Food Maximization: Seasonality

by Liz Tarditi

In my last two articles, I talked about Utilizing Scrap and Planning Ingredients to maximize your food quality and get the most bang for your buck. In this third installment, the topic is Seasonality, and the importance it plays in keeping your grocery bills under control, while still enjoying the fabulous flavors and variety that are so important in a good, interesting, and nutritious diet.

Seasonality refers to what time of the year a product is "in season" when the highest quality is readily available and cheap. You may see fruits and vegetables year round, but that doesn't mean they are "in season" locally. Are your grapes from the grower down the street, or in the next state, or across the country or are they imported from Africa? If they're from Africa, you are paying for their boat ride over, and for all the grapes that got squished on that boat, too. This may be the time to ask yourself if it's really fair that a stupid grape gets to take an ocean cruise before you do. Planning to buy things when they are in season for you means that you don't buy a half-pint of raspberries in December for $6; you wait for June and buy a half-flat of them for $9. But Liz, you say, what am I going to do with a half-flat of raspberries, besides get stains all over my favorite shirt? Cook them, strain the seeds, stir in a little sugar and champagne (optional), and freeze the raspberry coulis (pronounced coo-lee) in baggies for a dessert sauce. Awesome with chocolate mousse and cake! (But what isn't?)

The example that best illustrates how seasonality can mess up a restaurant's finances is Caesar Salad. Simple, easy, and on millions of menus, Caesar Salad can destroy a restaurant in the winter. People love it, the Romaine lettuce, croutons and garlic creamy dressing, mmm… heaven on a plate. But Romaine is sold by the case. A case contains 24 heads of Romaine lettuce, summer or winter. In summer, the heads are big, lush, and can make about 150 generous lunch-sized salads. The case is about $12 in the summertime, but even with the water to wash it, the refrigeration to store it, the prep cook to chop it, the most expensive Parmesan cheese, the anchovies, and the time it takes to make all those lovely croutons, the restaurant still can pay its bills and the landlord is taken care of and life is good. Please understand, the profit after all that is not much, but it is enough.

Flash forward six months: it's January, and a case of Romaine costs $36. The case of lettuce yields maybe 60 salads, if the chef is lucky. The heads of lettuce are much smaller and the outside leaves look awful because they had to be shipped a thousand miles. The bad leaves must be thrown away you can't serve bug-chewed, bruised lettuce to your customers. Your customers who were willing to pay $5 for Caesar Salad in June are never going to pay $15 six months later. But… the lettuce still needs to be chopped, the Parmesan still costs the same (expensive), the landlord wants to go to Hawaii for February, so the rent better not be late, and on top of that, the restaurant's dining room needs to be heated to keep it comfortable for the customers. If mom and pop don't watch out, or change their menu to accommodate the changing seasons, their food costs can bankrupt them. There's a reason why there's a 95% failure rate in the restaurant business; failing to understand food costs is one of the biggest contributors to that number.

So how does the smart chef adapt to the changing seasons? Well, in the first place, there is human evolution to help us. The experience of a hundred centuries of living in caves, grazing on the berries that grew on the bushes and the deer that ran through the woods, is still coursing through our collective consciousness when it comes to food. Look at how much money we spend, as a civilization, on gas grills and barbecues and charcoal and lighter fluid. We love the taste of food cooked over an open fire. If we order grilled chicken, we want to see those grill marks, nice and black. It's in our genes, from many thousands of years of eating that way, every night. Your body is attuned to this planet, as all of your ancestors were. That's why, you will notice, most people really start craving lighter foods in the spring and summer: fish, seafood, salads, white wines, iced teas, fruits. If you want a sneaky experiment, try this: be the first person on your block this spring to fire up the barbecue. Have barbecued chicken or ribs for lunch, the first nice Saturday afternoon when everyone crawls out of their houses and starts to fix up their yards. And then watch: everyone will have the same idea for dinner that night and the next day, after they smell your grill going, even if they have to make a special trip to the grocery store. A good chef knows this, and uses it to make her customers happy when they come into the restaurant.

