The time is now to eat what’s freshest

Some recipes seem perfectly written for the garden, but it’s the other way around. The garden writes the recipes. Nobody ever said, “Beans and corn would taste great together. Let’s grow some.” The Native Americans planted them together, the beans climbing up the cornstalks for support. They were then reunited as succotash.

All the world’s cuisines tell stories of plants grown for survival, then combined in appetizing ways, dictated by time and place. It wasn’t hard to be a locavore when the only food you could get was from your garden or the village famers market, and all ingredients were specified by the seasons.

Spring in France brought lamb printanier, the meat from a creature slaughtered young and cooked with early-season vegetables such as new potatoes, tender peas, fresh little carrots and turnips. Summer brought medleys of fruiting crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra and cucumbers. With regional variations and distinctive seasonings, they formed the basis of ratatouille, gumbo, gazpacho and minestrone.

For the seemingly endless stretch from first fall frost to first spring greens, there was an almost universal formula for hearty sustenance: meat long-cooked with root vegetables and some of the hardier greens such as kale. Whether in a Provencal daube, a Russian borscht or an English oxtail soup, the presence of “soup vegetables” such as potatoes, onions, carrots, or beets was a given.

The global cuisine of the current age, electrified by cross-cultural fusion, is fun, exciting, often brilliant. An urban cook can add anything to a dish, any time. There are no rules, and the limitations cooks once faced seem quaint.

But I wonder if some future study called “Food of the Petroleum Era,” written in an age returned by necessity to the laws of nature, will find our food quainter still. “Here’s a recipe for fall mushrooms with spring lamb. Imagine that.”

If we can manage to preserve the world’s crop diversity, future gardens will be permanently enriched by the interchange of both seeds and ideas that global trade has brought us. My parents’ garden did not contain Italian heirloom peppers, cilantro or mache, and I’m glad mine does. But I’d welcome a future in which crops both old and new are grown closer to home and eaten in season, when menus are planned by the contents of the harvest basket.

My appetite is whetted each day by produce that is at its best. Today, it’s the new crop of fresh garlic, which might go into an aioli to spice up the bounty of summer vegetables, or a buttery bagna cauda dip for the fall ones starting to come in. The garlic is pungent, perfect, and its time is now.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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