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What's in season?

With Alice Zaslavsky

Season 3 - Episode 3

14 Sep 2021
Podcast 26:53

How do we know what’s in season and how to enjoy it?

In this episode, we talk to Alice Zaslavsky and unpack the many benefits of eating seasonally, how we can best identify different fruits and vegetables in season, as well as a few cooking tips for Spring vegies along the way.

  • Show notes

    This interview was recorded during the current Victorian Coronavirus outbreak, in line with the Victorian Government’s COVID public health advice.

    To find out more information on the topics discussed in today’s episode, check out our blogs on the VicHealth website:

  • Transcript

    VicHealth ad: This series is produced by the folks at VicHealth, Victoria’s health promotion agency.

    Alice  : But why not take advantage of it, and why not recognise that actually I feel better when I eat something like, you know, when I sniff a tomato on a hot summer's day and that refreshes me like a tall glass of water. That’s because that’s Mother Nature’s way of saying you belong together, now. So, it’s a very romantic view of food and the world but it’s a very sustainable view as well.

    Dr Sandro: Hello and a big welcome to In Good Health! I’m your host Dr Sandro. I’m a medical doctor, public health expert, VicHealth CEO and foodie. Our very special guest today is Alice Zaslavsky. Alice is an Australian Book Industry Award winning author, of the bestselling cookbook, In Praise of Veg. Alice is also the host of ABC Radio Sunday Drive, culinary correspondent for ABC News Breakfast and ABC Radio, as well as the creator of food literacy projects Phenomenom and NomCast.

    Dr Sandro: In today’s episode, we’ll call Alice and discuss the many benefits of eating seasonally, how we can best identify different fruits and vegetables in season, as well as a few cooking tips along the way.

    Dr Sandro: Let’s give her a call.

    Dr Sandro: So, Alice, when we think of vegetables, we think of you, so you're the perfect person to take us through, to hold our hand as we go on this intrepid journey through the world, the kaleidoscope of vegetables.

    Dr Sandro: What we're talking about today is what's in season. So, let's just kick it straight off. We're going into spring. We're looking for really tasty things to eat where maybe the food budget is tight. What is in season at the moment?

    Alice: Australia is a really unique place in the world because there are so many different microclimates. So, we actually can eat quite widely compared to other parts of the world. But spring is a beautiful time for green stuff. And if you think about it from a holistic perspective, what's happening in nature at the moment, spring has quite literally sprung. You know, the buds are opening.

    Alice: And when I say buds, you know, asparagus is cropping up, which is one of my favourite spring flings. And it really is a fling because it's only a couple of months that you get asparagus every year. So, jump on that. Live your best stinky wee life!

    Alice: And I love broad beans as well. Broad beans are on their way. So, any time that you would add peas to a dish, add broad beans if you can find them, yum! Peas! Peas and spring are really good friends.

    Alice: Mint, peas, some sort of crumbly cheese. Oh, and lemon zest!

    Dr Sandro: Is that because they rhyme, or is that because they also go together?

    Alice: When they grow together and they rhyme together, they vibe together.

    Dr Sandro: They're a good combo.

    Alice: You know they’re a good combo! Exactly, exactly. And then the great thing about, I mentioned our microclimates, is that you still got the root veg. So, if you are on a budget, root vegetables are a really great investment because they last really well in the crisper. They give you plenty of bang for the buck. And there are so many things that you can do with them, whether it's roasting beetroot, hot and heavy for an hour in foil with olive oil and salt flakes.

    Alice: And then cut into it. It's like butter. And you can eat it like a jacket potato. So, whether it's a little bit of ricotta, some fresh herb, you know, if you've got some mint left over from your mint and pea situation, you can pop some mint in there, or some fresh parsley or coriander if you’re that way inclined.

    Alice: That's yummy. And that's a really nice side to a, you know, a bigger meal. Or you can turn that into the main event by popping some sort of pulse or grain or legume with it as well. You know, whether it's a lentil or a quinoa situation, freekeh, is hot in the food world. Get some freekeh.

    Dr Sandro: But why is it important, I mean, to be eating, we talk about sort of eating in season and, you know, eating food when it's been grown, or at least minimizing the time between taking it out of the ground, pulling it off a bush and putting it on our plates. But why is this important?

    Dr Sandro: Because seasonality, seasonality importantly, you've told me a few times in previous conversations that, you know, seasonality. Yes, it's what's best for your body at the time. It's what's best for the planet in terms of sustainability. Absolutely. But it's also what's best in the kitchen.

    Alice: 100%.

