If autumn has you lamenting the end of summer's sweet corn and sun-warmed peaches, take heart. From Kennewick, Wash., to Kennesaw, Ga., farmers markets still buzz with shoppers, and produce departments brim with fresh offerings. Even Alaskan farmers bring crops to market until early October.
Nature has shifted gears. Sunny days and cool nights favor new neighbors in the garden. Hardy and slow-growing, fall crops come into their own just as summer fruits and vegetables are packing it in.
This article takes a glimpse at the kaleidoscopic bounty of the autumn harvest: what you'll find, and how to choose the best of it. Some of these foods are grown from coast to coast; others are more regional. And while your local supermarket carries many of the 10 described here, those grown closest to home are apt to be freshest and easily available.
Reading about these delectables might even inspire you to put in a garden patch of your own. It may do you more good than you know. As the Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard put it: "It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato."
First up: How about them apples! We look at an all-time favorite in all its varied glory.
Tell a chef "there's an app for that," and he or she may think "apples." There's certainly an apple variety for every need, from snacks to stuffing. Some of the best-known and easiest to find are multitaskers, good for both eating and baking. These include Rome, McIntosh and Golden Delicious.
Depending on where you live, you might also find these regional specialties at farmers markets or pick-your-own orchards:
- Arkansas Black. Named for its dark, red color and home state; tart and crunchy when eaten fresh, it stands up well to cooking.
- Grimes Golden. Bright yellow as its name implies, this West Virginia native is sweet and slightly spicy; it's ideal for desserts as well as snacking.
- Northern Spy. Plain in looks but mighty in flavor; this crisp, juicy variety is a pie apple par excellence.
- Honeycrisp. Developed in Minnesota in the 1970s as a sweeter version of older, sharper "heirloom" or "antique" varieties, its bright red color and crunch add appeal to fruit salads.
- Winesap. Sweet with a touch of tartness, like dry wine, this heirloom has been hailed as a cider apple since the early nineteenth century.
Whatever the variety, apples should be free of bruises or mushy spots. Larger apples should be extra firm, as they mature and thus soften more quickly. Look for the characteristic color, but don't be put off by rough brown patches. Keep them at room temperature for immediate eating. Refrigerated in a sealed plastic bag, they'll last about two weeks.
When you think of a pear, you probably imagine one of three main varieties: Anjou, Bartlett or Bosc. Ranging from deep red to pale green to golden in color, these produce-department staples are all-purpose pears. Their firm texture is equally suited for eating fresh or cooked. Bartletts are particularly good for canning.
Some lesser-known varieties and their special uses include:
- Asian. These are sometimes called apple pears because of a rounded shape and crisp texture. Sweeter than Barletts, Anjous and other European varieties, they're favored for fresh desserts. Also, unlike European pears, Asian pears are picked ripe.
- Comice. Squat and rosy-gold, their softer, "creamy" flesh makes these better for eating fresh, rather than cooking. They're especially popular for pairing with cheese.
- Seckel. This pear's also called a sugar pear for its exceptional sweetness. That, along with their fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand size, makes them just right for snacking.
Most pears are not fully ripe when you buy them. And except for Yellow Bartletts, which go from green to gold, they don't change color as they ripen. Instead, grocers advise: "Check the neck." If the area near the stem gives when lightly pressed, the pear is good to go. Otherwise, let it set a few days at room temperature, performing the "neck check" daily.
Our next entry waves the red, white and blue -- or red, green and black, if you prefer.
Grapes fall into three main color types: red, green (also called white) and black (or blue-black). Each group includes seeded and seedless varieties, but the latter prevail in supermarkets. The most popular are the green Thompson grape and its crossbred offspring, a red variety called Flame. These are undeniably sweet, but relatively tame in taste. If you're looking for something with more personality (and willing to swallow or spit out a few seeds), seek out these regional grapes:
- Concord. A black seeded or seedless grown mostly in northern New York and Southern Ontario, it has a distinctive taste of juice and jelly. Like most American grapes, Concords are slip-skins -- you squeeze out the berry and discard the skin.
- Muscat. This one's a green grape with a spicy, perfumy taste and aroma. Originally from sunny, southern Italy and France, American muscats thrive in sunny, southern California.
- Muscadine. A seeded, slip-skin native of Southeastern United States, most are black, but Scuppernong is a bronze variety. These large, fruity grapes grow in small clusters rather than bunches.
When buying grapes, look for fat berries on supple stems. Don't be discouraged by a powdery, matte finish -- that "bloom" is a natural look. Its presence means the bunch hasn't been handled intensively.
