Good and Bad Advice From David Tanis

April 4, 2013 at 4:22 pm

David Tanis writes a regular cooking feature for the New York Times Food section.  Dishes in his California/Mediterranean almost always sound good.  Given his long time association with Chez Panisse, I surely respect his opinions on various matters local.  I got really excited yesterday, when I saw the teaser to his latest article.  On the front page of the paper, they promised me Tanis would tell me how to get my last winter crops to taste a bit like Spring.  Great idea.  Then, I turned to article.  It turns out that was just one of his strategies for dealing with the desire to get past winter.  His other: cheat.

Tanis defines the locavore problem for April (substitute Chicago for April), “We’re getting hungry for spring vegetables, and in New York most are at least a month away.  At the greenmarket, it’s still mostly potatoes and apples. There are no tender greens, fava beans, peas, asparagus, artichokes, sorrel, rhubarb or early strawberries.”  He later adds, “lack of local, readily available spring ingredients needn’t be a hindrance.”  And what to do, “here’s no way to really cook spring meals now except by using vegetables grown in places where the season has already arrived.”  He wants you to use the asparagus rampant at the supermarket; dig into a barely red box of strawberries, and get some garlic already green.  Tanis gives you permission to give in.  I don’t.

There are at least five good reasons to stay the course, even, or especially now.

  1. It Will Taste Awful - Mother Earth is surely a locavore because the crops she puts fourth in Spring are some of the most local-critical crops around.  Asparagus loses a lot of its sweetness the minute it’s cut from the ground.  How can you appreciate asparagus if you have to eat asparagus shipped in?  It cannot possibly get to your table in time.  With another classic Spring crop, strawberries  the supermarket varieties are bred primarily for making it through inter-state commerce.  Real strawberries are too soft to stand the travel.  Eating the crap of Spring dulls your palate and makes you more susceptible to manufactured foods.  Really.
  2. The Eat Local Challenge – As my daughter noted, if you’ve made it all this time eating local, you can make it a few more weeks.  More importantly the reasons to eat local do not dissipate for the period where you’re tempted to get a jump on Spring.  Do the food miles dissapear?  Is the packaging less just this time of year?  Believe in eating local and believe you can do it for a few more weeks with what you have on hand.
  3. Time is on Your Side – You’ll be sick of asparagus if you start eating it now.  You’ll have plenty of time to eat asparagus when it is in season, probably six weeks.  My wife’s response when I brought this up to her, “people like to eat asparagus all year.”  My response, they like to eat bad asparagus all year.  To really appreciate asparagus, it’s pleasure, eat it only when it’s local, fresh and new.  She reminded me that I can eat tomatoes for as long as I can get my hands on them, but that is clearly different as the entire time I am eating tomatoes, I am eating good tomatoes, i.e., local tomatoes.
  4. The Root Cellar is a Lot Larger Than You Think – First of all, if you follow my general advice on eating local, you’re really not digging into the cellar until the beginning of the year.  November and December should be the last of your field crops, plenty of cold hardy plants like brussels sprouts and cauliflower should have filled your plate.  Then, yes there is a long period of carrots and such, but you can do more with root vegetables in the kitchen than any other kind of veg.  Have you tried sunchokes, burdock, salsify, celery root.  There’s a lot out there too.
  5. There is Spring Food – As I bemoaned the other day, the fact that I’m not getting it, does not mean it’s not there.   Our current What’s in Season, shows a fair amount of produce.  The hoops are producing; the cellars are holding out, and the foragers have their stashes.  Eat this now.

Tanis has a very good idea to mitigate winter.

The first is to mimic spring, all the while using winter ingredients. The idea is to effectively let your cooking transition into the new season, despite the fact that the season isn’t cooperating. To make dishes feel lighter, make abundant use of citrus and fresh herbs. Reimagine winter dishes as salads; take roast beef, for instance, and serve it sliced over colorful greens with an herb-laden vinaigrette. Or instead of mashed potatoes, make a warm potato salad spiked with capers and red wine vinegar. Lean toward brothy soups and eat a lot of green food. Avocados, watercress, celery and scallions aren’t really spring produce, strictly speaking, but they can approximate spring’s feel and flavor, as can radishes and yellow beets.

It turns out we have another reason not to cheat. See what you can do it the kitchen to make your Winter taste like Spring. Eat local now.