    Dr Sandro: So, tell me more about that, I want to hear why it's going to make my taste buds, you know, excited as well as the planet and my body.

    Alice: When food is in season, it tastes better because it's got a higher nutrient value. So, talk about study, studies are coming out that show that we can taste when food has more nutrition to it. So, there's a reason why a tomato that you pull straight off the vine smells so strongly to us and tastes so, like it's vibrating with life.

    Alice: Because it is so close to the source and so close to when it's at its best for a cook, what that means is that you need to do very little to it in order to make it taste good. So, you just have to work less hard, which as far as I'm concerned, is the best.

    Dr Sandro: This sounds very good. So, for those people out there who, you know, maybe cooking is not their favourite thing, but they love food. One of the best things actually you can do to make really great food, but more simply, is just to buy food at its best in season.

    Alice: 90% per cent of the cook is in the shop. That's it. So, when you go shopping for your fresh produce, use your nose, use your senses and just use your list of what's in season, which you can access easily online.

    Dr Sandro: And it kind of makes sense. I mean, if you think about it, if something has been sitting in a cold store for 12 months or it's been sitting on a shelf in a refrigerated shipping container or whatever for a couple of weeks, then , you know, we know that some of the vitamins, some of the antioxidants are not stable there. They will break down.

    Dr Sandro: So, there will be less, there'll be less flavour, but they'll also be less nutrients. I mean, apart from, apart from a list which, you know, you get, you can actually have, I suppose, on your iPhone, on a note or something. I mean, one of the tips I often give people is, you know, often when things are in season, they look really great. They're abundant, and they're also often on sale  because it's the time when there's a huge amount. 

    Dr Sandro: So, at the moment, there's loads of avocados. We're going as you said, we're coming out of the citrus season. But as soon as asparagus do hit the market, you'll suddenly see them, and they won't be eight dollars a bunch. They'll be a couple of dollars a bunch. I mean, what are your tips as kind of the guru of all gurus when it comes to veggies? I mean, what is your tip for working out what's in season?

    Alice: Well, the first thing that you can do, as you say, is use your eyeballs. Lush stuff is probably in season because it hasn't had to travel too far. Green leafies in particular really don't respond well to being refrigerated.

    Alice: So, if they're starting to look a little bit lank, then they're probably not at their best. When it comes to some vegetables, they're actually better bought frozen because those are often snapped frozen at their peak. And particularly if it's Australian produce, you know, Australian peas, Australian corn, when they are snapped frozen, their sugar content is snapped frozen along with it.

    Alice: And that's the thing that as human beings, we've been kind of conditioned to seek out. So, you'll find that you need to flavour less when something's in season because it's sweet to our palate, which is, you know, such a, such a boon.

    Alice: So, you've gone shopping, you're at, you're at the green grocers, you're looking at things that say grown in Australia. So particularly, I love the green grocers that tell you that it's grown, we're in Victoria...It tells you where in Victoria that thing is grown, because then you know that that's come on a truck that morning and it's fresh A.F.

    Alice: And that's when you really don't have to do much at all. Then you look for the, when you pick it up, you look for something that's heavy for its size. So that's particularly things like onions, for example, or shallots. You pick that up and you sort of feel it. And if it's heavy for its size and it's still nice and juicy, garlic is the same. Then you look for if there's bruising on the skin, that's not the end of the world.

    Alice: That tends to be ideally on the discount shelf. So, you can grab it and just cut the bruise out. Life goes on. But you do need to use it sooner. So, if something's been treated and handled well, it'll last much better when you get it home.

    Alice: But if it's already got bruising on it, chances are it's been rolling around on the floor a few times. Just be mindful that you just you know, if you're going to grab it, use it fast.

    Dr Sandro: As little as 100 years ago, most people knew the best time to pick fresh fruit or which vegetables would grow by way of the seasons and climate. These days, it's so easy to transport food over long distances, that we take for granted how effortless it can be to eat almost any food we want every day of the week. But eating seasonally can bring multiple benefits to our health, the communities around us, the planet, and even our wallet. So, how do we know what’s in season and when to enjoy it? Alice is here to unpack these very questions.

    Alice: And actually, Sandro, you know, the best tip that I have for you, and is cropping up, pun always intended, more and more? CSA schemes. So, veg boxes. If you are the sort of person that's like, still like, your head spinning, just listening to this conversation. Let someone else curate the box for you. There's some wonderful organic or conventional producers that band together and they send you the seasonal box every week for a set price.

    Alice: And that's really good for the budget as well. And then you can supplement it if you feel like you need something else from the shops. But that's your baseline. And then, you know, I need to get through all of this veg in order for, you know, my like, my hip pocket not to be hurt. In order for me to feel like I'm doing my bit for the environment. And also, I'm going to eat better because it's all seasonal, delicious produce.

