Sunday, October 2, 2011

Giving Thanks

It’s October. Canadian Thanksgiving is only two weeks away, and All Hallow’s Eve is not far behind. If the recent warm spell in Eastern Canada had mulled your minds, you can no longer deny that Autumn is well and truly here. The leaves have begun putting on their fall colours, and the evenings have a definite chill to them. There have been a few frost warnings already. Yes, fall is here, but the fields are still providing us with an abundance of food. Truly, this bounty is something to be thankful for.

Apples and Pears
Late strawberries and other summer jewels may still beckon from market stalls, but there is something about the sharpness in the air that makes me crave the crisp crack of a perfect autumn apple. I must admit that when the first apples appear at market, I walk by them without a side glance. I snub summer apples; in fact, for the longest time I even denied their existence. I only have eyes for the tart apples of the late season: they have a mighty crunch to them that is so satisfying. In order to develop the deafening crack, apples must be exposed to chilly nights, which are so unwelcome in August.
As much as I seek teeth-pullingly firm apples, I love my pears to be soft and buttery. However, do not attempt to bring home dead-ripe pears from the store, as they will bruise on the way. The best pears to pick will still be firm in the bulbous part, there might be a little give around the stem area (but no shrivelling), and the skin will be matt. Shiny skinned fruits are unlikely to ripen at home, and if they do, they are rarely very flavourful.

Cranberries
Cranberries are a fast growing industry in Canada. While it may never reach the proportions of the American production, it is doing its best to give them a run for their money. The local industry is therefore trying really hard to distinguish itself by adopting strict environmental norms, since most cranberry operations use huge amounts of water, and are often situated in sensitive areas.
If you are on the look-out for organic cranberries, you are in luck. Quebec berry producers have figured out that the only way to compete with cheap imports is to go chemical-free: Quebec is now the uncontested number one producer of organic cranberries.

Hazelnuts, Almonds and Walnuts
North Americans rarely celebrate nut season -especially now, with the prevalence of allergies- but there is a world of difference between a fresh and not so fresh nut. The meaty flesh is much more flavourful, and the oil will have a clean flavour to them that you cannot get from old, stale nuts. Almonds do not grow in Canada, but we do produce hazelnuts in the West and walnuts almost across the whole country. There is also the wild black walnut that you can forage for, but you will have to compete with squirrels and other wild life to get a hold of them. 

Pumpkins and Other Winter Squash
Winter squash have been enticing us since late August, but the ones with the best keeping qualities are the ones that come to market later in the season: they will have cured properly, and formed a thicker rind, allowing you to store them in a cool, dark spot until well into the winter.
Pumpkins are the one exception to the winter squash rule. They show up later in the season, and disappear much more quickly than their cousins, yet they keep very poorly. But they are a treat for the brief period they are around. Pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, roasted pumpkin… the possibilities are endless. Whatever you can do to a pumpkin you can also do to others squashes: the texture and flavour will differ, however it will still be lovely.

Kale and Cousins
Imported kale is pretty much available year round, but this vegetable is at its best when the frost comes in. Which means that if you can get your hands on a local crop, you will have the best kale for eating. My preferred kale is the old Italian variety called Tuscan kale, also known as cavolo nero, black cabbage or dinosaur kale. But purple or Russian kale is also lovely (and so pretty), as is regular curly kale. All kales should have their ribs removed before consumption, and should be cooked through for best digestibility. The easiest way to cook it is to boil in lots of water for about 5 minutes. Once drained, you can sauté in butter or oil, add it to a stew or any any other dish. Kale has the amazing property of not falling apart even when cooked to death. (The only exception is when the kale is young and tender and has not been subjected to frost, in which case, it should be cooked briefly like any other green vegetable.)
Every other cabbage in season are also a treat at this time of the year. They are usually a very good deal, since producer take pride in growing massive cabbages, and then sell them for a song. Most cabbages take well to being eaten raw or cooked. However, there are two exceptions that I know of: Brussels sprouts should always be cooked (though never too much); flat cabbages -they resemble flying saucers or large, round cushions- on the other hand, are quite tender and watery, and best consumed raw.

Leeks and Company
The first leeks to appear at the market are a lovely treat, so young and tender, and perfect for the barbecue. Autumn leeks are practically a whole other beast, that quite enjoys being fully cooked in soups, stews, sautéed in butter or roasted in the oven.
While leeks keep best in the refrigerator, onion and garlic should be kept well away from the ice-box. These keepers prefer cool, dark places, but not the fridge. An unheated pantry (or even an unheated guest bedroom) will preserve these roots for up to 5 months.

Root Vegetables
The chilly turn in the weather will make you crave hearty, earthy things: root vegetables are ideal. Beets, parsnips, rutabaga, turnips, carrots, potatoes... All are hearty and very inexpensive: a good thing considering the average grocery bill has shot up in recent months.

Mushrooms
Cultivated mushrooms are grown in very controlled environments, but the wild ones depend entirely on Mother Nature. If the rain and cool weather coincide at the right time,the crop can be stupendous.

Seafood
Two words. Oysters and mussels. They are both available year-round, but I find them best when the weather gets cold.

Wild Game
It's game season. The first ones to appear at the butcher shop are the feathered game and venison. Boar might also be available in October, but larger game usually appear much later in the season. Don't forget to order your Thanksgiving turkeys!

Summer Fruits and Vegetables
If you haven’t already stocked up for winter, there is still time to do so in October, although you will have to hurry to get a good deal on choice produce. Canning tomatoes is  a big commitment; what with the kids going back to school, the work schedule picking up, rows of jars lined up in the pantry might not be an option. If you have the freezer space, tomatoes are great candidates for the deep-freeze: choose plums or Italian tomatoes (they render less juice on the defrost), wash them, and freeze them whole. Just dunk them in some warm water when you need them, their peel slips off, and you can use the flesh as you would any canned, whole tomato.
Other late-summer fruits will still make an appearance until at least mid-October: autumn strawberries can be frozen or jammed for the winter; black plums (damsons) are a juicy alternative to fall apples. Figs from a shorter distance are usually available at this time of the year, as are artichokes and quinces.
If you are into foraging, keep an eye open for blackberries and elderberries: it is quite late in the season, but given the late spring and slow start to summer, the berries might still be hanging about.



Bon app'!




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