Legends of the Fall
by: Susan Simon
photography by: Stephen Johnson
A few years ago, in August 2010 to be exact, I wrote a piece for this magazine about an apple-picking fall weekend in the Hudson Valley and used the small city of Hudson as the base for all the activities. Little did I know, at the time, that a year and half later I would call Hudson home.
It took me three years to make the move out of my beloved New York City, most of that time flip-flopping around to find a place to live before I chose Hudson. There were a few things that finalized my decision, in no particular order. There is an Amtrak station in town with regular trips in and out of the city, there is a certain architectural and signage familiarity to one of my other favorite spots on earth, Nantucket (whales on street signs and a few houses with widow’s walks), because of its shared history with Hudson.
In 1785, when it was still called Claverack Landing, a group of Nantucket whalers and merchants in search of a new home for their businesses founded it. I can knock an hour off my travel time to Hyannis, four hours from Hudson with stops, versus the five-plus hours that it used to take me from downtown Manhattan. And last but not least, the little city is the agricultural capital of the extremely fertile Hudson Valley.
These are all good reasons to choose a place to live when you have the parameters that I do. The thing that is finally convincing that I came to the right conclusion about my choice for a new home is the agricultural activity that’s happening all over Columbia County, of which Hudson is the capital.
When I lived in the city I was a faithful green-market shopper. I would shop at various markets in different locations, depending on the day of the week. Probably 75 percent of the vendors who I patronized came into the city from upstate New York, and about half of those producers were from Columbia County. Now, I have the opportunity to pick strawberries, blueberries, peas, cherries, peaches and apples on my own, from the farm or orchard of my choice. I’m really not as ambitious as it sounds. Most of the time I just buy already-picked stuff from the farmers, but it’s nice to know it’s available, though, isn’t it?
While all the growing seasons in this part of the valley have their stars, fall is the show-stopping time of the year. Sure, you can say that about any place. Fall is particularly spectacular on Nantucket when the moors turn to burgundy and ochre and the skies are sapphire blue, but the Hudson Valley’s hills and valleys, crowded with deciduous trees that produce a dazzling kaleidoscope of color patterns is a hard-to-beat sight. The produce changeover on farm stands is positively symphonic, moving through the sprightly spring and dazzling summertime offerings, to the slow march of pungent fall vegetables and fruits right up to the dirge of stodgy winter roots.
Fall is the time of year when I look forward to the first butternut squash with as much anticipation as I do the first asparagus, strawberries or tomatoes. Butternut squash, the squash that takes you over the bridge between summer and winter squashes, is a hard-skinned squash with easy-to-peel skin that’s even easier to cook. Its tender flesh lends itself to any number of preparations from a new, favorite hummus to roasted dishes. Its high sugar content caramelizes to perfection when roasted in chunks covered with oil and sprinkled with salt, giving the outside an irresistible crunch while the inside melts in your mouth.
The brassicas, all relatives of a wild cabbage – broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts – are sassy vegetables that can stand up to strong additional flavors. Cauliflower, the gentlest and most forgiving of the group, can be mixed with lots of different ingredients and textures to create outof-the-ordinary salads. I almost never cook broccoli without starting with garlic and hot peppers, whatever the final dish is. Broccoli kind of dares you to compete with it.
The orchard fruit – ah, the orchard fruit – brings me back to that apple-picking weekend in the Hudson Valley. Now, every day in autumn is applepicking time – and I really do pick them – walking up and down allées of apple trees. I fill many, many L.L. Bean canvas and big blue IKEA bags to the brim with apples as often as I can and make quarts and quarts of apple sauce and keep the rest of them in cold storage (a little room off my back porch).
Last year’s apples lasted through the end of this March. Having a room full of apples is a treat, the answer to the question, what’s for dessert? It means they can be added to savory dishes for a bit of acid and crunch, and it means you can reach for an apple when you want to sate a mid-afternoon gnawing in your stomach. Unfortunately, pears are a bit more delicate. I rarely see an offer to “pick your own.” They don’t hold up to cold storage as well either. I find myself eating pears with the same fervor as I do strawberries, cherries and peaches, right now, while they’re in season.
I’ve become more of a carnivore since living here. At the risk of sounding like one of those people who are parodied on shows like “Saturday Night Live” or “Portlandia,” I like to know the origin of the meat that I eat. I want to know that the creature has been raised humanely, and has had only good things to eat, until the one bad day in its life. I can be assured that this is the case because I’ve visited the farms that raise the meat that I eat. I’ve noticed that sometimes free-range chickens can be a bit tough, or lack enough fat to keep them moist while cooking ( all that exercise). I’ve found some good recipes that add just the right amount of fat to cook a chicken into a succulent bird.
What I particularly enjoy about my life here is the proximity to the farmers. I like getting to know them and talking about what led them to do the work that they do. I like to hear what they cook with their crops. Some have been farming all their lives, some left their homes and went off to get elaborate educations, then decided to come back and take over the farm. Some are refugees from city life – young, strong and dedicated – and some have left very lucrative careers to follow their passion and are using the same ingenuity that brought them their previous successes to raise heritage animals, or barley, rye and corn to distill into worldclass whiskeys.
The Hudson Valley, with its stunning landscape and farmers who’ve put that land to good use to grow flavorful crops and outstanding livestock, has inspired me the same way that Nantucket – with its spectacular shoreline and scrubby interior, its fishing industry, in particular, scalloping, and stalwart truck farmers who keep both islanders and visitors well fed throughout the seasons – inspired me to write, years ago, “The Nantucket Table.”
Nantucket is always on my mind, especially when I cook. You may notice that Italy is too. My sister Laura and I once imagined a dream airline that would fly us non-stop between Nantucket and our spot in Piedmont, Poggio di Brienzone.
I’m doing it all in the Hudson Valley now. ///
Susan Simon is a nationally-known cookbook author with ties to Nantucket and several Nantucket cookbooks. She writes a newspaper column about food in the Hudson Valley.