    Dr Sandro: You know, I completely agree Alice and I, we actually about a year ago, we interviewed in a previous season as well, a social enterprise that delivers really beautiful fresh food boxes across Melbourne.

    Dr Sandro: And every Tuesday, we pick up a vegetable box. And what I found is that we eat a lot more vegetables because they're in the fridge. And you kind of think, OK, I've got you know, I've got beetroot. I don't usually eat beetroot, but I'm going to go to Alice's book, go to the purple section, and I'm going to look up what I can do with beetroot. Or, you know, you do, but you Google it, you find a recipe. And so, you're kind of, you don't want to waste it. So, we end up eating a lot more vegetables.

    Dr Sandro: I find that the vegetables last a lot longer. So, the kale that we get from this this box doesn't go from the farmer, to the clearing house, to the supermarket, which is about a two, two-to-three-week journey. And then it comes into my house. It was picked two or three weeks ago. It's come straight from the wholesalers. So...

    Alice: It’s still got the dew on it sometimes.

    Dr Sandro: Yeah, it was picked like the last couple of days. So, it means that it lasts. You know, if I forget about the kale and go back to it in a week, it's actually still perfectly good as long as I, you know, take care of it. So, you know, I get the box home.

    Dr Sandro: One tip I would give people is I think it's a fabulous idea to get a box. It really, it decreases the price, it really incentivizes trying new vegetables. Google, Google the veg.

    Alice: I get people sliding into my DMs saying, ‘What do I do with chicory?’ Happy to help.

    Dr Sandro: Mostly it’s me let's be honest.

    Dr Sandro: But the other thing I would say, though, is also, you know, learning to look after your veg and making sure that, you know, for example, the greens go into a,   I always make sure that I, I really take care of the of the greens. I put them into, I've got some reusable and kind of natural product bags and things that I use. And I find that if I do that and buy the box, it lasts easily the full week, and half a pumpkin will last like a month in the fridge.

    Dr Sandro: And I just slowly chop away at it. We’ve eaten, we’re finding we're eating way more vegetables now that, now that we're actually getting that seasonal box. And it takes all of the effort out. I can understand why it's gone, these small, these small producers and companies have gone gangbusters over COVID.

    Alice: Yep. And, I spoke with Matthew Evans, who's just written a book on soil, which is just a wonderful book. And the number one tip that he gives is eat a diverse diet, because it's the same as if we're trying to cultivate the soil to be more fertile. We're trying to encourage our own soil, our own digestive system to be as nutritionally sound as possible. And that happens when you eat a diverse diet. And often when we do buy vegetables, fruit, whatever it is, we fall into habits.

    Alice: People tend to have sort of 10 dishes that they go to all the time, whereas this box idea pushes you to think more creatively.

    Dr Sandro: I'm going to, I'm going to go out on a limb here, Alice. I'm going to, I'm going to give you my...So, I'm just thinking about what's in season at the moment. And two of my favourite vegetables are broccoli is kind of at its peak in the winter, and it's going to be still for a while. Fennel, I absolutely love. Actually three, three because I also love silverbeet.  

    Dr Sandro: So, I'm going to tell you my favourite three recipes for those three things. The first is, and then you can tell me, you can tell me yours. Broccoli; I love either charring it on the barbecue, olive oil and just char broccolini or broccoli on the barbecue and then put some sort of miso dressing or even just an olive oil, lemon dressing on top is so delicious.

    Alice: Yum.

    Dr Sandro: For fennel, my go to is to chop it really thinly raw. Layer it with blood oranges or even just normal oranges. Maybe some black olives or some roasted pistachios, but even just orange and fennel. Olive oil, salt. Mix it up. It is the most delicious salad with like maybe some grilled chicken, or even just some other vegetable. I'm actually, I’m actually starting to salivate.

    Alice: I can hear that, me too.

    Dr Sandro: And silverbeet, which people get scared by silverbeet, and they’re like I don't like silverbeet. First of all, the stems are so delicious. They're so sweet. So don't throw out the stems, chopped them up and put them in with the silverbeet leaves. But my go to is olive oil, chili, if you want to add a couple of anchovies, garlic, fry that up really slowly so it all dissolves. In goes your wet, chopped up silverbeet, and it's good if it's a little bit wet because it just, it helps it to sauté. And then on top, a can of either chickpeas or cannellini beans and half a can of tomatoes.

