Culinary Arts

A Guide to Seasonal Produce: Learn How to Pick Ripe Fruit With Chef Alice Waters

Written by MasterClass

May 17, 2019 • 4 min read

You’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence of the seasons shopping in most grocery stores in the United States. When everything is available year-round, it can be hard to know when ingredients are truly at their best—a tomato in January isn’t doing anyone any favors—and how to highlight them in your own repertoire.

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A Seasonal Guide to Choosing Fruit

Grocery shopping with the seasons takes practice, but the more you do it, the more you build a foundation knowledge of what's in season, and when, and a sense of anticipation for changing seasons.

Spring

Spring is the season for green vegetables so young and tender that they can be eaten raw or very lightly sautéed. Look for green garlic, nettles, young leeks and green onions, small turnips, baby artichokes, asparagus, fava beans, fiddleheads, spinach, bok choy, new potatoes, shelling and snow peas, and morel mushrooms. Spring lamb and local wild salmon become available, and tender herbs like tarragon, chervil, mint, parsley, rocket, and chives begin to arrive.

When the season overlaps with summer, combine spring strawberries and the last of the winter kumquats together in a sweet-tart dessert and start dreaming about cherries and Blenheim apricots—a variety with a jam-like, concentrated flavor.

Summer

Summer starts with cherry tomatoes of all shapes and colors. Later, the heirloom varieties arrive—such as Purple Cherokee, Chocolate Stripe, and Black Brandywine. (Late-summer dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes are great for preserving to fill out your pantry with the taste of summer.) Corn is another summer must-have. At your local farmers’ market, don’t be afraid to ask when it was picked; the sugars can turn to starch in only a few days and lose the corn’s natural sweetness. Other summer vegetable market staples include basil, green beans, eggplant, shell beans, summer squash, bell peppers, and garlic. For summertime stone fruit varieties like peaches, plums, and nectarines, test for ripeness by pushing gently near the stem. A little bit of give means it is ready to be eaten as-is or used in a simple dessert.

Fall

In places like Northern California, hot summer days come late and the crispness of fall sometimes begins as late as early November. By then, the markets will have broccoli and Brussels sprouts, almonds and walnuts, the new crop of olive oil, and wild porcinis. Fall is a good time to roast vegetables, and make puréed soups and butternut squash-filled raviolis. After preserving the berries and stone fruit of summer, fall fruits such as apples, pears, grapes, quince, persimmons, and—especially—pomegranates are a welcome change.

Winter

The variety and colors of winter vegetables at the farmers’ market can be just as beautiful as they are in the summer season. Look for root vegetables of all colors, like carrots and radishes, chicories, Swiss chard, kale, collard greens, cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, and winter squashes. Try stews and braises with Moroccan or Indian spices to add warmth to winter vegetable dishes. Winter fruits like apples and pears are available throughout the season, plus there are abundant citrus fruit varieties, including kumquats, blood oranges, mandarins, and grapefruit.

How to Choose Seasonal Fruit With Alice Waters

Chef Alice Waters is known worldwide for her commitment to seasonal eating. The key to enjoying it comes down to mindfulness and trust in your own taste: Engage all of your senses as you select the fruit. Pick up the fruit, feel its weight and the texture of its skin or peel. Color, healthy skins, aroma, and the leaves and stems indicate ripeness and freshness. As you cut through the fruit to taste, pay attention to the texture of the flesh. Most importantly, taste every piece of fruit to make sure it’s perfectly in season.

When you taste a fruit and decide that it isn’t perfectly ripe, put it to use in another dish. Grapes that don’t look lively enough may be ideal for a sherbet; slightly under-ripe Bosc pears can go well in a chicory salad.

When you’re at your farmers’ market, try fruits you’ve never seen before, and ask farmers what fruits they’re looking forward to harvesting. Get to know what varieties are unique to your area.

Alice’s 4 Guidelines for Selecting Ripe Fruit

  1. Aliveness! Look for fruit with a just-picked quality.
  2. Smell and taste for flavor and ripeness.
  3. Consider what combinations of fruits will taste good together.
  4. Choose how to present the fruit. (The fruit bowl at Chez Panisse often has a fig leaf lining the bowl.) Some fruits are left whole, such as mandarins and berries, or sliced, such as pears and plums.

Learning From Alice Waters’s Famous Fruit Bowl

For Alice, a bowl of perfectly ripe fruit is the ultimate expression of seasonality. The fruit bowl is on the Chez Panisse dessert menu every day—a snapshot of that particular day of the season— capturing that moment is at the heart of Alice’s cooking philosophy. When writer Michael Pollan visited Chez Panisse, he found the experience of eating it to be unforgettable.

Discover how Alice chooses and tastes fruit for the fruit bowl:

Find more culinary tips in Chef Alice Waters’s MasterClass.