The Fat of the Land

Category: Fruit

Fall Squash

Winter Luxury

Though they require all of summer’s sunlight and heat to reach maturity and are ready for harvest by September, we call these starchy inflatables winter squash, a nod to the tough, waxy skin that keeps them edible well into the rainy season. Delightful in their diversity, fall harvested squash are the perfect vessel for our transition from fresh produce to storage foods. Like painted gondolas, we let them carry our imaginations to a time when the days are short, the kitchen is cozy, and the scent of oven-roasted squash fills the air with opulence.

As a gardener, what draws me to winter squash is not just their bright colors and curving shapes (which, like most shoppers, is what makes me to want to buy one), but their patience. Arriving after months of demanding harvests—vegetables that ripen with relentless immediacy and must be used within the week—it is lovely to set such beautiful artifacts aside, to be allowed to wait.

The majority of the winter squash varieties that come to market not only allow delayed gratification, they prefer it. Though squash selection increases in abundance with each October week, it is not until winter that most will be at their prime. Belonging to a subcategory of the squash family known as Cucurbita maxima (‘max’ for short), the kuris, kabochas, hubbards, turbans, bananas, buttercups, sweet meats, marina di Chioggias, galeux d’Eysines, or Queensland blues are best once they’ve been cured. This simply requires stashing them in a corner of your kitchen where they can quietly continue to metabolize their starches into sugars.

The curing process deepens and sweetens a max’s flavor, increasing its nutritional value in tandem. If you’ve brought a max home from the market already this fall (when, it’s true, you have first dibs and the best selection), you’ll be rewarded with an inimitable winter delicacy—but only if you resist the urge to slice it open just yet. Like fine wine, a max’s most complex and interesting flavors continue developing long after harvest. Keep it on the counter another month or two, enjoying its oddness, the conversation it makes with the onions and bananas, the jokes it would tell you if you’d only listen. Arrange a few on your kitchen table where they will lend the whole room a tangible rusticity, painted, as it will suddenly seem, like a Flemish still-life. Whatever their presence gives you, let it linger—untouched—until at least December.

In the meantime, there are plenty of squash that need eating. True autumnal squash, the pepos (Cucurbita pepo) have thinner skins and a disposition that fades into mediocrity by true-winter. Delicata, spaghetti, acorn, carnival, sweet dumpling—these small, easygoing squash are at their peak flavor and texture right now. Summer falling into autumn is a pepo relay: zucchini, crookneck, and pattipans (also C. pepo) pass the baton to their starchy siblings. I find it useful to think of pepo “winter” squash this way—sugary amplifications of their green summer sisters, rather than something altogether different.

And then there is the most famous pepo of all, the one that signifies, in the symbolic language of seasonal decorations and latté flavors, that fall is here. A walk through my neighborhood betrays their numbers: pumpkins (vegetable, paper, and plastic) guard doors, stoops, and windows; cheerfully declaring that this shortened sky, this ground painted in leaves, this cool sunlight is theirs. And we give it to them gladly—cut with spooky hieroglyphics, worn as costumes, baked into muffins and cheesecake and pie. Coincidentally, the time of year we most associate with pumpkins—October and November—neatly matches their prime-eating window. If it’s the right time to put a pumpkin on the porch, it’s the right time to eat a pepo.

But skip the baked jack-o-lantern this year. Bred for girth and thin, easy-carving walls, they make poor cooking pumpkins. ‘Sugar pie’ is the standard baking pumpkin at market—small and sweet as its name, sugar pie flesh has enough flavor and density for muffins or quickbreads. Serious pie bakers will want to snatch up a ‘winter luxury’ pumpkin. Renowned for their smooth, bright pulp and concentrated flavor, these medium-sized, dusty orange pumpkins are coated in a charming netted patina, making them as lovely to look at as they are to eat.

Of course, you can eat any squash you pick up at the market right away, but knowing when they will taste like the best version of themselves makes for better pies, sautés, soups, and roasts, and, if you’re exploring new varieties, better first impressions.

Never made a pumpkin pie from scratch? This excellent step-by-step guide from Seed Savers Exchange will get you off to a good start!

Lime-a-tillo

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Anywhere outside of Central America the tomatillo is little more than an afterthought—something we have come to know through globalism and restaurants brave enough to affront our rutted palates with the unfamiliar. Even its diminutive name, meaning ‘little tomato,’ suggests it came second, though most archeologists believe the tomatillo was cultivated by ancient Mesoamericans long before its world-famous cousin.

Roughly the size of a cherry tomato, cloaked in an attractive, lantern-shaped husk, the tomatillo looks almost like a tomato, though hold a tomatillo in one hand and a cherry tomato of the same size in the other, and you will begin to feel the difference. With drier flesh, the buoyant tomatillo seems less substantial. Take a bite of each. Unlike a tomato, whose juices ooze with concentrated flavor compounds and sugars, a raw tomatillo comes off as overly lean—bitter acidity and merely a hint of sweetness.

Cook that same tomatillo in a small amount of water or on the grill and its sharpness mellows, cell walls bursting open, releasing pectin that thickens the tartly sweet juices into syrup. The tomatillo, parading as simple and slight, creates its own luscious sauce with only the application of heat. Its vegetal, citrus-infused flavor cuts through lipids like a cool breeze on an August afternoon, explaining the tomatillo’s common association with fatty taco fillings or buttery guacamole.