    Dr Sandro: And you cook that down. And I tell you, it is the most delicious meal with a good lashing of olive oil. And if you're, you know, I've got a bigger appetite, maybe a piece of crusty bread on the side. They are my three go to recipes. We're going to swap now. What are your, what do you like? What are your three go-tos?

    Alice: I will say for broccoli, I love popping broccoli in pasta. So, I like sort of grating it and particularly using like the tips of the broccoli, giving them a bit of a burn. I actually really do love charring broccoli. That would have been my answer if you hadn't taken it first. And you know, one thing that I did, I had some leftover curry paste in the fridge, and I mixed that with a little bit of peanut oil and kind of rubbed that into my broccoli florets.

    Alice: And I roasted that. And that was like next level. That was really tasty. So, it's like an easy way to add spice to your, to your veg, but just burn broccoli. That's, put it in a hot, hot oven, preheated tray, and just let it colour up and then it'll be ready.

    Alice: You can blanch it first if you want to, but it cooks quicker than you think. And then the fennel, I would probably either, 100% fennel and orange salad like, oof! But also, have you ever done a panko crumbed fennel chips and wedges?

    Dr Sandro: Oh, I haven’t.

    Alice: Oh my gosh. So, you blanch the fennel and then you...

    Dr Sandro: Now you’re salivating!

    Alice: I know! Then you crumb it like a nugget and, or like a chip. And then you fry it. You fry it till it's golden. And because fennel can be eaten raw. So, it just kind of softens it slightly. It doesn't braise it in the way that you totally can braise it. I've got a fennel cacciatore in my book, which is I don't know if you've done that yet, but that's very you, Sandro. You should be doing that like, with a free-form polenta dumpling, fennel cacciatore. Bene!

    Alice: And then for silverbeet, I would definitely sauté it in the way that you do. And remember that the stalks need a little bit longer than the leaves. So, I'd chop the stalks up and sweat them down first with your onion or shallot or garlic, and or garlic. And then I would add the leaves and they only need five minutes. And then you've got your base and you can decide, so, you can take it in like a Greek direction, make it like horta   . So, lots of fresh lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, some crumbly feta if you wanted to. Or you could take it to a Georgian direction.

    Alice: I've got a silverbeet khachapuri , which I do, which is like a cheese pie, and the silverbeet is through that cheesy mix. So that's another thing you can do, even sort of silverbeet instead of spinach sauteed for breakfast. We often do that. And I definitely like it, as you say, with chickpeas or beans.

    Alice: On the topic of pasta, you know, again, I know that I'm singing, preaching to the choir. There's so many vegetables that love pasta that are in season right now. Radicchio. I love burnt radicchio in like a radicchio and sausage pasta. I love adding peas to farfalle or a bow tie pasta. I feel like I'm mentioning feta a lot, but feta would just go so well with these.

    Alice: And so, peas, mint, butter and bow tie pasta, oh my god, lemon zest, olive oil, salt, pepper, live your best life. And zucchini flowers, zucchini flowers very much in season. Hey wombok, is all around us so next time you want to make a coleslaw, make it with  wombok it's a softer type of cabbage sweet, soft, crunchy, make a slaw. Carrot, wombok.

    Dr Sandro: You know, the other thing I love, I love which is going to speak to your roots as well, I think, steamed wombok. And then you roll meat, basically a meat spice mixture. You can put in sort of dried fruit, pine nuts, lots of nice spices, and then you roll it up like you would in almost like kind of pastry. But you use the wombok, the cabbage leaves, and then you cook that with a tomato sauce in the oven. I'll tell you what, you end up eating...

    Alice: Cabbage rolls!

    Dr Sandro: Cabbage rolls, exactly. You wind up eating a whole cabbage. It's just this great way of getting veg into your meal. And kids love it! Kids, my nieces, they call them vegetable sausage rolls.

    Alice: Oh, I love it!

    Dr Sandro: Yeah, because you basically end up with, basically a sausage roll, but it's actually mostly rice and then it's cabbage. It's oh, so true. Wombok! Such a good, such a good one.

    VicHealth ad: This podcast is brought to you by the team at VicHealth, Victoria’s own health promotion agency.

    Audience questions

    Dr Sandro: Alice, I want to ask you two questions from our audiences. So, the first one is from Katie. She says, I really enjoy eating certain fruits and vegetables, even if they're not technically in season. So, is this bad for my health? Should I stay away from certain foods when they're technically available, but not in season?

    Alice: I think it doesn't, it’s not so much your health, Katie, that you should be thinking about. It's probably food miles, that people would have, would take the most umbrage with. So, something like if the asparagus is from Peru, probably don't buy it, because part of the joy of asparagus is the fact that it's so fleeting. By the same token, there are some vegetables that probably you just won't, your body won't enjoy them because they might be a little bit too cooling for the time of the year.

