The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina beckon to Floridians when long, hot days here seem endless, air conditioners keep cranking and food preparation grows wearisome. The crisp, cool mountain air, the smell of vegetation nipped by frost and red and yellow leaves drifting down send us in search of mountain fall harvested fruits and vegetables.
As October rolls in, Florida grocers have started mounding up the new crop of apples, heaping hard squash in baskets and piling pumpkins all around.
I've lived in Florida 35 years, but it's still possible to find me in the grocery produce section, gently caressing big yellow pumpkins with a lump in my throat. This 63-year-old — cradling butternut squash in her arms — is transported back to her grandma's North Carolina farm in the fall, staring into the big log barn stalls at piles of hard squash waiting to be chopped with a hatchet into chunks for cattle feed or carried back to the kitchen for a satisfying meal.
The memories take me back to foods I loved as a child and, as an adult, continue to enjoy often with a new tweak for added nutrition or to keep pace with current trends.
Baked butternut squash with a drizzle of honey is still a favorite. A great side dish, it's sweet enough to double as dessert. Hard squash mashed or pureed can be interchanged with pumpkin in any recipe, the texture being the same. With apples, onions, cider and a hint of curry, butternut squash makes a splendid soup, an idea foreign to me 50 years ago.
Both squash and pumpkin can be challenging to prepare with their hard outer shell, but they're easy to bake. First cut them in half and remove the seeds. Then, put them skin side down in a pan with a half inch or so of water, and bake covered at 350 for 45 min. The less water used with squash or pumpkins, the better to preserve taste. Squash or pumpkins can be cooked whole, but they need a few holes poked in before baking to allow steam to escape.
Few tastes are as satisfying as a freshly picked North Carolina apple, the skin so tight it snaps with first bite and the juice so succulent it's easy to rush chewing to get the next bite. Whether raw, baked in a pie, part of a salad or pureed in a creamy soup, apples bring a wealth of nutrition, a burst of flavor and, for me, a nostalgic trip back to the farm where my grandma grafted apple trees. Her efforts yielding fruits with unusual colors and tastes like a wonderful black-freckled yellow sweet apple that I carried in my pockets, satisfying the hunger of a preschooler romping outdoors.
Also claiming high nutritional value are sweet potatoes, harvested from small ridges of mountain soil. They're good baked, combined in a casserole or worked into a Southern favorite, Sweet Potato Pie. A recent recipe combines crisp bacon in twice-baked sweet potatoes, giving them a contemporary edge.
When the chill of autumn air settles on the Blue Ridge, the harvest of fall crops is in full swing and includes black walnuts, wild grown with a distinctive taste. Hard as rocks, they must be cracked with a hammer on a very hard surface, like the rock step outside my grandma's kitchen. As a child, I nursed many mashed fingers, minus complaints, knowing my grandma would bake a black walnut pound cake and that a warm slice washed down with cold milk would balance any discomfort.
Give me a chance to be "back home" in North Carolina in the fall and I'll hunt a favorite shop for a small chunk of black walnut fudge!
I can't bring back that mountain air or that wonderful autumn outdoor smell, but when my car heads back to Florida, somewhere tucked away there'll be plenty of those mountain harvest fruits and vegetables and some black walnuts.
Once home, favorite recipes will come out of my files and I'll have a little bit of a North Carolina mountain fall in my Florida kitchen.
Gail Diederich can be reached at [email protected]