That the raw tomatillo seems to the tongue like a lime in a poorly executed tomato costume is no coincidence. Lime flavor is dominated by acidic compounds, which occur mostly as citric acid, with ten-percent dashes of malic (from the Latin word for apple; associated with tart things like rhubarb and sour candies) and succinic acids, both of which add to the fruit’s complexity (and are nearly absent in lemons). Tomatillo acidity is primarily citric and malic, a combination that lends its flavor that lime-without-the-peel quality; lime flavor, in its fullness, is a cocktail of acidity, sugar, and aromatic compounds released from the skin.

In traditional Mayan and Aztec cuisines, tomatillos played the role of a pre-Columbian citrus. It’s hard to imagine a plate of Mexican food without that quintessential slice of lime, but citrus trees hail from Asia and did not reach Central America until the 16th Century. The acidic resonance between tomatillos, a long-time staple, and limes, introduced (along with other citrus varieties) by Spanish conquistadors, may explain why these cuisines took to limes much more so than lemons—it was familiar; they already knew what to do with it.

One pre-Columbian use of the tomatillo was to tenderize meat. Stewed with chiles and perhaps a handful of quelites (wild greens, such as purslane or amaranth leaves), tomatillo acidity softened lean cuts the way citrus juice will. Remnants of this technique are evident in dishes like Chile Verde (pork braised in green salsa). Tomatillos perform similar to (and likely predate the use of) lime juice in various salsas, invigorating avocado’s heaviness in a well-balanced guacamole, or kicking up the acidity of chile- and tomato-based salsas.

Although the temptation to toss tomatillo husks out the back door to tumble around the yard like balls of lace must have been irresistible even to the Mayans and Aztecs, their most enterprising cooks discovered arguably better uses. It turns out, for reasons I could not find a definitive explanation of, tomatillo husks contain a leavening agent. Used to improve breads and tamale dough, water boiled with ten or so tomatillo husks somehow imparts masa with a fluffy lightness the way baking soda does in modern recipes. Many sources attribute this to the husk’s acidity. Since the water-husk infusions often (but, tellingly, not always) cite the inclusion of a particular kind of alkaline mineral salt called tequesquite, the basic idea is that the salt and the husk react something like baking soda and vinegar.

In an interesting exchange I found between a Mexican food blogger and the scientist-author Harold McGee, McGee explains that the chemistry of this theory doesn’t pan out. Prepared as an infusion, the gas release that results from the contact between the alkali and the acid would occur during the boiling process, meaning that the fluff-producing magic would extinguish long before it is added to the masa. McGee postulates instead that the leavening could be the result of pectin and other thickening agents; released from rigid cell walls by boiling (with or without the alkaline salt), they might lend enough elasticity to the dense dough to allow air bubbles to expand during cooking.

With no more than a high school chemistry course under my belt, I have nothing to add, except another comment I came across a few times on unrelated sites. Though I hesitate to call it a “tradition” without further evidence, it appears that several Mexican grandmothers have been known to boil tomatillo husks with cactus paddles in order to reduce the paddles’ slime (something akin to okra’s). Sounds like magic, but maybe the slime isn’t disappearing, just thickening, in which case, Harold might be on to something.

So the next time you take home those ‘little tomatoes,’ don’t think tomato at all. Think lime and lightness and silky rich sauce, maybe even husk and all.

Like Pepper for Pepper

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Most people who went to grade school in the United States know that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. As I remember it, he was hired by the king of Spain to sail farther west than anyone before him had (anyone, that is, on 15th Century Europe’s radar) and to settle, once and for all, the age-old argument over whether the earth was round or flat. In third grade, that logic was good enough for me. And, becoming something of a Columbus Day protestor in my teenage years (after my brother read a book called, Lies My Teacher Told Me, that detailed all the atrocities Columbus unleashed upon the New World), I put the whole story on the back shelf.

Years later, I picked up a library book about the spice trade (Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner), where I promptly learned that Columbus headed west not to solve some existential puzzle, but for the very practical reason of securing a more direct trade route to import black pepper from India. He did it for two reasons that sound jarringly familiar to our contemporary minds: money and ego.

Pepper, that uber-ordinary seasoning we take completely for granted, was as precious as gold in Columbus’ day—a sign of wealth, a highly valued commodity in very short supply, a craze. Men lost their lives fetching pepper, and everyone thought it was worth it. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Silk Road became too dangerous for commerce, so the Portuguese (who monopolized the spice trade at the time) took to the sea, rounding the horn of Africa in order to reach the pepper-producing coast of southern India. Spain, with Columbus’ help, was looking to outdo their northern rival by finding a shortcut.

When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he thought it was (or close enough to) the East Indies. And when, in keeping with his plan, he looked for black pepper, he came upon chiles. Of those arresting fruits he and his fellow explorers found in such profusion, one crewmember wrote: “In those islands there are also bushes like rose bushes, which make fruit as long as cinnamon, full of small grains as biting as [Asian] pepper; those Caribs and the Indians eat that fruit like we eat apples.”

Our modern palates separate the two peppers by a wide margin—black pepper is floral, pleasantly bitter, stinging the tongue with a quick zing only when eaten in excess; chile peppers are fruity, acidic, sour, often sweet, with a sensation we call heat that ranges from a mild tingle to something akin to the mind-altering hammer of a white-hot brand. Europeans had trouble with chiles (and still do), though hot peppers found a home at the margins—Eastern Europe’s paprika, Southern Europe’s spicy sauces and cured meats.

