Early October is a time of transitions. The leaves on the trees were as deep green as mid-summer as I set out on my Saturday walk to Green City Market in Lincoln Park. But the chill in the air was a reminder that winter is indeed coming.
It is also a time of transition for farmers markets such as Green City.
The growing season started late because of the rainy, chilly spring, but better summer weather resulted in a longer growing season. Nonetheless, I grabbed a couple of pounds of beautiful eggplant from Wisconsin’s Froggy Meadow Farm because owner Jerry Boone informed me they were his last of the season. Smits Farm of Chicago Heights lured me in with zucchini.
While the season for late summer crops such as green beans, carrots and bell peppers still has some life in it, for the most part, summer’s local produce bounty is close to tapping out. The market staples for the rest of October will be the local vegetables and fruit that sustain us (as storage crops) through the long, cold days ahead.
And that’s a good thing, if you are either a devotee of eating seasonally — or getting more interested in eating by the season, as nature intended.
Sure, thanks to modern transportation, temperature control and warehouses, you can get just about anything you want to eat at the supermarket all year round from California, Texas, Florida, Mexico and the Southern Hemisphere, where our winter is their summer.
But if you want to continue to eat beautiful food produced in the Chicago region, and support the amazing small-farm owners who produce that food, you have to make your way to one of the local farmers markets (several stay open indoors from late fall through early spring) or a specialty grocer such as Local Foods.
Winter squash is among the October-ish things now available at these markets. You’ll find the familiar varieties, such as acorn and butternut, along with some less-known, but delicious types such as Delicata (a personal favorite).
Winter squash can be intimidating to some because they are hard uncooked and require a little elbow grease to cut through, and because you have to clean out the seeds and pulp. But it’s worth the effort. This quintessential fall and winter vegetable is so versatile — we’ll have some easy cooking ideas in a subsequent article — and super-healthy (lots of Vitamins A, B and C, potassium, magnesium, manganese and iron, plus nine grams of fiber in a cup).
And don’t throw out those seeds! Rinse them, let them dry thoroughly, and roast them until golden brown for a delicious snack.
Now, who doesn’t like apples, which are now peaking in their fresh season? Almost every grower in the region produces popular varieties such as HoneyCrisp. But if you’re near a market served by Nichols Farm & Orchard, stop by and treat yourself. Located in Marengo, Illinois, about 60 miles northwest of Chicago, and the region’s biggest diversified produce farm, Nichols produces dozens of apple varieties, including a number of artisan types such as Cortland, Macoun or Northern Spy. Try some, and you might be amazed at what you’ve been missing.
Among the other crops still producing into October in Illinois (according to pickyourown.org) are beans, broccoli, cabbage (including Brussels sprouts), greens (such as spinach), herbs, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelon — and of course, pumpkins. (Did you know that Illinois is, by far and away, the largest pumpkin producer in the United States?) And naturally, there are indoor-grown crops, such as mushrooms, microgreens and hoophouse tomatoes, that you can find at markets year-round.
Please share your own great local food finds in the comments section, and get ready to show off your winter squash recipes, because we’ll be asking for those soon.
Most of the major outdoor farmers markets in Chicagoland stay open into late October. We’ll share a list of markets that move indoors for the winter in our November seasonality preview, so you can plan to buy local for Thanksgiving.