Growing up in California I didn’t really know what seasons were. We had sunny, hot and sunny, and if we were lucky cold and wet. There weren’t many trees that changes color and for the most part California is a state of evergreens, after all they are known for their redwoods and eucalyptus. This meant food grows nearly year round and the variety of what can be grown in this climate is vast.
It wasn’t until my husband and I moved to Iowa, and by that I mean northern Iowa (so far north that our property line is literally Minnesota), that I discovered what seasons are.
When I told my friends we were moving to Iowa I received looks and statements of shock, horror, and bewilderment. “Why would you move there?” I heard often. Why? and Why do I love it more than California? Simple. Seasons.
Winter is bitter cold in the northern part of the state with snow and many days in negative temperatures but there’s a beauty to it. The crisp white snow that’s glittering in the gleaming sunlight that soars in the clear blue sky, contrasted against the tall leafless oak and maple forests that break up the giant corn fields, reminds you that nature is resetting and to stay warm with deep dark flavors and spices. Things like kale, turnips, and dried beans come to mind.
Spring is exciting. Each plant has it’s own timing. Little specks of green start popping up and the very first edible are the wild ramps. Never heard of a “ramp”? Neither had I, but the interesting and delicious plant thrives in oak forests. The ramp or wild leek, wants lots of shade, moist soil, high organic matter, and an interesting discovery is that it needs the moist soil through all the seasons not just it’s going season. So things like the fallen decaying oak leaves, their great big canopies in summer, and the humidity, rain, and snow we get are a great combination to get ramps to grow. It just so happens that we have a 3 acre oak forest on our property and happy ramps all throughout. Spring is a time of bright, delicate flavors. Its a time of fresh crispness. It offers up things like sour cherries, rhubarb, asparagus, and strawberries.
Summer is the season of high humidity here in Iowa. It means everything and I do mean EVERYTHING grows in abundance. It grows at unbelievable rates and then the bounty hits before you know it. Sweet corn seems to be the thing that ushers in the summer season here in Iowa and boy they aren’t kidding when they say sweet! Maybe that’s the best way to summarize Summer. It’s the sweet season. Everything from stone fruits, melons, to blueberries, blackberries, carrots, cucumbers, lettuces, even the cabbage starts yielding giant heads perfect for homemade sauerkraut or coleslaw. Tomatoes wrap up the season like a grand finale. This fruit is versatile and delicious and with over 10,000 varieties there are plenty to discover. I think the thing I love about the tomato is even at the end of their season all the green fruit can be harvested and used.
Fall is just as exciting because the mosquitoes are finally dissipating. Getting outdoors is fun again. The trees are changing and with the property being covered in oaks and maples we get quite the array of colors but the produce hitting the markets us just as gorgeous. You get bombarded with every kind of squash you can think of. You get interesting things like persimmons, escarole, radicchio, and chicory. Then you get things like leeks, apples, fennel, and pears. Then as the season wraps up you get beautiful fruit like the pomegranate and the cranberry.
When I look at the season now I look at them through not rose tinted glasses but through flavor tinted glasses. So much flavor at each time of year. Such distinct differences in each season makes me anticipate the season to come. When I restrict myself to only using the seasonal ingredients as the starts of any given dish in that season it makes each season even more exciting. If I have to wait till spring to have ramp tartar sauce with fish and chips, or maybe it’s persimmon pudding cake with ginger walnut frosting in fall, maybe it’s fresh tomatoes and homemade mozzarella in summer, or chili in winter each one builds with anticipation and becomes even more exciting. If I could have them all the time anytime they each would loose their excitement.
So the distinct seasons as someone who loves food is by far much more exciting to me living in the midwest then when I lived in California.