WILMINGTON — Seasonal food is often eclipsed by the year-round availability provided by a global market. You can get tomatoes and strawberries in January, but at a cost – both financially and in terms of quality.
Besides arguably tasting better, local produce is less expensive when it is in season (short of growing it yourself, it is the next best way to get produce that is fresh and inexpensive).
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture publishes a produce availability chart, but it is subject to changes in weather.
For example, this year southeastern North Carolina experienced a dramatically warm winter followed by an early spring cold snap. Early blooming crops of peaches and blueberries were ravaged, but other crops fared well, even coming into season early.
Here is a look at what is crowding the shelves at local farmers markets and groceries selling local produce. (Want to skip the store and head right to a farm? The Department of Agriculture also maintains this searchable database of CSAs, road-side stands and ‘pick-your-own’ farms.)
Asparagus – The diameter of an asparagus spear has to do with the varietal and the age of the plant – skinny spears don’t fatten with time into thick spears (although older plants send up thicker spears over the years). Thin spears do well in stir fry or blanching (and marinating). Thick spears hold up better on the grill (and are less likely to fall between the grill slats). A farm classic: grilled asparagus with an over easy duck egg and a shaved hard cheese like Asiago or Parmesan.
Blackberries – Blooming later in the season than blueberries, blackberries seem to have done better during the erratic late-winter, early-spring weather in the region. It’s hard to go wrong with a simple handful of berries, but if you find them on sale during peak season, they also make great jams and compotes.
Broccoli – A versatile vegetable, Broccoli can stand up to high-temperature roasting but also works well raw or marinated.
Chard – Useful everywhere other leafy lettuce is but with more vitamins and minerals, plus it stands up to sauteing. (Waste not, want not: many people trim the stems from the leafy part of chard, but the colorful stems of rainbow chard make tasty and eye-catching pickles.)
Collard greens – Raw collards are an acquired taste, but the slow-simmered preparation are a southern classic. When they’re in season, collards tend to be less bitter, which can make them easier and quicker to prepare.
Kale – The ubiquitous punching bag for vegan culture, Kale’s popularity continues to increase. Kale can be roasted into chips, sauteed or served raw in salads. (They also make a heartier version of lettuce wraps – which don’t need to be vegan, FYI).
Eggplant – A stalwart of vegetarian cooking, eggplant is the star of dishes from Italy to India. Hearty enough to stand up to grilling and hard roasting, eggplant also works in stir fry dishes and the classic baba ganoush.
Garlic scapes and green garlic – The flower bud of future garlic bulbs, garlic scapes can be overpowering when raw, but work well roasted, in soups and in pesto-type preparation. Green garlic, harvested earlier in the season, has tender leaves that can be sauteed. (A classic preparation is grilled garlic scapes on bread, kind of a farm-style garlic bread.)
Strawberries – Blooming earlier than blueberries, strawberry plants were more frequently out of the woods when this year’s late freeze hit. As with blackberries, it’s unlikely you’ll have trouble finding something to do with strawberries. However, if you want some outside the box ideas, consider going savory: strawberries go nicely with goat cheese and toasted pecans in a spinach salad, or swap strawberries in for their relative tomatoes in a salsa.