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 illustrated by Sarah Klein (sarahklein.com) with coloring by Maggie Gosselin. You can learn more about the Local Foods Wheel and the group’s other ventures at localfoodswheel.com.
I first discovered chayote on a visit with my godmother in the Chiapas highlands. Early in the chilly, foggy mornings, I would walk across the colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas to the huge market, where women and men from the surrounding Mayan villages would come, each in their distinctive dress, to sell produce. Returning with a couple of pale green chayotes and a little packet of ground toasted pumpkin seeds, I’d slice up this distinctive Mexican squash and sauté it with the pumpkin seeds to serve as a side dish. Nearly two decades later I was reminded of that magical month when I found locally grown chayotes in a Berkeley farmers’ market. They seemed starchier than their Chiapas cousins, and pricklier than I remember, but inside they were creamy and calming, sweet and soothing. To deal with the spines, I cut the chayote into big chunks, steam it until tender, let it cool a bit, then peel off the skin. Mashed with plenty of butter, the flesh is a delicious alternative to mashed potatoes. Chayote is a Bay Area permaculture favorite, since it’s a perennial here and the vines love to climb up walls and fences. You might harvest the squash as early as September or as late as December.
I once made a big mistake while preparing a traditional chiles en nogada (stuffed poblano chiles with walnut sauce) for about 50 people, and underestimated the peppers’ spice level as I stuck my bare hand in chile after chile to pull out the seeds. By the time dinner was served, my hand was on fire. The only way I could fall asleep that night was with my hand in a bowl of ice water. Nevertheless, I love poblanos and am grateful for the hard lesson they taught me. Chile relleno—a fire-roasted poblano stuffed with cheese and then fried in batter and served with a mild tomato sauce—is one of my all-time favorite meals.
Oregano, the quintessential Italian herb that makes pizza taste like pizza is one of the easiest herbs to grow in our dry area. It takes little water and produces a huge and hearty plant that practically begs to be harvested. It’s also a powerful medicinal herb, which is known to be effective against intestinal parasites, nasal congestion, flu viruses, and menstrual cramps. A simple oregano tea can be made by steeping the leaves in boiling water. As the prices for supplements are often inflated, and the side effects of pharmeceuticals are frightening, backyard healthcare appeals to me more and more.
I absolutely love duck. The meat is rich, flavorful, and moist, and why chicken is so much more popular I can’t begin to fathom. I like the breast roasted rare or cured and the legs braised or confited. Duck prosciutto is something I’ve learned we can make at home, so someday I may raise meat ducks in my side yard.
When I was young, my family had a dear friend who had been a strict vegetarian ever since living on an ashram. Everything she cooked tasted amazing: lentils, greens, potatoes, beans, and other vegetables seemed to melt in my mouth. When I wondered at the flavor, my father replied, “Well, she uses about a pound of ghee for every meal!” These days, I don’t know where my kitchen would be without ghee. We love the local product made by Ancient Organics, but my partner Jake likes to make this staple at home. He slowly melts a pound of butter in a heavy-bottomed pan and then simmers it until it gets “strangely quiet.” Then he strains out the milk solids through a mesh strainer as he pours the liquid butter into a pint mason jar. Ghee is one of the planet’s most perfect cooking fats. It can be heated to a very high smoking point, and is full of fat-soluble vitamins such as A and K2. It can be tolerated by many people who have reactions to other dairy products. Oh, and it makes everything extremely delicious!
When I was a child, the myth of Persephone struck me powerfully. Hades abducted her to the underworld, but convinced her to eat a few pomegranate seeds (arils), which gave her the ability to return home annually for a few months each year to bring us winter. I can’t eat pomegranate seeds without thinking of her. Last year I discovered an easier way to get the arils out of the fruit so we can enjoy these mysterious, delicious, nutritious, and beautiful seeds: Cut the fruit in half (not from pole to pole, but along the equator). Hold the fruit cut-side down in your hand over a large bowl, and with the other hand, beat on the fruit with a wooden spoon as you rotate it, allowing the arils to fall through your fingers into the bowl. Repeat with the other half, and you may find you can get all the seeds from a pomegranate in about five minutes.
