Many restaurants, including Noble Hops, proudly offer seasonal menus. What’s the deal with these rotating offerings?
In general, seasonal menus are based on local climates and crops. In Arizona, we are lucky to have a lot of sun year-round, which gives a longer growing season. But at the same time, rain is a precious resource that the state is poor in. That means seasonal crops can be fragile, adversely affected by too little rain, ruined by late freezes before the growing season even begins, or destroyed by unexpectedly heavy monsoon rains. Despite the many environmental factors that can harm local, seasonal ingredients, the benefits of eating what’s in season now where you live far outweigh the drawbacks. Here are six good reasons why you should eat seasonal fare, both when you go out and when you dine at home.
1. More Flavorful
Although food can be grown anywhere at any time these days, there’s still a reason why we say that certain things are “in season” during particular times of the year. Based on a natural growing cycle, foods that are in season in your area will be at their peak of flavor. Food that is grown in a hothouse out-of-season, or which is harvested early and refrigerated until it is not in season, won’t have the same flavor as food that matures outside for a full growing cycle. Food that is more flavorful tends to build delicious dishes, which means you will want to eat those leftovers (if there are any).
2. More Nutritious
When food is available, but not in season where you live, it must have come from somewhere. Very often that somewhere is far away—usually South America, Mexico, or Central California. Although California and Mexico don’t seem very far away, they are still far enough from our Southeastern Arizona supermarkets that the food needs to be transported here before it hits the shelves. In order for produce to still be good after it’s been harvested, processed, transported, and stocked, it is often picked early or treated with chemicals or waxes to ensure that it looks perfectly ripe when you see it in the store. Early picking means the produce doesn’t get the full amount of time needed for the sun to nurture the food’s nutrients. There may still be nutrients in the item, but they won’t be as strong or plentiful as they would be in produce picked and harvested closer-by at the correct time of year.
3. More Variety
While it seems like eating seasonally might deprive you of a full palette of foods to choose from year-round, seasonal eating actually makes it harder for you to get bored with what’s available. For example, if you see tomatoes on the shelves all the time, tomatoes may not seem as special when they are actually at their peak—and therefore at their best. Waiting to eat foods until they are in season allows you to get excited about them when they do “come back.” This practice also helps you fine-tune your taste buds to understand what a good melon, bell pepper, orange, or tomato is really supposed to taste like.
This is pretty simple: food that has to travel farther costs more. Packing, shipping, transportation, and handling costs add on to the cost of the food itself by the time the item gets to you. Food that is in season locally doesn’t use up so much gas, manpower, or packaging. Think about this next time you go to the store in winter: is citrus cheaper or more expensive? And what about in summer? Local citrus is in season during the winter, so it will be cheaper in December, January, and February. Citrus prices go up as the year goes on, because those oranges, lemons, and limes are coming from further and further away—California, Florida, and Australia.
5. Boosts Local Economy
When you buy food that is in season, you are also supporting your local economy. By not having to bring in food from elsewhere, you allow your neighbors’ businesses to make more money than businesses thousands of miles away. That’s money that stays in your community, where you can see it at work.
6. Smaller Carbon Footprint
Finally, there’s that environmental factor to seasonal eating. If you’re not having your food shipped from Costa Rica, Spain, or New Zealand, it not only tastes better and is more nutritious, but it’s also not costing you as much money, using as much gas, or creating as much pollution. Air and sea freight use fuel to get out-of-season foods to Arizona during our off-season. If we can get those items at home when they are in season, that extra transportation during the rest of the year is actually a waste of energy. When our food comes from our local region, its transportation makes less of an impact on the world around us.
So there you have it. By choosing to create seasonal menus, chefs can play with the freshest, most flavorful, best ingredients that are locally available during a given season. This means a better meal for your buck—harvested right in your community’s backyard.