Our next food demonstrates the saying, "Good things come to those who wait."
The persimmon tree thrives in warm weather. Thus, you're most apt to encounter its fruit in the Sunbelt states. Two main types of persimmons are grown, and it really pays to know one from the other.
The Fuyu is straightforward enough. It's squat and pale orange, about the size and shape of a miniature, decorative pumpkin. Ripe Fuyus are fairly firm with a mild, sweet-tart taste.
The Hachiya is a practical joker. An unripe Hachiya looks and feels like a large, ripe Fuyu, but it has the mouth-puckering acidity of a lemon. A ripe Hachiya, on the other hand, looks and feels like an overripe tomato -- deep red and squishy soft. But only then is it edible. Its flesh is pure sweetness, with a smooth, almost creamy texture.
Fuyus can be eaten out-of-hand or cubed in fruit salad. The Hachiya is best tackled with a spoon, scooped straight out of the skin. Mashed Hachiyas add sweetness and color to cookies, cakes and quick breads.
Concerning storage, Fuyus keep best at room temperature for up to about a week. Hachiyas fare better in the fridge, where you can stretch out ripening for a month.
Our next food reminds us that while red and gold may be fall colors, greens are still garden hues.
Some leafy greens cope with cold weather better than most people do. Temperatures near freezing slow plant metabolism. Using fewer carbohydrates -- that is, sugar -- for maintenance results in more sugars in reserve. This means sweeter leaves in the winter than in the summer.
So, if you pass on the greens in July, you might find them to your liking in October. For instance:
- Spinach. Spinach varieties that do best in cooler weather are called savoyed and semi-savoyed. They're identified by crinkly or frilled leaves.
- Chard. White-stemmed chard is most common, but you might see stems in hues of bright yellow, deep rose and fuchsia. The stalks can also be eaten.
- Collards. A smoky-tasting green with round or shell-shaped leaves, it's a staple of Southern down-home cooking, where the cooking liquid ("pot likker") is saved as a soup broth or sopped up with cornbread.
Leafy greens should be crisp and fresh-looking. Avoid those with brown speckles, large, tough stems, and wilted edges. Collards absolutely must be cooked, but other greens can be eaten fresh in salads, sautéed as a side dish or simmered in soups. Cooking also tones down the taste, which grows more pronounced with age. Cook chard stems separately from the leaves, as stems are more fibrous and take longer.
Greens will keep refrigerated in a plastic bag, damp-dry, for three to five days. Wash them very well just before using.
Our next food takes us underground to the root of the matter.
Pale yellow and slightly bumpy, the parsnip resembles a large, gnarled version of its cousin the carrot. It has the reputation in some quarters as being the lesser relation in the family, but parsnips have an enthusiastic group of advocates.
Compared to carrots, parsnips are less sweet and more nutty. They respond well to the same culinary treatments (except being eaten raw). As a side dish, parsnips take well to roasting, reaching their peak when just fork-tender -- the dry heat caramelizes the sugar, intensifying the sweetness and setting off flavor reactions that bode well for the taste buds. They also hold their own in baked casseroles and slow-cooked stews.
Parsnips can also substitute for carrots in baking. What says autumn better than apple parsnip spice cake?
Parsnips might be hard to find in supermarkets. Farmers markets are your best bet. When you do find them, choose evenly colored and unblemished individuals about 4 to 8 inches (the monsters are apt to be woody). They'll keep two or three weeks in the fridge in a mesh bag or other breathable containers. They'll stay fresher longest if you trim any rootlets on the bottom.
Next, we'll look at some uncommon varieties of one of the most popular foods on the planet.
Of the thousands of potato varieties known, only a handful of spuds have gone mainstream. Fall is the ideal time to try some lesser-known, late-season arrivals, like these:
- German Butterball. These are round or oblong with pale gold skin and yellow flesh. Its skin and flesh color mark the Butterball as an all-purpose potato, equally enjoyable baked, mashed or french-fried.
- Red Pontiac. This potato is red skinned, white fleshed, and round or oblong. Like other round reds, it produces creamy mashed or whipped potatoes.
- Katahdin. Round whites like the Katahin are firm potatoes, holding their shape when boiled for salads.
Whatever their color, potatoes should be of average size, smooth-skinned and firm. Wrinkles, shriveling and sprouts are signs of aging. They keep best in cool, dark, moderately humid conditions. A root cellar is ideal. If you'd rather not dig one, a basement staircase, a closet or cabinet, or an insulated porch or garage makes a good substitute. Keep them in a mesh or perforated plastic bag to allow air flow.
When is a potato not a potato? Our next page has the answer.