I have always had a funny relationship with walnuts, and have often picked them out of baked goods or pushed them off a salad. On the other hand, sauces featuring walnuts, like pesto, tarator, nogada, and Circassian chicken, have an endlessly romantic allure for me. I finally determined my problem might be with the high level of tannic acid, so now I soak walnuts in saltwater and then dehydrate them. This reduces both tannic and phytic acids and increases the walnuts’ digestibility, flavor, and nutrient availability. When my partner and son foraged some English walnuts off a well-established tree last fall, we got out a few tools and with 20 minutes of work, we had enough fresh, local walnut meat to make this recipe:
Persian Duck in Pomegranate Walnut Sauce (Fesenjan)
Walnut trees and pomegranate trees both thrive in Mediterranean climates, so it’s no surprise to see them paired in Mediterranean recipes as well. A rich, sweet-sour sauce of simmered pomegranate juice and walnuts is the essence of fesenjan, a Persian stew featuring poultry, but sometimes made with lamb, meatballs, or eggplant instead. I use local pomegranate juice produced by Smit Farms or Blossom Bluff Orchards.
1½ cups walnuts
2 teaspoons Celtic sea salt
4 whole duck legs
¼ cup lime juice (or substitute a different citrus juice)
2 tablespoons ghee
2 medium onions, sliced thinly into rounds or half-moons
1½ cups pomegranate juice
1 cup chicken-bone broth
1 inch piece of cinnamon stick
A few gratings of nutmeg
A pinch of saffron
½ teaspoon Celtic sea salt
Additional salt, as needed
More citrus juice, as needed
Honey, as needed
Fresh ground pepper to taste
Fresh pomegranate arils (seeds)
Minced fresh parsley
Toasted walnut pieces
The day before you plan to serve this dish, dissolve ½ teaspoon Celtic sea salt in a bowl with about a cup of filtered water. Add the walnuts plus enough additional water to cover the nuts by 1 to 2 inches. Allow to sit in a warm place overnight. Also, sprinkle the duck legs with the citrus juice and allow to marinate in the fridge for 1 hour to overnight.
To bake and serve the dish, preheat the oven to 250°. Strain the salt water off the walnuts and using a food processor, purée the walnuts into a paste.
Heat the ghee in a wide heavy-bottomed oven-safe pot and brown the duck legs on both sides. Remove to a plate.
Add the onions to the fat and sauté until translucent. Add the walnut paste and cook, stirring, for a few minutes until the paste begins to brown. Add pomegranate juice, chicken-bone broth, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron, salt, and duck legs. Bring to a simmer and then cover and put in the preheated oven.
Let bake for an hour (or more), then remove the pot from the oven and check the duck legs. If the meat is tender, remove the duck legs from the pan and set aside. If not, continue to cook unlidded over low heat on the stove until the duck is tender, then remove.
To make the sauce thick and smooth, transfer the cooking liquid to a smaller pot and purée it using an immersion blender. Return it to the pan and cook, unlidded, stirring frequently, until the sauce gets thick and becomes a chocolate brown color. This could take 20 minutes or more, depending on how thick and dark you want it.
Taste the sauce. If it is too tangy, adjust as needed with salt, citrus juice, honey, and pepper. If you made this dish in advance, you can let the sauce sit for several hours, or even refrigerate the sauce and the duck separately overnight.
When you are almost ready to serve, preheat a broiler. (If the duck legs are cold, put them in the oven for 20 minutes or so to heat through, then proceed.) Put the duck legs in a heat-safe pan and broil until the skin crisps up a bit. Meanwhile, reheat the sauce.
To serve, pour the sauce onto a shallow serving platter. Place the duck legs on top and garnish as desired with parsley, pomegranate arils, and walnut pieces.
Serve with steamed basmati rice and a vegetable.