Where it’s hard to imagine that chile peppers were only introduced a mere 500 years ago is nearly everyplace else: Korea, India, Thailand, Ethiopia, China, and Senegal, to name a few famously spicy Diasporas. These cultures quickly adopted the chile pepper as their own, exploring its wealth of genetic traits and producing a mind-boggling collection of new varieties (one that continues to grow today). At a recent count, there were 79 distinct varieties passing under the umbrella of “Thai pepper,” a barometer that helps to translate the enormity of chile pepper diversity.

Then, of course, there is Mexico—the chile’s homeland and where its role in the cuisine is still, arguably, the most refined. Believed to be one of the first domesticated plants, chiles, along with corn and squash, constituted a mainstay of the Central American diet. From my own quasi-European perspective (averse, I hesitate to admit, to all but modest chili pepper heat), I’ve never thought of chiles as more than a seasoning. Like the black pepper they are named for, chiles unquestionably add dimension to a dish, but not substance, not weight. I did try to make myself more tolerant of them once, devoting an entire summer to cooking progressively spicier dishes until the persistent heartburn and other unpleasant side effects forced me to admit defeat. But even then, they were an addition, an adornment, a very small percentage of a dish’s overall volume; not at all, as that Spanish sailor reported, like apples.

But he (and the sophisticated cuisine he observed) was right. The first time I fully appreciated chiles in their own rite was when I watched friends make red mole from scratch. The pile of dried chiles and their seeds—toasted separately and ground together with water, warming spices, and nuts; thickened by hours of stirring and simmering; and at the very end, finished with dark chocolate—was, to my eyes, overwhelming. While the process was beautiful and ritualistic, I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to eat the results. But the sauce, only mildly spicy, exuded a graceful, effortless richness that compelled me to keep spooning it into my mouth, that fed both my simple, daily hunger and the one that no apple has ever quite quenched: the hunger for enchantment, for transformation, for food that drops an anchor and lingers, warmly, long after the meal is finished.

Tales from the Sweet Pepper Patch

Jimmy Nardello

Say the word pepper and one of two things likely comes to mind: the table shaker filled with black and gray dust, and the flamingly red and famously spicy crop we either crave or avoid, depending on our culinary disposition. Thirdly, some of our minds may drift to that molar of a fruit, glossy and green as spring grass: the bell pepper. In a typical North American produce aisle, it (and its yellow, orange, red, and purple siblings) is the sole pepper not relegated to the ‘ethnic’ produce section and the only one I tasted until a shamefully late age.

I grew up in the Germanic and Scandinavian influenced cuisine of the upper Midwest, but that is not an entirely sufficient explanation. Peppers, imported to Europe from the Caribbean and Central America by Columbus and his successors, spread widely through the well-established trade routes of the time, each culinary tradition choosing what they liked from the pepper’s plentiful genetic archive. Though northern Europeans are certainly not known for their peppers, they ate them, more often as dried powders (paprika) or as immature (green or yellow) fruits.

I blame my pepper ignorance on my own singular obsession with the green bell—something of an anomaly in the pepper world, their mild, watery profile and crisp texture yield easily to bolder flavors. I used them often as a budding young cook in the few recipes I’d successfully mastered. It took a lot of practice to build the confidence needed to branch out, and until then I had no reference point for the nuance and diversity of pepper flavor, no clue at all as to what I was missing.

The first pepper that really stumped me was the Jimmy Nardello. It turned everything I thought I knew about peppers inside out, hung it to dry under an unfamiliar and illuminating sun. These skinny things, bright and lustrous red, looked like a sleeve of capsicum fire. “They’re not hot,” I was told, but my eyes, after years of dedicated chili pepper avoidance, refused to believe it. I cooked a few up, alone in the frying pan as I was instructed. Their thin walls softened quickly, their delicate skin blistered into oil-crisped bubbles, their sizzle unleashed soft, cherry-scented steam.

They were not hot. What spice they had was the citrusy kind, pinching their expansive flavor with compassionate sharpness. The rest was full-throated, candy sweetness and a quality of fruit deeper and darker than the best tomato. That enlightened moment led to many other fried Jimmies, to pickled Jimmies (my favorite), to roasted and grilled Jimmies. My freezer always has a bag of sliced raw Jimmies to add to off-season sauces and stews.

Jimmy Nardello himself would also dry his family’s now famous pepper, strung and hung in the shed for winter the way his mother, Angela Nardiello, likely taught him. Inheritor of her family’s slender red frying pepper, she brought its seeds with her when she immigrated from the southern Italian town of Ruoti to the United States in 1887. Jimmy was her fourth son and the one, if legend holds true, that was most interested in gardening. He kept the family pepper alive until he died in 1983.

Lucky for us, Jimmy shared his beloved peppers with the newly founded Seed Savers Exchange not long before his death. In the subsequent thirty-two years, they’ve become something of a cult sensation—seducing gardeners, small-scale growers, and in-the-know home cooks and chefs with their alluring set of traits. As easy and productive in the garden as they are quick and straightforward to prepare, I was not the first to be swayed by a single bite.

I have made other discoveries since then. Red bell peppers, with their diluted sweetness and juicy flesh, have nothing on the pimiento. A pepper type usually associated with Spain or the Southeastern United States, these plump, round fruits (also called cherry peppers) have unusually thick walls for their size, their flavor a mix of Jimmy Nardello richness and caramelized sugar. Though they are traditionally dried and ground into sweet (or smoked) paprika, they are one of my favorite peppers to eat raw.

