September-time and the living is easy! Here in the Rondout Valley, we’re enjoying the peak of the harvest season. The air is warm during the day and sweetly cool in the evening. The honking of airborne geese practicing their formations for their long flight south and the continuous chorus of insect-song is a soundtrack that reminds us that autumn is upon us.
At this very moment we have the biggest choice of fresh fruit and vegetables, when gardens and farms bulge with tomatoes, corn, summer squash, shell beans, eggplant, raspberries, multi-hued peppers and more. On the wild side, it’s prime season for foraging fruit like wild grapes, rose hips, pawpaws and autumn olives and nuts (both cultivated and native), including ginko nuts, hazelnuts, black walnuts, butternuts, chestnuts, and hickory nuts. Autumn is also the best mushroom hunting season, when it’s possible to find boletes (like porcini), meaty maitake (hen of the woods), pine-scented matsutake, juicy shaggy manes, and giant puffballs—all fantastically delicious. Finding just a small bagful can make you feel healthy, wealthy, and wise!
All over the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere, September and October is the time of traditional harvest festivals. (The only reason our nation’s Thanksgiving is set so late in November is because the date was chosen by Abraham Lincoln to begin the Christmas shopping season. I wonder if he could have foreseen Black Friday even then?)
When there is so much local bounty, while enjoying fresh food every day, I try to remember the winter months when the local food pickin’s are thinner, and to preserve some of the abundance while I can. I still haven’t yet made the leap to canning—storing food under vacuum in mason jars is a wonderful way to preserve it, but stovetop processing requires special equipment and expertise. Every year I vow to learn, but haven’t yet.
However, there are other ways to hold on to those great flavors and the fantastic nutrition of locally grown food. Drying is the simplest—removing moisture from food halts deterioration. Drying can even heighten flavors by concentrating them. Dried herbs and fruit will keep through the winter until we’ve got fresh again and dried mushrooms keep for decades. You can dry produce in your oven, on screen racks in a warm room, or in dehydrators made of stacking trays with warm air circulating. Fruit is still a little flexible when dried, because of the sugar content, but mushrooms, herbs and vegetables should be bone dry and crispy. All are best stored in tightly closed mason jars or in Ziplock bags in the freezer.
Pickling is a great way to transform and preserve more vegetables than you would imagine—beyond dill pickles and sauerkraut, there is a world of carrot, green bean, eggplant, turnip, beet and more kinds of pickles with which to tempt your tastebuds. Every culture has pickling traditions, which include pickling with brine (lacto-fermentation), with vinegar, with miso, and in alcohol, just for starters (and they all make great starters, by the way). Many traditional pickling techniques actually add nutrients, and many also are a great way to grow your own probiotics for optimum health.
One of the easiest ways to preserve food is by freezing it. Although this method takes ongoing energy to maintain preservation, a full freezer is the most energy efficient, so if you’ve got the space—fill it! Generally fruit (including tomatoes and peppers) can be simply cleaned and prepped by peeling, slicing, or mashing, as desired, and then frozen in containers or spread on sheets then bagged. If it’s fruit that tends to brown, a sprinkle of powdered vitamin C (ascorbic acid) will keep the color fresh. Vegetables and mushrooms are a bit trickier to freeze; many of them need to be “blanched” (dipped in boiling water) or fully cooked before freezing. This stops the enzymatic action that tend to bleed them of flavor and toughen them. There are easily available guidelines for the best ways to freeze each type. Green herbs can be frozen tightly packed in small containers and then scraped out with a spoon as needed. It’s quite wonderful on a frigid day in deepest, darkest February to have a bright tomato and basil soup followed by some blackberry cobbler, and to remember the blazing summer morning you filled your basket with the sun-warmed fruit—it’s food for the body and the sun-starved soul.
And when you’re done with all the wonderful labors of harvesting and preserving, it’s time to kick back and enjoy our own traditional local harvest festival, the Rondout Valley Growers Harvest Hoedown and Local Food Barbecue, on September 24 at Marbletown Park. The RVGA is a unique grassroots organization of over 60 farmers and their neighbors who have joined together to keep local farming strong. Every year a small army of farmers, chefs, musicians, artists, designers, and teenage and adult volunteers come together to create a fabulous celebration of the bounties of our valley.
There’s not only dinner and dancing (with the Shoe String Band and caller Liz Slade), but in the tradition of harvest fests, there are competitions—the Zucchini 500 Race is an annual favorite, there’s pumpkin painting, tractors, and I know for a fact that many a romance has sparked in the magic September twilight. This year, the Harvest Hoedown celebrates our Elder Farmers with a special performance by Kelleigh McKenzie reprising her original songs from last April’s Unsung Heroes performance, and farmer Creek Iverson will lead a sing-along of traditional farm work songs. It’s the best farm-to-table feast around. Adult tickets are $25 or can be earned by volunteering for 3 hours before, during or after the event ($30 at the gate, kids 6-12 are $5/$10). Info about volunteering, tickets and more can be found at rondoutvalleygrowers.org or on the RVGA Facebook page. Don’t miss it!
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist, and member of the RVGA Board who lives, works, and eats in Accord, NY.