Five Halloween treats for grown-ups

Halloween candyLike many former kids, I used to live for Halloween. Sure, the dressing up part was fun, but so was TP’ing the neighbor’s tree. What All Hallow’s Eve was really about were Pixy Stix, Fun Dip, mini Milky Way bars, and REESE’S Peanut Butter Cups (in my world, the latter still reigns supreme).

Still, things change. We grow up; most of us lose our appetite for eating the equivalent of eight cups of sugar in one sitting, we’re aware that those candy bars will go straight to our ass.

Still, I find something a little magical about Halloween: the brisk fall air, the aroma of woodsmoke and swirls of brightly colored leaves. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth anymore, but there are some sophisticated treats out there capable of conjuring my inner child (mercifully, minus the buck teeth and tattling habit).

Below, my favorite confections, regardless of season:

1. Jonboy Caramels
I love me a good caramel, and this micro-Seattle company does them right. I discovered Jonboy at my local farmers market; despite the feel-good ingredients and ethics, these are no half-assed candies peddled by dirty hippies (kidding; I’m a longtime market vendor myself). Made completely by hand with local cream and HFCS-free, these pretty treats come wrapped in unbleached parchment paper, and are sold in little (recycled cardboard) boxes. But it’s what’s inside that counts, and these are intensely rich flavor-bombs redolent of that good cream as well as more potent, sexy flavors.

The selection is small and includes fleur de sel caramel, molasses ginger, and my favorite, an intriguing absinthe with black salt. Inspired by the salted licorice found in Scandinavia, Jonboy’s version is made with local Pacifique absinthe and a blend of anise, fennel, and hyssop. They’re dark and mysterious, like a trick-or-treater you shouldn’t let in the door.

Jonboy Caramels are available throughout Seattle at farmers’ markets and specialty stores, and select Washington and Oregon Whole Foods. Five box minimum for online orders (you’ll be glad to have extra, believe me).Halloween candy2. sockerbit
This groovy New York shop in the West Village is dedicated to “Scandinavian candy culture.” The name translates as “sugar cube,” and is also one of their namesake treats (a strawberry marshmallow square). Just like Ikea, crazy names and diversity are part of sockerbit’s charm. All of the essential categories are here: chocolate; licorice; marshmallow (who can resist something called “Syrliga Skumshots,” which are bottle-shaped sour marshmallows?); sweet; sour, and hard and wrapped candies. All are available for order online, and free of artificial dyes, flavors, trans-fats, and other synthetic nastiness.

It’s hard to make a decision in this place, but if, like me, you’re a slave to anything gummy and chewy, (red Swedish Fish people, I’m talking to you), you’ll be very happy with the tempting selection of fruit jellies. Skogsbär, here’s looking at you.

3. Recchiuti Confections
Lucky me, I used to work next door to this revered San Francisco Ferry Building confectionary (I worked in a meat shop; they traded us for chocolate). Chocolatier Michael Recchiuti is a genius, but it’s his delicate, botanically-infused chocolates that bring a tear to my eye. Bonus: many use herbs sourced right outside the door at the Saturday farmers market. Think lemon verbena; star anise and pink peppercorn; rose caramel, and candied orange peel. Just as heavenly are Recchiuti’s exquisite pates de fruits, S’more’s Bites, and…just about everything else. Order them all online at your own risk.

4. Dutch licorice
Licorice is an acquired taste regardless, but the earthy, intense, salted Dutch stuff is another thing altogether. Made with real licorice root extract–no artificial flavors here–they’re bracing, spicy, herbaceous, and strangely addictive. Any bona-fide candy store worth it’s, um, salt, will stock at least one imported variety.

5. Salt & Straw ice cream in holiday flavors
Ice cream season is supposed to be over (isn’t it?) but this five-month-old Portland, Oregon shop begs to differ. Some examples of their delicious array of super-regionalized “farm-to-cone” flavors: Hooligan Brown Ale and Olympic Provisions bacon, Stumptown coffee with cocoa nibs, and pear with Rogue Creamery’s Crater Lake blue cheese.

