Friday, January 6, 2012

Taking seasonal eating to a new level

I know about food.

I don't know how to change a flat tire.  I'm horrible at sports.  I can't sing.  I have a knack for saying the wrong thing at the absolute wrong time.

But I know about food.  It's my thing.  I have a degree to prove it.

Having been a New York-New Jersey-er for all my life, I feel like this qualifies me even more to enter into any discourse on food, culture and gastronomy.  I never had to really search for an ingredient.  Sometimes, I had to google an ethnic market, sometimes it took me a few stores to find kaffir lime leaves, sometimes I had to haggle in Chinatown, but there was little I wanted that I couldn't access.  In Italy, that's a different story, as I've said many (many) times before.

Today was no exception, as Manuel and I went into nearby-ish Sarzana to go shopping for food, swiffer pieces and slippers (still looking for the slippers, but that's for another time).  As he was waiting on line to order our assorted salumi, I set off in the supermarket to hunt down the ethnic isle - which is a phrase that gives this small section of the store more credit then it deserves.  In most places, it's a shelf or two, but here it's a whole end stand.  I found soy sauce, tortillas, salsa, soba noodles, and an incredible amount of Cup-O-Noodle rip off's loaded with MSG (which is used more frequently then I'd like in packaged products here).  I'd been here before, but I was still annoyed at the incredible lack of "ethnic" ingredients here.  "Ethnic" means something from Southern Italy.  Those products from Calabria and Naples are displayed in rustic looking jars - not too foreign, but far enough from the norm to be considered something diverse.  Something different.

I was in a fog of annoyance, and, thinking very much like an American, was marching around in a huff, until I caught myself staring at a very impressive display of cabbages and dark, leafy greens.  It was staggering.  I looked around more, and noted at least 8 varieties of greens, 4 of cauliflower and broccoli, and what could only be described as a pear mountain.  There was a serious leek situation.  I stopped my bratty, sesame oil induced fit and realized finally what I'd been missing.  It's January.  That's when these vegetables grow.

I pride myself on knowing more about what I'm eating then most people, but in the Tri-State Area, that isn't something very hard to do.  You're 30 minutes or less from a Whole Foods.  There you can grab all the prickly pears you want.  The regular supermarket would face a riot if strawberries weren't displayed all year long.  If I had to live off what was grown in a 30 mile radius of NYC in January, I would try to choke myself to death on a bowl of potatoes and root vegetables in desperation.  Here, yes, we can find certain things if we look hard enough (I did manage to find a few sad looking, expensive berries but passed them over after my revelation), but what's more impressive to me is the normalcy of seasonality, and the reality of having to face it full on.  It's one thing to sit around a "green" restaurant in the East Village, talking about how brussels sprouts are great this time of year, sipping our organic beer, and it's another to realize that at the end of the day, that Chinese Hot Pot place around the corner doesn't exist.  There is no guy on the corner selling mangoes all year.

In the summer, at the Cantina, we wouldn't have bellinis after a certain point because, as it was explained to me like I was obtuse, "It's not peach season".  Porcini mushroom season means mushrooms everywhere.  Figs?  Come at the right time and you're a kid in a candy store.  This summer, I had my pick of varieties, heaped in piles at the front of the local market, and for a fraction of the price - even with the Euro to Dollar exchange rate.  When the weather gets crisp, apples start to show their pretty red and green selves.  Seasonality might be easier to appreciate in the summer, when everything seems sweet, ripe and fresh, especially in the Northeastern U.S.  Winter, however, is when you really see seasonal eating shine here.  I grabbed my black cabbage, my leeks.  Broccoli in 3 colors.  Bags of nuts.  Greens of the beet variety and some of it's tall, stalky cousins.  With full bags (and Manuel shaking his head, laughing) we headed home.  Sesame oil forgotten, lesson learned.

When in Italy it's always better to shop, think, and eat like the Italians do.


  1. Great story! Adding sesame oil to shopping do you cook black cabbage? .

  2. I love your posts. The disaster in the Cinque Terre led me to you blog. My husband and I have an apartment near Lucca. We are only there part-time (near Seattle the rest) but I really understand your "epiphany." Even though we miss ethnic cuisine while in Italy, there are so many wonderful things there that it pays to focus on what is available rather than what it not. I have given up winter tomatoes in the states as they are tasteless. I miss the cheap red and green peppers, the wonderful fegatini and tuna stuffed peppers that I get at our Esselunga. I can't go on or I will just get depressed that I won't be there until April.:-)
    Please keep up your lovely posts. We might come visit your restaurant in the spring. Cari saluti, Louise

  3. Lucca is wonderful - I was there last year and loved it - and you are so right about winter tomatoes. Here, I'm still surprised at the quality of tomatoes through the winter, as opposed to the mealy pale ones I would run into the US.
    April will come soon enough, and please do come visit, and thank you for reading! :)