Produce harvested at its peak is your sure bet for flavor and freshness.
By Barbara Kobsar | Illustration by Charmaine Koehler-Lodge
Root vegetables like beets, parsnips, turnips, horseradish, daikon, radishes, and potatoes are the market stars this month. So are sweet potatoes, which come in two main types: The golden-skinned, pale-fleshed varieties tend to be drier and less sweet, while those with dark skin and orange flesh (often mistakenly called yams) are soft, fluffy, and moist. True yams originated in Africa and Asia. Marketers might have picked up the African word “nyami” (sounds like “yam”) as a way to distinguish the two types of sweet potatoes, but whatever you call them, choose tubers that are firm, heavy, and bruise-free. A versatile vegetable, it can be roasted, baked, mashed, used in soups, puddings, and stews, or made into chips or oven fries.
Mandarins march into the market this month. With their telltale loose-fitting “zipper” skins, these members of the orange family are easy to peel and segment. Fairchild and Satsuma are the most popular mandarin varieties, as is Minneola. Virtually seedless, Minneola bursts with sweet-tart juice and is easily identified by its beautiful, pebbly, deep-orange skin and round bump or knob at the stem end. Tangelo, a tangerine-grapefruit hybrid, is generally firmer and larger than the tangerine. The royal mandarin (also known as a temple orange) is the most commonly found mandarin-orange hybrid. It’s full of flavor, juice, and seeds! The tangor, a mandarin and sweet orange cross, is one of the last to come to market. Whatever your preference when choosing mandarins, be sure to pick out fruits that are shiny, firm, full-colored, and heavy for their size.
If you think you smell licorice at the market, fennel must be close by. Both types of fennel, common and Florence, offer a distinctive licorice flavor but in varying degrees. The large, flat flower heads of common fennel produce the oblong, greenish-brown fennel seeds we use whole or ground in curries, breads, and cakes. Fennel’s feathery leaves are suitable for use in soups and salads and are the shining ingredient in basting sauces for fish. Like common fennel, Florence fennel has edible, bright-green feathery leaves and pale-green, celery-like stalks, but at its base the broad-ribbed leafstalks overlap each other to form a bulb. The 3- to 4-inch wide firm, whitish bulb grows above ground and may be eaten raw or cooked. Note: Fennel and anise taste similar but are totally different plants. Seeds of the anise plant are typically the only part that is consumed. ´
Barbara's Mandarin, Fennel, & Avocado Salad
6 mandarin oranges, peeled and sliced crosswise into ¼-inch rounds
½ fennel bulb, thinly sliced (reserve fronds for garnish)
2 avocados, peeled, pitted, and sliced
1 small shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
Salt and fresh ground black pepper
Divide orange slices between 4 salad plates. Layer with fennel, avocado, and shallot slices. Whisk olive oil and vinegar until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle dressing over the salad and top with fennel fronds. Serve immediately.