Then there are the roasting peppers, Italian in origin (going by the name Marconi), perfected most recently by Oregon’s Wild Garden Seed, with bold names like ‘Stocky Red Rooster,’ or ‘Gatherer’s Gold.’ Bred for oven and fire roasting, they peel with relative ease, leaving behind meaty strips of tender, delicious flesh. Northern gardeners appreciate their ability to ripen in quantity despite a climate that is not always accommodating to this tropical native.

My favorite pepper color is now red, though the realm of the sweet pepper is host to many flavorful greens. Shishito, small frying peppers with undulating walls are best sautéed whole with oil and salt, and make a delicious drinking snack. Yellow wax peppers (also called banana peppers)—looking like a pale yellow, bulked up Jimmy Nardello—are tangy and bright, good raw or cooked, though if you’re expecting something mild, don’t confuse them with their spicier look-alikes, Hungarian Wax or Pepperoncini.

I was a toddler when Jimmy Nardello died, but I get to smell his kitchen each time I fry up a batch of the slender, transcendent peppers that bear his name. I still cook green bells when a favorite recipe calls for them, though I find myself delighted more often by the more particular pepper personalities, the ones that shine like a badge of someone else’s devotion and perseverance. Through flavors we can travel, and in this endeavor, the pepper—hot or sweet—is a vehicle so precise it can deliver us (whether we know it or not) to one family’s garden, terraced more than a hundred years ago at the ankle of Italy’s boot.

Melon’s Savory Side

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This summer delicacy is best when sliced and served unadorned at the height of ripeness. Perhaps because it is so perfect alone, the melon’s reputation as a desirable ingredient doesn’t reach much beyond fruit salad and sorbet. Melon also seems rife with limitations—loose (and in the case of watermelon, watery) flesh, nearly cloying sweetness, and delicate floral qualities that, added up, seem to repel the idea of any course but dessert. However, melons do have an ambitious and intriguing savory side and, given the right kind, will even take a little heat. Try one of these techniques to explore a world beyond the melon ball.

Add some salt to its sweet.  Melon’s pervasive sweetness seems made for salty accouterments.

  • Try tossing cubed watermelon with feta cheese and mint (link to recipe)
  • Combine honeydew with cucumber, feta, and dill (link to recipe)
  • Treat yourself to the classic Italian appetizer, prosciutto e melone, which is delightfully easy to make as long as you have some thinly sliced prosciutto lying around (link to recipe)
  • Don’t be afraid to substitute other cured meats for the prosciutto: crispy fried pancetta, strips of bacon, or even a slice of salty cheese all make delicious pairings

Give it some heat.  Melon’s juicy texture and ample sweetness are the perfect companion to capsicum heat.

  • Sub watermelon for tomatoes in a fresh salsa (link to recipe)
  • Marinate cubes of watermelon in sriracha vinaigrette for a spicy and satisfying snack (link to recipe)
  • Forego the stove on a hot summer evening with this refreshing—and picante—melon gazpacho (link to recipe)

Think inside the spice box.  Salt and pepper aren’t the only game in town when it comes to seasoning melons.

  • Make a refreshing cold soup, like this masala-spiced, Spanish-inspired gazpacho (link to recipe)
  • Treated more like a sweet potato than a dessert fruit, a quick caramelizing sear and toasted caraway seeds make cantaloupe seductively savory in this simple and delicious preparation—try subbing cumin seeds for a variation on the theme (link to recipe)
  • Melons make a great substitute for mango in this cantaloupe cardamom-spiced lassi (link to recipe)

Go green.  Sweet, juicy melon makes a accompaniment to spicy greens, such as arugula, cress, frisee, mizuna, or baby mustard.

Give it grill marks.  A brief spell on the grill adds smoky, caramelized depth to melon sweetness.

  • Make this smoked paprika dusted grilled cantaloupe (link to recipe)
  • Throw a few watermelon slices on the grill to eat plain as a smoky alternative to the picnic classic. Or, why not make it a cheeseburger? (link to recipe)

Summer’s Sweetest Bite

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If summer could be concentrated into one single dish, it would be a wedge of dripping red watermelon. The flavor equivalent of jumping into a lake—cool, refreshing, slightly vegetal—watermelon is an antidote for hot days. Blue whale of the fruit world, it takes a village to eat a full-size watermelon, so we gather around them at picnics, potlucks, and parties. I, for one, never tire of the show: the huge green fruit, the big knife, the rocking, the crack as it splits, the smell of cucumbers and sugar, the firecracker red.

Most of the year, I avoid melon—those ubiquitous fruit salads that adorn lunch and brunch plates year-round—because the fruits must be picked under-ripe in order to survive the journey from Central America and California. Melons get their sugar on the vine; while some of their flavor components continue to develop after they’ve been harvested, they don’t get any sweeter. Melons picked with shipping and storage in mind are soulless things—watery, rigid, and bland.

Member of the cucurbit family, melons are cousins to squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. Although the exact location varies by species, melons are generally believed to have originated in Africa, where they were one of the first domesticated plant foods (they have been in cultivation for an estimated 7,000 years). From there, they spread by human dispersal to India, the Mediterranean rim, the Middle East, and Persia, and, slightly later, to China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Eastern Europe.

Ancient people dined on melons for some of the same reasons we still do today. Seventy- to ninety-percent water by weight, melons are like botanical pop cans, and those ancestral species had a knack for drawing water up from underground springs, imbuing it with flavor and (a few) calories, and storing it safely within an orb of thick waxy skin. Their presence signaled an invisible oasis, and their tart flesh offered desert people a much-needed source of hydration.

