Beyond corn and 'taters: fall is the time to expand your taste

The autumn harvest presents the perfect opportunity to try new and varied bounty from local producers, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino.

Take a peek at a leek... or persimmon or ground cherry. Ontario farm bounty revealed in autumn harvest

The fall months bring with them a fresh crop of apples, potatoes, Brussels sprouts and squash, but there are many other late-summer and autumn crops that are surprisingly good—though less familiar. Here are a five for you to explore. 

Leeks

Canning Produce, near Paris, Ont. grows about 60 acres of leeks, making them one of the top two producers in Canada. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC)
Let's start with leeks. While they are common, I don't think people cook with them enough except to bury them in potato-leek soup. Looking like giant scallions and related to onions and garlic, leeks are milder and grow in concentric circles, making them tough to clean but delicious when cooked properly.

Gmach Produce of New Dundee grows leeks and sells them at the farmers' market in downtown Kitchener. However, what is notable, especially if you're a leek lover, is that Canning Produce, near Paris, Ontario, grows about 60 acres of leeks making them one of the top two producers in Canada (they battle it out year-to-year for number-one status with a farm in Quebec.)  

A good way to prepare leeks is to remove the tough ends and wash the grit from between the layers. Cut them in half along their length trying to leave the root end intact. In a pan of boiling, salted water, blanch for 3 minutes, remove, drain, and allow to dry. Coat the leeks with good olive oil, season with salt and pepper and grill them until golden brown.

Okra

Canadians eat about six million kg of okra annually.
Stevanus Family Farm in Bloomingdale grows okra, also known as lady fingers. The slender green member of the hibiscus family likely came to North America via the Atlantic slave trade and is a key ingredient in southern U.S. cookery. However, in 2016 Canadians consumed about six million kilograms of okra, including those grown on a few farms in Ontario; it's a labour intensive crop to harvest. Try pickling okra with vinegar, jalapeno and spices.

Paw paws

Pawpaw fruit shrub trees grow in the Carolinian forests of eastern and central North America. In Ontario, that's around the shores of Lake Erie and in the Niagara region. (U.S. National Park Service/Brolis)
Also called the poor man's banana, the paw paw is the largest fruit produced by a native plant on this continent. It is found in the Carolinian forest of southwestern Ontario around Lake Erie and Niagara with a taste similar to that of a mango and a banana.

It can be pulped and made into a paw paw pie. Paw paws are harvested in August and September, and can be found at Warner's Farm in Beamsville or Forbes Wild Foods in Toronto.

Persimmons

Persimmons are best eaten when soft and ripe. (Wikipedia/Nesnad)
It is surprising to think of a persimmon as growing locally—it just seems like it should be a middle eastern or Asian fruit. In fact, it's native to both Asia and North America. When conditions are right, it's grown at Warner's Farm and available in late October or early November. Rachael Ward of Bailey's Local Foods in Waterloo says they often carry them. She says there are a few tricks for getting the balance right on eating a persimmon.

"Be warned that if you eat a persimmon while firm, they will taste chalky. They ripen nicely and become sweet and wonderful when soft," Ward says.

Persimmons can withstand some frost and you may see them freshly picked even in December. Interestingly, they can be stored in plastic bags with apples to allow them to fully ripen. "They can also be placed in the freezer over night and eaten the next day when thawed," Ward adds.

Ground cherries

Ground cherries are also known as husk tomatoes, Peruvian or Cape gooseberries and are related to tomatillos, tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco. (Gary Graves/CBC)
Also known as husk tomatoes or Peruvian or Cape gooseberries, these small yellowish-orange fruits with thick skins are wrapped in papery husks and are related to tomatillos, tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco. You can occasionally find ground cherries at grocery stores and at Vincenzo's in Waterloo and Legacy Greens in downtown Kitchener, where owner Jordan Dolson grows them on her farm.

When you eat one, you might taste a faint caramel flavour, so ground cherries are often used in desserts; however, try using it as a flavour base for a savoury salsa. 


Recipe: Ground cherry salsa with lime and mint 

Ingredients

2 cups ground cherries, husked and washed
2 small shallots 
1 tablespoon minced jalapeno
1 small clove garlic
1 lime (juiced)
¼ cup olive oil (and more as needed)
2 tablespoons roughly chopped mint 
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


Method

Add the ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and blend together to a salsa consistency. Add more olive oil, if needed. Adjust for salt and pepper seasoning.

More columns from Andrew Coppolino

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.