in a pot on a sunny windowsill. Plant a stalk from the market, water it, and it will sprout roots. As it grows new stalks, these can be separated from the original and harvested. Fibrous and tough, lemongrass is rarely eaten as a whole plant, and is most often steeped for the flavor it lends to a broth or tea. When I lived in Thailand over 20 years ago, I loved eating tom kha talee, a coconut milk seafood soup infused with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, hot chiles, and cilantro. This time of year, a big bowl of mussels steamed in a lemongrass-infused broth (with or without coconut milk) sprinkled with fresh cilantro and served with steamed rice sounds like a perfect dinner.
Crème fraîche goes equally well with both sweet and savory foods. We like to dollop it onto fried breakfast potatoes, tacos (mixed with minced cilantro, scallions, and a pinch of salt), soup, oatmeal, French toast, or fresh berries. While it’s delicious, I also value crème fraîche for its live enzymes and probiotics, which help develop intestinal flora when you eat it raw, and the good fats that help in assimilation of phytonutrients and slow down the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream. Crème fraîche is also very useful in cooking, as it won’t curdle. I stir it into pan sauces, purée it into soups, and mash it into potatoes. It is extremely easy and satisfying to make. Just culture some raw or pasteurized cream overnight then refrigerate. We also have great local brands available: Cowgirl Creamery and Three Stone Hearth make it from Straus cream, and Bellwether Farms makes it from its own Sonoma County cream. Crème fraîche is a cultured product and will last for several weeks in the fridge. Use a clean spoon each time you dip into the container to help it keep longer.
When the strawberries sweeten, you know summer is here. Although these popular berries show up in markets in the spring, they don’t reach their optimal sugar content until the days get longer and warmer. Then the berries become juicy, extremely flavorful, and highly perishable. For the benefit of our four-year-old, we planted some strawberries in our garden, but it’s a race to get to the fruits before the snails do. As a result, most of our strawberries come from grower Ben Lucero at the farmers’ market. Try the berries from his second-year strawberry plants, which are smaller and even more delicately flavored. It is best to eat ripe strawberries within a day or so of picking and never refrigerate, since that diminishes their natural sugars. My favorite summertime desserts feature perfectly ripe fresh berries and some cream, crème fraîche, or homemade ice cream. To keep it super simple, try just a bowl of ripe strawberries, a drizzle of honey, and a dollop of crème fraîche. For a bit more elegance, I use the recipe below, but there have been many occasions when I’ve served just a bowl of rinsed berries with a little dish for the leaves and stems. No one complains.
Strawberry and Crème Fraîche Trifle