A Produce Picker’s Companion
Advice from two market farmers for gardeners and shoppers
by Helen Krayenhoff
Cut Paper Illustrations by Margo Rivera-Weiss
There you are in your garden admiring squash and melon vines that have taken over the entire territory. Some impressive fruits have developed, but are they ready to harvest? They are big, for sure, but they don’t look like the ones at the farmers’ market. You wish someone could help you make this vital decision…
And once your treasures are off the plant, how should you store them or otherwise preserve their freshness and flavor?
Or perhaps you’re at the market wondering which squash, which pear, which melon to buy for your menu of roasted winter squash soup, Asian pear salad, and melon sorbet. Or you’re looking at some beautiful, fresh black-eyed peas and okra for sale but you realize you know nothing about choosing or using them.
Two young farmers who sell at farmers’ markets reveal their tips for choosing, harvesting, and handling late-season crops. Whether you eat from your garden or from the farmers’ market, these guys have the know-how and are happy to share their knowledge.
PUMPKINS and other WINTER SQUASH
Harvest months: September through November
Lake Oakland market on Saturdays and the new Lafayette market on Sundays. He grows eight different varieties of winter squash. Why so many kinds? Because he loves to eat them! “Their sweet, rich flavor makes the easiest, tastiest roasted vegetables and soups of autumn,” he says. For that easy 30-minute soup, he suggests simply boiling cubed squash and puréeing it with sautéed onions.
When deciding when to harvest winter squash, Chris looks for a hardened skin with a
dull appearance. “The fruit should resist denting with your fingernail. Cut winter squash with about one inch of stem. Pumpkins should have a two- to three-inch stem.”
He explains a key point that many novice gardeners may not realize. “Winter squash, with the exception of acorn squash, should be cured for one to two weeks [after harvesting] in a well-ventilated place that’s out of the sun. This curing helps to promote a longer shelf life and better flavor.” He adds that shelf life differs greatly among varieties. “Acorn squash should be used within one to two months, butternuts generally last two to three months, and Hubbard squash can last up to five months or more if stored properly.”
Chris says that winter squash are fun and easy to grow, but do need lots of space to vine. “They make great protective mulch in the garden, shading out weeds and conserving soil moisture to the benefit of other plants nearby. If squash bugs—which resemble little cockroaches—invade your crop, they can be easily removed with a hand-held vacuum. Look for them on the underside of stems near the base of the plant or on the young fruit itself.”
ASIAN PEARS Chris Hay of Say Hay Farms
Harvest months: August through October
Welling Tom raises a wide variety of crops at his family’s Brookside Farms in Brentwood and sells them at the Saturday Brentwood Market as well as the market on Sundays in Oakland’s Montclair Village. His booth is a great place to learn about the many varieties of Asian pears, which Welling likes to eat as is, or peeled, sliced, and chilled in any kind of salad.
“When we bought our farm in 1973, Asian pears were still a new product in the United States, and people seemed to be very interested in trying them, but there weren’t many growers here. My parents planted our first Asian pear trees here in 1979, and in addition to those that survived, we continued to plant other varieties that seemed interesting.”
Welling says that growers have to know their tree varieties in order to determine the right time to harvest. For instance, fruits of the Japanese Shinsui, Hosui, and 20th Century varieties need to be fully ripe when harvested, since they won’t ripen afterwards, and they need refrigeration as soon as possible after harvest. Many Chinese varieties—such as Tse Li and Ya Li—will ripen after harvest and should be stored at room temperature. A way to be certain of choosing the right time to pick (for any fruit or vegetable) is to taste-test the fruit each day as it nears harvest time. But Welling has one easy way to tell if it’s the right time to pick any variety of Asian pear: “The fruit should break away from the tree easily. Simply lifting the fruits from their hanging position should be enough to break them off.”
Welling suggests that those interested in planting Asian pear trees need to make sure they have a location that is warm and sunny in spring and summer. He adds that pruning the trees and thinning out the fruit properly are important, and that growers need be ready to deal with codling moth.
Harvest months: July–October, and as late as November
In times past, knowing that you had a ripe tomato on your vine might have been as easy as looking for that rosy color, but these days, when heirloom and newly bred tomato varieties run from green to black, with all manner of stripes, blotches, and fades, a ripe tomato is not so easy to spot. Welling says that a harvest-ready tomato should have skin that is “mostly smooth, taut, and shiny.”
It’s a good idea to pick tomatoes when they are fairly firm, before they have actually reached full ripeness, Welling explains. “They will continue to ripen after harvest, but you should never refrigerate them! Keep them in a well-ventilated place, between 50° and 80°, away from direct sunlight or other sources of heat. Store large beefsteak-type tomatoes upside down. The calyx and surrounding shoulders of the fruit ripen last, are tougher than the opposite side, and constitute a larger surface area to support the weight of the fruit.”
