Flavors of fall

First frost brings new bounty of fresh, local produce

James Ranch grows – and sells – winter squashes such as pumpkin, acorn and spaghetti. Enlarge photo

Steve Lewis/Durango Herald

James Ranch grows – and sells – winter squashes such as pumpkin, acorn and spaghetti.

Apples and pumpkins, cinnamon and nutmeg, soups and stews. You guessed it – it’s fall.

For autumn, local farms are brimming with the season’s specialties from apples and pears to root vegetables such as turnips, parsnips and rutabaga to dark greens including kale and spinach. And did we mention winter squash? Our area is awash in them – spaghetti, delicata, hubbard, butternut, buttercup, acorn, kobocha and that baking favorite, pumpkin.

Still hanging around but on their way out are tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. And gone until next year are summer squash, zucchini, arugula, fennel, pickling cucumbers, sugar snap peas and fruits such as peaches, nectarines, plums and melons.

That’s not to say you can’t buy these things in the grocery store, but local farmers are out of them. And while there are few absolute truths in this world, one of them is that fresh, local produce tastes best.

The good news is most of fall’s bounty stores like a dream. You can keep squash in a cool, dark place for more than a month. (Farmers say they’ll last longer than that, but I’d be afraid to try it.) It’s the same for potatoes and onions and most of the root vegetables. But forget storing cabbage or Brussels sprouts; you’ll end up with a stinky mess.

If you’re wondering how you tell that it’s fall around here, there’s a simple answer. It’s not Fort Lewis College students returning, or the leaves changing color or your cat shedding copiously. For farmers, at least, it’s when the first frost arrives.

Which it has, mostly. That’s the marker between summer and autumn, between peaches going out and pears coming in, between craving a fresh, crisp salad or a hearty, long-simmered stew. Cold weather sets the sugar in apples, causes tomatoes to dwindle and heralds the new season.

In Southwest Colorado, when you get that first frost depends largely on where you live. The local topography covers multiple river bottoms, mesas, valleys, canyons and, oh yeah, mountains. The span of less than a mile between the cooler east side of the Animas Valley and the warmer west side is the difference between when you get tree fruits like cherries and apricots, or if you even get them at all.

So Mancos had its first frost two weeks ago, and Hesperus just last week. But north of town on U.S. Highway 550, local growers are still waiting.

Kelly Pettyjohn of the Wily Carrot in Mancos had her first freeze Sept. 19.

“All of a sudden it got cold. Greens slowed down big time and things stopped rotating up,” she said of her system of rotating plants to be harvested.

At Chimney Rock Farms near Bayfield, they’ve had a touch of frost, enough to slow down the production of greens. On the flip side, apples came in two weeks early and already are past their peak.

As to what kind of fall it’s going to be, well… nobody knows. Most of the area farmers I talked to said it feels fairly normal, with nights and mornings considerably cooler than they have been and the days still fairly warm.

“Abnormal is the new normal,” said Darrin Parmenter, Colorado State University horticulturist. “I can’t remember the last normal season.”

That’s just how it is when it comes to weather and farming here. It’s not uncommon to have an early cold snap then to enjoy warm temperatures all the way through October. (Dear Lord, please make it so. A girl can only take so many freezing days.) It’s also normal for it to turn cold the first of October and to stay that way until May. (Shoot me.)

Sean Kearney of Animas Valley Farms, one of the few certified organic farms in the area, said this year autumn seems normal to him, with no deep frost yet and the days remaining pretty warm.

So, with daytime temperatures still reaching into the 80s, when did he know summer was really over?

“I cooked up a delicata squash the other day,” he said, “and that’s when it felt like fall.”

Ah, the joys of fall flavors. Apple cider simmering away, butternut risotto hearty enough to star as an entrée, Brussels sprouts sauteed golden with butter and a touch of garlic, root vegetables such as carrots, beets, potatoes and parsnips cubed, slathered in olive oil and baked until fragrant and, and, and ...

That’s saying nothing of fall’s baked treats (you know I can’t pass them by). Pumpkin and apple pies are always the stars, but really, there’s so much more. Ever try a butternut squash flan? To die for. Or a pumpkin cheesecake? Scrumptious. Or the plainest, most delicious of all fall desserts, a crisp – nothing more than apples or pears or both sliced and layered into a pan and covered with oats, nuts, cinnamon and butter and baked until bubbly? Addictive. Oh, and I almost forgot – poached pears, lightly cooked in wine, sugar and spices and served warm or chilled, good either way with ice cream? You really have to.

Not just home cooks are excited about what they can find at the Farmers Market and truck stand. Even the colors of autumn produce are fun – yellow, orange, blue (hubbard squash is robin’s egg blue). At Guido’s Favorite Foods, they’re offering up a sweet potato ravioli to ring in the season, as well as long-cooking dishes such as veal osso bucco (braised in wine for six hours, no less) and game hens with sausage. They’re also using up the last gasp of summer’s best, from tomatoes to melons to fresh beans.

Seasons Rotisserie & Grill executive chef David Stewart was busy planning his fall menu last week. He will feature heartier, richer flavors such as lamb shanks braised in wine and garlic, duck confit and James Ranch beef short ribs. Vegetables will get more flavorful, too, with horseradish mashed potatoes, cabbage cooked with bacon and apples and that French favorite, green lentils.

He’s also a fan of extending fall’s abundance of local produce as far into the cold, dark months as he can. So he stores squash, apples, potatoes and anything else that will keep in a cold, dark cellar.

“The season doesn’t have to end on the last day of the Farmers Market,” he said. “We try to bulk up when it’s still available so we can stretch the season.”

So put the cider on the stove, stock up on all those beautiful squashes and stick-to-your-ribs potatoes and glory in autumn’s colors out your window. Coq au vin, anyone?

phasterok@durangoherald.com

Mike Nolan of Mountain Roots Produce, near Hesperus, estimated a yield of 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of potatoes from a half-acre field. Here, Jake Stone harvests nicola potatoes. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Mike Nolan of Mountain Roots Produce, near Hesperus, estimated a yield of 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of potatoes from a half-acre field. Here, Jake Stone harvests nicola potatoes.

Red bell peppers at James Ranch will be available for a few more weeks. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Red bell peppers at James Ranch will be available for a few more weeks.

Delicata squash from James Ranch is great baked with cinnamon, butter and sugar. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Delicata squash from James Ranch is great baked with cinnamon, butter and sugar.

The first Brussels sprouts of the fall season from James Ranch are terrific pan-fried. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

The first Brussels sprouts of the fall season from James Ranch are terrific pan-fried.

James Ranch farmers sell the last of their heirloom tomatoes at the Farmers Market and at the ranch on U.S. Highway 550. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

James Ranch farmers sell the last of their heirloom tomatoes at the Farmers Market and at the ranch on U.S. Highway 550.

Mike Nolan, right, of Mountain Roots Produce, harvests potatoes for sale to Durango School District 9-R, Durango Natural Foods Co-Op, and several restaurants in town. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Mike Nolan, right, of Mountain Roots Produce, harvests potatoes for sale to Durango School District 9-R, Durango Natural Foods Co-Op, and several restaurants in town.

Mountain Roots Produce grows rutabagas. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Mountain Roots Produce grows rutabagas.