The first melons were not sweet, and thus were treated more like vegetables in the various culinary traditions that adopted them, cooked in stews or sliced and served raw as a salad, dressed with spices and vinegar. Over time, sweet-fleshed mutations appeared and growers began selecting for this appealing trait.

With sweetness also came fragrance. Italian orange-fleshed melons grown in the papal summer residence of Cantalupo were favored by generations of popes and their gardeners, a popularity that traveled to other outposts of the Catholic heirarchy. These cantaloupes, as they were called, reached their pinnacle in the Provencal village of Cavaillon, which became famous for melons that exuded fragrance as thick and floral as jasmine. These unique melons still stir feverish mania among Cavaillon locals and visitors alike. Known as Charentais melons, a name that clings to them from a stint in the slightly more northerly region of Charente where this particular melon strain was purportedly first developed, their heart will always belong to Cavaillon.

In our country, cantaloupes are a far cry from their European brethren. The variety we know as cantaloupe is not even in the same botanical group. An orange-fleshed muskmelon, American cantaloupes can also be sweet and fragrant, but they often aren’t, for reasons of distribution and storage. That makes the farmers market the best place to buy top quality melons—the sort that made generations of pharaohs, emperors and kings want more, and captivated the tastebuds of three continents long before the Old World bumped into the New.

Though most of us have gorged on countless melons without hesitation or thought, knowing how to shop for one is not as intuitive. Rough-skinned types are easier: since they “slip” from the vine once their sugars are fully developed, they should not have a stem (if so, they were picked to early). The stem end should be fragrant when sniffed, the skin below their bumpy reliefs a pale tan, not green. Watermelons and honeydew offer fewer clues, as they do not slip from the vine or exude fragrance outside their rind. Look first for the “ground spot,” the discolored area where the melon was in contact with the soil—it should be pale yellow, not green or white. Then, give the fruit a sturdy knock. If the sound seems to travel back to you from inside the fruit (implying hollowness) the flesh is ready; if the thud stays right where you’ve knocked it, pass that melon by.

All melons benefit from a day or two’s rest on the kitchen counter. Although they will not get any sweeter, other components of the melon’s flavor (and nutritional value) continue to develop at room temperature. Don’t store them in the refrigerator (it’s too cold to allow flavor components to synthesize) until you’ve sliced them open, at which point they’re ready to chill a bit before eating or to store for a few days, if they last that long.

Riding the Heat Wave

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We don’t want to, but we know the heat wave drill. After the last three weeks, we definitely know—shut in our houses with the curtains drawn, the box fan on high, dreading dinnertime and its fire-breathing stove—that all we can do is ride it out. Some people claim to love the heat, as if it were imbued with restorative properties in which they rarely get the chance to braise. But at a certain point, we all wilt, drooping and dripping through our day, finding excuses to go to the grocery store and stroll the freezer aisle.

Plants aren’t so different. Some, like my spring kale, start to go limp once the Fahrenheit reaches a sunny 76, perking up again each evening when the sun gets low. Others wait for the heat, sitting stubbornly in 65-degree cold until they see the kale wilting and know it’s safe to strut their stuff.

But plants have their limit, too, and for many it culminates at 115-degrees, the cell destroying temperature for the majority of species. We are familiar with a plant’s most visible response to heat stress: wilting. Just like we produce sweat, plants release water vapor through tiny holes in their leaves in an attempt to regulate the temperature around them. If a leaf releases too much water, it looses turgidity (wilts) and, if conditions don’t improve, eventually turns crispy-brown. Between perfect conditions and death-by-heatwave lies a whole spectrum of largely invisible reactions to rising temperatures, some of which may be of interest to hungry gardeners.

Take tomatoes, a common garden plant that we associate with hot summer days. It’s true that tomatoes largely shut down below 50-degrees, refusing to grow again until the weather begins to more closely resemble their native jungle habitat. However, anyone with a few plants out back may be wondering why, despite an unusually warm June, their tomatoes seem to have entered a holding pattern. Market shoppers may have noticed that even though the summer feels like it’s already deep into August, tomato selection remains limited.

This is due to a few temperature-sensitive quirks of tomato physiology. While tomato foliage remains sturdy in the heat, their flowers and fruits only thrive in the rather narrow range between 70- and 85-degrees. Tomatoes self-pollinate, meaning their male and female parts are located in the same flower. Wind, insects, and your fingertips are all sufficient pollinators, as it takes no more than a little jiggle to help the pollen hop from stamen to nearby pistil. Tomato pollen is usually available for hopping between the hours of 10am and 4pm, though temperatures above 85-degrees render it gummy and immobile. If, after two days, the pollen is unable to fertilize the ovary, the flower, admitting defeat, falls to the ground—a phenomenon known as blossom drop.

But let’s say that our heat wave sleeps in one morning and the pollen makes it. Now the ovary begins to swell into a fruit. Tomatoes require a specific foliage-to-fruit ratio to achieve proper ripening—drawing not only on the plant’s energy reserves to infuse the fruit with sweetness, but on leaf-synthesized flavor compounds that will add complexity and fragrance to the mix. Because leaves are essential to tomato development, the plants must continue growing more foliage to meet the demands of newly set fruit.

This puts our heat-wave tomatoes in a conundrum. In the best of scenarios, the foliage-fruit balance requires a certain amount of precision. In the heat, when a plant is sometimes faced with life-threatening conditions, it abandons nuance for subsistence. Above 85-degrees, a tomato uses most of its energy just to keep from drying to a crisp. At 94-degrees, photosynthesis becomes sluggish at best, cutting off a plant’s ability to replenish much needed energy reservess. Staying cool costs the plant all the energy it would have otherwise invested in ripening fruit.

