By Carolyn Twesten, Weaver Street Market Produce Merchandiser
After a seemingly endless summer in North Carolina, the temperatures and humidity are finally falling. With this blissful weather come many of my favorite veggies and the urge to roast, stew, and bake my way into fall. As the cornucopia–our traditional symbol of fall–suggests, now is a time of abundance as the late summer fruits and vegetables overlap with those of early fall. Eggplant, peppers, and okra can mingle with winter squash, roots, and greens for a short time, but soon frost will preclude the tender veggies. Personally, by October I am more than willing to give up the summer produce and move on to heartier fare. Here are some of my favorite produce items that are available now from local farms:
These hearty fruits (yes, fruits!) are as beautiful as they are abundant, coming in a rainbow of shapes and colors. Related to the tender-skinned summer squashes, they require a longer growing season during which their skins become thick and tough for long-term storage through the winter. Their dense, sweet flesh takes a little longer to cook than their summer cousins but it is worth every minute. We have many varieties available now from New Sprout Farm in Asheville and Eastern Carolina Organics, including acorn, butternut, delicata, kabocha, and spaghetti squashes.
All winter squash can be simply prepared by cutting in half lengthwise, scooping out the seed cavity (the seeds can also be roasted like pumpkin seeds!), and baking face down on a baking sheet in a small amount of water at 350 degrees until tender. For smaller squash like delicata this may only take 30 minutes. For denser squash it could take up to an hour or more. The squash is ready when a fork easily pierces the skin and flesh.
Once you have the basics down, try preparing each variety with a recipe that suits its own unique flavor and texture. Acorn squash is delicious when stuffed with a nutty wild rice stuffing. Kabocha squash’s dense, drier texture lends itself to braising or stewing. Spaghetti squash, as its name suggests, is a great replacement for grain-based pastas, and butternut squash is infinitely versatile. Try butternut squash in place of pumpkin in your pumpkin pie recipe, pureed in a curried squash soup, or simply sautéed with onion, butter, and sage.
Vitamin- and mineral-rich dark leafy greens are a good addition to your diet year-round, but especially now as we head into cold and flu season. They also feel like a nice detox if your late summer diet slid into a heavy rotation of pizza and pasta like mine did. As the weather cools down, the local greens season ramps up, and you will notice more varieties of local greens filling our shelves. Right now we have plenty of kale and collards, two heavy hitters in the nutritious foods category. Our collards are coming from Cottle Farms and Uncle Henry’s Organics, both in Rose Hill, NC. They have planted enough to meet the demand of Weaver Street Market customers’ New Year’s Eve menus! Our kale is arriving from several different farms, including Nourishing Acres in Cedar Grove, NC.
Being both Yankee-born (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!) and a former vegetarian, I don’t usually boil my greens with a ham bone for hours on end. I prefer a gentler braise, with a little tamari soy sauce and toasted sesame oil thrown in at the end for the umami flavors. Here’s a tip: after washing the whole leaves, de-stem by pulling leaves from the stem through an O made with your thumb and forefinger. Chop coarsely, then saute in olive oil (or butter, or coconut oil) and garlic for a minute before adding a small amount of liquid to braise. Braise 5 to 10 minutes (or a little longer for collards) or until leaves are tender but still a healthy green.
The first new-crop sweet potatoes usually arrive in October after being in the ground the entire summer and then left to cure for a week or two in pack houses. You would be surprised if you roasted a sweet potato freshly dug out of the soil: it would be bland and starchy! Sweet potatoes actually require a period of curing for one to two weeks for their starches to convert to sugars and their skins to toughen up for winter storage. Close to 100 percent of our sweet potatoes come from North Carolina, specifically Triple J Produce in Sims, NC.
You can’t go wrong with a sweet potato, flavor-wise or health-wise (well, unless you’re making one of those marshmallow-topped sweet potato casseroles loaded with sugar–then you’re on your own). They’re loaded with fiber and vitamin C, and taste great simply roasted whole, then split open and topped with a little butter. People always ask me: What’s the difference between a sweet potato and a yam? The word “yam” is a misnomer. Yams are a starchy root vegetable grown in Africa, while sweet potatoes are grown in the United States. The term yam was adopted in the US to differentiate the sweeter orange-fleshed sweet potatoes introduced from Asia from the starchier white-fleshed sweet potatoes native to the US.
I have recently fallen in love with the turnip. Perhaps it was the recipe I discovered that paired them with nutty gruyère cheese, or maybe my penchant for historical fiction that lends a romantic notion of surviving a tough winter on turnips and fat back. Either way, turnips are a hearty, healthy root that stores well through the winter, they are easy to grow, and luckily for us they are also delicious.
New varieties of turnip have become more widely available, such as the Japanese Hakurei turnip. I refer to this variety as “the gateway turnip,” the turnip for people who don’t like turnips. These are most commonly found in a bunch with the greens still attached (and yes, the greens are edible!), somewhere near the radishes and beets in the greens section. These turnips are mild and tender enough to be eaten raw in a salad, lightly stir-fried, or pickled.
The purple-top turnip is the one that most people recognize and that many have come to dread. A co-worker from New England remembers these turnips as an ingredient in a mysterious meal he refers to as “boiled dinner,” a name that does not inspire confidence in its tastiness. I believe that it was our grandparents’ tendency to boil turnips to death that led to their demise in our hearts. The recipe that turned me around was this one: http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/12252-turnip-gratin
I hope it works for you, too!