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Eat Fresh All Year: A Guide to Seasonal Cooking

Eating fresh vegetables and fruits when and where they grow naturally provides plenty of benefits. Often, fresh produce is less expensive and more flavorful, and you’re helping local farmers flourish and, in turn, grow more fresh food to make available to more people.

Let the season determine your menu

“Seasonal is the way I learned how to cook, it’s a natural way of life, not a new concept,” says Tim LaBant, chef and proprietor of The Schoolhouse at Cannondale, a restaurant in Wilton, Conn., where each menu is based on what’s available that day. “Everybody in history before the 1900s has eaten seasonally. It’s more like going backwards to figure out what’s right. As you cook, you start to think about food and where it comes from. What’s important to me is keeping it seasonal and local; the more connected to the food I am, the more inspired I am.”

Creating seasonal dishes, says LaBant, just means that when strawberries or asparagus or corn are in season, you use them. “All foods have a season. As leaves change and I smell the first fire in a fireplace, I think about squash and pumpkin. Like a kid getting excited around Christmas, in August I get excited about tomatoes,” he explains.

To taste firsthand the advantages of eating seasonal dishes, LaBant suggests buying two or three organic apples from small farms or fruit growers and the same number from the supermarket, and comparing how they taste. “If you’re eating an apple in the fall, it has a lot more flavor than the ‘super’ apple,” says LaBant, adding that it’s also good to support the small farmer who’s trying to grow food the healthy way.

LaBant works directly with a local farmer who supplies three restaurants and a few families from her two-acre farm. He takes as much produce as he can, and then he creates his menu, depending on what foods he can get. On occasion, the produce mix might not yield enough ingredients for every salad, for example, to look identical on a given night, but each will have a great medley of fresh ingredients.

As a restaurateur, Labant can’t shut down in the dead of winter when there’s no fresh seasonal food available locally, but like the generations before him, he’ll switch to summer crops that were pickled or canned in preparation for the winter and to vegetables stored in a root cellar. He’ll then look at what’s in season in other parts of the country, like citrus from Florida fruit growers and pineapple from Hawaii where it’s actually growing in season. What he won’t serve is a dish that would be totally out of place in winter, like a summery salad. “With FedEx, we have the ability to get ingredients from anywhere [in the world], but if you put blinders on and work only with what you have, you’re forced to be creative.” And a better cook.

LaBant translates his approach for the home cook this way: “Try not to come up with the perfect recipe, then force the ingredients into that recipe.” In other words, let what’s fresh and available determine your meals — don’t decide to make a peach cobbler in January when peaches aren’t in season.

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