In autumn, I am distracted by the color of sky--it has deepened from summer's haze into a brilliant blue. The angle of the sun has changed, as well as the daytime and evening temperatures, the moisture in the air, and the hours of daylight. Every one of my senses is stimulated and ready to receive autumn, the season of change. Even my appetite.
As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed summer's tomatoes, my favorite being the Cherokee purple. But there's no reason to feel sorry when they're gone. My appetite for fresh, local produce never seems to wane, even when I know cold weather is on the horizon. Every year I rediscover the crops that carry us over from summer to autumn and from autumn to winter. With the departure of this year's tomatoes, everyone's appetite can be satisfied with the season's new offerings.
Now we have eggplant and peppers galore. The onions of spring are gone but there are other aromatics available. The days of too much zucchini are finished for the year, along with the cucumbers, okra and the great variety of beans we've all eaten. This year's corn was poor, but the winter squash look as if the dab of rain we had last month was just enough. Greens will soon appear again, along with turnips and beets. You won't find asparagus until next May, but there are Chinese long beans. And you know autumn has truly arrived when the sweet potatoes and pumpkins show up, reminding us of the upcoming holidays.
One vegetable, or fruit, really, that takes us from late summer into autumn is the pepper. The splash of bright color has always drawn my eye, along with the glossy skins and obscene and humorous shapes. Whether red, green, yellow, purple or orange, peppers are versatile, fun and delicious. I didn't learn about roasted peppers until I was in my 20s and saw a co-worker at one of the former versions of Wellspring holding a big, red bell pepper over an open flame with a pair of tongs. I watched and learned how the black blistered skin was easier to peel and the resulting softened pepper was deliciously smoky. My favorite roasted pepper combinations became with fresh goat cheese on a baguette, or sliced into strips with tuna marinated in olive oil. I learned to use fresh sweet peppers in fruit and grain salads, and the hot peppers finely diced as seasoning.
Hot pepper seekers can find tiny volcano flavored peppers, milder jalapeños and, of course, habañeros from local growers. For those seeking a cooler dining experience, try poblanos, Anaheims and the colorful variety of "bell" shaped peppers, or sweet Italian frying peppers.
Another goody that escorts us from one season to the next is the sweet potato, which has recently made its 2002 appearance at area markets. Sweet potatoes and yams will take us into the next several months, when the cooler temperature makes baking a much more enjoyable activity. I have no memory of any fondness for sweet potatoes as a child, probably because I didn't grow up in the South but more likely because my mother didn't care for them, or prepare them more than once a year. I think my grandmother probably served them at Thanksgiving (though not with marshmallows!). I have grown to truly enjoy sweet potatoes and find them to be incredibly adaptable: I have fried them, made them into potato salad, cakes, muffins, pies, soups, puddings and, of course, eaten them baked. I find it unnecessary to add sweetener as they are naturally sweet enough for my taste buds. I like the small potatoes for breakfast, actually, and pop them in the oven while I get ready for work.
I've discovered that mashed sweet potato pie is much better than pumpkin pie made from scratch. The texture is easier to control, and the flavor more interesting. When my son was younger, I learned the value of getting vegetables into him with baked goods--sweet potato muffins and quick bread made with cornmeal and molasses. They hit the spot then, and they still do today.
So, don't wait for Thanksgiving to eat your annual sweet potatoes; the time is now. Dig in and enjoy, experiment, taste and be nourished by the season.
Elizabeth Gibbs is the manager of the Durham Farmers' Market.