Add to this equation one final limitation. Most tomato varieties rely on two pigments for their signature ruby-ripeness: carotene and lycopene. When exposed to temperatures above 85-degrees, these pigments stop synthesizing. Almost-ripe tomatoes entering a heat wave will hang on the vine with that I’m-nearly-there yellow-orange color, inspiring unrequited thoughts of caprese salads and gazpacho until the heat breaks.

With sufficient water and any but the most pitiful soils, tomatoes will whistle right along until the thermostat hits 85, at which point they’ll start putting the breaks on fruit production. At 95, they enter survival mode, a temperature at which I, too, have little else on my mind.

While gardeners have few tools at their disposal with which to convince tomatoes, and most other flowering and fruiting plants, to mature in the midst of a heat wave, they can prepare their plants to better cope with a week (or three) of heat, and recover more quickly once it’s over. Irrigation is key; water deeply before a heat wave, and use drip irrigation when possible to ensure the water is going straight to the root zone, where your plants need it most. A thick bed of mulch helps to moderate soil temperature and protect it from drying sunshine and winds. Resist fertilizing before or during a heatwave, which will promote tender new growth that is completely unprepared to withstand the harsh conditions.

And finally, summer is not a good time to prune. A healthy head of foliage helps a plant provide its own shade as well as photosynthesizing replacements if and when cell death does occur on the front lines. If you feel the compulsion to remove something, take a load off your tomato plants and cull a few green fruits. Those left behind will ripen that much faster.

Calabacitas

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For most gardeners, the story of Cucurbita pepo varieties grown for their immature fruits generally goes like this: as the plants’ lobed leaves quickly grow to jungle-proportions, you eagerly anticipate the first yellow-orange blossoms, watching for their green, finger-shaped fruits, delighting as they begin to appear in abundance. But after a few copious weeks, you start to wonder how you will keep up. You feel the panic of fruits, heavier now, piling up on the counter; the weariness of repetitive sautés. It is about this time, when your sarcastic remarks about ditching a bag on your neighbor’s doorstep begin to take on a tone of intention, that some well-meaning person suggests, “Time to make zucchini bread!”

While zucchini bread certainly makes zucchini taste more like cake, it is not the most efficient way to rid yourself of a bumper crop. Most recipes call for a mere cup or two of grated zucchini—amounting to one moderately sized fruit—along with which you must eat an entire loaf of sugary bread. No, zucchini and their entourage of summer squash, the most efficient of garden producers when measured at a rate of bulk to time, demand an equally efficient cook.

We are used to seeing zucchini, cocozelle, pattypan, summer squash, crookneck and the like through a European lens. Zucchini itself is an Italian word, and the Italians maintain a long-standing love affair with these tender, somewhat watery, mildly bitter summer fruits, one that has resulted in a litany of recipes whose scope and skill implies a culture familiar with zucchini’s infamous profusion. Italian recipes don’t skimp on the zucchini, putting its sometimes-challenging texture front and center more often than not. Indeed, zucchini are often billed as an Italian invention, a claim that is partially true.

Zucchini belongs to the colorful and diverse tribe known as Cucurbita pepo. Thicker-skinned ancestors of the modern day zucchini likely accompanied Columbus when he returned from his Caribbean voyages. The curious vining plants with gourd-shaped or pumpkin-like fruits passed through horticultural circles and were grown, along with tomatoes and eggplant, as ornamental curiosities by a population uncertain of their edibility.

Ethnobotanists theorize that C. pepo’s native range stretched from Central America along the Eastern Seaboard north to Quebec. Archeological evidence dates the domestication of C. pepo as far back as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. The first cultivated squash were likely grown for their gourds—the fibrous, bitter flesh ignored for the watertight vessel it left behind. The next phase of selection probably focused on the gourd’s seeds—a calorie-dense, storable food—and eventually on the starchy flesh of mature fruits.

Finally, the indigenous people of Central America and Mexico (and those of the eastern U.S., where it is believed C. pepo was domesticated contemporaneously) began to breed, through careful selection, a squash whose immature fruits were fine-textured and mild. Enter: calabacita, the Mexican name for zucchini-like immature squash fruit. To say the Italians invented zucchini is true—Italian gardeners fervently selected for the smooth, dark-green-skinned fruits we mean when we use the term ‘zucchini,’ as well as striped, fluted fruits known as cocozelle—but only if you ignore the thousands of years of indigenous selection that occurred long before Christopher Columbus was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes.

With a long history of cultivation inevitably comes generations of experimentation in the kitchen. Though they rarely make it onto the menu of a typical north-of-the-border restaurant, calabacitas are a mainstay of traditional Mexican cuisine. Ubiquitous in stews and sautéed in endless variation, calabacitas make easy companions to any of their Mesoamerican sisters—beans, corn, tomato, eggplant, peppers—many of the same vegetables we associate with Italian zucchini.

While the calabacita is, technically, a specific summer squash variety (it often appears by the name ‘gray zucchini’ in U.S. seed catalogs), it’s close enough to European-bred varietals like true zucchini, cocozelle, and crookneck that they make a fitting substitute. At heart, all summer squash are all calabacitas—Mexican zucchini. My favorite variety is Costata Romanesca, a firmer-fleshed, nutty cocozelle type that is a prolific producer, keeps some firmness when cooked, and is still tender enough to eat even when my neglected fruits have grown a foot long. I have one plant in my vegetable patch, enough to keep me busy for months.

