On most returns from trips to other countries, I usually feel better than when I left home. Typically it's because I walked everywhere (dropping a few pounds, an extra bonus) and my palate was pampered by never eating foods that came from a can, package or freezer.
Cooks in village cafes and chefs in city bistros, especially in Europe, don't have large kitchens with storage, and it's simply their habit to buy fresh ingredients daily from area farmers. At the end of every trip, I realize how real everything tasted and that I want to feel that good all the time.
We're hearing more than ever now in the United States about our need to eat food that's in season, and, if possible, grown locally.
But peruse the produce section of your grocery store, and you're likely to scratch your head: You can buy tomatoes in January and in June. Berries are on sale this month, but they were last month, too. And, it all seems to be from Chile, Argentina, Mexico -- is eating fruits and veggies from these countries all that bad?
"Locavore" blogs, written by those who carry the torch for eating only what's grown within 150 miles or so from home, contain lots of helpful reading -- and, admittedly, fairly zealous material, too.
Don't despair. Eating seasonally and locally isn't strictly the purview of people who save whales, hug trees and spend most of their time in Pilates classes. And plenty of those locavore bloggers -- some of whom are also authors -- share with honesty, confessing that they miss exotic fruits and veggies out of season.
But I had a "Yes, I get that!" moment when reading Amy Cotler, author of The Locavore Way (Storey Publishing, $12.95), who wrote that she enjoys eating strawberries only in season so much more now that she has to endure months of doing without them. Because we're so accustomed to instant gratification, we forget how dramatically our appreciation factor rises when we have to wait for a certain culinary jewel to show up in its own time.
It's well-documented that eating seasonally and locally is better for the environment, too. "It benefits everyone to buy local because you're reducing the carbon footprint by cutting down on gas and emissions," points out Christina LaBarba, sales executive at Fresh Point, a food distributor in North Texas that buys from area farmers. "If you're supporting your community and you're supporting Texas, you're supporting small businesses."
Fort Worth chefs such as Molly McCook at Ellerbe Fine Foods, Dena Peterson at Café Modern and Casey Thompson at Brownstone seek out locally grown produce, often noting the producers' names on their menus and serving what is in season. One of the first to find area goods to serve in his restaurant, chef Jon Bonnell says he wasn't just jumping on a trend but that he likes the sensibility primarily from a flavor standpoint.
"I do think we should eat more local and seasonal produce because it just tastes better," says Bonnell, owner of Bonnell's Fine Texas Cuisine in Fort Worth, citing one of his favorite tomato producers, found in Cisco, about 100 miles west of Fort Worth. "If you buy Scott Farms tomatoes at the market here in town, these taste a whole lot better than tomatoes that have been on truck after truck for a week. You know the Scotts picked those tomatoes yesterday."
Bonnell likes creating specials with squash, herbs, peppers and tomatoes because those supplies grow better, and he says "peach season is always big -- we'll do everything, like peach pies and fresh peach margaritas." If you see him shopping at Cowtown Farmers Market in Fort Worth with his daughter on Saturday mornings this summer, you can expect to find ratatouille on the Bonnell's menu that night.
He says that you are getting a pure product from the farmers market.
"Everything is getting hit so hard with pesticides, but at the market, you're getting the product itself, not one grown with nitrates in the soil like the produce shipped in from somewhere else."
Nutrition experts also can tell you dozens of reasons why you feel better by eating the freshest food possible, and some can throw impressive data at you in the process.
"Some of the most important foods to eat are cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cabbage, kale and cauliflower," says Rhonda McKinney, nutritionist at Healthy Solutions in Arlington. "They contain indole-3-carbinol, which helps convert cancer-promoting estrogens to good estrogens."
McKinney's work in nutrition counseling includes her work with Cuisine for Healing, a nonprofit organization in Fort Worth that makes nutritious meals available to people who have cancer.
She educates clients, some of whom are seeking to cope with illness, about the importance of choosing certain foods and taking steps toward better health.
Her litany of essential foods (and the reason she considers them essential) include avocados, which help the body eliminate toxins; green tea, which can help stop growth of new blood vessels in tumors; raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, which are loaded with cancer-fighting antioxidants; and shiitake, maitake and reishi mushrooms, which are said to stimulate the immune system and fight cancer-promoting agents.
A snapshot of what's in season
Living in North Texas, we have access to regional produce much of the year, with the best selections arriving in late spring and early summer. Thanks to farmers markets, whose numbers are growing, and at stores like Whole Foods Market, in Arlington, and Central Market, in Fort Worth and Southlake, which stock produce from area growers, you can easily find out where your produce originates.
Because of unusual freezes this winter, the past few weeks haven't been good for buying produce, but that's expected to change soon. Farmers markets in Fort Worth and Coppell, for instance, have stocked mostly greens: lettuces, spring onions, herbs and hothouse tomatoes.
But a ray of sunshine was glimpsed two weeks ago with the arrival of asparagus, grown by B&G's Garden in Parker County. Smart shoppers lined up at the Cowtown Farmers Market at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, ready to snap up this delicacy, which was gone before 8:30 a.m.
"Ben and Greg's asparagus in the spring is just about my favorite," says Deborah Lollar of Arlington, who shops at the Cowtown Farmers Market every Saturday. She is among the farmers market's customers who load up through summer, when the market is open also Wednesday mornings, on peaches, tomatoes, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.
Lollar likes making friends with the farmers -- she has been supporting the local market for more than 25 years -- "because our food supply has become too industrialized, resulting in the loss of family farms and farmers." On top of that, she says that she believes that she and her husband, Jim Lollar, have been healthier, rarely catching colds and the like, as a result of "eating a diet of local fresh produce."
