Noticed how chilly it has been in the morning lately? In Melbourne, at least, the temperature has greeted us in the low single digits. We respond by moving our body more briskly, wearing bulkier clothes and seeking heat sources for a little instant gratification. But what about our food? Most of us dress differently for the seasons but not everyone adjusts their diet.
Are there any benefits of eating seasonally?
It is argued that in this age of globalism that everything is in season, somewhere in the world. A trip to the supermarket this week in Victoria will offer you cherries from North America, barramundi from Thailand and oranges of mixed origin. While labeling is improving as to the countries these foods originate, the regions within Australia still are missing in the big chains.
European studies show that the nutrient values of foods flown in from other countries are lower than locally grown and snap frozen vegetables. It would be logical to assume that fresh vegetables grown in the area, with less time in transit would have at least similar benefits. Certainly the time between being picked and consumed can have a huge bearing on unstable nutrients such as vitamin C.
Locavore is a buzzword made popular by books on seasonal eating, like Barbara Kingsolver’s ”Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”. While the premise behind the idea is broader than just personal health, a trade-off for using less energy to transport our food is that if you eat what is grown in your vicinity (arbitrarily the consensus seems to bee 100 miles/160 kms) will essentially be food suited to the climate you live in.
Kingsolver found some obviously sticky areas. For one, the family wasn’t prepared to give up drinking coffee. Tea drinkers would have similar issues. But as far fresh produce was concerned, the family ate what they could grow on their land or in their county for twelve months as an ecological experiment.
Autumn into winter fresh produce downunder
Without a vegetable garden to supplement the dinner table it can be difficult to know what is in season. A simple guide is whatever is most plentiful and cheaper in the shops is most likely to be in season. However Australia is a large country, with many climate zones and even most organic groceries will tend to have fresh fruit and vegetables from many States. Once again, the further they have to travel from the farm will increase the costs. Zucchini, for example, so cheap at the end of summer is still available Australian grown but at least treble the price as autumn comes to an end.
Farmers markets tend to sell produce closer to home and become your best bet for more locavore oriented seasonality.
Fruits and vegetables in season in the Eastern states of Australia
(Source: Campion and Curtis)
May – late autumn
apples (bonza, braeburn , cox’s orange, pippins , fuji, gala, golden delicious, granny smith, jonagold, jonathan, mutso, pink lady , red delicious, snow, sundowner), banana, cumquat, custard apple, feijoa, grapes (purple cornichon, waltham cross), kiwifruit, lemons, limes, mandarin (imperial), melon (champagne), nuts (chestnut, hazelnut, peanut, walnut), pears (howell, josephine, packham , red sensation, Williams), persimmon, quince, rhubarb.
asian greens (bok choy, choy sum, gai laan, wonga bok), avocados (fuerte, sharwill), beetroot, broccoli, brussels sprout, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, daikon, eggplant, fennel, garlic, ginger, horseradish, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms (wild, field, pine, slippery jacks), okra, olives, onions (brown, spring), parsnip, peas, potato, pumpkin, shallots, silverbeet, spinach, squash, swede, sweet potato, taro, tomato, turnip, witlof, zucchini.
June – early winter
apples – (bonza, braeburn , cox’s orange, pippins , fuji, gala, golden delicious, granny smith, jonagold, jonathan, lady Williams, mutso, pink lady, red delicious, snow, sundowner), custard apple, grapefruit, kiwifruit, lemons, limes, mandarin (ellendale), melons (champagne), nashi, nuts (chestnut, hazelnut , walnut), oranges (navel), pears (beurre bosc, Josephine, packham), persimmon, pomelo, quince, rhubarb.
asian greens (bok choy, choy sum, gai laan, wonga bok), avocados (fuerte, sharwill), beetroot, broccoli, brussels sprout, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, fennel, garlic, ginger, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, okra, olives, onions, parsnip, peas, potato, pumpkin, shallot, silverbeet, spinach, swede, sweet potato, turnip, witlof.
Cool weather cooking
While the hotter months tempt us with crisp and cooling fruits and vegetables (think of cucumbers, pineapples and mangoes) that are best eaten raw and chilled, nature provides us with denser foods at this time of year. These vegetables often require some cooking to liberate the goodness or to break down starches, such as root vegetables potatoes, turnips and swedes.
