Illustration by Patricia Robinson
Choosing produce harvested at its peak is your sure bet for flavor and freshness.
Gravenstein, an heirloom apple that’s a favorite for cooking and eating, ushers in the season, and if you’re lucky, you may be able to find a few at your local farmers’ market. As much as this apple is loved, it carries two frustrating characteristics for farmer and consumer. One is that the apples have short, weak stems, so as they grow and snuggle up on the tree, they tend to drop. The other is that they don’t store well, so you shouldn’t let them linger when you bring them home. Also, watch for the Gala, another early- to mid–season favorite apple. Its dense, sweetly aromatic flesh makes it good for eating out of hand, and while it can work out in baking, there are better choices coming along later, such as Granny Smith, Pippin, and Rome Beauty, which hold their shape better when cooked.
In early fall, table grapes are a feature of market displays, where Thompson and Red Flame seedless varieties predominate, but be sure to check out some of the other varieties as they arrive: Crimson, Fantasy, and Ruby followed by Muscat, Tokay, and Ribier. Table grapes represent only 12–15% of the total grape harvest, with the remainder made up of raisin- and wine-variety grapes.
Pumpkins preside in October, luring in crafty Halloween carvers to market stands. But once these orange charmers have done their job, there’s more room for the dozen or so other hard-shelled winter squash types that cooks prefer, and it’s best to choose one that fits your recipe. Many people reach for the familiar pear-shaped butternut squash: Its creamy texture, deep orange flesh, and smooth, easy-to-remove skin are a real appeal. Buttercup squash, with its full, sweet flavor, is a great candidate for pies, cakes, and breads. Favorites for savory dishes include the spaghetti squash, with its stringy, spaghetti-like flesh, and smaller varieties, like the acorn squash or the tender-skinned Delicata. Remember that the farmers at your neighborhood farmers’ markets are your best resource for answers on variety, preparation, and storage. Step right up and ask!