This year, I’ll skip the zucchini bread in favor of dishes that embrace calabacitas’ abundance and heritage—holding onto Old World favorites like zucchini and ricotta pie, fritters, quick tomato and zucchini stews with Parmigiano cheese, ratatouille—while exploring their New World roots by pairing them with chiles, lime, cream, cilantro, avocado, cumin. No zucchini gardener should ignore a promising lead.

Zucchini, Mexican Style

Work your way through these recipes and you’ll soon have a feel for the humble zucchini’s agility in Mexican cuisine. When shopping for summer squash, choose medium-sized fruits (baby zucchini tend to be bitter and bland) with smooth, shiny skin that feel firm and heavy in your hand. Don’t limit yourself to the standard dark green zucchini—try striped cocozelle, frilled pattypan, warty crooknecks, yellow straightnecks, or even the delightful ‘Tromboncini’ (an immature gourd with delicate, nutty flavor whose firm, dry flesh needs light cooking to soften).

Zucchini and Corn with Cream: This classic southwestern side dish, also called Calabacitas, is deceptively simple: its straightforward ingredient list transforms into flavor big enough to be the main course. (Link)

Zucchini and Avocado Salsa: Capitalizing on raw zucchinis’ ability to draw fresh flavors into its crisp-textured flesh, this salsa makes for a refreshing side salad as much as a healthy dip. (Link)

Pork with Zucchini and Corn: Hearty and satisfying, this traditional stew is a perfect one pot meal. (Link)

Grilled Mexican Zucchini Boats: Inspired by elotes—Mexican grilled corn flavored with chili powder, lime, and mayonnaise—this easy preparation replaces the corncob with zucchini boats for a quick summer dinner. (Link)

Squash Flower Soup: Zucchini blossoms are a gardener’s delicacy, picked when their flavor is most potent—before the late morning sun begins to whither them but after pollinators have had a chance to visit. This soup highlights squash blossom fragrance in a quick-cooking, rustic vegetable stew. (Link)

The Last Berry

Cranberry_bog

Unlike the berries of summer, we tend to leave cranberries to the specialist. We happily plant a strawberry patch, wrestle canes of raspberries or blackberries into rows, tuck a blueberry bush here or there, but few gardeners ever think to grow cranberries. It isn’t so surprising—our national opinion of this peculiar fruit is limited at best. Cranberries are an essential part of Thanksgiving dinner; dried, they add a healthful zing to muffins or salads; juiced, they mix a sweetly tart cocktail. Why grow a fruit that is best after processing, that keeps well in the freezer, that you would never, on a stroll through the garden or market, eat out of hand?

For most of its history, the cranberry hasn’t been grown by anyone. Native to the eastern United States and Canada, foraged cranberries were an important food and medicine source of the indigenous communities of the region. After drying, cranberries were pounded into pemmican, a shelf-stable mixture that also included dried meat and fat (the original protein bar) and was widely adopted by voyageurs and other explorers needing packable foods.

Member of the heath family, a tribe of low-growing, berry-producing shrubs that rings the globe’s northern latitudes, cranberries have many cousins, notably the blueberry, huckleberry, and lingonberry. Though modern-day cranberry cultivars were developed from the North American species, Europeans tasting them for the first time may have recognized their citrusy tang. A number of similar species are found in northern European countries, growing alongside ponds and bogs, spreading through mossy understory, in a range that spans Iceland to Russia.

Especially favored in Nordic cuisine, lingonberries (like a slightly sweeter cranberry) are cooked into sauces, syrups, relishes, and pastries. Russian texts describe preserving them in jars topped with water to make a sour constitutional beverage enjoyed for its bracing flavor and widely acknowledged medicinal qualities. The English maintain a tradition of eating cranberry relish with the Christmas meal, a habit that likely extends from medieval times, when wild-collected cranberry relatives were mashed with spices or sweeteners to accompany wild game.

Despite their prominence throughout the northern hemisphere, cranberries and their ilk did not become a domesticated crop until the 1800’s, when New England farmers were plowing through one agricultural fad after another. Adventurous gardeners added a patch; farmers and horticulturists gathered choice cuttings from wild plants and embarked on the long process of taming them for commercial production. Having become a popular winter fruit (high in vitamin-C, cranberries help prevent scurvy—and blandness—in starch-heavy winter diets), growers set their sights on creating a new and lucrative industry.

Ironically, it was a British scientist (in his home garden) who made the first breakthrough in commercial cranberry cultivation. In the wild, cranberries often grow near bodies of water, an observation that led many to attempt growing them in standing water (a technique that resulted in stunted plants). Some planted them into prime garden soil, the sort any lettuce or carrot would thrive in, but the cranberries recoiled. Curious about the little-understood needs of this trendy New World fruit, Sir Joseph Banks, explorer and horticulturist, brought a few back to his English estate after a visit to America.

Setting them in boxes drilled with holes, he layered rocks, then soil and detritus from a nearby bog, before tucking in the cranberry starts. The planter was submerged five inches below the surface of a pond, allowing the lower roots access to consistent moisture, while elevating the majority of the root zone above the water line. The technique worked, and Banks soon had a thriving cranberry patch. Though contemporary growers have ditched the planter boxes for a system of dykes, Banks’ discovery revealed the cranberry’s preference for a combination of sandy, well draining but humus-rich soil and a high water table.

Cranberry plants send out lateral branches that can put down roots, self-propagating one plant into many in just one growing season. A cranberry patch is a tangled thing, impossible to preserve in tidy rows suited to mechanical weeding. Thus, organic cranberry growing is challenging; conventional growers treat weeds with herbicide, organic growers must pull them out by hand.