New to Salt & Straw is their line-up of Thanksgiving and Holiday flavors, which includes bourbon pecan pie, made with Stone Barn’s Oregon Whiskey; eggnog with butter-rum caramel; blood orange cranberry; pumpkin cheesecake, and a sweet-and-savory brown bread stuffing studded with chestnuts, herbs, and dried apricots. Online orders are a minimum of five pints.

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Five foods of fall

fall foodsIt seems like summer had just begun (that’s because a few weeks ago in Seattle, it had), and now we’re in the throes of early winter fall. It’s actually a beautiful time, what with the trees turning color, cutting through the gray and damp. The weather is crisp and on rare days, the sky is cerulean. There are worse places to experience the change of season.

Living in such an autumnal environment makes me crave the colorful foods of fall. The region you live in determines when exactly certain ingredients make their way in and out of local farmers markets, true. But there’s a general timetable for these foods, so start looking for them now. As some extra incentive, these foods are high in nutrients like beta carotene, vitamin A, and antioxidants, and most make for beautiful additions to the holiday table when piled in a shallow bowl, or added to a cheese plate.

1. Persimmons
A traumatic childhood experience with an unripe persimmon led me to give this fragrant, glossy orange fruit a wide berth for over 20 years, and not until I began working as a vendor at the Berkeley Farmers Market did I work through the pain and overcome my aversion. If you’ve never tasted an unripe persimmon, it’s like biting into a mouthful of metal filings. They’re so astringent, they literally suck all of the moisture from your mouth. Tough, tough stuff. Happily, I’ve grown to love (ripe) persimmons for their cheerful appearance, intriguing texture, and sweet, spicy, perfumed flesh redolent of apricots, cinnamon, and allspice.

Persimmons are indigenous to Asia, but grow well in temperate climates. The two most common varieties are Fuyu and Hachiya. Fuyus resemble squat tomatoes, and are ripe when they turn bright orange but are still firm to the touch. I enjoy eating them out of hand or sliced into salads. Try them sliced with bitter greens, toasted walnuts, and fresh or soft-ripened goat cheese, with a Sherry vinaigrette.

[Photo credit: Flickr user caryn74]fall foodsHachiyas have an elongated, acorn-like shape, and are soft and gelatinous when ripe. Their sweet, pulpy flesh makes them an excellent addition to baked goods such as cake or tea bread, or try them in sorbet or a steamed pudding topped with unsweetened whipped cream. They’re also delectable for out-of-hand eating: simply cut off the top and scoop out the jelly-like flesh with a spoon.

Hachiyas are high in tannins, and the astringent substance that makes them so unappealing when unripe is also corrosive, so be sure to avoid using aluminum cookware or foil when working with them.

Dried Hachiyas are also delicious and diverse in the kitchen. Choose fruit that is soft, but not so ripe you’re unable to peel it. After peeling, pass a wire through the calyx, or stem end, bring the ends of the wire together to form a circle, and hang it on a line in a cool, dry place. You’ll need to massage the fruit periodically to help break down their internal membrane and to release moisture. Enjoy them for snacking, baking, or in porridge or oatmeal. They may develop a harmless fine, white powder on the surface.

2. Winter squash
The much-maligned winter, or hard squash is a nutritional powerhouses, high in iron, riboflavin, and vitamins A and C. With their thick, durable shells, which come in a breathtaking array of hues, textures, shapes, and sizes, they can last up to a month without refrigeration, as long as they’re kept cool and dry. You can compost the skins and pulp, and dry their seeds so you can grow your own squash next year.

I find even the names of different varieties of squash tempting: sweet dumpling, acorn, Cinderella, sugar pumpkin, cheese pumpkin, buttercup, butternut, delicata, red curry, kabocha, and hubbard. Note that carving pumpkins are not meant for eating; the flesh is too stringy and the flavor inferior, although the seeds are delicious when roasted.

There are literally hundreds of heirloom varieties of squash out there; get to know some of the growers at your local farmers’ market and find out what they recommend for your purposes. When selecting squash, choose ones that are heavy for their weight, with no soft spots.

While most hard squash have sweet flesh, there’s still a range of flavor complexities between varieties. Some are more watery while others have a more pronounced squashy flavor or firm or creamy flesh. You may want to experiment to see what works best for your specific recipes, but the most common varieties work equally well for sweet or savory dishes.

