By Stephen Wade
As the weather begins to cool (which has been taking its sweet time this year in the Northeast), as leaves turn and decorative gourds rear their cute but vaguely eyeroll-emoji-worthy heads, fall comes to the market. And like Provincetown anytime between June and September, every market trip is suddenly rife goods that catch the eye, and a bevy of choices that can feel like TOO MUCH; unlike spring and its slow crawl, fall still gives us tomatoes and peppers (the latter really in their prime), the final run of stone fruit (especially if you’re in the Northwest) along with the big swing of apples, and all the greens that stayed away or gained far too much heat in the summer sun come back in spades with rounder, richer flavors. Fall is being spoiled with choice, and while we say goodbye to a lot of its splendor quickly, it is worth taking advantage of what is there. Here are some of the best:
Fresh grains: Most grain gets harvested in August or September, while the weather is try and before fall rains can cause harm. If you’re someone who loves freshly milled flours for fall baking, this is the time of year to find the newest of the new harvests. If you haven’t tried new harvest grains or freshly milled flours before, it’s a world of difference; the aromas and flavors of different grains are stronger in their first year, the natural oils richer, leading to assertive and distinct flavors that contribute to singular baked goods and grain salads.
Peppers, Hot and Bell: Peppers need head even more than tomatoes to reach their true pinnacle of flavor, and the deep reds and oranges of many hot peppers, bell peppers, and sweet frying peppers come in the fall. Especially fun are the seasoning peppers like Grenada or Hinkelhatz, which have fruitiness and only a hint of heat, without the metallic tang of green jalapenos, which give all variety of foods, from the last of summer tomatoes to the fennel, potatoes, and winter squash of fall piquancy and brightness. Also worthwhile: pepper jelly, which can spruce up a grilled cheese at any time of winter.
Pears: While some summer and fall apples are beautiful, fall pears are a fleeting joy. Whereas apples will be with us through winter (and some will only shine after storage in the coldest months), pears will be just ripe long enough for you to blink. I mean this literally -- remaining firm after picking, they need a few days to age on a table (or in a paper bag) when they become supple and give way, just so (like a nipple), projecting sweet, winey fragrance around the room, before literally melting into your countertop in a mess that makes eating ripe peaches over the sink look practically civil. From the creamy and aromatic Winter Nelis or Clapp's Favorite to the slight grit of Comice or the firm splendor of Bosc, there’s a variety of fruits to enjoy in this category, for straight eating as much as for an awesome coffeecake.
Nuts: Depending on where you are in the country, almonds, hazelnuts, black walnuts, and chestnuts (pecans arrive slightly earlier in the season) are busting out at their best. With their essential oils at their height, the flavors of fresh nuts are unrivaled. Almonds are sweet and aromatic, with a slight hint of smoke; hazelnuts unctuous and heady. Black walnuts are probably the biggest revelation -- their flavor is like that of the best blue cheeses, savory, funky, and and creamy. They will mellow out over time, but while they’re here, they are well worth your time.
Fall, mature carrots: Spring carrots have lithe, crisp, almost icily sharp flavor. Mature carrots of the fall, in the full spectrum of colors ranging from purple, red, and deep navel orange, are juicier, richer, and a little headier, without yet developing the woodiness that they develop after some time in storage. These are the thick roasting carrots, the carrots to pair with orange juice and honey, the carrots whose juice makes you say “ok maybe there’s something to this juice fasting”. If they still have those gorgeous deep green stalks, keep them -- they make an amazing pesto.
The last tender herbs: Rosemary takes a hatchet to kill, and sage can endure a frost. But the delicate herbs -- tarragon, thyme, marjoram, and basil -- these guys tend to disappear once the whisper of a cold wind appears. Hoop houses can only do so much to insulate them, so really this is the last time before hothouse varieties from the market will take their place. Most don’t do well with drying, so freeze some pesto, make some sausage or cure some salmon, and get creative -- or just savor the season and enjoy them while they’re here.
With one foot in food policy, and another in hospitality, Stephen Wade has worked for urban farms and the New York City's Greenmarkets, as well as being a practiced barista and certified master food preserver. Currently living in Sunnyside, Queens, he's involved with organizing New Yorkers around the 2018 Farm Bill and pursuing his master gardeners certificate. Follow Stephen on Instagram.