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Flavorful Fall Bounty: Pumpkin, Apples & Pears

Pumpkins, apples and pears are everywhere this time of year. Get the most out of their hardy goodness with these tips!

Pumpkins: For most people, pumpkins, a member of the gourd family, are an autumnal icon and are primarily purchased for carving and decorating.  But certain varieties (the most common being sugar or “pie” pumpkin) are also used in cooking. In fact, don’t cook the jack-o’-lantern types of pumpkins– they’re too stringy and bland tasting for recipes.

Pie pumpkins are generally smaller than carving varieties, with thinner skin and sweeter, finer grained flesh than their larger carving cousins.  If you’d like to make a holiday pie using sugar pumpkin, simply cut a sugar pumpkin into large chunks (don’t bother peeling it yet) and scrape out the seeds and stringy center. Place the chunks on a baking sheet and roast at 400°F. until tender, then let cool slightly before scraping the softened flesh away from the skin. Purée the flesh in a food processor until smooth and use in your favorite pie or soup recipes, anywhere it calls for canned pumpkin purée.

Apples: If ever there was an iconic symbol of autumn, it’d have to be an apple. Although they’re always in season, now is the time to find unique heirloom varieties at farmers’ markets, as well as more traditional varieties at their freshest. No matter what type of apple you buy, choose those that are firm, fragrant and free of soft spots, bruises, nicks and insect damage. To extend apples’ shelf life, keep them cool after buying, preferably in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Stored this way, they can last several weeks. Whatever you do, never store apples and potatoes together: as potatoes age they release ethylene, a gas that makes apples spoil faster.

Of course, apples are wonderful eaten out of hand, but they’re also delicious in salads, sandwiches and even in chicken spread for crackers! They shine in desserts, too, like strudel and napoleons, and you’ll love the sweet-tart dimension they add to savory dishes like pork chops and stuffing.

Pears: Although pears are available year-round, they’re most abundant in the fall and you’ll find a lot of variety right now. Common Bartletts, brown-skinned Boscs, fragrant D’Anjous and miniature Sekels are just some of what you might find in stores; generally speaking, all types of pears can be used interchangeably so use whatever is ripest at the time. That said,  don’t be alarmed if the pears you find are rock-hard: unlike most fruits, pears actually ripen better off the tree so they’re commonly picked and shipped when under-ripe. This helps prevent bruising during transport as well.

When buying pears, choose those that have smooth, blemish- and bruise-free skin with a lightly sweet scent. The fruit is ripe when the blossom-end gives slightly when pressed; ripen hard pears at room temperature. Once they soften a bit, use right away or store in the fridge. The cold environment will slow ripening but won’t stop it, so be sure to use the fruit sooner rather than later. There’s nothing better than a perfectly ripe pear eaten fresh out of hand, but they’re also a terrific addition to salads, savory tarts or as a featured fruit in desserts. Add them to a cheese platter as well – they’re especially good paired with creamy blue Gorgonzola!