For the most part, I adore living in a seasonal landscape. Still as I cycled to work this morning pushing against a truly Arctic wind, I felt defiantly not ready for the weather to change. One of our flower farmers dropped off buckets of celosia (cockscomb) and asclepia (Oscar) earlier in the week and he casually mentioned that snow was on its way. Our last delivery from our other local flower farm was a few weeks back after a frost put an end to the wild and beautiful blooms at Humble Pie. Whether I am ready or not, the season is turning.
The Last Local Tomatoes
That same frost signaled the beginning of the end for local tomatoes. While some plants may rebound from an isolated frost, the shortening days and overall cooler weather make it difficult for developing tomatoes to ripen. Once the field plants have passed we’ll continue to bring in delicious locally-grown hydroponic tomatoes until it just becomes too cold and dark for those operations to produce. Local tomatoes ripened on the vine have a far superior flavor and texture to winter tomatoes brought in from other regions. Take advantage of these fruits while you can – eat them fresh until you’ve had your fill then preserve them for a taste of the garden in February.
My favorite method for preserving tomatoes is roast them long and low in oil to create a type of tomato “confit”. Slice tomatoes in half, generously coat with olive oil, and set skin-side down on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with sea salt and place a half-dozen sprigs of thyme among the tomatoes. Place in an oven at 250° and cook slowly for several hours until the tomatoes have nearly flattened and are slightly shriveled. They should be chewy but not tough or leathery. Pack them tightly in a jar, pour over the oil and juices from the pan adding more oil if needed to cover the tomatoes then heat process to seal.
In name and association, winter squash sounds like a cold-hardy plant but it really isn’t. Unlike tomato plants that may rebound from a dip below freezing, these temperatures more often than not finish the squash plants. Thankfully, by this time of year the plants have done their work – the squash themselves are mature and ready for curing and storing the winter long.
Squash has a flexible flavor- one that can be prepared beautifully as a sweet or savory dish. I use squash as a base for soups and risotto as well as for baking – my “pumpkin” pie is usually made with butternut squash. In the autumn, we see so many more squash varieties from our local growers. Stick to the old time favorites if you like, but the sweetness of a delicata and the nuttiness of the small orange Hubbard are not to be missed. Squash doesn’t need to be fussed with and any of these varieties can be halved, de-seeded, and roasted flesh-side down with a few herbs and a clove of garlic in the cavity. Or just roast them whole and do the cutting once cooled when the squash has softened from cooking.
Sweet and Hardy Brassicas
Luckily, there are plants that not only weather the cooler temps but are better for it. Most brassicas transform with a frost to become sweeter more flavorful versions of their summer selves as the cold triggers the plant’s starches to convert to sugar. There are so many delicious brassicas to choose from this time of year: several varieties of kale; broccoli, cauliflower, and the fractal florets of romanesco; kohlrabi in green and purple; red and green cabbage as well as savoy; and fresh, firm, and tiny Brussels sprouts. We are also lucky that some among this list not only withstand the cold but store well and will provide us with locally-grown produce well into the winter.
Sweet potatoes began arriving from Wisconsin Growers Co-operative a few weeks ago and along with long-storing brassicas, they will sustain us with some locally grown produce throughout most of the winter. There are over 300 varieties of sweet potatoes and this year we are excited to add the Bonita and the Stokes Purple varieties to the now familiar Beauregard, Jewel, Garnet, Japanese purple, and O’Henry White. In general, sweet potatoes fall into two categories: soft and firm. The soft varieties – Beauregard, Jewel, Garnet, and for the most part the Stokes Purple – become soft, moist and sweeten considerably with cooking. The firm varieties – O’Henry, Japanese purple, and now the Bonita – remain firm and have a nutty – only slightly sweet – flavor. Like squash, sweet potatoes can be roasted whole (with a few pricks to the skin with a fork) and the longer one cooks, the sweeter the result. This is especially true with the “soft” varieties. I love adding a few cups of mashed Beauregard to my biscuit batter for a beta-carotene rich and flavorful take on this classic.
For firm varieties, I prefer roasting. Using a knife or mandolin, cut thin disks from a firm variety of sweet potato – my personal favorite for its nutty flavor, firm texture, and contrasting color is the Japanese purple. Brush a deep oven-safe sauté pan with a mixture of butter and olive oil – reserving half the mixture for later. Arrange the disks in the pan in concentric circles similar to a roll of coins. Brush the sweet potatoes with the remaining oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake until the edges are golden and the flesh is cooked through. Heat a cup of crème fraîche along with a sprig of rosemary and a dried hot pepper until the crème fraîche is more liquid than solid. Pour the herbed crème fraîche over the sweet potatoes and garnish with chopped flat leaf parsley and rosemary. Warming and delicious.