It’s the week before Halloween, which means that many people will undoubtedly be carving up that Halloween Jack o’ lantern. But of course, in the food world, we’ve been eating pumpkins, and other types of hard winter squash, for weeks now. Indeed, if I see one more recipe for pumpkin cheese cake, I might… well, I’ve already screamed. That might just be because I’m more of a fan of pumpkin pie than cheesecake, but it seems to be ubiquitous this year.
In any case, pumpkins; members of the squash family. Related to softer summer squashes (zucchini), as well as gourds (the smaller inedible varieties of squash) and distantly related to melons. Squashes are native to North America, most likely Mexico, where they are traditionally grown alongside corn and beans in a symbiotic system known as The Three Sisters. Pumpkins and squash were introduced to Europeans by Christopher Columbus, and their cultivation was mostly due to Spanish and Portuguese explorers.
The poor, maligned, misunderstood Brussels sprout. Was there ever a vegetable so loathed?
It’s too bad really, because with astronomical amounts of vitamin K and vitamin C (273% and 161% respectively of the daily recommended intake) they’re a nutritional powerhouse. And that’s not counting the high levels of folate, Vitamin A, manganese and fibre. They count as those darky leafy greens that we’re all supposed to be eating more of, since they’re full of sulforaphane, a nutrient believed to have anti-cancer properties.
Brussels sprouts really did originate in Belgium, although a forerunner of the plant was known in Roman times. They made it to North America around 1800 when French settlers brought them to New Orleans.
When confronted with unharvested sprouts, most people don’t recognize them, assuming these “little cabbages” grow in the ground individually, when in fact they grow along a long thick stem with large cabbage-like leaves at the top. While they taste similar to cabbage, sprouts are, in fact, milder. They get their reputation of a bitter, sulphurous taste mostly from being overcooked. Steaming or boiling for 6-7 minutes is usually enough, and the standard of cooking them to mush has undoubtedly ruined an otherwise fabulous vegetable for a lot of people.
We’re in the Thanksgiving stretch now, and in our house it’s not Thanksgiving without sweet potatoes. However, sweet potatoes are a nutrition powerhouse and should be part of a varied diet all year round. With this much Vitamin A (262% of your recommended daily intake) in 1 77gr potato, it’s hard to go wrong with this tasty root vegetable.
Native to Central America, the sweet potato dates back to prehistoric times. Carbon-dated relics found in Peru are thought to be over 10,000 years old. Columbus took sweet potatoes back to Europe with him on his first trip to the Americas. Sweet potatoes are also grown in southern Pacific countries like Phillipines, New Zealand and the Cook Islands, but it is unclear whether they got there via Spanish travellers after Columbus, or whether they made it to Polynesia directly from Central America.
There are over 400 varieties of sweet potato, varying in colours that include white, yellow, bright orange and even purple, and ranging in shape from typically potato-shaped to long and thin. There are firm, dry varieties, and some that are softer and moist. Ironically, the sweet potato is not related to the potato, nor is it related to the yam, although in many places, the name is used interchangeably. General theory is that the Taino (Bahamian) name for the vegetable was batata, which sounds an awful lot like “potato”. The sweet potato earned its “yam” moniker from African slaves in the Caribbean and southern US where the soft, moist (usually orange) sweet potato was often used in place of the yam in traditional African cuisine.
Is there any fruit that typifies September and the Fall harvest better than the apple? Boy Scouts apple day, an apple for the first day of school, a roadside produce stand groaning with different varieties… we love us some apples. And despite what your supermarket might have you think, they come in more types than red, green and yellow. 7500 varieties, to be specific, with the fruit originating in Western Asia and showing up throughout history in Norse, Greek and Pagan mythology. One theory about the apple being the unnamed “forbidden fruit” in the Bible is based on the fact that the Book of Genesis was written by Romans at a time when the Christian church was trying to convert pagans. Since the pagans revered the apple, making it evil or forbidden contributed to the number of new converts.
Apples now grow in almost every part of the world. Here in Ontario, growers have focused on about a dozen common varieties, but there are over 100 heritage varieties that can be found at local orchards and pick-your-own farms. Apples are typically harvested from late July until October. Growers’ associations like the one in Norfolk County provide storage facilities for area apple growers in a climate-controlled, low-oxygen warehouse that allows Ontarians to have local apples year-round. There’s no reason to be eating apples from China (where 35% of the world’s apples are grown), when we have a great year-round variety right here.
Pears are the less glamorous cousin of the apple. In the same family as the apple, along with roses and quince, pears have been cultivated for thousands of years in Asia, are referenced in Roman and Celtic texts and are thought to possibly date back to the Stone Age. Popular in Britain and France where they were beloved for their use in perry (pear cider), the first pears were cultivated in North America in 1620. Pears were originally eaten cooked, not raw (they were probably closer to a quince), until the 18th century when they were cultivated to have the soft, juicy and buttery flesh that we know today.