In the spring and summer, your body needs less calories to keep it warm. At the same time, the tender new lettuces, the baby carrots, fresh spring peas and pencil-thin asparagus are growing; the cream is fresh and sweet, and so are the soft, fresh cheeses like ricotta, cottage cheese, and Mascarpone; the spring lambs and veal are being slaughtered (sorry, but it's true); the salmon are running, and there are strawberries, and fresh edible flowers, and tender new potatoes, with their bright purple skins. Hungry? It's been a long, miserable winter this year. Your body craves the fresh aliveness of the new season. Conveniently, you crave it just when it's becoming most available, the same way you eat more heavily in the fall and winter: more root vegetables, heartier portions, more red meat, more red wines or dark ales, heavier sauces, heavier flavors, more "preserved" products like aged cheeses and bacons, richer desserts. The preferred cooking techniques vary, too: pot roasts and stews are more popular in winter, grilling and steaming are more popular in the summer.

For everyone who didn't grow up on a farm or doesn't feel "as one" with the earth's schedule, and who thinks, "if it's at the store, it must be in season," I unconditionally recommend the book "Culinary Artistry" by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. I mentioned this in my last article, but a lot of people wrote to ask about it specifically. One afternoon at the library won't cut it with this book this is a definite buy. It tells when different fruits, vegetables, fish, etc. are in season, and how to make them taste good without the expense of a culinary school education. It will save your family a load of money, and greatly improve your own creativity with food and flavors. The lists of ingredients found in ethnic cooking also take some of the strangeness and unpleasantness out of experimental dining out, which can help educate your family's palates and open up new possibilities of saving money by trying restaurants you might have been afraid of in the past. In addition, if you want to find out more about the seasonal produce available in your specific area, try shopping more at farmer's markets. You don't get much fresher than "picked this morning!" and you are supporting your local growers, which is very important. You can talk directly to them, and gain the benefit of their knowledge about their foods and what is best now (or what will be better next week!) Also, by building a personal relationship, if you stop by, say, asking about baby carrots with the greens still on, you may come back to find them there the next day, waiting for you. Most produce wholesalers for restaurants have monthly and yearly availability charts, and will be happy to give you one, or ask your produce manager at your grocery store there's probably a copy taped up over their desk in the back. The wholesalers in my area even have a newsletter, featuring different vegetables in the spotlight each week they believe an educated consumer is their best customer, and I have to agree. It's not a "yucky vegetable" if I learn how to cook it properly.

Right now, we're going into the best part of the year: berries and asparagus, which are so expensive all through the winter and fall. Later, the good fruits and vegetables and herbs of the summer will be plentiful. Herbs? They've been quite pricey for the past five months but by planning ahead, and freezing concentrated recipes (like pesto sauce), you can beat the high price of herbs in the wintertime. At the end of the summer, many farmers are practically giving away basil by the pound. They can't get rid of it. That's the time to make your pesto for the winter and freeze it. This is what Italian restaurants do to avoid a little thing like pesto sauce from bankrupting them, because they use so much of it. Why pay $3 for a handful of basil in October when you can buy a pound in August for $3, grind it up with the pine nuts, parmesan and olive oil, and freeze it? (Or worse, pay $8.99 for a cup of pre-made, lower quality pesto from the grocery store?) Talk about the ultimate convenience food: angel hair pasta with pesto, or sauce for pizza right in the freezer all winter long! Dinner can be ready in less than 15 minutes! All made last summer, when the ingredients were at their peak.

Understanding seasonality will help you take advantage of what is cheapest and most plentiful, but will also help you plan for the upcoming months. Many people keep price books when they shop, to compare staples like canned soup and paper towels, but if staples are the only things you track in your price book, you're missing the point. Produce and meats go "on sale" at very predictable times during the year, and are far more expensive during the other months. Anticipating what will be in season next week, or next month, gives you time to plan, look up recipes, freeze, can, bake, and buy in bulk. You'll also notice a marked difference in the quality between the food you buy and make yourself, and the stuff in the freezer section. There are nuances of flavor in fresh produce that just aren't there after they've been through an industrial processing plant. Why pay $2 each for artichokes that weigh 8 oz. when you can pay $1 each for artichokes that weigh 12 oz. a month later? Seasonality also inspires great creativity in your cooking, and in developing a gourmet palate, because it dares you to experiment with what is the best right now, to try new things, and to break out of old patterns.

Chef Liz Tarditi is the President and Executive Chef of Today's Gourmet, a personal chef service based in Kirkland, Washington which provides delicious, home-cooked gourmet meals everyday for busy clients all over the Eastside. When not creating new culinary delights or writing about them, Chef Tarditi likes to spend time at home with her husband, Dave, and Mocha, their crazy Beagle. 1999, Liz Tarditi

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