    Alice: People might say avocado in winter is not a good idea because it's cool and damp, whereas in summer when you want to be cooled down, avocados fantastic for exactly those things.  

    Alice: So, eating with the seasons is certainly more nutritionally sound. But if you have this craving for a veg or fruit, that's probably your body's way of telling you that that's what you do want to eat right now. And if you're not doing it all the time, if you like 80-20, any plant that you eat is probably going to be a good plant for you. You know, unless it's like Belladonna, maybe don't eat that.

    Dr Sandro: What, what was what was the last thing you had like a massive craving for veggies, last veggie craving?

    Alice: The last veggie that I had a massive craving for, I actually just had some pumpkin Kashia, which is like, you know, you can use any sort of grain, but it's like a millet and sauteed pumpkin Kashia and I popped some crumbled feta on it. So, on brand today, and I just genuinely was craving it.

    Alice: Maybe it was definitely a childhood thing, you know, any sort of mushy veg.

    Dr Sandro: Yeah.

    Alice: You're looking for that childhood comfort. So that was my last craving. What was your last veg craving?

    Dr Sandro: I have to say, one of my, one of my go-to dinners at least once a week is pasta piselli, which is the pasta with the peas that you talked about. But I just do it with onion, parsley, lots of peas and a little bit of pancetta. And then I cook the pasta in a bit of water with the peas.

    Dr Sandro: So, it’s just one pot. Boil the bejesus out of it. It is absolutely delicious. It's ready in no time. And it's mostly peas, to be honest. And for me, I get, I get a craving for that, for that pasta probably once a week. Yeah. Yeah, in fact, now, you know, you’ve talked me into it. The other one is the pasta ceci, which is the chickpea pasta, also a massive staple in a household.

    Dr Sandro: The last question is from Sean. Sean wants to know about organic. So organic versus nonorganic. You know, should we be trying to buy organic? It's expensive. So, if we are buying organic and seasonal, you know, should we, can we prioritise what we're buying?

    Alice: Yes. So, you should be looking for people that, if it says low spray or organic in conversion, or at the very least, you've got some sense of where that grower is growing their food. Chances are they're giving enough of a shitake for their food to be “pretty clean” in inverted commas.

    Alice: In Australia, we actually are very fortunate that there are less and less growers that are using really strong chemicals on their veg growing anyway. And in fact, there's a lot more people going back to a regenerative agriculture approach where it's more about the soil being healthy than spraying the vegetables on top of it.

    Alice: So sometimes trying to buy organic means that people set themselves a barrier that's insurmountable. So, my recommendation to you is, Sean, if it's stopping you from buying the potatoes, buy the darn potatoes, you know, like do your best.

    Alice: And again, some veg, particularly if you've got a choice between conventional in-season and loose and looking lush, versus organic and out of season in cling wrap and looking sad, then you've got your answer. So, again, we are so fortunate to be living in this country with some really passionate producers, both organic and conventional.

    Alice: So, we shouldn't be allowing labels to stop us from supporting them, but also from nourishing ourselves with food that is going to make us feel great. You know, a couple of months ago, it came out that those lists, those like Clean 13, dirty dozen, whatever they are, those are very much for a North American audience.

    Alice: So, we can sometimes get bamboozled by some of the stuff online and some of the little, you know, the echo chamber chatter. So don't let yourself be bamboozled, listen to experts like old mate Sandro Demaio over here, like our friend Sandro and just eat more veg. That's my message to you, whether it's organic or conventional.

    Alice: Eat more veg. Off my soapbox now.

    Dr Sandro: No, no that makes a shitake load of sense, right. I had to, I had to throw your pun back at you. But look, Alice, it's been absolutely awesome. You make, you are one of honestly, one of the few people I have ever met who not only manages to make eating vegetables easy and stress free, and beautiful, but also fun. And it's so great to chat to you. And I really appreciate your time coming and talking about what is in season, why it matters, how to cook it, how to enjoy it, how to share it, because this is one of the best things that we can do for ourselves, for our planet, but also, you know, just to enjoy really great food with other people. So, it's been an absolute pleasure, as always. And I look forward to seeing you again soon.

    Alice: There is so mush - room in my heart for you, Sandro Demaio. Until next time.

    Dr Sandro: Thanks for listening to the In Good Health podcast. To find out more about the work that we do, head over to our website, Oh, and make sure you check us out on social media under @vichealth.

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Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.