For the most part, this column has been focusing on the produce you might encounter at your local farmersâ€™ markets or community-supported agriculture programs. All but the most die-hard local food aficionado will, however, eventually utilize the produce section of the local supermarket. When faced with aisles and aisles of attractively presented, visually appealing produce, how can a savvy consumer know which choices will actually taste good? What decisions resulted in the arrival of these particular varieties at the grocery store? And what questions can smart shoppers ask themselves at the supermarket in order to maximize taste, freshness, and quality?Â
These questions form the backbone of Russ Parsonsâ€™s new book How to Pick a Peach. Parsons, the food and wine columnist for the Los Angeles Times, previously published the highly informative food science book How to Read a French Fry. Now, heâ€™s applying his curiosity and knowledge of food science and history to the produce section and the variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables that fill its shelves.Â
Unlike many other writers who have tackled the topic of seasonal eating, Parsons is admittedly apolitical. For him, the problem of shopping at the supermarket is only incidentally about the politics of local, sustainable agriculture. Instead, itâ€™s all about the taste. â€œIn the end,â€ Parsons writes, â€œeverything comes down to the simple fact that good cooking starts with good shopping.â€ If the home cook is able to acquire top-quality ingredients, making an appetizing dinner can be simple and satisfying. No amount of culinary skill or arsenal of fancy techniques, however, can compensate for sub-standard ingredients. Â
The bulk of Parsonsâ€™s book is devoted to helping readers select those high-quality ingredients, prepare them simply, and understand where they came from. Here is where Parsonsâ€™s meticulous research and engaging writing style really shines, as he explores botanistsâ€™ ongoing efforts to develop the most flavorful, robust, and transportable strawberries, for example. Parsons also traces the history of what he calls the â€œcherry apocalypse,â€ the virtual monopoly of the marketplace by one single cherry varietyâ€”the Bing. There are success stories here, as well, such as the recent mainstream resurgence of heirloom tomato varieties (and the accompanying dramatic increase in per-capita tomato consumption). Â
Parsonsâ€™s book is arranged by season. Each section focuses on a handful of seasonal vegetables, including a historical/scientific profile, selection criteria, and a number of simple, excellent recipes designed to truly showcase the ingredient in question. Parsons also includes mini-essays on such topics as the evolution of the tomato-growing industry and the rebirth of small family-run farms near urban areas. How to Pick a Peach is that rare combinationâ€”a food book that is equal parts valuable reference work, usable cookbook, and genuinely engaging readingâ€”and is certainly a book I will return to again and again as I consider how to select peaches, eggplants, citrus fruits, or any other produce item at the farmersâ€™ market and supermarket alike.
Norah Piehl, Food Correspondent:Norahâ€™s column, â€œSeasonâ€™s Eatings,â€ published twice monthly to Gather Essentials: Food, considersÂ the importance of eating seasonally and locally. â€œSeasonâ€™s Eatingsâ€ helps the growing number of farmersâ€™ market shoppers make good choices at the market, highlighting in-season produce and often including a recipe or two. Norahâ€™s column alsos profile local growers and markets, discusses other items (from cheese to chutney) that might be found at your local market, and generally offer sresources for those who wish to continue exploring their local and regional agricultural offerings.
You can find all of Norahâ€™s columns at www.gather.com/seasons eatings
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