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 seasonal favorites. You can learn more about the Local Foods Wheel and the group’s other ventures at localfoodswheel.com
Ever hear the folksy tale of the harried stay-at-home spouse who quickly chops an onion and begins sautéing it in some olive oil right before his/her work-away partner is to arrive home for dinner? The one just arriving walks in and exclaims: “dinner smells delicious!” The cook now has the inspiration to start thinking about what to make. Onions can do that: if you need some place to start, sauté an onion.
Shrimp are simply delicious, but they pose a dilemma for me as my nutritional, cultural, and gastronomic interests and my ecological concerns collide. Shrimp are very high in vitamin D and provide a critical source of this rare nutrient to diets in many parts of Africa and Asia, where they are used in a wide range of forms: fresh, dried, or fermented; whole, or as a paste. Unfortunately, the vast majority of shrimp on the market are farmed in a way that is extremely destructive to local economies and fragile ecosystems in the world’s coastal wetland areas—specifically mangrove forests—where the huge international shrimp producers build their farms. Mangroves form shallow intertidal areas that serve as a natural nursery ground for countless species of sea life, a protective barrier against storms, and a sink for heavy toxic metals that are best not released into the oceans. I had the opportunity last winter to spend many hours canoeing through mangrove forests in south Florida, witnessing firsthand their beauty and the many species that breed there. My way through this dilemma has been to regard shrimp as a luxury food and be adamant about sourcing. During summer and early autumn, I look for West Coast trap-caught wild spot prawns and Oregon pink shrimp at shops and on menus. Eating shrimp occasionally, mindfully, and gratefully is, I think, a good compromise.
Also known as bitter gourd, goya or karela, bitter melon has long been prized in both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine as one of the most nutritive and healing foods around. It is said that the melon can stimulate digestion, cleanse the liver, and purify the blood, and it is also known to regulate metabolism and blood glucose levels. Researchers are looking into its possible anticancer, antimalarial, antiviral, and cardio-protective effects. People who don’t enjoy the melon’s bitter flavor but want the health effects have been taking the melon as a powdered and encapsulated supplement. But I am a big believer in eating your medicine, and not only because an open and attuned sense of taste can tell us a lot about what’s good for us. The popular “wise woman” herbalist Susun Weed says that when we taste a potent nutritive food, an important preview of what’s coming gets sent to the liver to help it prepare to process the food’s constituents. This crucial information is missing if we bypass our mouths and swallow the food in encapsulated form. Bitter (along with sour, sweet, pungent, salty, astringent) is an important player in the holistic cycle of flavors that we need to experience in order to keep ourselves in dynamic health. Is it perhaps because the bitter range is so lacking in American diets that we crave the bitterness component of coffee, cacao, tea, and beer? So give bitter melon a try, but keep in mind that a little goes a long way and also that this food is contraindicated in pregnancy. Soaking the melon in salt water and then cooking it well help to mellow the bitterness. Look to Asian cuisines for an abundance of recipes.
Known as Japanese pumpkin in Australia and New Zealand, kabocha squash has a rather mysterious lineage. Although all squash are thought to have originated in Mesoamerica, it is said that kabocha came to Japan in the 1500s by way of Portuguese sailors who brought in from Cambodia, or perhaps China. Wherever it may have traveled centuries ago, it has made its way to California, and organic growers are producing bushels of this delicious, sweet-fleshed squash. I like it best in Asian treatments: curried or simmered in coconut milk and seasoned with garlic, ginger, turmeric, or fish sauce. But it can also be roasted or stuffed, or even used in pumpkin desserts, making it a most economical and versatile local food.
Right by the back window of our home office is a lime tree growing in a half wine barrel. Southern exposure and the light color of the wall behind it help the lime to get enough heat to thrive. Ample watering and organic fertilizer help it fruit prolifically. I love to walk onto the deck and pick a fresh lime to squeeze into guacamole or salsa, or into a refreshing thirst-quencher like kombucha, kefir, or hibiscus infusion.
The familiar large dark-purple lobed fruits most Americans regard as eggplant don’t look like eggs, so why are they called eggplant? As more diverse varieties of this nightshade fruit (always referred to as a vegetable) have become available, we find ones that are smaller and thinner, some a bright fuchsia, others striated pink and white, or even pale green. And, yes, some are small, white, and egg-shaped and look almost exactly like eggs as they’re hanging from the plant! Whatever their shape and color, I like to cook them in lots of fat. Eggplant’s porous flesh soaks up the deliciousness of my favored healthy fats: olive oil, ghee, coconut oil, or lard. Balanced by generous salting and something acidic, like tomatoes, lemon, or yogurt, eggplant becomes a marvelously satisfying food that is truly a star of the harvest season.
The way of the blackberry is the way of abundance. About as assertive as a plant can be, it has vines that will re-root wherever they find purchase and soon form an aggressive briar patch that could quickly enclose and protect an enchanted sleeping beauty. We use sturdy gloves and sharp shears to keep the vines at bay in our yard, but leave some to thrive by the back fence so we can pick the irresistible and bountiful berries that begin to ripen in midsummer and often last until early autumn. There is nothing like eating them fresh, but preserved, baked, or fermented—as in a blackberry kefir—their sweet-tart flavor and deep dark color become highlights of the season. Gardeners will note that the invasive wild species of blackberry known as Himalayan is often targeted for eradication, and that planting the native trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus) might be preferable to nurturing a Himalayan vine that has rooted in your yard. ♣