In Lockstep With the Seasons

Cooking with nothing but what's in season seems punishingly severe as winter ends, but the exercise has year-round benefits  

Illustration by Steven Salerno

One March night in London I poked my head into the kitchen of Elisabeth Luard, curious about what would accompany our Sunday-supper leg of lamb, whose garlic-and-rosemary marinade invitingly scented the house. Luard, a vibrant cook and naturalist, and the author of The Old World Kitchen, proudly pointed to an earthenware dish of turnips baked with butter and sage. "These were dug yesterday from a farm up north," she said. "So were the potatoes in the oven with the joint. A friend brought them down last evening." She beamed in anticipation of the treat we were about to enjoy.

I hope I managed to hide my disappointment. This would be my one meal of the trip in someone's home, and I had been looking forward to trying some of the lovely things I'd seen in the produce stalls at street markets—mandarin oranges, for instance, and varieties and colors of peppers and radicchio that never reached my Boston markets so early in the year. Were the greengrocers all closed on Sunday? I inquired, helpfully mentioning my love of baby artichokes.

Luard gave me a quizzical look. "Oh, of course you can buy all that," she said. "But I like serving what I know just came out of the ground."

It took me a number of years to appreciate her stance. Specifically, it took dinners at two Pacific Northwest restaurants—Sooke Harbour House, on Vancouver Island, and The Herbfarm, near Seattle—that adopt a fundamentalist approach to using local, seasonal ingredients, an approach most chefs just talk about. If something doesn't grow in exactly that climate at exactly that moment, these restaurants won't feature it.

Sooke Harbour House is the object of pilgrimages by food lovers who expect enthralling dishes made exclusively with ingredients from the restaurant's own gardens and the surrounding forest and sea. When I ate there, I was visiting a friend, a teacher at the University of Victoria, who had never thought to dine at Sooke, although it was only a forty-minute drive from the university—its exalted reputation made it seem both fancy and forbidding. I, too, had been put off by a seemingly pointless purism, but I wanted to see for myself.

I was surprised when the contours of what looked like a very large and rambling Cape Cod cottage emerged from a dense March fog. Its dramatic position overlooking a sheltered harbor became clear only when we entered the dining room. The whole place, which is also an inn, was surprisingly casual—decorated with distinguished art made by First Peoples, as Indian tribes are called in Canada, and furnished with rag rugs and mismatched tables and spindle-back wooden chairs. The dining room looked like an enclosed porch, with windows onto the gardens and the sea. Sinclair Philip, who owns Sooke with his wife, Fredérique, began his career teaching political economics, and read voraciously about native plants once the couple had decided to open the inn and restaurant. He asked us with a professorial air if we had any dietary preferences. "Lemon juice!" I wanted to cry out, in my dread of an all-root-vegetable meal. "Anything green and fresh!"

My doubts abated when a citrusy-tasting broth appeared, flavored with lemon verbena and based on fish and vegetables. Neither my friend nor I felt any trace of deprivation as we were served a succession of small plates covered with fish we had never before tasted, or never tasted so fresh: silky black cod; chewy limpets, each one like a long and meaty clam neck; fat, sweet sea scallops that Philip had dived for himself, he told us matter-of-factly, adding that they were the local purple-hinged rock scallops. There were vegetables, too, mostly cleansingly astringent greens I wasn't familiar with. The balancing acidity of a clear, amber-colored sauce against the richness of the cod came from vinegar made in the kitchen, using leftovers from bottles of the island's excellent wines. Aside from the vinegar and a frozen huckleberry puree in sorbet, everything at the meal had been picked or caught within the previous forty-eight hours.

Philip led us on a chilly moonlit tour of the gardens, which are romantically laid out on a hillside that slopes straight to the sea. Even in the island's temperate climate Sooke is privileged, Philip explained: hard frosts are rare, and the calm waters make diving for seafood easy year-round. The beds were indeed unexpectedly fecund: underground were potatoes and colorful small beets and exotic root vegetables such as salsify and Chinese artichoke; above ground were kale and chicory and cabbages of many kinds. We sucked fir needles at Philip's urging and found them to be marvelously bright and refreshing—less balsamic than gently pungent, like baby gingerroot.

I came away sold: the fresher and more local the better. Herbs and vinegar, judiciously used, can take the place of the lemon juice I used to think indispensable. But could such an exercise be carried out in the far less forgiving climate of the Northeast, where hard frosts can prevent the digging of root vegetables for much of the winter? A friend passed along the cautionary advice he had once been given when contemplating a similar venture: "You're looking at a lot of turnips."

In adversity there is strength, I decided. Yes, the hardest time to try this purist approach at home is March and April—the cruelest months even on Vancouver Island. In the Northeast, winter stores of apples, pears, and squash have dwindled and shriveled, and the brussels sprouts have bolted. Cooks and diners, impatient after what seems like six months of winter, are desperate for spring vegetables such as asparagus and fiddlehead ferns weeks before they actually come up. "I always expect spring to start earlier," Jody Adams, the chef of the Cambridge restaurant Rialto, told me with a sigh as she was planning her April menus.

To get an idea of my early-spring possibilities I turned to Steve Johnson, the chef and owner of The Blue Room, another Cambridge restaurant, and a nationally prominent champion of local farmers. He gave me a short list of the things he can buy from the nearby Verrill Farm in March and a longer list for April. The vegetables included the dreaded turnips and rutabagas, but also carrots, leeks, potatoes, cabbages, and squash. Johnson told me that in response to encouragement from local chefs, Verrill had taken steps to improve storage, so that it could sell autumn and winter fruits and vegetables in good condition right through April. Johnson mentioned milk-fed lamb as coming available in March and April, and smelts and shad roe and the very first mackerel.

