In a modern, agricultural world, most food items are always in season somewhere.
Many U.S. restaurants are jumping on the seasonal bandwagon (and some places have done this for a long time) by changing the menu every few months–to ensure ultimate freshness and timeliness. But it’s funny when restaurants use menu verbiage like “seasonal vegetables” and “fresh halibut” in the dead of winter. Last time I checked, snow peas aren’t seasonally fresh in northern cities such as Minneapolis and New York City. In all fairness, though, agriculture in southern climes and current hothouse technology allows farmers to produce warmer-weather crops year-round. Yet some restaurants are taking serious liberties with the meaning of “seasonal cuisine.” Here are a few examples of foodstuffs that are truly best in season.
1) Asparagus in September?
Like I mentioned, some vegetables are available year-round thanks to hothouse technology and warm-weather agricultural areas such as California and Mexico where cooler temps aren’t a consideration. Asparagus is a good example of a fresh crop that is readily available any time, even though, in most states, it’s considered a spring and early-summer crop. Restaurants that serve asparagus year-round, let’s say in dishes like steak Oscar and grilled asparagus salad, often use frozen asparagus spears, calling them fresh most of the time.
2) O-kee Do-kee Articho-kee
Artichokes are another good example of a vegetable that has a true growing season, which tends to run from March through May. But this edible thistle is available year-round in warmer climes. Globe artichokes (the kind that most people know. Yes, there are other kinds of artichokes) are primarily grown in the midcoastal region of California. But ardent seasonal restaurants usually stop pitching fresh artichokes by the end of summer, mostly because these prickly vegetables don’t relate to fall cuisine. Of course, canned, marinated artichokes (usually just the hearts) are fair game year-round.
3) Butternut Squash Ravioli? In Spring?
Nothing says fall like a good squash harvest, especially the harder varieties like acorn and butternut, so I find it kind of funny when dishes like butternut squash ravioli pop up on spring/early summer menus. Of course, most places that serve squash ravioli, whether they are made in-house or not, tend to keep them in the freezer until the order gets called–and they go straight into the boiling water. But do you really want to eat ravioli that have been in the freezer for five or six months? Some chefs get defensive when they are called on their seasonal shortcomings, saying things like, “butternut squash is in season somewhere.” Sound familiar? But following seasonal guidelines for menu writing is not only more exciting (celebrating the season is fun stuff), it guarantees that diners are being offered the freshest products. Isn’t that what all chefs should aspire to do?
4) Rhubarb Equates to Early Summer
Rhubarb is one of those love it or hate it vegetables–yes, it’s a vegetable, not a fruit as a lot of people think. This tart plant is in its prime from April through early July in most geographical locations in the U.S. This is when chefs usually serve rhubarb-inspired savory dishes and desserts. But because the stalks freeze well, chefs can easily use the vegetable (because it requires cooking) any time of year. So, wintertime can quickly become rhubarb season if a chef gets a wild hair and decides to make an upside-down rhubarb cake during the holidays. Nothing says Merry Christmas like a big slice of rhubarb cake.
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