My Favorite Season
By Luke Theaker, Executive Chef
As a chef, the most common question I am asked is “What is your favorite type of food?”. This is usually answered with a resounding statement about how I love the way both Italian and Mexican heritages approach the intersection of food and community. The second question I am often asked is “What is your favorite season to cook in?”. That answer to that question has eluded me for a long time.
In Michigan, the growing period spans three different seasons. Springtime has always been special in that it is the sign of new life. Peas, asparagus, along with early herbs and greens start to breathe new colors into our landscape from the previous months of white and brown. The months of April—early June always reminds me that being in Michigan is amazing and fruitful, (a notion that I need reminding of after every long winter). Spring brings about a season of foraging. A practice of going out into nature to find your food. There you can find wonderful ramps, fiddlehead ferns, and morel mushrooms. Items that can not be grown on farms and are only found in the spring months when the ground it still damp and cool. They are well worth the trouble of searching for them.
The summer months bring lots of heat and humidity, hopefully for the vegetable’s sake. This sprouts bright, juicy tomatoes, perfectly ripe stone fruits and berries, along with vegetables as big as your head. One of my favorite things to snack on when I am at the market are blueberries still warm from being on the bush that morning. The summer heat helps so many vegetables and fruits ripen in a way that they are at peak flavor. It reminds me of that scene in Willy Wonka where the kids are all licking the wallpaper that tastes like fruit. “Lick a strawberry, it tastes like a strawberry. Lick a banana, it tastes like a banana. Lick a schnazberry, it tastes like a schnazberry”. During the summer months, strawberries finally taste like strawberries, peaches taste like peaches, and tomatoes taste like what tomatoes should taste like.
Fall is a bittersweet season for me. On one hand it produces flavors that really only work for that season. The cool mornings and warm days lend to flavors of cinnamon, nuts and maple. Going to my local apple orchard is always a highlight for my entire family. Brussels sprouts, butternut squash and root vegetables are only suited for those cooler months as they sit heavier to digest. I love this season, but it also signifies the end of the growing period in Michigan and a need to start preparing for the winter months. A time where onions, potatoes, carrots, and gravy are king. Perfectly fine items on their own, but much of winter cooking is disguising the fact that nothing tastes as well as it should since it was grown so far away. We must rely on southern states and countries to grow our vegetables during winter, instead of growing them here.
So, what is my favorite season to cook? Recently, I have finally settled on an answer: It’s now. The months of late August through early October. It is still summer, but seasons are changing. You can still buy wonderful tomatoes and corn and have beautiful salads. At the same time, gourds and apples are starting to come up and it fills me with anticipation of the fall months. It’s a perfect transitional time where in many aspects I can “have my cake and eat it too”. Recipes of maple roasted brussels sprouts with butternut squash, apples and pecans begin to fill my head and compete as balsamic grilled tomatoes with peaches, mozzarella and basil bid for my attention.
It’s not just produce either. I have beautiful steaks and chicken that still scream summertime grilling, along with pork and lamb that beg me to slow down and enjoy the upcoming fall. Fishing, as well, is never better than in these months. The water starts to cool down and the fish begin to come closer to the surface. It seems like any fish I could ever want to prepare is available to me during this time.
I hope you take a few minutes and reflect during these next few months to appreciate all that is available to us. Sit and eat outside and feel a brisk breeze in the evening and think of pumpkin pie, turkey and mashed potatoes, all while eating a beautifully grilled steak with wonderful summer vegetables. I am excited to share this time with you all and hopefully be able to help you eagerly anticipate growing seasons as much as I do.