Seven Stars of the Fall Harvest
BY JESSICA PRENTICE
Jessica Prentice, Maggie Gosselin, and Sarah Klein created the Local Foods Wheel to help us all enjoy the freshest, tastiest, and most ecologically sound food choices month by month. Here are seven of Jessica’s fall favorites. You can learn more about the Local Foods Wheel and the group’s other ventures at www.localfoodswheel.com .
It’s easy to take carrots for granted. Raw or cooked, they are so common in our daily fare that many of us eat at least a bite of one most days without even thinking about it. But it was a carrot that provided one of my earliest eye-opening food experiences. It happened when I was a teenager traveling with my family in France. We bought some carrots at a Paris market to include in a picnic lunch at Versailles. I bit into one of them and thought, “This is a carrot? But it’s juicy, it’s sweet, it’s delicate, it’s light!” It was like the most delicious apple. Nothing at all like the woody, dense, bitter carrots I ate throughout my childhood. I still eat plenty of tasteless carrots, but every so often a good, organic farmers’ market carrot brings that memory flooding back: a reminder that not every carrot is just a carrot. Sometimes a carrot can be as memorable as an exotic meal or a great glass of wine.
One of the great pleasures of the harvest season is finding whole ears of dried popcorn at the market. When I see them, I think of the 3,000-year-old kernels of popped and unpopped corn that archeologists found in 1948 in a cave in New Mexico, and picture those ancient humans sitting around the fire telling stories and eating popcorn. When dropped into hot oil after all those years, the unpopped kernels still popped! Popcorn is a completely natural snack, and one I enjoy without compunction. At home we pop it in ghee, then drizzle it generously with melted butter and sprinkle with sea salt. When we’re feeling extravagant, we pop it in duck fat and sprinkle with truffle salt.
Olive trees thrive here in our Mediterranean climate, and fall is the season to harvest fresh olives for curing. Anyone who has ever tasted an olive straight off the tree knows why curing is necessary. Soaking these incredibly bitter and acrid fruits in a series of brines draws out the glucosides and renders something that was once completely inedible into a delicious treat. It does this slowly, successively, in many briny iterations over the course of about a year, giving you lots of chances to taste the progression. After you are done you’ll understand why fresh olives cost about $1 a pound and cured ones cost around $10. All that sea salt! All that time! All that care and monitoring. Maybe you’ll be hooked and want to do it every year. Maybe once will be enough. But either way you’ll have a newfound appreciation for the delicious gift of the well-cured olive.
The season for hook-and-line-caught California halibut lasts from spring until late fall, and the fishery is currently well managed and sustainable. This fish is not a true halibut, but a very large flounder, and like many other flat fish, begins life with an eye on either side of its head. By the time the fish matures, it has both eyes on one side. The low fat content of California halibut means the flesh should be handled gently and not overcooked. Try using it for ceviche or add it at the last minute to a broth-based soup, letting the meat just barely cook through. The bones, on the other hand, are perfect for making long-simmered broth, and preferable to those of a fattier fish, which can oxidize in the long cooking process. There is a saying in Spanish that “fish broth can raise the dead” and I can see why, since I find fish broth to be one of the most nourishing foods around. Make the broth by putting the bones in a stainless steel pot, pouring in filtered water just to cover, adding a bay leaf and a splash of white wine vinegar, and barely simmering (covered) for an hour or two. Strain the broth and use for a soup, chowder, stew, or sauce.
Another fun autumn project is pressing your own fresh apple cider. You can rent a cider press at the Oak Barrel on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley and turn pounds or even bushels of apples into quarts or gallons of delicious unfiltered juice. We did this for our son’s third birthday party and it was such a pleasure to watch the children toss the apples into the hopper while grownups cranked
the wheel. I am generally cautious about letting my son drink juice, viewing it as so much liquid sugar, and I believe children are much better off drinking water or milk. But on this special occasion we joyfully collected the fresh juice in pitchers and doled it out to the kids. They drank it right up and went promptly into a natural sugar high that seemed entirely wholesome and fitting for the occasion.
There is no more iconic symbol of the autumn harvest than a pumpkin. The varieties used for seasonal décor or for carving into jack-o-lanterns are grown for size and beauty rather than for taste and will cook up stringy or watery or both. But some varieties, like the sugarpie pumpkin, are intended for cooking and are delicious not only in pies but in stews, soups, and casseroles. The easiest way to prepare them is to cut out the stem, scoop out the seeds, and then leave whole or slice into big chunks. Rub the pumpkin flesh on all sides with olive oil, ghee, or coconut oil, depending on the dish you are making, and then roast in a hot oven until fork-tender. Allow to cool a bit, then scoop the flesh out of the skin and use in a recipe.
I remember tasting an Asian pear for the first time. It was maybe 10 years ago. I immediately fell in love with its crisp, juicy freshness and subtle floral flavors. When I learned how challenging these varieties are to grow organically, I appreciated them even more. They are especially vulnerable to the codling moth, which burrows into the center of the fruit and reproduces, quickly infesting entire orchards. Some growers go tree by tree covering every ripening fruit with an individual bag to protect it. Farmers also try to control moth populations by hanging pheromone disruptors throughout the orchard to confuse the moths when they are trying to mate. Both approaches are more costly and labor intensive than spraying with pesticides. So when you bite into that organic Asian pear, remember that it’s a precious commodity, worth eating slowly and savoring.
Jessica Prentice is the author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection and cofounder of Three Stone Hearth Community Supported Kitchen in Berkeley. www.threestonehearth.com
Line drawings are by Sarah Klein (www.sarahklein.com ) with coloring by Maggie Gosselin.
Budín de Zanahoria (Mexican Carrot Custard)
This rich vegetable pudding combines sweet, savory, and tangy with a creamy texture that kids love. (My 3½-year-old gobbles it up!) And it works with many different harvest-season vegetables. You might want to make budín de camote (sweet potato), budín de maíz (fresh corn), or budín de calabaza (squash or pumpkin), depending on what you have handy.
2 pounds or 2 bunches fresh carrots
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
⅓ cup finely chopped piloncillo (Mexican raw sugar) or substitute brown sugar, Sucanat, rapadura, granulated palm sugar, or maple syrup
½ cup sour cream (plus extra for garnish)
¾ cup rice flour (can substitute white flour)
1 teaspoon fine salt
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ pound Monterey Jack cheese, grated
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat oven to 375º.
Cut carrots into big chunks and steam until completely tender, almost falling apart. Transfer into another pot or bowl and mash with a potato masher, fork, or whisk.
Combine melted butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat until sugar is dissolved or incorporated (I recommend using an electric hand mixer if you have one. You could also use a food processor or a whisk). Add the eggs and beat until thoroughly incorporated. Mix in the sour cream. Add in the steamed mashed carrots and beat until completely incorporated.
Mix or sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder, then add to the carrot mixture. Beat for another minute or two until everything is completely incorporated. Stir in the cheese and the nutmeg.
Pour custard into a buttered baking dish, then bake until set, about 45 minutes.
Serve hot with sour cream on the side.