Use leftover roasted squash in stir-fries, tossed in at the end of cooking with toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce, and bitter greens. Roast peeled slices until they’re lightly caramelized and serve them with a handful of fresh arugula, candied pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds) or crumbled bacon, and shaved pecorino cheese, and a vinaigrette of roasted pumpkin seed oil or good-quality balsamic vinegar. Use squash in baked goods like tea breads and cakes.

3. Grapes
Unless you shop at the farmers market, you’re likely unaware of just how many table grape varieties are out there: Bronx, Golden Muscat, Niabell, Ladyfinger, Black Monukka. Some are winey and intense, others slip their skins and have a squidgy texture, similar to wine grapes.

The beauty of grapes is that they require no more than a rinse and they’re ready for the table. I use them halved and paired with fresh or grilled chicories and shavings of a dry, semi-firm cheese like Manchego for salads, or roast them with a bit of olive oil and serve them alongside wilted greens like Lacinato kale and grilled sausages. Feeling lazy? Pile them in a pretty bowl, pour a glass of dessert wine, and pop in a DVD for a low-key evening with friends or your main squeeze. Spitting seeds isn’t sexy, so do ask for a sample before purchasing.

4. Brussels sprouts
Poor things. Dissed by children almost everywhere, and equally unloved by many adults, Brussels sprouts get a bad rap due to poor cooking technique or old product. Like all brassicas (the genus of cruciferous vegetables–members of the mustard family–that includes broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower), these guys can get seriously sulfurous and nasty if overcooked or past their prime.

Look for tiny, tightly-closed sprouts (you can also purchase them on the stalk at farmers markets and some grocery stores) the size of large marbles. The shouldn’t be gargantuan, or have yellowed, withered outer leaves or be opening up like a flower in bloom. You’ve been warned.

Get your fresh sprouts home. Heat up some bacon fat or olive oil, and saute them over medium-high heat until the outer leaves just begin to open, and they’re slightly caramelized (this is the key step). Finish things off with some minced garlic cooked until fragrant. Toss sauteed sprouts with crumbled bacon, crisped prosciutto, toasted breadcrumbs, or grated pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano. Try a combination of the above. Spike them with chile flakes, chopped, toasted nuts, or drizzle with walnut or hazelnut oil (don’t try to cook them in these; their smoke point is too low and the oil will scorch). If for some crazy reason these ideas don’t make you a convert, just do what a friend of mine did as kid: sneak them into the bathroom and flush them down the toilet.
fall foods
5. Pears
European pears (as opposed to the crunchy, apple-like Asian varieties) possess a refined elegance that calls to mind the days when they were cultivated for French nobility.

The year-round availability of domestically grown varieties of European pear can be attributed to their affinity for cold storage. Pear season is usually over by the end of November, and unlike apples, European pears require a period of cold storage at 32 to 35 degrees before being ripened for several days at room temperature prior to selling. They’re just simply delicate for picking and shipping when ripe.

To further ripen them at home, place in a paper bag on the counter. If you can’t use fully ripe pears immediately, refrigerate them or they’ll get mushy.

I prefer pears poached in red or white wine or a simple syrup spiked with vanilla bean, ginger, or spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise. As a dessert, this showcases their elegant shape, and makes for a sophisticated finale to a dinner party. Remember to slice a tiny piece of the bottom off of each pear before serving, so they’ll stand up on the plate (you can also use a dab of whipping cream, creme fraiche, mascarpone, or creme anglaise to anchor them in place). Serve with a healthy dollop of same, or vanilla or honey ice cream. Hello, autumn.

[Photo credits: soup, Flickr user Tammy Green aka Zesmerelda]

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Fall festivals: five delicious ways to celebrate

fall festivalsThere’s something really depressing about seeing the last of the tomatoes, corn, and stonefruit at the farmers market, the withering vines in my neighbor’s gardens. But fall is also an exciting time for produce geeks, what with all the peppers and squash, pomegranates and persimmons.

If you love yourself some good food and drink, here are five reasons to welcome fall. No matter where you live in the North America, at least one of these is guaranteed to be coming soon to a town near you.

