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Harvesting Mystery Pumpkins

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September is an overlap month in the world of vegetables. Tomatoes, squash, corn and other summer vegetables are still available in abundance and while most of these are still quite good, the cool fall evenings and crisp mornings bring with them that familiar tug in my tummy to the hardier greens and roots of fall. The return of the harvest moon also marks the appearance of winter squashes and pumpkins along with the gateway event of the holiday season — Halloween!

At our global produce buying office, this is a touchy time as purchasing overlaps between our local/regional growers and the much larger national growers. As it is next to impossible to pinpoint the exact end of the local season across the country, our task is to make sure our office is ready to support each region during the cold winter months.At home, the fall garden harvest has been a huge disappointment. The El Niño rains of spring and summer that brought lush early plant growth to my mystery pumpkin bed also brought powdery mildew that robbed my vines of their vitality and late summer productivity.

Many of the early squashes and pumpkins were affected as well, with stunted growth or by dropping off of the vine altogether. What is bad news for me is great news for the pumpkin growers and sellers in the area — it's impossible for me to walk by a pumpkin display without buying something.Fall food for me is all about greens (lettuce and cooking), soups and stews. The tomato-cucumber-corn combination that sustained my family in the summer months will still happen occasionally since October tends to be very mild in my area of the U.S., but lettuce salads, sautéed greens with rice, and a wide variety of soups and stews start to work their way into my weekly menu.

One of the most dramatic changes we see this time of year is in color — and not just the changes in leaf color on our trees. Cold nights in the field have a dramatic effect on the color, flavor and texture of most row crop greens. Lettuces and cooking greens like kale tend to grow slower and develop a sweeter, stronger flavor. The leaf structure also tends to be denser – making the lettuce crisper and more fully formed. The change in color though is by far the most notable — the reds are deeper and the greens darker.

Outside of my very real obsession with carving virtually all types of squash and pumpkin, I always look forward to fall and the changes it brings to the colors in and around my house as well as my diet. I won’t carve as many pumpkins this year as last (I would go broke — I got 80 of the 113 I carved last year out of my garden) but I will serve the chipotle chicken stew, crusty bread, red butter leaf salad and copious bottles of wine to all my family and friends who come over to laugh at all the costumed kids who come by. So long summer, welcome fall.

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