Produce harvested at its peak is your sure bet for flavor and freshness.
By Barbara Kobsar | Illustration by Charmaine Koehler-Lodge
It’s pear season! One of the earliest European-variety pears to arrive at market is the Bartlett, easily recognized by its bell shape, semi-soft flesh, and yellow-to-red skin color. The green-skinned d’Anjou; small, sweet Seckel; long-necked Bosc; and greenish-yellow to dark-red Comice show up through the next few months. These pears mature on the tree and only ripen properly after harvest. They are chilled before shipping to market, and final ripening begins as they are brought back to ambient temperature. A ripe pear offers a pleasing fragrance, and the stem end yields to gentle thumb pressure.
Also available now are the crispy Asian pears, which, unlike European pears, are picked ripe and ready to eat. Their roundish shape and apple-like texture explain the “apple pear” label, but they are not crossed with apple.
After putting on its show of beautiful red, pink, cream, or varicolored flowers, the shrubby pomegranate tree now yields its unique fruit. It’s well worth the trouble to extract the shiny red kernels (arils) from within the pomegranate’s inedible leathery skin and spongy membranes. Enjoy them plain or as garnish for entrées, salads, and desserts. A neat and easy way to extract the tasty morsels is to cut a small section off the top of the fruit and score the rind lengthwise in three or four places. Immerse in a bowl of cool water and let stand for five minutes. Hold the fruit under water and pull sections apart with your fingers. As you remove arils from the membrane, they will sink to the bottom while the inedible parts float to the top. Skim and discard rind and membranes and then drain seeds and let dry. Strained pomegranate juice is good for making jellies and sorbets.
Although fresh garden beets are available year-round, fall is when they shine. Round, garnet-red beets are most common, but try the smaller Little Ball; Chioggia, an heirloom with impressive alternating red and white rings on the inside; and the mild golden beet. Foliage beets (grown specifically for their greens), Swiss chard, and sugar beets are other members of this root vegetable family. Freshness is more important than size when it comes to beets, since their sugar starts turning to starch right after harvest.
Here’s a tidy method for cooking beets: Trim off greens, leaving an inch or two of stem. (Save and sauté greens for a tasty side dish.) Forgo any additional trimming, since cutting into the beet skin will cause the root to bleed its color. Wash the roots thoroughly and place them on foil with a splash of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Wrap loosely, place on a baking sheet, and bake at 400° for 40 to 60 minutes. Timing depends on the size of the beet; they should be soft enough that you can easily pierce them with a fork. Remove from oven and let beets sit until cool enough to handle. To peel, hold the cooled roasted beet with a paper towel and use another towel to rub the skin away. ´
Veteran journalist Barbara Kobsar has authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. You’ll find her each week at the Walnut Creek Farmers’ Market selling her Cottage Kitchen jams and jellies made from farmers’ market produce.
Toasted Walnut & Beet Dip
½ pound beets, roasted and peeled (see October section)
1 cup walnut pieces or halves
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Spread walnut pieces on a baking sheet and toast at 350° for 8 to 10 minutes, checking often to prevent burning.
Place roasted beets, toasted walnuts, cheese, vinegar, and garlic in a blender or food processor. Blend until thick and creamy. With blender running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil, continuing to process until well combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with assorted raw vegetables, crackers, or breads.