Different sorts of vegetables. File photo.

Seasonal produce is a bit of an elusive concept in Southern California, where most produce can be found almost year-round in grocery stores. Yet more and more chefs are adding seasonal menus or farm-to-table dinners in restaurants, showcasing the best produce of the moment.

Chef Eric Samaniego has been the executive chef at Michael’s on Naples for the past eight years. Every Wednesday night, the restaurant puts on a Farmer’s Market Dinner, featuring three courses of carefully curated seasonal dishes for $45 per person.

The timeline to get those dinners together is tight — Samaniego finds out on Mondays what produce is coming, creates a menu by Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, receives the produce on Wednesdays at 1 p.m. and has about three to four hours to conceptualize the dishes before service at 6 p.m.

So how do chefs do it?

Cooking seasonally at home takes some practice, but it allows you to use ingredients during their perfect window of time—meaning when they taste their best.

“When I shop for my house, it drives my wife crazy, but I never go with a list,” Samaniego said. But shopping for the restaurant is a different story.

The first task is figuring out what’s in season, which Samaniego will list out on a piece of paper so he can see it visually.

Samaniego began to learn produce patterns after he started working full-time in kitchen year round and was consistently going to farmers markets, where he could see the change in what was available and speak with farmers.

“It’s important to support farmers in the area and keep money going towards them,” Samaniego said. “They’re doing so much hard work and we’re really blessed in California.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a seasonal produce guide on their website that breaks it down, with acknowledgment that there’s always some variation between different climates and growing conditions.

While chefs do generally source from farmers markets and build direct relationships with their farmers, home cooks can still use a chef’s techniques when they’re shopping at local grocery chains if they’re unable to shop at farmers markets.

Big grocery chains like Ralphs Grocery Company have produce managers who are responsible for keeping stores stocked with produce as much of the year as possible.

“Summer is the time to shine for produce,” Robert Hughes, a Long Beach local, and the produce and floral merchandising and field manager at Ralphs Grocery Company, said.

One farm Ralphs sources from is Prima Wawona, located in the Central Valley, for its soft fruit like peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots, which are in season generally from June through the end of August.

Grocery stores also have the resources to ship in produce that may not be in season locally, but is in season in a different part of the world, like South America, which expands their availability.

But being able to ship from across the globe still doesn’t always guarantee availability for all types of produce.

Earlier this year, there was a seasonality gap for grapes, Hughes said. Ralphs stores were bringing in grapes from South America from January through March when their season ended. In April, they should have begun getting grapes from Mexico, but rain and cooler weather delayed their growing season slightly leaving stores shorted.

All shipments, though, whether from California farms or elsewhere, have to go through a quality inspection, where the sugar content of a produce is tested, Hughes said. If the fruit tests too high, it’s over-ripened, and if it’s too low, it’s still too early in the season.

Having a window for that sugar content means there will have to be some variation in quality. It’s why you may come home with firm peaches one shopping trip at the beginning of July and juicer, softer peaches a week or two later.

In Ralphs stores, the best way to know a produce is in its prime is usually by the display. Store managers are told to put the in-season produce at the front, where it’s prominent. Hughes specifically denotes when something is the first of the season, but also items on sale are able to be at a reduced price because there’s a flush of supply.

“Items that I have on sale, that I’ve indicated with low price signage,” Hughes said. “We can get good pricing, and we can give good pricing.”

That’s why even if there are still some produce that’s not “in season” available in stores, the low quantity of shipments in the winter time, particularly December and January, can mean it’s less cost effective to keep buying them. Instead, citrus and root vegetables like potatoes that are available during the winter time are the better option.

After figuring out what is in season, Samangiego will begin building a menu and connecting the dots of what flavors pair well together. If you want to skip the years of professional training, Samangiego recommended “The Flavor Bible” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, which goes through flavor matchmaking and a deeper understanding of how food is perceived by a person’s senses. 

At a recent Farmer’s Market Dinner, Samangiego paired two types of Kenter Farms tomatoes with burrata and Weiser Farms radishes drizzled lightly with olive oil. It was also his first time serving corn in the restaurant for the year. The result was a vegan risotto topped with some more olive oil and (optional) cheese.

“It’s a superstition, don’t ask me why but I never serve corn before July 4th,” Samangiego said. The restaurant serves corn from July 5th through mid-August.

For Samangiego, serving an item in its perfect window of time and then “when it’s done, it’s done,” not only showcases the ingredient in its best way, but also makes it special. It’s something to look forward to and savor, because it’s fleeting.

Michael’s on Naples is located at 5620 East Second St. A list of local farmers markets can be found here