Explore Italian cuisine through the fruit and vegetables that color each season
The balmy air of Spring has been reinvigorating us all (or I should say "you all," as I am not a huge fan of the season) and making us yearn for all that is fresh and colorful. Off go the greys, the blacks and beiges of our Winter attires, out come the bright and lights hues and textures of Spring clothing. Off goes the heavy quilt, replaced by that quirky granny-squared patchwork affair you inherited from your mom. You see, Spring turns us all a bit hippy, even in the kitchen: after all the richness of the cold season's comfort food, we feel like experimenting and going green. Nothing better than crunchy vegetables and colorful salads to match the shinier light and warmer breeze of this period: in other words, we do feel like eating healthier, lighter and better.
Of course fruit and vegetables are the right point to start, but there are greens and greens, because we should really always choose what's in season and not what strikes our fancy: having strawberries or cherries in December, believe me, it's never a good idea, and you'll read why in a second.
I always think about eating seasonal, and I try to pick just what's right, but I admit I usually rely on the fact my local greengrocer only sells local organic produce. I took my doubts to the internet and, after a little research, which I'm about to share with you, I got a better idea of what's in season at the moment...you know, in case the greengrocer goes on holiday and I'm stuck to the buy my greens at the supermarket.
Why we should always choose seasonal and local fruit and vegetables
Eating seasonal is always a good idea, for many, many reasons: from better taste, to better health, seasonal fruit and vegetables should be a must in every kitchen. Let's see why.
Seasonal fruit and vegetables are richer in nutrients
Many of you probably already know this, but it's important to repeat it: when you choose in-season produce, you choose health. Fresh fruit and vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals which, though, start to disappear as soon as they're picked. When you decide to put on our tables produce which is not in season, it means it comes from somewhere pretty far from us: by the time it ends up on our plates, it may have travelled for weeks. How much of all those healthy elements we spoke about are still in there? Truth is, very little.
Opting for seasonal fruits and vegetables means you're, very likely, putting in your bag something that's been grown locally, picked shortly before ending up on the shelf and richer in essential nutrients than anything coming from the other side of the world.
Seasonal fruit and vegetables are tastier
And what about taste? Well, even that is better when you choose seasonal. Nothing is as perfect as what nature's created: seasonal fruit and vegetables are calibrated by nature for the specific climate of the period they grow in, which means it's got the right mix of air, rain and sun to make them ripe and delicious. To obtain fruit and vegetables out of season, they're often cultivated in greenhouses, where they receive loads of water (which makes them bigger), and little sun. This means those December strawberries may look nice and big, but they very likely lack in the taste department. Choose local and in season and what you loose in size and look, you'll gain in health and taste.
Seasonal fruit and vegetables are kinder to the environment
...Because they're eco-sustainable. Buying in-season fruit and vegs means buying local (or "chilometro zero," as we say in Italian), cutting down considerably transports. This is not only synonym of freshness, but it also means the produce on your table has caused less polluting emissions and less fuel has been used to get it to you. For instance, let's pretend you're after cherries in the middle of the December. Winter cherries usually come from South America and, if you live in Italy, this involves a trip of about 13.000 kilometers (or 8000 miles, roughly), almost 6 kg of petrol burnt (13 lbs) and a total of 17.4 kg of carbon dioxide emissions (38.5 lbs). If you stick with Winter fruits (apples and citrus fruits, for instance), none of that will happen.
Seasonal fruit and vegetables are cheaper
Of course they're: because they're in season and local, so there's no transport cost involved.
Vegetables of the Spring
So, it's Spring now: what should we pick? Well, Mother Nature is particularly bountyful this time of the year.
Rich in iron and fibres, they've a negligible amount of fat and help lower cholesterol. What's not to like? Try them on the own, raw, with home made bread and slices of real Italian salame, the one you have to slice yourself and looks like a large dried sausage: they're heaven. They also make a lovely side dish, stewed with chives and a touch of cream. If you fancy a pasta dish, put a tad of butter and half a cup of cream in a pan, add up some diced ham, one teaspoon of lemon rind and boiled fava beans: this sauce goes great with egg tagliatelle!
A green, prickly wonder, the artichoke has great detoxifying qualities, and it's extremely helpful to maintain our liver in top notch condition. Delicious baked in the oven, or broiled with garlic and parsley, they're fantastic in risotti and pasta sauces, as well as a filling for quiches and savory pies.
Rich in vitamins and iron, among other things, it's said to be helpful for those trying to quit smoking and it's also considered a natural antibiotic. Great if you want to detox, watercress (known in Italian as "crescione") is lovely in salads or as a base for soups.
Fennel is low in calories, but rich in fibres, potassium, calcium and phosphorous. It helps strengthen the immune system and, thanks to its high vitamin B content, it also supports the nervous and cardio-circulatory systems. In Italy, we use fennel raw in salads (try it with a boiled egg and tuna, dressed with extra virgin olive oil), or roasted in the oven with butter and parmesan, for a lovely side dish. It's often used to flavor soups.
Other typical Spring vegetables? Asparagus, string beans, cauliflowers, radishes, spinach, leek and beet greens.
Fruit of the Spring
When it comes to fruit, Spring has a bit of the best of both Winter and Summer: in its early weeks, oranges, citrons, apples and pears are still widely available, but once you hit May, sometimes even earlier, depending on how warm it's been, here come strawberries and apricots. A bit later, it's cherries and plums entering the scene.
We all know oranges are good for you: they're full of vitamins, right? There's more to them than that, though. Oranges have a great draining effect, thus are ideal if you're detoxing. Rich in antioxidants, they tackle cellular aging and get our immune system stronger. Oranges are not only great in desserts or eaten as a snack: you can slice them and use them in your salads, or make one only with them, dressed simply with extra virgin olive oil and a bit of salt. Citrons are also great eaten like that: peel them, slice them (keeping also the white part) and dress them with salt, pepper and olive oil.
Plums are rich in antioxidant and help the body absorb iron; they also stimulate the production of red blood cells and reinforce the immune system. They're lovely eaten on their own, of course, but we Italians love to make jam with them. Plum jam fruit tarts are delicious! Of course, they're great for any type of fruit based cake, such as our cousins', the French, clafoutis. They are also great to make stuffing.
Rich in vitamins (A and C, especially), apricots are also full of calcium and iron and have a surprisingly low amoung of sugars, in spite of being very sweet when ripe. Personally, I love apricots just as they're, but you can use them in a plethora of recipes, too. You can make a lovely apricot and pine nuts jam for example, or make a tarte tatin with them instead of apples. We don't really use apricots in savory dishes much in Italy but, I'm sure you know, dried apricots are a popular ingredient in both north-African and middle-Estern cuisine.