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.
Snow peas, those almost flat, entirely edible-pod legumes we associate with Chinese cooking, are one of the most delicious of the cool-weather crops. Similar to sugar snap peas, snow peas are actually a much older cultivar, with some sources dating their cultivation in Southeast Asia back 12,000 years. Sugar snaps, by contrast, were developed in the 1950s by crossing snow peas with a mutant shell pea plant. Lack of inedible fiber in the pod of these peas is due to two recessive pea genes, and makes for delicious eating. I like to stir-fry snow peas along with other ingredients to serve over rice. To keep the delicate pods as crisp and sweet as possible, prepare them by rinsing, snapping off the stem end, and adding at the last minute to whatever you’re cooking.
Spring is a great time to find duck eggs and cook them up. They are reputed to be more nutrient-dense than the already nutrient-rich eggs of Gallus gallus domesticus (our common farm hen), with more omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, and vitamin D. Plus, many people who are allergic to hen eggs do fine with duck eggs. You can cook them similarly to the more familiar chicken eggs, although you will find that the whites remain more translucent and come out a bit more rubbery (for lack of a better word). The yolk is richer in fat so that scrambled eggs made with just duck eggs taste like they have cheese added to them. I like to mix duck and chicken eggs for scrambling: two of each beaten with a dash of milk and then cooked in ghee is a regular breakfast at my home.
It was at the age of 3, as I recall, that I first became conscious that the world contained foods called vegetables. It happened during a six-week-long family trip to Italy to visit my grandparents, who had settled in a beautiful ex-pat community near Perugia. My grandfather kept a vegetable garden, and one of the many plants he grew was Swiss chard. I took a particular liking to it, and (according to my father) called it “Swiss charge.” I loved to harvest it myself and didn’t need to be coaxed to eat steamed or sautéed chard. I think it was my first understanding that food came from the earth and could be grown right outside your house and then turned into dinner. Chard is essentially the same as the plant that produces beetroot, but it has been cultivated to have more prodigious leaves. Beet greens and chard can be used pretty much interchangeably, the only caveat being that the greens will impart the color of the stem and root to whatever you’re cooking. Red stems can turn things pink and yellow stems add a golden hue, which is good to know if you’re making a soup or frittata.
I am a big fan of parsley. I don’t turn up my nose at that little green sprig of garnish on a plate in a mediocre restaurant. Instead I gobble it up, grateful for something fresh in a dish that might otherwise be lacking. When I discovered flat-leaf parsley, I immediately embraced it as a culinary workhorse. Countless dishes benefit from its balancing flavor and cheerful color. It simultaneously mellows the sulfurousness of alliums like garlic and onions, adds minerals to soups when stirred in at the end, and makes anything with a drab color infinitely more appetizing. Spring is the perfect time of year to let it be a star. Make tabbouleh the way they do in its Middle Eastern homelands: with lots of parsley and just a little bulgur wheat. Or try one of the amazing Persian dishes that feature a plethora of parsley. The frittata-like dish called kookoo sabzi is so green with herbs that it hardly seems like an egg dish and just screams “spring.” A meat stew known as ghormeh sabzi features parsley along with fenugreek greens and dried Omani lime.
We have an embarrassment of riches in the Bay Area when it comes to local sources for fresh milk. Cream-top Straus is packed ecologically in returnable glass bottles. Saint Benoit brings us sweet rich milk from their Jersey cows. Clover Stornetta is widely available, supports family farmers, and offers plenty of organic options. Those of us in California who prefer our milk unpasteurized are lucky that we live in one of only three states where raw milk can be sold legally in grocery stores. We look for Claravale Dairy or Organic Pastures products, which can be found at a small number of independent grocers, or we join a herd share, an arrangement where a group of families jointly own a small herd of cows or goats and pay the farmer a monthly fee to feed, house, and milk the animals. Herd-share participants get a weekly portion of milk as a dividend for the stock they own in the herd. In an era when the number of U.S. dairies is declining rapidly (the USDA estimates that between 1975 and 2006, the loss was nearly 90 percent, with remaining dairies being mostly large, agribusiness farms), the emergence of these small herd-share farms certainly bucks the trend. From what I’ve tasted, it can be a delicious investment.
While asparagus now comes in from afar all year round, I prefer to enjoy it when I can get it fresh and local. Its springtime arrival at the farmers’ markets makes my heart sing! For a few happy months, I love it every which way: stir-fried (see recipe!), steamed, sautéed, or creamed into soup. One of my favorite springtime breakfasts is made by slicing the spears into 1- to 2-inch-long pieces, sautéing them in ghee in a skillet, then cracking eggs over top, adding a little boiling water, covering the pan, and allowing it all to cook until the egg whites are just set. Served with toast with a little chopped parsley, this dish is spring on a plate!
February is the month when I look for the sweetest and juiciest Cara Cara oranges. This lovely pink-hued variety of navel causes me to imagine it was somehow crossbred with a rose. A more believable story is that it was developed by crossing two different varieties of navel, but some suspect it was simply a mutation. Unlike the blood orange, the Cara Cara gets its pigment from lycopene, hence, of late, the variety is being touted as the “Power Orange” because it is high in antioxidants and other nutrients. That’s well and good, but one can simply be enchanted by the Cara Cara’s subtle and complex flavor, as well as its bewitching color. Add it to salads, slice it and eat it, or remind yourself that squeezing a glass of fresh juice is both quick and easy.
STIR-FRIED PORK, SNOW PEAS, AND ASPARAGUS
There is some evidence that the tradition of salting, brining, or marinating pork before cooking accomplishes more than just good flavor and tender meat. A researcher in Alameda has found that un-marinated pork causes changes to the red blood cells that inhibit microcirculation of the blood; in contrast, traditionally processed pork did not produce such coagulation. Ever since checking out her research, I’ve made an effort to brine or marinate my fresh pork before cooking.*
1 pound (approximately) pastured pork (either chops, with bones removed,** or tenderloin)
For the marinade:
2 tablespoons tamari or shoyu
For the sauce:
½–⅔ cup pork or chicken broth**
¼ cup pastured lard, or as needed (peanut oil can be substituted)
Cut the pork into bite-size pieces. (Strips less than ⅓-inch thick will turn out most tender; bigger pieces will be chewier but are easier to sear.)
Toss the pork pieces in a bowl with 2 tablespoons tamari and 1 tablespoon brown rice vinegar. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.
Remove the pork from the marinade and spread it out on a plate for half an hour to allow the surfaces to dry.
Combine the sauce ingredients and whisk well to dissolve the kuzu (or combine by shaking inside a sealed jar).
In a wok or skillet, add 1–2 tablespoons of lard and bring to a high heat. Add the pork in a single layer, being careful not to crowd the pan. (Work in batches if necessary.) Turn over the pieces with tongs or a fork or stir until the pieces are browned, but not entirely cooked through. Remove and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of lard to the wok or skillet and add the minced onion. Cook, stirring, for 1–2 minutes. Add asparagus and stir-fry for 2–4 more minutes, depending on thickness of the spears. Add the ginger and garlic and stir for 1 minute, adding more lard if the mixture becomes too dry or starts to stick. Add the snow peas and keep stirring.
Whisk or shake the sauce again to make sure the kuzu is all dissolved, then add the sauce to the skillet. Add the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until the sauce has thickened, about 1 minute. Add the pork and stir, cooking for 1–2 minutes more.
Serve immediately over steamed rice.
**Note: If using bone-in chops, you can make a quick broth with the bones after cutting them away from the meat. Place in a pot with filtered water or chicken broth to cover and bring to a simmer. Allow to cook, covered, over very low heat, for ½–4 hours.