Fall in the Finger Lakes is Bittersweet

Here in the Finger Lakes it is clear that fall has arrived.  Summer hasn’t quite moved on yet, the sunshine is still hot and the zucchini and tomatoes producing wildly.  But it’s dropping into the low fifties at night and the greenery looks less lush and more tired.  The sun is shining a little lower in the sky, stretching out the golden hour into a luxurious full afternoon of photography opportunities.  Ducks I’ve never seen before zoom overhead, beaks decidedly pointed south.  Last week it felt wonderful to hop into the lake in the stifling dog-days humidity but today I needed a jacket after the sun went down.

Mid-August brings the first thought of fall to the Finger Lakes.  In many ways it is sad to say goodbye to summer with its sunshine reaching past 9 pm, its swimming trips, and its many summer guests.  Surprisingly, guests don’t like the idea of traveling to upstate New York in the snow, who’d have thunk it?  Fall looks to winter with its long nights and early morning shoveling.  My toes are already getting in shape for toe-sicle season.  This is the bitter portion.

But fall has some wonderful things about it too.  Pumpkins, for example, and eating pumpkins.  Pumpkin soup, bread, pie, and muffins rounds out most people’s knowledge of pumpkin-based foods.  But there is much more.  Rich and dark pumpkin butter or creamy pumpkin risotto.  Pumpkin and cornmeal fritters are hot, greasy, and satisfy the soul.  Peanutty pumpkin curries make a chilly evening sizzle with heat.  I love “butchering” my pumpkins.  I set them up on my counter and armed with my largest chef’s knife, sometimes even the rarely used cleaver for really big pumpkins, and disassemble the vegetable into neat halves or quarters to be roasted.  My cat watches this operation carefully, for being half raccoon and half demon-possessed, he loves few foods better than the seeds-and-gunk that you scoop from the pumpkin’s core.  If I am to have peace while cooking a heaping scoop must be plopped into his kibble bowl for him to feast on out of my way.

With the pumpkin harvest come all the fall harvests and an abundance that must be quickly dealt with if not to be squandered.  Food is dried, frozen, canned.  This year I will try a trick my grandmother uses for tomatoes that are still green when the first threat of frost comes.  She wraps the green tomatoes in newspaper and leaves them in a dry spot in the basement.  Some ripen slowly into red jewels to bedeck a Thanksgiving dinner with while others simply sit, un-spoiling, green as the grass for months.  These can be eaten in any green tomato recipe well into winter.

While I’ve tried my hand at numerous canning recipes I’ve found that one stands out as more worth the time, effort, and expense than any other canning (hot-water-bath method at least) endeavor.  My jam is only a little better tasting than good quality store jam and only a little less expensive (though it has a proclivity to turn grey…an unappetizing habit!), my pickles lack crispness and end up more mustardy than I mean them too, and fruits packed in syrup just never get eaten.  But tomatoes are different.  Putting them up myself is more expensive than buying canned ones and is a tortuously tedious process, requiring three pots of water boiling at the same time and dirtying every large vessel I own.  But the results are fantastic.  I put up nine quarts of tomatoes last week requiring a total of four adults two hours of active prep and then me watching the timer, filling jars, and praying for faster boiling times for an additional four hours.  I think I will need to do this at least one more time before the frosts come.  Summer is for fresh tomatoes but a cold and blustery late autumn day might call for a spaghetti squash and home-canned tomatoes, a special pleasure.  Home-canned tomatoes have all the ripe aromatics of fresh tomatoes and have fully integrated the lemon juice, salt, and pepper they’ve been canned with so, right out of the jar even, they are like a ready-made sauce.

Apples come in soon.  Our apple tree in the backyard has produced a handful of edible fruit: large; finely textured, dense, white flesh; at the upper end of tolerably tannic; aromas similar to a non-insipid Gala; and judging by how long it takes for the flesh to brown, high in vitamin C.  I foraged some crab pears from a tree down the road, at the time they were too tannic to eat pleasurably but hopefully the chill weather will sweeten them up.  Wild apple-pear butter anyone?

The sweaters stored away in the back of the closet will have to come out for an airing soon and the windows and doors assessed for drafty-ness.  Fall is inevitably on her way.  But a hungry Finger Lakes resident like me has many delicious surprises to attend to before winter begins to have her sway!

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