Pumpkin Crab Cakes - Photo by Peter Haley / MCT

Many reasons to eat with the seasons

Growing up on Oregon's south coast, I understood that "seasons" correspond to fishing, crabbing, clamming and hunting: all activities that persist through predictable rain and fog or — in the absence of precipitation — bracing north wind with its characteristic chill.

Usually a hurdle for newcomers, the coastal climate also impedes most attempts at growing food. As a child, I couldn't conceive of homegrown strawberries larger than thimbles and untouched by potato bugs or backyard apples that outweighed golf balls and came in hues other than unripe green.

So imagine my delight, after moving to the Rogue Valley, at picking an apple, apricot or cherry right off a tree in my own yard, taking more than a cautionary bite and enjoying it — not just as actual fruit — but as a prime specimen of the season. Its flavor is the essence of that single summer day when sunlight and heat culminated in peak ripeness.

I had a homesteader to thank for the trees. For gardening, I needed help from my mother-in-law, raised near California avocado orchards and admonished by her father to "get in season."

Over the past five years, she has steered my enthusiasm for delicious food toward the monotony of digging, planting, weeding, watering and harvesting. The reward, of course, comes in late summer and early fall when the garden fills almost all our produce needs.

While the Rogue Valley's four seasons ensure this bounty, its deep agricultural traditions mean residents don't have to grow it themselves. Numerous small farms supply several farmers markets between March and November, locally owned grocery stores purchase locally grown produce and a new online farmers market promises an alternative to these venues, even through the winter.

Indeed, winter with its inhospitable weather may seem a strange time to debut a column on seasonal cooking and eating. But as gardeners know all too well, winter is the time for planning. And the new year is when most of us pledge to change our diets and lifestyles.

The reasons to eat with the seasons are many. Even if you purchase all your produce at a grocery store, it's hands-down the least expensive in season. And because it's also freshest, it represents the best value.

Amid increased environmental awareness, it bears pointing out that off-season foods are resource-intensive: They've either used energy in refrigerated storage or in transportation. The worst offenders, of course, are items that traveled from the Southern Hemisphere and its reverse seasons. Think New Zealand apples in March and Chilean asparagus in November.

As these off-season foods became commonplace over the decades, Americans became accustomed to cooking and eating their favorites year-round. But as locally produced foods gain prominence, growing numbers of Americans are giving tomatoes the cold shoulder in winter.

It's not just ideology. Savvy cooks and shoppers recognize winter tomatoes as literally pale shadows of their summer counterparts and often prohibitively expensive. Hence, the utmost reason to eat in season: the taste.

Taste buds don't lie, at least when it comes to fresh, whole, unprocessed foods. They know what's good and when. So this column will celebrate a seasonal flavor every month with tips for obtaining, preparing and savoring what's freshest right here in the Rogue Valley or least not too far afield.

Starting now means featuring produce that isn't fresh in the strictest sense but seasonal, nonetheless. Winter squash earned its name by virtue of storing, under proper conditions, through the coldest months. An iconic member of the squash family, pumpkin is one of my favorites, particularly in soup or roasted for salads and side dishes.

But this year — instead of the usual suspects and in deference to my culinary roots — I'm combining it with the epitome of Oregon seasonal seafood: Dungeness crab.

Mail Tribune food editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487 or slemon@mailtribune.com. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog mailtribune.com/wholedish

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