The Exotic Fruits of the Upper Midwest – October Buys
As closing time approaches for area farmer’s markets, one item remains plentiful in late October, exotic fruit. Already tired of apples, try these other fruits.
Quince generally need warm weather to thrive, and you would not expect them to be found in the cold Upper Midwest. Still, the same warm Lake Michigan breezes that allow peaches to happen in Michigan also allow quinces to grow there. We know one farmer serving the Chicago area who grows quince, Walt Skibbe. Mr. Skibbe or his fruits can be found at several Chicago area farmer’s markets including Oak Park, Park Ridge and Deerfield. He also has a stand at the South Bend Farmer’s market.
Quince make your home smell nearly like a perfume factory. In fact, the intense aromas can be a bit much as you find time to get to your quince. And for the most part, you have to find time to get to your quince. Quince can only be eaten raw if “bletted” or let go to rot–an experience we have not tried. In North African cuisines, quince gets cooked with beef in tangines or stews. Many cuisines boil down the fruit into jellies, or better, really boil them down into fruit paste, a/k/a membrillo.
There may only be a few quince trees in the entire region. Chances are, there is a crab apple tree somewhere down your block. They easily grow here. Thing is, who does anything with those fruit. We call them “crab” apples because a bite raw makes you crabby; theyr’e very bitter and sour. Like quince, however, crab apples contain much pectin, the stuff that makes jellies gel. Tap down the crabiness in a sweetened jelly. Another use for crab apples, pickle, as we used to find at the once popular quasi-Swedish buffets.
If you do not have a crab apple tree in your neighbor’s yard, you may find a farmer at your local market selling crab apples. We saw them at two stands last Saturday in Oak Park.
We noted ages ago, that there’s nothing like a tropical fruit that’s a local tropical fruit. We find one fruit around here with the muskiness and squishy texture of the topics, paw paws. Everything about paw paws rings of Island honeymoons. They have an unusual green shade with a leather skin not too different from a mango. The flesh looks a little like a mango too but has almost no sour notes. Even the big pits seem tropical.
Paw paws grow easily around here and should be easier to find. Instead, there is Spence Farm selling only to restaurants and Oriana selling at Green City. Seek this out.
Our friend Oriana, the Papple Lady from Green City Market, knows the Midwest is filled with exotica. Her orchards include paw paws, persimmons (see below), and black walnuts. Yes, walnuts are fruits. Every year about this time, we start exhorting you all to use more black walnuts in your cooking. Like pretty much all the items mentioned in this post, black walnuts are characterized by their intenser-than flavors. In other words, there are walnuts and there are black walnuts. Actually, the intense flavor is not so much walnut-y as fruity. I find almost a grape like quality to black walnuts. You can use black walnuts in any walnut recipe, but people especially like to feature them in recipes that show off the fruit like black walnut ice cream.
Do we assess your locavore cred by how much you consider grapes an exotic fruit. It is not so much that grapes themselves are exotic, it’s that with the global dominance of bland green orbs, regional grapes, hell grapes with seeds, have become exotic for many. Southerners have their grapes like the olive-ish muscadine. We in the Midwest have concords and many others, even, by gosh, grapes without seeds. Again, the singular feature of our grapes is intensity of flavor. They are tart in the skin but sweet in the flesh. They range from musky to floral to musky-floral. Oddly, sadly, when processed, such as in grape jelly, most of the complexity of flavor vanishes, that simple flavor that appeals to kids of all ages.
Many area vendors sell grapes.
In recent years, farmers in California have successfully grown a couple of types of Asian persimmons, and at this time of year one can find them in all sorts of markets. But what about God Bless America, American persimmons. Our persimmons. The persimmons of persimmon pie, persimmon pudding, and persimmon fudge. Joy of Cooking recipes almost never made. Never made because who can find American persimmons around here. The biggest limit to selling persimmons is that they are not marketable until they have pretty much fallen off the tree, over-ripe. It’s just not something easy to bring to the market. Instead, persimmons are mostly found, if one does not have their own, tree, by driving the back roads of Southern Indiana, looking for hand painted, for sale signs. Or see if Oriana still has any.
And what’s exotic about cranberries? Nothing really. Like you, we eat them at least once a year on Thanksgiving. Unlike you, perhaps, we get ours from the farmer’s market. Yes, the good bulk of cranberries are from Wisconsin. Are they as good as the cranberries purchased from your favorite farmer. Find out.
We’ll leave you with this this last one that may or may not seem exotic. Chestnuts may be more popular in song than in kitchen use. Who amongst us roasts their chestnuts over an open fire. Still, chestnuts are all the rave in France and Italy. Recently, some growers in Michigan realized they could create the rave here. They are a bit of a pain to handle, needing to be cooked and then peeled (with a sharp knife), but they add a nice contrast to a dish of Brussels sprouts.
Other Exotic Fruits
We’ll skip various foraged crops like elderberries because you can almost never find them in markets. There are other items that you may find, especially if you travel. These include tiny huckleberries, hickory nuts and butter nuts. Let us know what other exotic fruits of the Midwest may be out there.