September is actually a slightly confusing month in the same way the March is—it’s a transitional moment, not really fall, but not summer any more. Markets are still full of heirloom tomatoes, plums, nectarines and figs. But bite into the first pear of the season and a peach just won’t taste right any more. Something has changed. It might still be hot, but the air feels different.
So what’s on the menu?
Especially watermelons, and muskmelons (the group that includes cantaloupe, Persian melons, casabas, honeydew and galia). Hydrating, antioxidant-rich, and really awesomely tasty, melons are not the most versatile foods (they don’t always play well with other fruits for some reason, though they have a good relationship with grapes), but they stand on their own just fine. Cantaloupe and its close relatives are believed to be a very effective treatment or prevention strategy for “metabolic syndrome,” so as it turns out that 1970s cantaloupe-and-cottage cheese thing might have been more than just a punishment for the overweight.
Anti-inflammatory, high in a large range of nutrients, and incredibly luscious, muskmelons are at their peak at the summer-fall transition point. Watermelons originated in Africa (though China is the number one consumer of these fruits today). The lycopene in this quintessential picnic fruit is crucial for cardiovascular and bone health, and it’s an unusually dense source of the amino acid citrulline—which you can look up for full nerd-details—but long story short, it helps you not store fat as readily. Melons are wonderful pureed into cold soups or aguas frescas, and delicious with shredded basil or a little fresh thyme. In the American South, watermelon rind can be found candied or pickled.
The grape might have the broadest cultivation range and the most intense relationship with humans of any plant on earth. Grapes are cultivated on every part of the planet except Antarctica, and their cultivation goes back about 8000 years (that we know of). Wine is one big reason why, but the applications of this tenacious, adaptable fruit hardly stop there. There are differences between wine and table grapes (wine grapes have not been bred to be seedless, they’re thicker-skinned and higher in sugar than table grapes), but all cultivars of the Vitis genus have extraordinary health benefits and a huge range of culinary applications.
There are several compounds in grapes, especially in the polyphenol group, that are shown to enhance longevity, control blood sugar, reduce oxidative stress and guard against cancer. (Red or black grapes have more of these than green or yellow ones, but they’re all heavy-hitters). Entire books could be (and have been) written on the subject of this fruit—hit up your bookstore or library if you are interested in the massively complex symbolism of grapes and their deep intertwining with human history. For now, let’s just say September is their big moment in the northern hemisphere, and they are something to take advantage of while fresh. Chilled grapes are a decadent snack on their own; they are also beautiful with cheese, in fall salads, and in many cooked preparations, too. Grapes were a “superfood” before anyone outside the Brazilian rainforest ever laid eyes on an acai berry—eat lots of them. Bear in mind that if you prefer your grapes in fermented liquid form, there is a point of diminishing returns on that whole health thing after about two glasses. (But that’s another article.)
Warm-climate plants believed to be under cultivation for some 7,000 years, chickpeas in their green form are totally different from the mature yellow ones you find dried, canned or in hummus—it’s like the difference between fresh and dried peas. Sweeter and more delicate than their full-grown counterparts, they are fabulous pan-roasted with plenty of salt (experiment with other seasonings too—I love them with za’atar blends). Unlike fresh fava beans, they can also be shelled and eaten raw, or blanched and stir-fried (south Indian spice profiles are good here), pureed like hummus (some people lighten this with ricotta cheese) or deep-fried (Thomas Keller does it, so it must be okay!) Treat them as you would edamame, if you like.
Chickpeas are high in protein and fiber and have some particular magic, even more than other legumes, in regulating blood sugar. They are excellent sources of short-chain fatty acids, which you want if avoiding cancer is a priority for you. They’re also decently high in iron and zinc, but more to the point they are really tasty.
. Nearly 20 species of mussels are edible, with Mytilus edulis being the one you’re most likely to encounter. Though probably most strongly associated with Belgium and French fries, these intertidal bivalves are appreciated in cuisines around the world and served in innumerable ways—their soft texture and marine flavor is well-suited to stews and broths. They are a good source of protein, B vitamins and many minerals, and unlike shrimp are not cholesterol-bombs. They are generally inexpensive and sustainable and not mercury offenders.
A word about these guys, though: you cannot be careless with mussels. A watermelon that’s a little off can make you shudder. A mussel that’s a little off can make you spectacularly sick. Mussels are filter feeders and so are prone to absorbing bacteria if the water is infested. If you hear the words “red tide” on your local news and mussels are on sale…dude, get chicken. Also, mussels degrade very quickly and do so in a way that becomes very poisonous to humans, so it’s imperative that they be alive at the time they are cooked. Mussels whose shells are not tightly closed must be tossed unless you think it would be fun to see how paralyzed “paralytic shellfish poisoning” actually makes you. (Hint: heart-stoppingly!) Luckily, most of us have access to fish purveyors who know what they are doing, but all the same, you need to pay attention if you’re cooking these guys at home. Toss out any raw ones that are open (those are dead), as well as any that are still closed after cooking (those ones are dead, too, but they won’t be good eating).
Yes, I said quince. Never eaten one? Unsurprising, but while this cousin of the much more accessible apple is one of those fruits that require a little patience, it’s also well worth the effort. Cultivated probably even before the apple, quinces are most likely what actually grew in the Garden of the Hesperides and many other ancient myths that refer to “apples.” But here’s the deal. With rare exceptions, this mythic fruit will reward you with a painfully astringent, sour suckerpunch if you bite into a raw one. Cook them, though, and they undergo a great metamorphosis. The flesh turns red, and they release an unearthly perfume. They are the basis for membrillo, which is manchego cheese’s BFF, for many mostarda di frutta recipes (Italian for chutney, basically), jams and preserves, brandies and liqueurs. Try chopping one (they’re knobby and firm, so it’s not easy) and adding a small amount to your apple pie filling. It’s awesome.
An award winning poet and longtime food and wine pornographer, Amy Glynn was first accused of being a “food snob” by her parents at age 8. Her book “A Modern Herbal” was released by Measure Press in 2013. She lives in the SF Bay Area, Ground Zero of the “Delicious Revolution.” She thinks about apples a lot. Follow her on Twitter @AmyAlysaGlynn and on Facebook here.
Melon photo by Jes CC BY-SA
Grapes photo by stannate CC BY-NC-SA
Green chickpeas photo by Katherine Martinelli CC BY-NC-ND
Mussels photo by Chris CC BY_SA
Quince photo by Simon Blackley CC BY_ND