Apples and pumpkins, cinnamon and nutmeg, soups and stews. You guessed it its fall.
For autumn, local farms are brimming with the seasons 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.
Thats not to say you cant 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 falls bounty stores like a dream. You can keep squash in a cool, dark place for more than a month. (Farmers say theyll last longer than that, but Id be afraid to try it.) Its the same for potatoes and onions and most of the root vegetables. But forget storing cabbage or Brussels sprouts; youll end up with a stinky mess.
If youre wondering how you tell that its fall around here, theres a simple answer. Its not Fort Lewis College students returning, or the leaves changing color or your cat shedding copiously. For farmers, at least, its when the first frost arrives.
Which it has, mostly. Thats 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, theyve 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 its 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 cant remember the last normal season.
Thats just how it is when it comes to weather and farming here. Its 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.) Its 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 thats 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 ...
Thats saying nothing of falls baked treats (you know I cant pass them by). Pumpkin and apple pies are always the stars, but really, theres 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 robins egg blue). At Guidos Favorite Foods, theyre 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. Theyre also using up the last gasp of summers 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.
Hes also a fan of extending falls 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 doesnt have to end on the last day of the Farmers Market, he said. We try to bulk up when its 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 autumns colors out your window. Coq au vin, anyone?