Cooking Seasonally in New England

Make plans, but be flexible

Guest post by Leigh Belanger, author of My Kitchen Chalkboard

One of the best things about living and cooking in New England are the times we call the shoulder seasons: those periods of overlap when seasonal ingredients collide. Think of late summer into early fall, when corn and eggplant and peppers mingle with apples and squash and kale and the possibilities in the kitchen seem endless. Here we are in early May, itself a kind of shoulder season. A walk through the Boston Public Market tells you: Storage carrots and gnarled bulbs of celeriac sit side by side with baskets of ramps and fiddleheads; pea shoots and baby herbs line the shelves above crates of potatoes and beets. 

For cooks, early spring is a time to feel excited and impatient at once: even when the weather warms up, like it has this week, we’re still waiting for the bright, bracing flavors of seasonal spring produce to arrive. Soon we’ll be awash in peas, asparagus, radishes and tender greens – cooking with these fresh, bright flavors and finding ways to work them into all of our meals. I’m the author of the new cookbook, My Kitchen Chalkboard, which brings together two of my favorite things: seasonal food and menu planning. The book is based on the menus and meal plans I create to keep our family fed and myself sane while continuing to develop as a cook. Once I started planning our weekly menus when my 5-year-old was an infant, I quickly discovered the merits of planning out our meals: It conserves time and saves money, cuts down on waste, and allows me to be creative and build my skills within a framework.

And while for many, meal planning conjures up images of rows of identical meals packaged and stored in the fridge for the week, that is most definitely not the approach I take. Instead, I start with what’s in season and available to me and build a weekly menu from there. Seasonal ingredients have always been my jumping off point for inspiration.

I lead with flexibility, which is the way to develop a seasonal cooking repertoire. When I want to highlight the best that the market has to offer, I depend on dishes that can adapt to changing ingredients, like frittata, grain bowls, crepes, pizza, and so forth – simple templates that can change with the seasons. 

This weekend, I might pick up some ramps at the Market and use them as a pizza topping; or maybe I’ll throw some pea shoots into a salad, or use them as a component in a pasta dish. And I will wait (not so patiently) for the first asparagus to roll into the market in the next couple of weeks. Cooking is my favorite way to connect and acknowledge the changing seasons in the Northeast. Even with small gestures, it’s a way to facilitate a deeper connection to the natural world – something we can all benefit from.

I’ll be at The KITCHEN at the Boston Public Market this Sunday from 1:00 to 2:30, cooking a couple of spring dishes out of the book; talking about seasonal menu planning, flexible cooking styles, and spring ingredients; and selling books. Come visit!