We are on the cusp of my very favorite season for eating (and overeating) and, in my mind, there’s no more appropriate time to talk about seasonal menu planning. Autumn is the season during which you can still take advantage of some of the best of high-season produce—in fact, depending on the weather in spring, fall is high season—while catching the harvest of cool-weather crops and potentially game meats as well. My senses are most alive in crisp and windy weather and there’s no time of year I think more about food.
In some ways, seasonal menu planning can be very, very simple. It starts with locale—and if you restrict yourself to your state or a bioregion around the same size, you’re more than halfway there. This organizing principle carries a different impact for those in Dane County as contrasted to Napa County—to give one notorious example—but that’s part of the contract you make with yourself and your dinner guests when you decide to cook seasonally. Limitations are unavoidable and are more severe for some than for others, but this doesn’t need to mean a bad dining experience. Even the inaugural chefs at Chez Panisse had to cope with long periods of monotonous produce selection and use their fertile imaginations to get around it.
Once you’ve chosen a fresh market that focuses on the local offerings above all else (and, you know, I’m not suggesting any one in particular, but…), if you are cooking in a cold-weather state, you will need to make some choices about canned goods. Every Italian cook who came to, or grew up in, the U.S., knows they need a good source for canned tomatoes in winter. Growing and canning your own is a great option if you’ve got the time and space, but restaurant chefs can’t do that and neither can may urban dwellers. I have had great luck with Muir Glen fire-roasted canned tomatoes and also some of the canned San Marzano tomatoes as well. Your mileage may vary.
Beans, in canned or dried form, are another great source of menu variety in cool and cold weather. One of the world’s great cold-weather dishes, cassoulet, is built around the bean, along with several meats and a healthy dose of garlic. For the seasonally inclined cook, beans represent a very cost-effective alternative to the out-of-season solanaceous crops that fill the shelves through the year. Not least, they are a very wine-friendly foil for a rich, filling dish.
As you can see, I’m focusing on fall here, partly because it’s timely and partly because I love it so much. Summer cooking, to me, seems like the gravy of the food world—produce prices are down, quality is high, supply is abundant. Since everyone is trying to stay light for whatever their individual reasons may be, complex and time-consuming preparations are not called for. What you’re left with is the essential duty of any good cook facing premium ingredients, and that is merely to show respect and stay out of the way as much as possible. In summer, a well-stocked spice shelf, a salad spinner, a grill and a good olive oil will get you lots of places. But I’ll write more about that when the temperature is on the rise.
Eating seasonally, to me, usually means little more than common sense and following what your body is telling you. In February, I crave a rich tomato ragu—but not a caprese salad. The former uses canned tomatoes, the latter insists on fresh at peak ripeness. In December, I want roasted and braised dishes with hardy herbs like thyme and rosemary—the ones that do well in indoor kitchen gardens and need little sun or attention to stay alive. While potatoes, carrots, turnips and squash start to wear on all of us as the year turns and we long for the feel of sun on more parts than our noses and hands, they are actually miracles of versatility.
In some ways, the prevalence of out-of-season food on the shelves of our markets reminds me of the dark aspects of the cosmetics and fitness industries—the myth of eternal youth, the resistance to natural cycles and limitations, the obsession with bright colors. Our food culture is turning again to the commonsense virtues of shopping and eating in conjunction with the seasons and it is important to realize that this approach has built-in challenges for the cook as well as built-in advantages.
Imagination is the crucial key to avoiding monotony in a seasonal menu. Look to cookbooks that fit your climate and do not pass over old farm cookbooks—they contain gems from people who ate seasonally way before it was flavor of the month on the Food Network. French cuisine, in particular, also has much to contribute on how to make soul-satisfying ragouts, estouffades and daubes low in fat and calories. Pickling, canning, preservation in fat (confit), root cellaring—these are the old arts that stretch a harvest to last the year round. Madison abounds with enthusiasts on these matters and many of these skills are simpler than you may realize. Armed with these principles and, as mentioned, a well-stocked spice shelf and dry pantry, sally forth into cool weather with a brave heart. Don’t forget the cotes du rhones.