Shoppers also can find B&G's Garden's asparagus at Central Market in Fort Worth, where produce manager Mike Arriaga says that the two varieties of pretty green stalks should be available through Easter. In April, Arriaga expects organic radishes from Morrison Farms in Cleburne, followed in May by yellow squash and zucchini, beets and turnips, and eggplant, squash, cucumbers, bell peppers and red potatoes in June, also all from Morrison Farms in Cleburne.
The list of popular summer items at Central Market includes gorgeous heirloom tomatoes and beefsteak tomatoes from Scott Farms in Cisco, which are also found at the Cowtown Farmers Market. The Scotts also grow cantaloupes, which can be found at the markets in July. From late May until about July 4, you'll find five varieties of shelled peas from farms in East Texas; and from the end of June until the heat becomes intense in July, figs from Lightsey Farms in East Texas and organic blackberries and blueberries will come in from various East Texas farms.
At Whole Foods Market, strawberries from Alvin, near Houston, will arrive any day now and will be available for a few months, says Shawn Sosa, produce manager at the Arlington store. Grapefruit and oranges from the Rio Grande Valley will be available through May. A favorite, 1015 onions -- big, yellow and sweet, and named for their Oct. 15 planting date -- are also at Whole Foods for another couple of months.
In summer, Whole Foods -- like Central Market and area farmers markets -- will be a destination for fresh Texas peaches. Whole Foods gets its peaches from farms in Fairfield and Mexia and will bring in cantaloupes from the West Texas town of Pecos in June and perhaps July. Organic jalapeños, squash and okra from Morrison Farms in Cleburne will be other popular summer goodies.
Sprouts, the Arizona-based chain newer to the North Texas market (sprouts.com/home.php), is sourcing some Texas produce. At the moment, you can find Texas-grown cabbage and basil in the Southlake store. By late spring and into summer, Sprouts' produce section will offer berries, squash, zucchini, cucumbers. tomatoes, cantaloupes and peaches grown on Texas farms.
Fall brings cabbage, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, pecans, cauliflower, beets and celery, while winter is the time to find locally grown greens.
Although most of us tend to choose just those vegetables and fruits we already know, resorting to a comfort zone of recipes, local produce experts urge you to select produce unfamiliar to you, because there are plenty of food-preparation tips out there.
Stores like Whole Foods and Central Market frequently offer free, in-store demonstrations on new produce items, typically with tastings and recipes. The Dallas Farmers Market offers Saturday lunchtime cooking classes, taught by noted area chefs who use the newest products from the market; these classes usually cost $30.
Whole Foods Market's website offers a guide to fruits and vegetables, with lots of specific information for selecting, storing and using an individual fruit or veggie, and plenty of nutritional information, too. You'll never wonder again what to do with an artichoke, parsnip or fig. www.wholefoodsmarket.com/products/produce.php
When you're searching for a nearby market and wondering what's in season, look at the Texas Department of Agriculture's handy online guide. It tells you which items are grown in Texas, who the growers are and which counties they serve, and there's a good list of farmers markets across the state. Find it online at www.picktexas.com.
Sign up for a CSA. The acronym stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it's a practice found across the U.S. By joining a CSA, you support local farmers and get their produce. If organic everything is important to you, this is a good route to go. It's most convenient for people who don't have time to roam the markets, because you simply pay for a weekly, monthly or quarterly subscription and pick up your box of in-season goods once a week. Visit www.localharvest.org/ and enter your ZIP Code. You'll find abundant ways to sign up.
Ask your favorite restaurants about their produce. Every restaurateur has access to farm-fresh produce, but unless you request it, you may not be sure if it's among ingredients in the dishes you are ordering. Fresh Point, which supplies restaurants, hotels and hospitals from the Oklahoma state line to Waco, buys produce from dozens of area growers. Right now, in fact, Fresh Point is delivering cabbage from Uvalde, citrus and onions from the Rio Grande Valley, micro greens from Keller and Austin, and asparagus from Weatherford. The company updates its list weekly, and the variety available to restaurants changes accordingly.
Quinoa with chicken, spring peas and asparagus
Roasted or rotisserie chicken works perfectly in this recipe. Any leftover quinoa -- a most healthful grain, perfect even for a gluten-free diet -- can be chilled and tossed with vinaigrette to make a lively salad.
1 cup quinoa
2 cups water
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
1/2 pound (about 1/2 bunch) asparagus, woody ends snapped off and discarded, spears cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup fresh peas or frozen petite peas, thawed
1 cup shredded cooked chicken
1 cup thinly sliced baby spinach leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Rinse quinoa under cold running water and drain. Combine water and quinoa in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook until quinoa is tender and all the water is absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and asparagus. Cook, stirring often, until asparagus is tender and bright green, 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Add garlic and peas and continue cooking for another minute. Stir in chicken and cooked quinoa. Add the spinach and stir until it wilts, 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
Source: Whole Foods Market
Berry blue salad
Toasted pecans, walnuts or pine nuts go well in this salad, too. When in season, toss a few fresh raspberries into the salad for color.
8 cups loosely packed baby field greens
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
1/4 cup blue cheese crumbles
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup orange juice
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon thyme leaves
1 tablespoon minced shallot (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup roasted sliced or slivered almonds
1. Place greens, blueberries, blue cheese and red onion in a serving bowl.
2. In a smaller bowl, whisk together olive oil, orange juice, lemon thyme leaves, shallot (if desired) and salt and pepper to taste.
3. Toss greens with dressing and garnish with almonds. Serve immediately.
Source: Whole Foods Market
Texas citrus salsa
1 Texas Rio Star grapefruit, sectioned and chopped
1 large Texas orange, sectioned and chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 cup diced bell pepper
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
3 tablespoons chopped red onion
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix grapefruit, orange, tomato, bell pepper, jalapeño, onion, cilantro, sugar and salt. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Drain juice before serving.