There are two words that make me die inside: seasonal and local.
Invoked like a mantra on menus, healthy living listicles and grocery displays, they’re well-intentioned but have come to represent eating vegetables as a lifestyle statement rather than something you do because they’re delicious. These two words slam the door on people who don’t have access to local produce or who want to enjoy a lime in their gin and tonic in February.
This is not the time to be slamming doors. According to the Agriculture Department, 52 percent of the vegetables Americans eat are tomatoes and potatoes, mostly in the form of French fries, potato chips, ketchup and tomato sauce on pizza. We eat about half of the daily recommended allowance of fruits and vegetables, according to government estimates. My restaurant, Dirt Candy, has been serving nothing but vegetables since 2008, but no matter how many articles I see about this being the Era of the Vegetable, most of the people I’ve met in the fine dining world who actually care about vegetables are journalists and their editors looking for fresh headlines.
People will embrace vegetables if they’re fun and inclusive, not complicated and exclusive. Make broccoli as craveable as fried chicken, and you’re on your way. And to make vegetables fun, you must remove the angst surrounding them, largely embodied in those two words: seasonal and local.
For the most part, your local grocery is not selling local produce. Don’t panic. Eating local is great, and it’s wonderful to support your local farmers, but I think you do that by creating demand for vegetables rather than by location-shaming shoppers.
Worried about how your groceries affect your carbon footprint? Me, too, but I don’t have the money to move. No matter what time of year it is, if you live outside of Florida or Southern California, every single lemon, orange or nectarine you’ve ever eaten in your entire life has probably taken an airplane trip to your mouth. Want a local lime? Move to Mexico. Do you like olive oil? That’s mostly coming from Spain (via Italy) on ships. How about broccoli in the dead of winter? Or garlic? Grapes? Celery? Live outside California, and that’s coming to you via thousands of miles of asphalt.
Your local grocery is also probably not selling seasonal produce. Walk into a Publix, or Ralph’s, or Whole Foods, or even your corner deli in winter, and you’ll see pretty much the same display of produce you see in the middle of summer. If you’re like me, you’re haunted by the idea that somehow they’re inferior, and then you feel insecure and wind up buying cereal instead.
The fact is, we live in a post-seasonal world. The vast majority of our fruits and vegetables comes to us on trucks and planes from faraway farms, and everything is always in season somewhere. Make your peace with it. Technology has birthed an endless stream of horrors, like 24-hour cable news and people crossing the street while texting, but it’s also given us the ability to live in New York City and enjoy an orange any time of the year, and that’s a beautiful thing.
All too often, the phrase “seasonal and local” has become co-opted by the forces of snobbery, and while farmers markets are wonderful things, there’s no good reason to ignore the piles of grapes at your grocery in February just because someone once told you they’re inferior to the amazing grapes they get at a little farm stand on Nantucket.
If there’s one vegetable that people feel most passionate about eating only in season, it’s tomatoes. I even take my tomato dish off the menu when the weather turns cold. But the fact is, even tomatoes don’t have to be eaten in season to taste good. You just have to approach them the right way.
When I crave tomatoes between November and March, I know it’s time to make tomato confit, or as I like to call it, A Big Mess of Winter Tomatoes. I buy a couple of pounds of tomatoes, cover them in olive oil, then roast them until they have golden spots and have collapsed a bit. Not only do I wind up with tomato-flavored olive oil that’s absolutely delicious, but I’ve also got quarts of flavorful tomatoes that I can serve on pasta, on toast with whipped feta, on bagels with cream cheese. I can turn them into a delicious tomato soup, or into a coconut curry sauce for fish, tofu or rice.
So forget what you’ve been told about what vegetables to eat when. Winter tomatoes exist, and if you approach them differently than you’d approach summer tomatoes, they can blast even the strongest seasonal affective disorder to shards.
Roasted Winter Tomatoes
Time: About 2 hours, plus cooling
Yield: 2 to 3 quarts (about 10 cups)
2 ½ pounds tomatoes (any kind)
5 garlic cloves, peeled
2 slices peeled ginger, about 1/8-inch thick
2 to 3 sprigs fresh basil
5 to 6 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1. Heat oven to 250 degrees. If using larger tomatoes, such as beefsteak or plum tomatoes, slice them in half; if using cherry tomatoes, leave them whole.
2. Combine tomatoes, garlic, ginger and basil in a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Add enough olive oil to cover. Transfer to oven and bake for 2 hours; the tomatoes should have started to collapse and have a few brown spots. Return them to the oven if necessary.
3. Remove baking dish from oven and let tomatoes cool. Drain the oil and reserve. (You can use it as you would any normal olive oil.) Refrigerate or freeze your tomatoes for later use; they will last in the fridge up to 1 week. The oil will keep for 2 weeks in the refrigerator.
Roasted Tomato-Coconut Sauce
Time: 15 minutes
Yield: About 6 cups
¼ cup reserved tomato oil from roasted tomatoes (see recipe above, or use extra-virgin olive oil)
½ cup chopped onions
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Zest of 1 lemon, plus 1/4 cup freshly squeezed juice
4 cups roughly chopped roasted tomatoes (see recipe above)
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk
Salt, to taste
1. In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, until the onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in red pepper flakes and lemon zest, then add tomatoes and coconut milk.
2. Reduce heat to low and cook until mixture just begins to simmer. Immediately remove from heat and season with lemon juice and salt to taste. Serve over fish, tofu or rice. (If you’re cooking tofu, press it between two plates for a half-hour first to get the water out.)
Roasted Tomatoes and Whipped Feta on Toast
Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Yield: 5 to 6 large toasts
8 ounces feta cheese
6 tablespoons heavy cream
1 loaf of your favorite bread (about 1 pound)
Zest of 1 grapefruit, plus 1 tablespoon grapefruit juice
½ tablespoon tomato oil, from roasted tomatoes (see recipe above)
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 cups wild arugula or torn chicory
½ cup torn parsley or mint
4 cups roasted tomatoes, roughly chopped if large (see recipe above)
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Press the feta for an hour: Take a stack of plates, wrap the feta in a dish towel, put it on the bottom plate, and put the rest of the stack on top of it.
2. Purée the pressed feta in a food processor until smooth. Combine the feta and heavy cream in a bowl and mix it by hand until it’s smooth and creamy. Refrigerate until ready to use.
3. Slice your loaf of bread into 1/2-inch-thick pieces. Toast your pieces in the oven or toaster just until heated; you want it crispy and warm, but no color.
4. In a large bowl, place grapefruit juice, tomato oil, garlic, arugula and herbs; toss to combine. Add more oil and grapefruit juice if desired.
5. Spread the whipped feta on the toast, then put down a layer of greens. Top with a layer of tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, sprinkle the grapefruit zest on top, and serve.
Tip: To further enhance the toast, drizzle some more tomato oil from earlier over each slab of bread and sprinkle it with salt before toasting. Then rub it with a cut garlic clove when you pull it out.
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