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Five foods of fall
Living in such an autumnal environment makes me crave the colorful foods of fall. The region you live in determines when exactly certain ingredients make their way in and out of local farmers markets, true. But there's a general timetable for these foods, so start looking for them now. As some extra incentive, these foods are high in nutrients like beta carotene, vitamin A, and antioxidants, and most make for beautiful additions to the holiday table when piled in a shallow bowl, or added to a cheese plate.
A traumatic childhood experience with an unripe persimmon led me to give this fragrant, glossy orange fruit a wide berth for over 20 years, and not until I began working as a vendor at the Berkeley Farmers Market did I work through the pain and overcome my aversion. If you've never tasted an unripe persimmon, it's like biting into a mouthful of metal filings. They're so astringent, they literally suck all of the moisture from your mouth. Tough, tough stuff. Happily, I've grown to love (ripe) persimmons for their cheerful appearance, intriguing texture, and sweet, spicy, perfumed flesh redolent of apricots, cinnamon, and allspice.
Persimmons are indigenous to Asia, but grow well in temperate climates. The two most common varieties are Fuyu and Hachiya. Fuyus resemble squat tomatoes, and are ripe when they turn bright orange but are still firm to the touch. I enjoy eating them out of hand or sliced into salads. Try them sliced with bitter greens, toasted walnuts, and fresh or soft-ripened goat cheese, with a Sherry vinaigrette.
[Photo credit: Flickr user caryn74]
Hachiyas are high in tannins, and the astringent substance that makes them so unappealing when unripe is also corrosive, so be sure to avoid using aluminum cookware or foil when working with them.
Dried Hachiyas are also delicious and diverse in the kitchen. Choose fruit that is soft, but not so ripe you're unable to peel it. After peeling, pass a wire through the calyx, or stem end, bring the ends of the wire together to form a circle, and hang it on a line in a cool, dry place. You'll need to massage the fruit periodically to help break down their internal membrane and to release moisture. Enjoy them for snacking, baking, or in porridge or oatmeal. They may develop a harmless fine, white powder on the surface.
2. Winter squash
The much-maligned winter, or hard squash is a nutritional powerhouses, high in iron, riboflavin, and vitamins A and C. With their thick, durable shells, which come in a breathtaking array of hues, textures, shapes, and sizes, they can last up to a month without refrigeration, as long as they're kept cool and dry. You can compost the skins and pulp, and dry their seeds so you can grow your own squash next year.
I find even the names of different varieties of squash tempting: sweet dumpling, acorn, Cinderella, sugar pumpkin, cheese pumpkin, buttercup, butternut, delicata, red curry, kabocha, and hubbard. Note that carving pumpkins are not meant for eating; the flesh is too stringy and the flavor inferior, although the seeds are delicious when roasted.
There are literally hundreds of heirloom varieties of squash out there; get to know some of the growers at your local farmers' market and find out what they recommend for your purposes. When selecting squash, choose ones that are heavy for their weight, with no soft spots.
While most hard squash have sweet flesh, there's still a range of flavor complexities between varieties. Some are more watery while others have a more pronounced squashy flavor or firm or creamy flesh. You may want to experiment to see what works best for your specific recipes, but the most common varieties work equally well for sweet or savory dishes.
Use leftover roasted squash in stir-fries, tossed in at the end of cooking with toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce, and bitter greens. Roast peeled slices until they're lightly caramelized and serve them with a handful of fresh arugula, candied pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds) or crumbled bacon, and shaved pecorino cheese, and a vinaigrette of roasted pumpkin seed oil or good-quality balsamic vinegar. Use squash in baked goods like tea breads and cakes.
Unless you shop at the farmers market, you're likely unaware of just how many table grape varieties are out there: Bronx, Golden Muscat, Niabell, Ladyfinger, Black Monukka. Some are winey and intense, others slip their skins and have a squidgy texture, similar to wine grapes.
The beauty of grapes is that they require no more than a rinse and they're ready for the table. I use them halved and paired with fresh or grilled chicories and shavings of a dry, semi-firm cheese like Manchego for salads, or roast them with a bit of olive oil and serve them alongside wilted greens like Lacinato kale and grilled sausages. Feeling lazy? Pile them in a pretty bowl, pour a glass of dessert wine, and pop in a DVD for a low-key evening with friends or your main squeeze. Spitting seeds isn't sexy, so do ask for a sample before purchasing.
4. Brussels sprouts
Poor things. Dissed by children almost everywhere, and equally unloved by many adults, Brussels sprouts get a bad rap due to poor cooking technique or old product. Like all brassicas (the genus of cruciferous vegetables--members of the mustard family--that includes broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower), these guys can get seriously sulfurous and nasty if overcooked or past their prime.
Look for tiny, tightly-closed sprouts (you can also purchase them on the stalk at farmers markets and some grocery stores) the size of large marbles. The shouldn't be gargantuan, or have yellowed, withered outer leaves or be opening up like a flower in bloom. You've been warned.
Get your fresh sprouts home. Heat up some bacon fat or olive oil, and saute them over medium-high heat until the outer leaves just begin to open, and they're slightly caramelized (this is the key step). Finish things off with some minced garlic cooked until fragrant. Toss sauteed sprouts with crumbled bacon, crisped prosciutto, toasted breadcrumbs, or grated pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano. Try a combination of the above. Spike them with chile flakes, chopped, toasted nuts, or drizzle with walnut or hazelnut oil (don't try to cook them in these; their smoke point is too low and the oil will scorch). If for some crazy reason these ideas don't make you a convert, just do what a friend of mine did as kid: sneak them into the bathroom and flush them down the toilet.
European pears (as opposed to the crunchy, apple-like Asian varieties) possess a refined elegance that calls to mind the days when they were cultivated for French nobility.
The year-round availability of domestically grown varieties of European pear can be attributed to their affinity for cold storage. Pear season is usually over by the end of November, and unlike apples, European pears require a period of cold storage at 32 to 35 degrees before being ripened for several days at room temperature prior to selling. They're just simply delicate for picking and shipping when ripe.
To further ripen them at home, place in a paper bag on the counter. If you can't use fully ripe pears immediately, refrigerate them or they'll get mushy.
I prefer pears poached in red or white wine or a simple syrup spiked with vanilla bean, ginger, or spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise. As a dessert, this showcases their elegant shape, and makes for a sophisticated finale to a dinner party. Remember to slice a tiny piece of the bottom off of each pear before serving, so they'll stand up on the plate (you can also use a dab of whipping cream, creme fraiche, mascarpone, or creme anglaise to anchor them in place). Serve with a healthy dollop of same, or vanilla or honey ice cream. Hello, autumn.
[Photo credits: soup, Flickr user Tammy Green aka Zesmerelda]