Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

INFO: What's In Season - Winter

Seasonal eating is all the rage these days, but it's a good trend. Eating what is seasonal is not just cool, it's also responsible. Eating food that's in season means you can also eat local, so you are not encouraging the pollution and use of resources that transporting out of season produce from far away entails. In addition, if you buy your seasonal produce from the farmers or their agents at the farmer's market, then you are supporting those local farmers, and also the local economy by putting money in their pockets.

It's easy enough to buy seasonal produce - just go to the farmers' market and see what the local farmers are selling. However, sometimes it's easier if you know in advance what you are looking for so you can plan a meal ahead. Below is a guide to some fruits and vegetables that are in season now.



LEEKS: The leek is a Mediterranean vegetable, and as such, it is perfectly suited to our Southern California climate. A leek looks like a giant scallion and is related to both garlic and onions, although the leek itself has a mild flavor and fragrance. Leeks are available year round, but now is really their time.

How to Buy: When shopping for leeks, you want to look for ones with crisp, bright leaves, long straight stalks, and an unblemished white portion. Avoid those with withered or yellowed leaves. Smaller leeks will be more tender.

How to Store: Refrigerate leeks in a plastic bag up to five days. Before using, trim rootlets and leaf ends. Slit from top to bottom and wash thoroughly - dirt can get trapped between the layers.

How to Use: You can cook leeks whole, or chop them up and use in salads or soups. I prefer leeks chopped - whole cooked leeks can be slimy, so if you are averse to gelatinous substances in your vegetables, beware.


MEYER LEMONS: Meyer lemons are a relatively new type of lemon to America. They were first imported here in 1908 from China, where they have been grown for centuries. They are rounder and smoother than common lemons and can be yellow or orange. Meyer lemons are distinguished from common lemons by their sweeter and less acidic juice. Meyer lemons are available from November through May.

How to Buy: Choose firm fruit that is heavy for its size, and has a rich yellow-orange color with smooth, thin skin.

How to Store: Refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to two weeks, or keep in a bowl for fragrance and color.

How to Use: The sweetness of Meyer lemons makes them perfect for desserts and cocktails.


BLOOD ORANGES: Blood oranges are sweet-tart oranges with a dark red flesh. Blood oranges are sweetest in late winter.

How to Buy: Look for heavy fruit.

How to Store: Refrigerate for up to two weeks; serve at room temperature.

How to Use: Most blood oranges are best eaten fresh, but more acidic varieties like Maltese also work well in cooked sauces. The juice is good to drink alone or as part of a cocktail. Blood orange and fennel go well together and make a yummy winter salad.


PARSNIPS: The parsnip is a European vegetable and has remained more popular in Europe than America. Perhaps because of it's appearance, which is like an oversize white carrot. Parsnips are at their peak in the fall and winter after the first frost of the year converts their starch to sugar, giving them a pleasantly sweet flavor.

How to Buy: Look for small-to-medium, gently tapered roots. Avoid limp, shriveled, or spotted parsnips. If the tops are still attached, that is a sign of freshness.

How to Store: Refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to two weeks. To make them last longer, cut off the tops and wrap in paper towels before putting in the plastic bag.

How to Use: Parsnips can be cooked in almost any way, including baked, boiled, sauted, or steamed. They can be boiled and mashed like potatoes, or pureed for a potato subsitute. They make an excellent soup, or can be part of a nice roast winter vegetable dish. Parsnips have iron and vitamin C, so they are good for you!


CAULIFLOWER: Cauliflower is basically a fancy cabbage. It comes in white, purple, orange, and green, and consists of tiny florets on clusters of stalk, like broccoli.

How to Buy: Choose a firm cauliflower with compact florets; crisp, green leaves; and no sign of yellowing. Size doesn't matter (I know, that's what they all say - but it's true!).

How to Store: Refrigerate, tightly wrapped, for 3-5 days. Separate head into florets and wash before using.

How to Use: You can eat it raw, or cooked in a variety of ways. Baking or roasting with curry powder or parmesan cheese is a favorite of mine. Cauliflower is also a good source of vitamin C and iron.


KALE: Kale is another member of the cabbage family, and humans have been cultivating it for more than 2,000 years. It's happiest in colder climates like Northern Europe, but also grows in warmer climates. Its high vitamin content and heartiness make it a perfect choice for winter. Kale is at its best in the winter months although you can usually get it year round.

How to Buy: Choose richly colored, small bunches. Avoid those with limp or yellowing leaves.

How to Store: Store in the coldest part of the refrigerator for 2-3 days. After that the flavor will become strong and the leaves limp. Remove stalk before using kale.

How to Use: In can prepared in any way that you would use spinach, and is good in small amounts in salad. I like to add kale to hearty winter soups. One of my favorites is a kale, sausage, and white bean soup. Kale is high in vitamins A and C, folic acid, calcium, and iron.


FENNEL: Fennel is another Mediterranean vegetable. It has a broad, bulbous base, and soft, feathery leaves. All parts of the fennel can be used in cooking. Many people associate fennel with anise and avoid it if they don't like licorice, but fennel is sweeter and more delicate than anise, especially when cooked. Fennel is available fall through spring.

How to Buy: Choose clean, crisp bulbs with no browning. The greenery should be fresh and green.

How to Store: Refrigerate, tightly wrapped, in a plastic bag, up to five days.

How to Use: Fennel makes a good salad addition, or can be braised, sauteed, or added to soups. Fennel is rich in vitamin A and also has calcium, phosphorous, and potassium.


GRAPEFRUIT: Grapefruit is a tropical fruit that grows well in California. Grapefruit actually grows in grapelike clusters, which is where it gets the name. There are many types of grapefruit and you can find several varieties at the local farmer's markets. Fresh grapefruit is available year-round, but California's season is January - August.

How to Buy: Choose fruit with thin, fine-textured, bright skin. They should be firm, but springy when you squeeze them gently. The heavier they are for their size, the juicier they are.

How to Store: Do not store at room temperature more than a day or two. They keep up to two weeks wrapped in a plastic bag and placed in a crisper drawer of a refrigerator. Serve at room temperature.

How to Use: Grapefruits are probably best just eaten fresh. You can also use them in salad, or sprinkle with brown sugar and broil for a treat. Grapefruit is a good source of vitamin C. Eat them to keep away the dreaded scurvy!


BRUSSELS SPROUTS: Brussels sprouts originally come from Belgium, of course. Like many other winter vegetables, they are a member of the cabbage family, and in fact, they even look like tiny little cabbages. They grow on a long stalk that has many sprouts in a row. They can be 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter, with the smaller being more tender. They are available until March.

How to Buy: Buy small bright green sprouts with compact heads.

How to Store: Store unwashed sprouts in an airtight plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. After that, the flavor will suffer.

How to Use: Brussels sprouts are a tough one, but there are good ways to prepare them. Roasted or braised brussels sprouts are nice, and you can cover them with bread crumbs sauteed in butter. Brussels sprouts are high in vitamins A and C and are a fair source of iron.

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