There are over 130 varieties of pears grown in Canada, but here in Ontario, there are five major varieties that are grown for sale; Bartlett, Clapp’s Favourite, Anjou, Bosc and Flemish Beauty. Growers hope that a new variety, Harovin Sundown, will eventually be added to that list, although it will be 2015 before the pears will be widely available in stores.
I’m a little late to the game with spinach – it probably should have made my list earlier in the year, seeing as it’s considered a spring vegetable. But it’s definitely still going strong at the markets, so better late than never.
Like our friend Popeye will tell you, spinach is a nutritional powerhouse, providing more nutrition, calorie for calorie, than any other food. 1 cup of cooked spinach offers over 1000% of our daily required intake of Vitamin K and 377% of our required Vitamin A. It’s also high in manganese, folate, magnesium, iron and Vitamin C. Spinach may contribute to heart health, better eyesight, better brain function from the high levels of Vitamin E, and better gastrointestinal function. It’s also got anti-inflammatory properties. Cooked spinach also provides energy, mostly in the form of iron.
Thought to have originated in Persia, spinach made its way to China via traders (roughly around 650 AD) where it came to be known as the “Persian vegetable”. Spinach was introduced to Italy and the Mediterranean in the 800s and from Spain made its way to Northern Europe. Catherine de’Medici was so enamoured of spinach that during her reign as Queen of France, she insisted it be served at every meal. Named after her hometown of Florence, to this day, dishes that feature spinach are typically called Florentine.
Sometimes, I’m not so bright. Because when I made up the list of fruit and veg to include in this column, I mostly based it on what would be in season. Which is the point of the whole thing (we’ll start covering meat and dairy and spices and such in the winter after the fall harvest), except for the fact that I didn’t really think too much about recipes.
Or more importantly, that there are a few seasonal items, such as melon, that you just don’t cook with all that much. Think about it – chilled soup, salsa, a few cocktails, fruit salad… maybe some cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto. Whoops.
So what I have for you today is two different recipes for watermelon gazpacho, both from fabulous local chefs, and (thankfully) different enough that you can pick which one you’d prefer to make based on the other ingredients. Or make them both and do a taste test.
Poor old much maligned corn. It gets a bit of a bad rap these days, seeing as how it ends up in so many processed foods, and how it’s been genetically modified up the yin yang. And then there’s the whole ethanol issue. It’s too bad, because there’s nothing that says summer more than ears of sweet corn with the silks still wet, shucked, kissed with some boiling water and then slathered in butter. Made better only by the accompaniment of a lobster or two… but I digress.
Maize, as corn is properly known (the term “corn” is an English word for any cereal crop), is native to the Americas where it has been used for some 12,000 years. Maize made its way to the eastern seaboard and Canada somewhere around 1000 AD. Native Americans planted corn alongside beans and squash, a system known as the Three Sisters, as the plants were all complimentary, providing shade, nutrients and support in a system that provided optimum growth potential.
Here in the city, we’re lucky enough to have any number of markets where both wild and tame blueberries are available for a reasonable price. But for me, blueberries have the ability to make me really cranky. As a kid we’d trek off into the woods in the suburb of Halifax where I grew up, and fill huge buckets and jugs with the things to make pies and muffins and the famous Acadian blueberry grunt. Covered in mosquito bites, backs aching from bending over the low bushes and that awful feeling in the pit of the stomach caused by worrying that, at any moment, you’d come face to face with a hungry bear, picking was never really considered fun. We’d try anything we could to get out of going blueberry picking, but ultimately, at the first slice of Mom’s pie, it was all worth it.
Blueberries are native to North America and related to cranberries and bilberries. While there are a number of varieties, most are separated into either low bush or high bush types, the first being wild berries, mostly picked by hand, while high bush berries are larger, able to be harvested by machine and in a taste comparison are considered more bland than their wild cousins.
Summer squash (aka. zucchini) can be both a delight and a bane to home gardeners. A delight because zucchini are a fruitful fruit (while treated as a vegetable in the kitchen, zucchini and all squash are technically fruit) – they’re easy to grow and the fruit grows quickly, they’re also a bane because they’re almost too prodigious and home gardeners tend to find themselves with more zucchini than they know what to do with. In the peak of the season some will even take to leaving bags of summer squash on their neighbours’ doorsteps under cover of night just to get rid of some of their harvest.
Curcubita pepo is a member of the melon family, with distant relations to the cucumber. Squash originated in the Americas and was introduced to Europe by Columbus. The zucchini that we know today is a variety of squash that was developed in Italy. While there are a variety of different shapes and sizes of summer squash (ranging in shape from the spaceship-looking patty pan to round fruit the size of billiard balls), they can all be treated as one would a zucchini for cooking purposes.
While it’s tempting for home gardeners to let their zucchini grow huge (and they will get massive if you let them), the squash actually taste and cook best when picked at 20cm in length or less. Overly-mature fruit can be both fibrous and watery.