Produce harvested at its peak is your sure bet for flavor and freshness.
By Barbara Kobsar
Illustration by Charmaine Koehler-Lodge
Plums please the palate this month with their slightly tart or sweet honey notes. Over 200 types are grown in California (we see only 15 to 20 of these) and make up 90% of the total tonnage for the nation. All fall within three distinct groups: European, Japanese, or American hybrid. The profuse Japanese varieties show a range of skin colors—green, purple, red, and near black—with red, orange, or yellow flesh. Santa Rosa, Blackamber, Elephant Heart, Green Gage, and Satsuma are all favorites and are generally larger and juicier than their European counterparts. The main European commercial variety, Italian, sports green-tinged flesh under its deep blue-purple skin coated with white bloom, a natural protection from the sun. Called a “fresh prune,” it contains a high percentage of natural sugar, allowing it to dry before fermentation sets in around the pit. American hybrids combine the tasty virtues of Japanese types with the hardiness of native plum species.
Eggplant is aesthetically pleasing with its taut, glistening skin in colors of deep purple, red, white, or green and its intriguing round, oblong, and teardrop shapes. Despite the diversity on the outside, the flesh of all eggplants is spongy to some degree and speckled with tiny, light-colored seeds. This sponginess is the eggplant’s biggest virtue, since it cooks into a luscious creamy base that absorbs other flavors. (Think of the richly melded flavors of moussaka or ratatouille.) Larger varieties of eggplant are excellent for roasting or to use in spreads and dips. Smaller varieties like Rosa Bianca and Asian types offer tender skin and smooth, slightly sweet flesh that works perfectly in stir-fried dishes and on the grill. Looking for eggplant with fewer seeds? Check the dimple at the blossom end. An oval shape can indicate it’s less seedy than an eggplant with a round-shaped dimple. More important is that the eggplant has glossy, taut skin and is firm, heavy for its size, and free of soft spots.
Prepare to be impressed this month with the ever-expanding array of heirloom pumpkins at the market. All are posed to catch the eye as consumers hunt among the winter squash for the right sizes, shapes, and colors to decorate tabletops and doorsteps. You might choose an antique French heirloom pumpkin like Rouge Vif d’Etampes, a stunning frosty blue–green Jarrahdale, or a white, pear-shaped Tennessee Sweet. Jack-o’-Lantern variety is still the best for carving, and the sugar pie pumpkin is perfect for making rich pies. Seeds from all types of pumpkins can be roasted, but those tasty, nutty flavored pepitas come from Styrian or oil seed pumpkins, grown specifically for seeds, with papery shells instead of the hard white coats of the seeds you scooped out of that jack-o’-lantern. ♦
Roasted Vegetable Soup
1 sugar pie pumpkin or 1 small butternut squash, peeled and seeded
2 potatoes, peeled (try 1 Yukon Gold and 1 sweet potato)
3 carrots, peeled
1 eggplant (about 2 cups)
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme or oregano, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 to 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt (optional)
Preheat oven to 425°. Cut vegetables into 1-inch pieces. Sprinkle with minced garlic, salt, pepper, and herbs. Drizzle with olive oil and give it all a good stir to coat. Spread on a baking sheet and bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until vegetables are soft and beginning to brown. Cool slightly and purée coarsely in a food processor with the stock (may need to do in two batches) or use a handheld blender. Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt and crispy croutons.