Autumn offers us some stunning fruit such as persimmons, feijoas and tamarillos but as winter descends the most plentiful and cheapest fruit tends to be apples and pears. To break the monotony, I like to stew them up with warming spices like cinnamon and eaten hot.
In some places fresh food is harder to find, so the stored goodness of grains, beans, nuts and seeds come into their own. While Australians might think of the summer barbecue season as the time for meat, the densely packed nutrients in meat are energetically more suited to the cooler months especially when slowly cooked and preferably still on the bone. Traditionally winter was the time to eat fats to gain some insulation for the months when food was harder to find, however in current day Australia this is rarely an issue.
This is also the best time to dust off the crock-pot and set it to work with meat, grains or beans, chopped root vegetables, stock and herbs to slowly cook while you work the day away (see recipes below). Porridge cooked over night in the cooker makes a wonderful, ‘instant’ breakfast
The colder it is outside, the warmer your food and drinks should become.
Seasonal food suggestions
This is a great time of year to eat cooked grains to begin your day. Oats, as in porridge is an obvious place to start but so too is a cooked breakfast of quinoa, cornmeal, buckwheat or millet (which are also gluten-free options). This creamy quinoa breakfast is currently the favourite in my household.
To make a basic porridge or cooked grain dish, use a ratio of 1 part grains to 2 parts water, some kind of milk or even fruit juice, then cooked til soft. A little cinnamon or grated nutmeg makes a nice addition or dried or stewed fruit. Don’t forget the slow cooker – pour in your grains, fluid and other flavours before bed, switch it on and you have the perfect, no fuss hot breakfast waiting for you in the morning.
Homemade baked beans, boiled or poached eggs or just a bowl of stewed fruit make other great tasty cool season breakfasts.
Soups and stews and other heated leftovers make ideal lunches. But if, like me, you are a little suspicious of microwaves or you are on the road during the day a thermos can be your best friend at this time of year. My happiest winter meal was a hot soup made from beans and winter vegetables, eaten in the snow while cross-country skiing.
If you buy your lunch consider looking at other options in your Japanese takeaway moving from the nori rolls to warm dishes like the ‘dons’ (on rice) or soupy noodles meals. Of course a toasted sandwich can feel pretty satisfying on a cold day too but make sure you vary the fillings to include a decent serve of vegetables.
A weekly batch of soup to have on the nights you get home late or when you are feeling cold is a good contingency plan. My favourite is one made of beans, root vegetables, a can of tomatoes and some vegetable stock. Carnivores might enjoy a classic lamb shank based soup or stew with pearl barley or split peas and orange vegetables.
Still needing inspiration? Consider a baked fish such as snapper with roast vegetables, chilli con carne (or without carne for a vegetarian version), or perhaps a tagine-style Middle Eastern meal of slow cooked meat, vegetables or legumes with warming spices like cinnamon and dried fruit.
For those looking for meals using dried goods, consider a pilaf. This is a grain based dish simmered in stock, with vegetables/meat and spices. Indian variations include a mix of rice and lentils with spicy herbs but millet or quinoa with finely chopped vegetables, onion, garlic and vegetable stock make a healthy modern twist on the theme. Try Lucy’s quinoa and millet pilaf for something different.
Regardless of the season, ditch the ice. Our digestive system likes to metabolise things at room temperature at all times of the year.
While chai has become a popular drink year round, those warming spices like ginger, cardamom and cinnamon can blend well with a variety of herbs to make what I call “kitchen cupboard spice tea”. A few slices of oranges or lemons, a generous chunk of finely chopped or grated root ginger, a cinnamon or cassia stick and a pinch of star anise brewed up in the pot makes a warming mix. The rich red of dried hibiscus flowers with root ginger also makes a pleasant brew.
Of course spices and warm drinks are synonymous with mulled wine. Much of the alcohol is driven off in the cooking process (if not fortified with brandy or other spirits before imbibing!). Similar recipes use cider or grape juice, heated with spices for a warming drink.
More healthy winter food ideas and other links
A Melbourne reporter’s locavore experiment
Things to do with a thermos including how to make porridge in one.