1. Hit a harvest festival
From the hokey (corn mazes, hay rides) to the downright debaucherous (late-night live music and beer gardens, camping in orchards), harvest festivals are a blast, no matter what your age. A great harvest festival will include delicious food; local craft beer, cider, or wine; farm tours and seminars; a children’s area and special activities; live music, and, if you’re lucky, a beautiful, bucolic setting in which to experience it all. Some festivals run the span of a weekend, providing an opportunity to take in more of the educational offerings.

Below are some of my favorite festivals, all of which have an educational component to them. Should you find yourself in Northern California in early October, it’s worth a detour to attend the famous Hoes Down Harvest Festival (Oct.1-2) at Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, near Davis. It’s one hell of a party (there’s also a top-notch children’s activity area, so little people will have fun, too); definitely plan on camping in the orchard and bring your swim suit; the farm is located beside Cache Creek.

Other great celebrations of fall: Vashon Harvest Farm Tour (Sept. 25), Vashon Island, WA; CUESA Harvest Festival (Oct. 22), Ferry Building Farmers Market, San Francisco, CA; Annual Harvest Festival, Sustainable Settings (mid-Sept.; date varies, but mark your calendars for next year!) Carbondale, CO.

September 22nd, from 7:30-9pm, the 16th Annual Harvest in the Square is being held in Union Square; online tickets are still available until tomorrow at noon for what is one of New York’s premier food and wine events. Some general admission tickets will be available at the event for a higher price.

[Photo credit: Flickr user zakVTA]fall festivals2. Check out Crush
In North America, the wine grape harvest is held in September or October, depending upon weather patterns. In Napa Valley, “Crush” has just started, and with it, fall colors on the vines; barrel tastings; special winery tours, wine-and-cheese pairings, and up-close-and-personal views of the Crush itself. Even if you’re not an oenophile, it’s by far the most beautiful time to visit Napa and it’s neighboring wine region, Sonoma Country. For Napa wineries and event listings, click here. For California’s Central Coast wine region events, click here.

Check out wine harvest events in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Washington state’s Yakima and Walla Walla regions, and British Columbia’s Fraser and Okanogan Valleys (go to Wines of the Northwest for events calendar on all of the aforementioned); for New York’s Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, and other regions go to Uncork New York!

3. Go apple pickingfall festivals
With apple-growing regions scattered all over North America–from Virginia and Pennsylvania to New York, Washington state, British Columbia, and California–there’s no shortage of opportunities to attend festivals or U-picks. This traditional fall pastime is a fun activity for kids and supports the local economy and foodshed. Put up apple butter, -sauce, or freeze a pie for Thanksgiving, but be sure to save enough for winter (all apples and pears are placed in cold storage once the growing season ends, so the fruit you buy later in the season won’t be freshly picked). Store in a cool, dry, dark place. P.S. Don’t forget to buy some cider doughnuts if they’re available.

Please note that due to unusual weather patterns (aka “global warming”) this past year, the harvest is delayed in many parts of the country, including Washington. Check with local farms before heading out.

4. Visit a cidery
If you prefer your apples fermented, there are some excellent craft cideries throughout North America. The tradition of craft cider distilling hails from Western Europe, but domestically, the hot spots are the Pacific Northwest (including British Columbia), parts of the Midwest, and the Northeast.
fall festivals
5. Feast at a farm dinner
For food lovers, few things beat dining outdoors in an orchard or pasture, surrounded by the people and ingredients that made your meal possible. Farm dinners are a growing national trend; they may be hosted independently by the farm (Washington’s Dog Mountain Farm, Colorado’s Zephyros Farm, and California’s Harley Farms Goat Dairy are my picks) or hosted by companies like Portland, Oregon’s Plate & Pitchfork and Boulder’s Meadow Lark Farm Dinners. Many farm dinners are fundraisers to help protect local agricultural easements or wetlands, but your participation also supports the farm and local foodshed.

Farm dinners are also held at wineries, distilleries, craft breweries, mariculture farms, and creameries; a tour should be included. The best part, however, is when the guests include everyone from the local cheesemaker, rancher, fisherman, or winemaker, to the potter who made the plates. It’s both humbling and gratifying to meet the people who work so hard to ensure local communities have a safe, sustainable food supply.

[Photo credits: grapes, Flickr user minnucci]

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