Want to improve your nutrition and help the planet? Rachel Demuth explains how to get started with seasonal cooking.
Once upon a time, eating seasonally was the norm. Us humans were in tune with nature, living off the land and making use of the fruits of each changing season. There were no tomatoes in winter, and summer berries would be off the menu in March. But with the advances in travel and technology since the end of WWII, everything and anything is available to us at any time of the year.
So why do we need to go back to this way of eating? Well, it gives us the freshest, and therefore tastiest, produce. It hasn’t been chilled or artificially ripened – both of which are processes that affect the flavour and also have a detrimental effect on the nutritional value of produce.
Eating seasonally generally means eating locally, which is great for the environmental footprint of our diets. A short field-to-fork production line saves on food miles, refrigeration costs and so on, which can therefore mean cheaper produce for us consumers.
Farmers markets are a great place to pick up locally grown produce and keep you cooking seasonal dishes. Another popular option is to invest in a weekly veg box, which keeps you creative and gets you out of a rut of cooking the same old dishes.
Shopping in this way can also help you get more familiar with imperfect, misshapen veg. The Soil Association report that up to 40% of fruit and veg produced by UK farmers ends up wasted, because they aren’t the right shape, size or have surface blemishes. Environmentally speaking, this is shameful, but luckily there has been an increasing love for wonky veg in recent years!
Grow your own
When it comes to fresh seasonal produce, it doesn’t get fresher than something you grow and pick yourself! Try sharing a garden or allotment, which is a great way of sharing the workload and the vegetable gluts. Or you can be creative with your veg if you have too much of something – use carrot, courgette or beetroot to make cakes, add greens to fresh juices and smoothies, make jams and chutneys with berries and peppers and try out fermenting.
Even with a small space or just a windowsill you can grow herbs in the summer. Fresh herbs add flavour, texture and character to dishes and can be so much more than just a garnish.
Growing your own veg is incredibly satisfying and when picked fresh or pulled from the ground it tastes so much better. Try freshly dug new potatoes or carrots with the earth rubbed off – no need to peel. Simply steam them and enjoy their earthy flavour. Broad beans are fantastic too when young – you can even eat the whole pod.
What’s in season now?
Whilst it’s typically harder to eat seasonally during the winter months, April, May and June bring a host of new arrivals to our fruit and veg patches. From around mid-April, new potatoes planted in winter will be ready to dig. They have a delicate taste and firm texture and don’t need to be peeled – kidney shaped Jerseys and yellow Charlottes both have a waxy texture and are ideal for salads. Add dressings to new potatoes when they are still warm and they will absorb the flavours.
It is best to buy new potatoes from farmers markets and greengrocers if you can. Try to buy unwashed potatoes, which last longer – if you buy plastic bags of new potatoes always take them out of the plastic or they will soon rot. They are best stored in a cold, dark and airy place, but not the fridge, which tends to make potatoes taste too sweet.
Broad beans are in season from May-September and are the oldest variety of bean to be grown in Britain. Fresh baby broad beans are so sweet and vibrantly green, but the season is short, so it’s not long before the broad beans become tough and starchy and you have to peel them.
With young broad beans there should be no need to remove the skin of each individual bean but as the season progresses it is worth double shelling. To do this remove the beans from the pod, dunk into boiling water for 1-2 minutes and then pop the vibrant green kidney shaped beans out of their skins.
Signs of summer
The asparagus season signals the end of spring and the coming of summer and the beginning of the peak season of so many locally grown crops. The asparagus season is short but plentiful with fat spears available from mid to late April through to mid-June.
To judge whether asparagus is fresh and good quality, just look at the small bracts or special leaves, which grow just behind the tips. These should be well-formed, lie flat along the stem, and not be shooting. The cut at the base of the spear should appear fresh and feel hard rather than spongy. This cut end is often tough and should be broken off before use. Just bend the spear near the cut end and it will snap off crisply leaving the tender spears for your cooking. Keep asparagus ends for stock and soup, and you only need to cut off a tiny bit, buy whole bunches, not just the tips and avoid asparagus that has been flown from Peru when local asparagus is growing up the road.
Asparagus can be eaten as thin stalks, which are great for stir-fries and pasta, or as chunky spears, which can be simply grilled and served with a drizzle of olive oil.
In terms of fruit, May and June bring us rhubarb and gooseberries, which are perfect for compotes and crumbles, and strawberries and cherries – delicious on their own, on top of granola or in pies. Again, don’t forget to check that they’re grown locally and not imported.
Give it a go
As with anything, it’s not always possible to eat 100% seasonal all of the time, but familiarising yourself with what’s available at each time of the year is a great place to start. With summer on the horizon it’s much easier to start making use of all the locally grown produce at farmers markets and introducing seasonal fruit and veg into your daily diet too.
3 seasonal recipes to cook today
- New potato, asparagus and broad bean salad with salsa verde. The salsa verde adds a herby twist to this delicately flavoured dish.
- Tempura asparagus with smoky vegan mayonnaise. Tempura batter is a delicious coating for seasonal vegetables and works beautifully with red peppers, courgettes and their flowers.
- Roasted rhubarb with coconut and saffron rice pudding. Rhubarb is one of the few vegetables that is traditionally cooked as a dessert, although it can be an unusual addition to savoury dishes and makes great ketchup or chutney.
Find all of the above recipes online at demuths.co.uk/rachels-blog
Rachel Demuth is one of the UK’s leading plant-based chefs and is joined by a team of experienced chef tutors who teach an exciting array of vegan courses at Demuths Cookery school in Bath. Learn how to cook with delicious local produce while enjoying the company of like-minded people.