Welling says that tidy trellising is very important for a good harvest. “First of all, it prevents fruits from touching the ground, where they are likely to be stepped on, squashed under their own weight and the weight of the vines, or eaten by slugs or snails. Trellising also improves access for pollinators like bees, and for human harvesters.”
To enjoy those perfectly ripe tomatoes, simplest is best for Welling. He says that you can’t go wrong with basil, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Roma tomatoes are usually best when cooked, and you can do it slowly in sauces, soups, or stews, or quickly, by dicing and throwing them in with sautéed dishes. If you have too many tomatoes, try drying them, either by dehydrator or in the sun (if you live in a place that doesn’t have fog). Freezing is also a very easy way to preserve the harvest for use in cooking throughout the year. Here’s a good educational page on that subject: food.unl.edu/web/preservation/freezing-tomatoes.
Harvest months: August through October Welling Tom of Brookside Farm (Photo by Matthew Green)
Welling Tom says he grows okra because he likes to eat it and because it’s very nutritious. His favorite way to cook okra is to cross cut it into thin wheels and include it in fried rice with eggs, sweet peppers, onions, and mushrooms. “That way, it will be cooked quickly, and whatever slime actually does ooze out of it will be absorbed by the rice or incorporated with the eggs.”
Another way to diminish the slime effect is to toss the pods whole with olive oil and some salt and pepper, then roast at 375° until they start to brown and crisp up a little bit. That makes them taste a bit nutty.
“Most okra that I see being sold seems to have been mishandled, which gives mine an advantage at the market,” says Welling. “They are good to eat when small and tender, but they are much easier to harvest successfully when the stems have grown long. You can snap them off between your thumb and fingers with a turn of your wrist. If the stem snaps easily, the pod will undoubtedly be tender. If the stem doesn’t snap easily, the pod is old and tough. Remove these pods with shears, or twist them around until the fibers of the stem break. Try to avoid handling the fuzzy pod itself, or bending or breaking the branches and stems of the plant.”
Once you have your okra in hand, whether you grew it or bought it from your favorite farmer, try to avoid bruising the pods, and refrigerate as soon as possible in an airtight container to prevent dehydration.
Harvest month: September
Another favorite of Welling’s is fresh black-eyed peas. “Dried black-eyed peas are edible, of course, but not nearly as good as the fresh ones,” he says.
Welling harvests them when the pods have a yellowish color and a lumpy shape, indicating that they contain fully formed peas. “The pods should be firm—not floppy, which would indicate that the peas are dried up.”
“Refrigerate as soon as possible after picking,” he says, “and place in an airtight container to prevent dehydration and wilting. Don’t keep them for more than a couple of days. Shell them as soon as possible, and if you are not going to cook them immediately, freeze them as soon as you have them shelled. They will retain all the flavor and texture from the time they were freshly shelled.”
Welling’s simple recipe is to simmer the peas with salt, onions, and olive oil until they are plump and soft and a nice gravy has formed. “You could also include bacon or ham hocks or other forms of salted pork in the slow cooking process, but the peas have plenty of flavor without any meats.”
Harvest months: Late July through October
“Watermelons are so refreshing in the heat of summer,” says Chris Hay. “My favorite variety, Sugar Baby, has a brambly sweetness balanced with a hint of tartness and a crispy flesh.”
It seems that there’s an art to harvesting for peak flavor: “Too soon and they won’t be at their sweetest. Too late and the flesh will be mushy,” says Chris. Here’s how he decides when to pick:
1. The skin has gone from dull to glossy.
2. Thumping the melon produces a deep pitched, “hollow” sound in contrast to the higher-pitched, “tight” sound of an unripe melon.
3. The “ground spot”— the side of the melon that has been resting on the ground—turns from green or white to yellowish.
4. The curly “pigtail” tendril closest to the stem is desiccated and brittle, not green and flexible.
5. The blossom end (opposite the stem) is resistant to a light fingernail scratching.
Other than that, Chris says that gardeners need to keep track of the variety and its expected days to maturity. “A couple weeks before that date, begin to check the melons every couple of days and notice the differences in color, sheen, and sound noted above. Don’t be afraid to cut one open and taste.”
Chris sells watermelons within 48 hours of harvest. “They are stored in the shade of the barn before heading to market,” he says. “If you want to prolong their freshness, the University of California studies recommend storing for up to three weeks at 50 to 59 degrees and 90 percent humidity, and away from other produce that emits ethylene.”
