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Food and Drink

Easy tips for using the pounds and mounds of fresh fall bounty

I can never get enough of the Similkameen and Okanagan valleys this time of year. They’re feasts in every sense of the word, fragrant with sage and rabbit bush, the orchards and vineyards fairly bursting with fruit: apples in every shade of red; pears dangling over the wire fences that keep out intruders with four feet and two; the blue-purple of plums and grapes and even the fuzzy faces of a few late-season Oh Henry peaches poking through.

The fruit stands are equally works of art, including the displays of what seems like every variety of squash on earth in shapes and shades that must have sprang from the imagination of a mad scientist.

All of it coalesces to slow down your sense of time, especially if you’re caught behind a tractor or pick-up truck loaded with those big red wooden lugs from the growers’ co-ops, packed to the brim with fruit.

My mom’s side of the family comes from some of the first settlers in the Okanagan, so coping with the copious amounts of fresh produce this time of year always seemed second nature to us.

Besides stuffing our faces with every kind of fruit we could get our hands on, aunties, grannies and moms did their best to can or otherwise preserve the best of Okanagan summers to help everyone get through those long Alberta winters.

The same holds true at Whistler. Opening a jar of pear honey to slather on French toast in the middle of January is just about as good as a pear right off the tree.

Luckily, you don’t have to go to the Okanagan to pick up your fall fruit supply. In Whistler, the Farmers’ Market, which runs through Thanksgiving weekend, is a great source, as are the hard-working farmers of Pemberton Valley who grow tree and other fruits. Or simply check out your favourite grocery store. Go for the goods with the “grown in B.C.” signs and labels, and you’ll be supporting all those fine farmers who work and play in our collective backyard.

Fresh is first, but frozen can do

In my books, first choice for fruit is fresh, no matter what the variety. Ideally, none of your fresh fruit, including tomatoes, should ever see the inside of a fridge.

But at this time of year, with so much in abundance that rule of thumb can be hugely impractical, especially if you get as excited as we do by the look and smell of all that glorious fruit and buy it up by the box. Once you lug it all home you realize, oh my gosh, what do we do with all this stuff to keep it as wonderful as it is now?

If you use your fridge like the fruit co-ops do, as a tool to control the ripening process, you can do pretty well.

Luckily, local grapes will keep quite nicely in the fridge for several weeks. But like all fruits, they’re far more flavourful and juicy at room temperature so bring them out a cluster or two at a time before you plan to eat them. Just as a point of interest, take a close look at the stems. When you see how plump and green they are compared to those shriveled brown stems you find on grapes shipped from California, or horror of horrors, Chile, you realize how long ago the latter were picked.

Depending on how you like your apples you can refrigerate them, or not, or the cool dryness of your basement might do. Some people prefer them fully ripened. Personally I go for the slightly green ones, with just an edge of tartness to them — the crisper the better. If you buy a 20-pound box, select a few of the ripest ones for instant eating, and cold storage the rest, bringing them out to mellow a day or two at a time.

Apples don’t do well in the freezer, but applesauce does, even without much sugar. After thawing, just scrape away the top bit that oxidizes before you use it.

Plums are also ideal for freezing. Just wash, slice them in half and pit them, then store them in freezer bags for plum crisps, plum cakes or whatever you fancy in the heart of January. You can also freeze peach slices (and overripe bananas for that matter), but they will turn brown from oxidation. A commercial product like Fruit-Fresh will prevent same, but you’re going to cook with them anyway, so I say what the heck. It’s just a bit of discolouration and the fewer chemicals the better.

After all this, if you still have some fruit ripening before you can get to it, try your favourite recipe for jam, conserves or sauce. Here’s a favourite that my mom has been making for years. It will light up your taste buds on toast, French or otherwise, sandwiches or hot porridge.

Pear honey

Despite the name, this doesn’t use honey. Nor is it thick and syrupy. It’s more of a mouthwateringly juicy fruit conserve than a jam. Makes 8 outstanding 8-ounce jars.

Core and pare 9 cups (about 5.5 to 6 pounds) of ripe pears (Bartletts preferred as they are juicier). Chop them fairly fine. Be generous, packing your measuring cup and even filling it past the line. Use a Dutch oven and combine the pears with a 14-ounce tin of crushed pineapple and its juice (or a 9-ounce tin will do); 5 cups of white or raw sugar, or about half the volume of fruit, and 2 to 4 tablespoons of fresh lime or lemon juice. We prefer lime and use the higher amount. Cook slowly on medium heat, so it’s at a slow boil, stirring often and breaking up the larger pear chunks with a potato masher if need be. It should take about 25-35 minutes, depending on things like the amount of juice in the fruit and the humidity. You want the pear bits to be translucent and the whole thing to be a light bright yellow colour, slightly thickened and chunky, but not sticky or syrupy. When it’s ready, ladle into sterilized jars and seal according to manufacturer’s directions, or pour a bit of melted paraffin on top. Store in a cool, dry place. If you don’t seal the jars, it will keep refrigerated for months.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who can take her pear honey straight up.