For recipe guidance I turned to Jerry Traunfeld, the chef of The Herbfarm, a twenty-minute drive northeast of Seattle. Like Sooke Harbour House, The Herbfarm has attracted a following of people who make reservations months in advance and plan cross-country trips around meals there. Each restaurant has evolved a cuisine featuring ingredients that diners won't find elsewhere: at Sooke the astonishing variety of its seafood; at The Herbfarm more than a hundred herbs the restaurant grows. Both kitchens make use of the Northwest's abundant wild mushrooms, and of forest and field plants traditionally eaten only by Native Americans, including camas, a bulb with a flavor like that of Jerusalem artichokes. In late winter, awaiting the first tonic nettles, morels, and asparaguslike hop shoots, The Herbfarm presents a Taste of Trees dinner, with fir needles or birch syrup, for example, flavoring every course.

It's nearly impossible to duplicate these dishes at home, of course, or the ones that Edward Tuson, the young chef at Sooke Harbour House, invents nightly with seeming ease and great delicacy. Traunfeld, though, is a sometime cooking teacher who has continued the restaurant's original didactic role (the first meals included cooking instruction) in The Herbfarm Cookbook, adapting his dishes for use across the country. His recipes—for example, carrot soup based on fresh carrot juice rather than stock and flavored with toasted coriander seeds, chopped fresh ginger, and a big bunch of spearmint leaves—can rally the flagging spirits of anyone discouraged by the wait for something fresh and green.

A Traunfeld recipe that will vanquish thoughts of seasonal deprivation is halibut baked with leeks, apple, and lovage. Halibut, perhaps the finest-flavored whitefish, comes into season in the late winter and early spring (salmon, sea bass, or snapper can be substituted if they're in season near you). So does lovage, an herb like celery leaves with moxie, to which I became addicted after the writer Barbara Kafka showed me what it could do for chicken soup. Lovage trumpets the end of winter like nothing else. The dish uses apple cider, white wine, and sherry vinegar to provide sweetness and acid, to set the stage for the unstoppable lovage.

To make four servings, prepare what Traunfeld calls an apple-and-leek ragout. Rinse thoroughly and cut into matchsticks the light-colored parts of three medium leeks. Cook them over medium heat, stirring often, in two or three tablespoons of butter (or olive oil, if you're relaxing the local-only rules) for ten minutes or so, until they soften and begin to brown. Add three quarters of a cup of dry white wine and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated; add one and a half cups of unfiltered apple cider (or juice if you can't find cider) and three quarters of a teaspoon of salt, and gently boil for about ten minutes more. Stir into the leeks one large tart apple, such as a Granny Smith or a Braeburn, peeled, cored, and diced; two tablespoons of coarsely chopped fresh lovage leaves (an alternative would be flat-leaf parsley plus a teaspoon of fresh lemon thyme); and two tablespoons of sherry vinegar. Taste for seasoning and set aside for up to two hours or in the refrigerator for up to two days.

Cut one and a half to two pounds of skinless halibut (or other) fillets into four equal pieces. Preheat the oven to 425° and reheat the ragout if necessary to the simmering point. Pour it into an ungreased twelve-by-nine-inch baking dish and set the fillets in the ragout so that they are partially submerged. Cover closely with a buttered sheet of parchment paper or foil. Bake for ten to fifteen minutes, until the fish is just translucent in the center; it will continue to cook once out of the oven.

Those who insist on something green can take their chances with ramps—turbocharged long leaves that pack the strongest imaginable garlic and leek flavors and have a mean afterburn. Ramps appear wild in the Northeast in late March or early April, followed by the pretty if soapy-tasting fiddleheads. Those who are willing to wait a few weeks can content themselves with roasted parsnips, my favorite root vegetable for their uncloying sweetness and faint bitter undertone. Traunfeld accents them with thyme and balsamic vinegar. For four servings heat the oven to 425° and peel and cut two pounds of parsnips into logs two inches long and half an inch wide. Put two or three tablespoons of butter or olive oil into a shallow baking dish large enough to hold the parsnips in a single layer; if using butter, place the dish in the hot oven just until the butter melts. Stir into the fat one and a half tablespoons of packed dark-brown sugar and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar; add the parsnips, season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat the pieces evenly. Bake for twenty minutes, remove the pan from the oven, stir in three tablespoons of coarsely chopped fresh thyme, and bake for ten minutes more. Herbal and deep-flavored, these parsnips can tide vegetable lovers over until the first peas and fava beans appear.

Wqhen you start, it seems like a loss," Ron Zimmerman, the founder and owner of The Herbfarm, told me about his decision to banish all things not strictly local and seasonal. "After you've done it, not to stay with the rhythms of the seasons seems like a loss in reverse. Sure, there are fewer things in winter, but what there is seems more valuable and appropriate. And things in spring seem more exciting."

I won't stop buying organic salad greens and hothouse herbs year round—and I have no plans to give up lemons either. But I've stopped buying California or Florida asparagus, biding my time until the first late-May ecstasy of local stalks reminds me what asparagus should taste like. I even wait for local peas to arrive in late June—the only way to have them as sweet as frozen peas, which are among the few worthwhile frozen vegetables.

More important, attending to what grows locally invigorates my thinking about the food I'll make on any night of the year. It's something like trying to write or talk without using the verb "to be": you may not have the energy or the will to keep it up for very long, but the exercise adds tone and muscle to your language or cooking.

"Why buy something that's not grown in the area?" Amanda Hesser asks herself in The Cook and the Gardener, a charming account of a year she spent as a private cook in Burgundy. "It just confuses my cooking." I don't live in Burgundy, or in the temperate Pacific Northwest rain forest. But her aperçu is one I'd like to live by.