Many of us still associate cranberry farming with water. If we have any image of a cranberry patch at all, it is of one at harvest time, when most growers flood their fields. Since cranberries are partially hollow, they float. Farmers agitate the plants below the water level and the berries pop up, painting the surface of the bog a striking red and making for an efficient harvest.

A small number of growers harvest their berries without flooding, resulting in better quality fruit for the fresh market. Fresh cranberries give an especially good pop to pastries that showcase whole berries, such as tarts or cakes. Treated like grapes, they have an under-explored savory side, fit for roasting on their own or alongside pork or poultry. Roughly chopped and mixed with some combination of herbs, alliums, or citrus, fresh cranberries can make an intriguing winter salsa that adds a touch of lightness to heavier winter fare.

And that’s the charm of cranberries, extending the berry season into the realm of storage crops, bringing brightness into a season whose other flavors are pulled from the dark soil.

The Bohemian

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All plants are wanderers through history, adapting to the demands of their environment, sculpted by the preferences of their consumers (human and otherwise). The shapes, colors, flavors, and distinctions of the plants we are familiar with today have long, often mysterious histories. The only thing we know for sure is that nothing—not an heirloom, not a hybrid, not a single F1 cross—is in stasis. Landing where we’ve landed, we get to eat what’s here.

Walking through the market this time of year, it’s clear we live in an age that values novelty. Nothing illustrates this quite as bombastically as the arrival of winter squash—a category of vegetables with an enchanting display of variability that, like the tomato, has seen a renaissance of interest in the past decade.

Squash are in the same plant family as cucumbers, a botanical tribe that originated on the Indian subcontinent. Somehow, via birds or sea currents, seeds found their way to South America, where the family’s genetics eventually morphed into what we know of today as squash. Those that stayed in India tended toward cucumbers, melons, and gourds. Three distinct categories of squash developed, each with its own environmental adaptations. When Europeans first arrived in New England, they found the natives eating a relative of our modern day Halloween pumpkin, a lineage whose domestication by early humans can be dated back as far as 10,000 years ago to a cave near Oaxaca.

Known as Cucurbita pepo, this branch of the family vine had already traveled widely, its genetics already deeply explored by millennia of Native Americans (and a few centuries of colonial gardeners) by the time a man named Peter Henderson emigrated from Scotland to New Jersey in 1843.

A student of the Royal Botanical Society of Edinburgh, Henderson wasted no time leasing himself a 10-acre plot of land in Jersey City and dove head first into market farming, providing vegetables and flowers to a growing urban population. His land holdings increased, and Henderson eventually switched his focus to seed production. He built top-of-the-line greenhouses, employed over 100 gardeners, and opened a flagship store in lower Manhattan (the former site of his store was later occupied by the World Trade Center Towers).

Henderson was a pioneer in early market farming (what we might call today “urban farming”). He wrote extensively on the subject, and sold only seeds he had grown himself, selecting new varieties and adapting Old World vegetables to New World growing conditions.

Though he may not have lived to taste it, Henderson’s company is credited with the release of the Delicata squash (which premiered in 1893, six years after Peter’s death). Likely the selection of a local farmer (seed catalogs of the day offered monetary rewards to growers who turned in high quality sports that could be developed into new varieties) that was then tested and marketed by the Henderson Co., the Delicata was an unusual C. pepo.

A branch of the family known more for its tender summer squash and stringy pumpkins, Delicata exhibited the delicate skin of its zucchini cousins while melding the sweet, rich flesh of a pumpkin with a finer, drier texture. For a winter squash, Delicata came in a surprisingly small package. Weighing roughly a pound, a Delicata cut in half made a meal for two, stuffed with an assortment of herbs, nuts, or meats. Its fine flavor, ease of use, and high yields made Delicata a popular seller.

As heirlooms go, Delicata’s story is short on details. Modern sources say it was also sold under the names “Bohemian,” “Sweet Potato,” and “Ward’s Individual,” and that it was popular through the 1920’s, at which point it fell out of favor (for a perpetually unspecified reason). Combing through scanned copies of Henderson catalogs, I found it listed up until 1951, not long before the company shuttered in 1953.

In the 1944 catalog, the new and novel Butternut squash made its Henderson debut (it was originally released by Joseph Breck & Sons in 1936), touting sweet, fine-textured flesh and a neck that was solid all the way through. Butternut is much better suited to commercial growing than is Delicata—thicker skin, longer storage life, and a higher weight per volume ratio likely attracted farmers to it. As home gardening diminished and commercial farming flourished, perhaps Delicata just quietly faded into obscurity, known to those who grew it, unknown to those who didn’t.

Along with Acorn and Butternut, Delicata is again one of the most recognizable squash varieties at market. It grows well in our short northern summers and we love it for the same reasons Henderson’s customers did—its delicious flavor and delicate skin make it versatile and approachable in the kitchen. We can just scoop out the seeds, slice it and sauté it, getting squash to the table in under 30-minutes. Delicata are still the perfect vessel for stuffing, and their cheerful green and orange striping still makes a decorative centerpiece.

But don’t hesitate! Delicata won’t last and they are at their best right now. Save the Hubbards and Butternuts for deep winter, Delicatas start to quickly diminish by the first of the year. I try to use the last of mine in one or another holiday feast, baking and freezing any remainders. This year I’ll be tipping a forkful to the bohemian behind the Bohemian: an innovator and wanderer, patron farmer of Delicatas everywhere.