If you find yourself with too many watermelons, or have a big one that isn’t getting eaten fast enough, Chris suggests two ways to preserve the harvest. “Watermelons have such a high water content that drying is difficult to do without a dehydrator, but it can produce delicious results after a full day at 135 degrees. Otherwise, I would suggest puréeing, straining, and freezing the juice if you want to keep their flavor around for the off-season.” [See Edible East Bay Summer 2012 for a great watermelon cocktail recipe.]
Harvest month: August
Welling Tom says he grows ambrosia melons because he thinks they are one of the most consistently delicious melons available. “Customers agree, and look forward to them every year.”
To know when to harvest, Welling looks for a light beige color on the skin and he checks for cracks forming around the stem. “If the stem falls off as you pick the melon up off the ground, the melon is ripe. But make sure the melon does not have any soft or squishy areas that would indicate it is overripe or rotten. The melon should feel heavy and firm, and sound solid—not hollow—when tapped, and it should have a fairly strong and pleasant perfume. Once picked, ambrosia melons need refrigeration as soon as possible. They are very perishable, and attract fruit flies if left out after being picked.”
Welling eats ambrosia melons just the way they are. “To be indulgent, cut a melon in half, scoop out the seeds, pick up a spoon and eat the melon like a bowl of bliss.”
Helen Krayenhoff is co-owner of Kassenhoff Growers, a certified organic plant nursery located in Oakland and Alameda. You can find out more at kassenhoffgrowers.com. Helen is also an illustrator (helenkrayenhoff.com) and the Art and Garden editor at Edible East Bay.
Welling Tom of Brookside Farm (Photo by Matthew Green)
Butternut Squash, Pear, and Leek soup
From Hillcrest Ranch Sunol, www.hillcrestrancholiveoil.com
1 medium-size (about 2 pounds) butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large or 2 medium leeks, white and light-green parts only, washed and cut in 1-inch pieces
2–3 ripe pears or apples, peeled (optional), cored, and cut in 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons finely minced ginger
4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
Preheat oven to 400°.
Spread the squash, pears, and leeks in a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, stir to coat, and spread out evenly in the pan. Roast for 40–50 minutes (or until soft), stirring occasionally to ensure even roasting. Remove from oven and let cool slightly.
Purée roasted vegetables and fruits along with the ginger and broth, working in batches so your blender or food processor is not too full. Pour each batch into a large saucepan. Reheat and adjust seasonings.
Asian Pear and Watercress Salad with Sesame Dressing
From Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association, www.pcfma.com
1 ½-inch-thick slice of fresh ginger, peeled
¼ cup Asian sesame paste (or tahini)
3 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
¼ cup rice vinegar
1½ tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon Asian chili paste with garlic
½ teaspoon salt
2 medium Asian pears
4 cups watercress, trimmed
1 carrot, finely shredded
Process first 8 ingredients in a blender until smooth. Peel pear and cut into julienne strips, then transfer to a bowl. Add watercress to the bowl, season with salt and pepper as desired, and toss gently. Divide among plates, then drizzle with some dressing and sprinkle with carrot right before serving.
Grilled Watermelon Salad
From Lucero Olive Oil, www.lucerooliveoil.com
1 medium-size watermelon
⅓ cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (Try Lucero Arbequina, Miller’s Blend, or Ascolano)
4 cups baby arugula
¼ cup crumbled goat cheese
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (try Lucero Traditional)
Cut watermelon into ½-inch spears. Place in a bowl and toss with ⅓ cup olive oil, then place spears on a hot grill and cook until lightly caramelized. Toss arugula, goat cheese, balsamic vinegar, and remaining olive oil in a salad bowl along with caramelized watermelon. Serve.
From Kassenhoff Growers, www.kassenhoffgrowers.com
September at Kassenhoff Growers often means abundant tomatoes.
This is how we keep them for future use in cooking.
Preheat oven to 450°
Sprinkle a pan with salt and pepper to taste. Cover bottom with some sprigs of fresh thyme. (We use our English thyme from the garden, but you could experiment with dried thyme or with other fresh or dried herbs.)
Cut tomatoes in half and place cut-side-down on top of herbs. Drizzle liberally with olive oil. Place in preheated oven and roast for 25 minutes. Lower heat to 325° and roast for another 25 minutes. Turn off heat and let pan cool in the oven. When cool, the skins will often just slip off.
After they are cool, the tomatoes can be placed, along with the oil from the pan, into a quart yogurt container for freezing. When you’re ready to use some, run the container under hot water until the tomatoes slip out, cut off what you want with a serrated knife, and return the rest to the freezer. Because of the oil content, the block doesn’t freeze totally solid.