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Produce Pete's Thanksgiving Holiday Table

For the next 2 weeks Produce Pete will be talking about an abundance of produce for your holiday tables. There is nothing like fresh produce for your Thanksgiving table. Knowing good produce, how to pick and what to do with it, we'll make your holiday special. Food and family, family and food, what could be better.

  • Rutabaga - Yellow Turnip
  • Cranberries
  • Turnips
  • Rutabaga - Yello Turnip

    Each year Americans consume greater quantities of almost every sort of fresh vegetable except rutabagas. This neglected vegetable deserves better. Rutabagas can be cooked like potatoes, and if they're prepared right, they have a creamy, potato like texture and a distinctive taste. They've been a must on my family's Thanksgiving table for years, thanks to my Irish mother. Sure, the rutabaga is homely, but this inexpensive vegetable has a long shelf life, can be cooked in a number of ways, is very nutritious and is generally a terrific, hearty winter vegetable.

    Large and squat, a rutabaga looks a lot like a big darkened white turnip with the top and tail cut off. The skin is purple at the top, yellowish below, and the whole root is heavily waxed to prevent it from losing moisture and shriveling. Rutabagas are grown in cooler climates everywhere, but for the U.S> market, Canada grows the best.

    Season

    Rutabagas are in season from October through early summer.

    Selecting

    Choose roots that are heavy in the hand for their size, more rounded than pointed; and hard as a rock - with no soft spots. The tops should be purple and bright looking, and the wax should have a good shine on it. You can tell right away if a rutabaga is old, the wax will look dull, and the rutabaga will feel light.

    Storing

    If you can, store rutabagas in a cool, dark place like a root cellar. Even at normal room temperature, however, rutabagas in good condition will keep for a couple of months.

    Preparing

    Prepare rutabagas as you would potatoes, or as if they were acorn squash, with a little sweetening (they aren't stringy like acorn squash). We mash them just like potatoes, peel, cube, boil, and mash; add butter, salt and pepper. Or combine with potatoes before mashing for a milder flavor. I love mashed rutabagas straight, they've got a distinctive taste and they really stick to your ribs. They're excellent as a side dish with turkey, roast chicken, pork roast, pork chops, or ham.

    Cranberries

    Cranberries have been a part of the American holiday scene for many years. Raw berries are pretty strung with popcorn to make old-fashioned garlands for the Christmas tree. They're also used during the Jewish high holy days to construct little houses used in the celebration of Succoth. And although a lot of people have become accustomed to using canned cranberry sauce, it's quick and easy to make a delicious sauce from whole fresh berries. People are also starting to discover how useful cranberries are beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas. These festive, very firm red berries add great flavor to a lot of foods.

    Generally a half inch to an inch in diameter, cranberries are oval in shape, with a smooth, glossy, red to deep red skin, and contain tiny, soft, edible seeds. They are too tart for most people and require some sweetening.

    Cranberries are a member of the health family (Encaceae), which also includes blueberries, loganberries, and huckleberries. Their natural habitat is a swamp or bog in temperate climates, such as Wisconsin, Cape Cod, and Long Island. Native Americans used cranberries for dyes, medicines, and food, including a dish made of cranberries and dried meat. The various Indians names for cranberries translate as "sour berries" but settlers called them crane berries, possibly because they were favored by cranes or because the plant and flower look like one of these elegant birds. By the nineteenth century, American sailors and loggers were using cranberries to make a drink to prevent scurvy.

    Today cranberries are cultivated in shallow bogs that are flooded with water at appropriate times during the season. They are important crops in Massachusetts and New Jersey and are also cultivated in Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington State, British Columbia, and Quebec.

    Season and Selecting

    Fresh cranberries are available from September to January. They're usually packaged in twelve-ounce cello bags, which yield about three cups. Packaged cranberries are always sold in good condi8tion unless there has been a problem with refrigeration. Their high acid content gives them a long shelf life.

    Storing

    Packaged unwashed fresh cranberries will stay fresh up to four weeks in the refrigerator. You can freeze unwashed berries in doubled, well-sealed plastic bags, and they'll keep for as long as a year. Rinse them briefly, pick out the stems and use directly in recipes without thawing - they collapse when thawed.

    Preparing

    Wash well just before using, discarding the stems and any soft, wilted or bruised berries. Cranberries need to be sweetened with sugar, honey, maple syrup or other fruit juices. The high pectin content in cranberries makes them an ideal fruit for jellies or fruit chutney.

    Besides the popular cooked sauce and jelly used to accompany poultry and meats, cranberries can be made into an equally delicious uncooked relish. Grind or mince one package of cleaned berries with the grated zest and chopped pulp of one orange. Mix with 3/4 to 1 cup of sugar, add cinnamon if desired, and let the mixture stand overnight in the refrigerator.

    Cranberries are excellent mixed with apples or pears in pies and tarts. Apples are delicious stuffed with sweetened cranberry sauce, or try stuffing pears with cranberry sauce, sprinkling them with orange juice and cinnamon, and baking in a 325F oven for twenty minutes. Cranberry muffins are understandably popular, but your family will also enjoy cranberry nut loaf, cranberry upside-down cake, and cranberry cheesecake. Cranberry juice is delicious mixed with apple juice or lemonade, and cranberry sorbet is a refreshing treat.

    Yams - Potato, Sweet

    Ninety percent of what you see in the stores marked "yams" is actually a variety of sweet potato. The true yam is a tuber that can get as large as 100 pounds and grows primarily in the tropical zones of Africa. The potato with the sweet orange-red flesh that grows in the American South was dubbed a yam by African slaves, and the name stuck.

    American sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family. The rich orange-fleshed variety is harvested beginning in August; the fresh ones that show up on the market then have not been cured. The bulk of the crop is held in a heated, humidity-controlled environment for about a week. This "cures" the potato and converts much of its starch to dextrin's and sugar. A cured sweet potato is actually much sweeter than an uncured one and is what usually shows up on the Thanksgiving table.

    There are two other varieties of sweet potato that are much less frequently seen these days than the one that masquerades as a yam. The red sweet potato has a yellow flesh that's a bit sweeter than the white sweet potato, which has a white, more fibrous flesh. The red sweet potato has a dark, reddish skin and is in season about the same time as the yam type - starting in September. It keeps better than the white sweet potato, which has a very short season - usually the last couple of weeks in August.

    Season

    Avoid buying sweet potatoes in June and July, by then most of them have been stored for nearly a year. Uncured sweet potatoes start showing up on the market in late August; cured sweet potatoes arrive around the end of October. By Thanksgiving almost all that are on the market have been cured. The less common white and red sweet potatoes have a much shorter season at the end of the summer.

    Selecting

    Look for bright-colored, unbruised skin with no soft spots. Look at the ends of the potatoes, which should be firm. Most sweet potatoes have some fibrous roots on them; these are not a problem.

    Other recipes from Produce Pete.

       

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