The deep-orange sweet potato is well known to vegetable lovers, but it's not the only tater on the block. If you look around, you might find heirloom varieties. These are sometimes called yellow yams, white yams or white sweet potatoes. With beige skin and cream-colored flesh, they look more like long, odd-shaped yellow potatoes. In sweetness, however, they rival their more colorful kin.
Both types are good for all manner of cooking, including deep-fat frying. They can be baked as side dishes, pureed for soup, and mashed for pies, breads, cookies and custard. Cold cooked sweets also make hand-held snacks.
Look for sweet potatoes that feel solid and unyielding with skins intact; nicks can invite bacterial growth and an early demise. For cooking success, try to pick those that are uniform in shape, since fat bodies with tapered ends can lead to overcooked ends and semi-raw middles.
Like many cold-weather crops, sweet potatoes prefer -- you guessed it -- cool-but-not-cold storage. Dry is better than damp. Keep them in a well-ventilated spot away from light and enjoy within 10 days.
If you believe that variety is the spice of life, you'll be overjoyed with our next entry.
With so many different shapes and sizes and colors, squash are the most fun of all winter produce to look at and handle. The varieties described below barely scratch the surface:
- Acorn. These can be small, round and ridged, and they might have variegated orange and green skin; its deep orange flesh is sweeter than pumpkin but less so than sweet potatoes.
- Butternut. Butternut squash is typically long-necked and pot-bellied with creamy beige skin. The orange flesh is quintessentially "squashy": mildly sweet and slightly nutty.
- Spaghetti. When scraped out with a fork, the flesh forms golden strands that look like spaghetti and taste like zucchini.
- Sweet dumpling. Its yellow flesh looks and tastes something like sweet corn.
Cooking uses vary with the type of squash. All are good for baking, steaming and mashing. However, darker-colored varieties are firmer and sweeter. Butternut is excellent in baked goods from pies to pancakes to bread puddings, for instance, while spaghetti is decidedly a side dish.
Squash seeds are a bonus, like the free prize in cereal boxes. Cleaned and roasted, they have a nutty taste. Eat them plain, salted or seasoned; alone or added to homemade or store-bought trail mix and granola.
Ripe, quality squash is thick-skinned and heavy for its size. Kept cool and dry, it'll maintain that quality about three months.
Our next entry brings us to the end of our autumn harvest tour. Like many tour highlights, this one is marked with an "X."
Cruciferous means cross-shaped. Cruciferous vegetables have blossoms with four equally spaced petals that form a cross. You'll probably be too wowed by the taste, however, to reflect on their botanical features. Consider some of these diverse examples:
- Round-headed cabbage. This cabbage has flat leaves of pale green or reddish-purple; Savoy cabbage has frilled leaves.
- Cauliflower. The stalks are topped with bunches called curds, and the most popular varieties are white or cream-colored. Lime-green Romanesco resembles a pine forest.
- Turnips. A rounded, cream-colored root; although available earlier, turnips are most flavorful in autumn.
- Rutabagas. A round root with pale orange flesh; the skin is cream-colored darkened to reddish-purple. Rutabaga is thought to be a cross between a turnip and wild cabbage.
Cruciferous vegetables have assertive flavors and can take strong seasonings. Cabbage pairs well with vinegar in sauerkraut. The sweeter rutabaga can be spiced with cloves. Try turnips with garlic and onions.
These veggies have a reputation as being smelly when cooked. Actually, it's overcooking that releases their unpleasant aroma. If steamed or braised until just fork-tender, not limp, they actually smell lightly sweet.
Quality traits depend on the specific vegetable. In general, heads should feel tight and heavy for their size. Stalks should be firm. Florets should appear fresh; avoid faded yellow broccoli or brown-speckled cauliflower. Likewise, roots should feel solid, not spongy, with an even color.
Unlike many fall vegetables, cruciferous veggies prefer the cool, moist confines of the refrigerator crisper. Stored in perforated plastic, they'll keep up to two weeks.
Here is a delightful dish for a Fall harvest dinner party; Jim Deliman's carrot saffron soup recipe. Learn how to make Jim Deliman's carrot saffron soup.
More Great Links
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- Russo, Susanne. "Falling for Persimmons." National Public Radio. Nov. 26, 2008 (Aug. 26, 2010) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97458318
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- Sugar, David, Elizabeth Mitcham, and Eugene Kupferman. "Re-Thinking the Chill Requirement." Postharvest Information Network. Dec. 2009 (Aug. 31, 2010) http://postharvest.tfrec.wsu.edu/REP2009B.pdf
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