Unlike in other parts of the country, Baja Arizona farmers’ markets operate year round, with very distinct warm and cool seasons. During the winter, cooler weather plants like leafy greens and roots are prolific. During the summer, fruiting vegetables grow well. Fall at the farmers’ market is mostly an extension of summer, as many farmers take advantage of midsummer monsoon rains to plant new summer crops that will produce well into the fall months.
“It is awesome to farm in a region where we can get a second chance with summer crops,” says Dana Helfer of Rattlebox Farm. “The milder weather in the fall is kinder on both plants and farmers,” she says. “Plus fall, like spring, is a bridge season, when we can get a little bit of seasonal overlap in the produce.” During September and October, farmers are busy getting their winter crops in the ground. Crops like garlic and potatoes are planted now, to be harvested in late spring and early summer next year. Leafy green crops and root vegetables are also planted for late fall and winter harvests.
For farmers, removing old crops and starting new ones is a near-constant activity but in the fall this work can be particularly daunting. Most cool weather crops are compact and low growing and can be tilled directly back into the soil to increase the organic matter. Summer crops, however, grow quite large and have a tendency to sprawl and creep. Farmers often use stakes and trellis systems to support climbing plants like cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans. As the weather cools and these crops start to die, untangling these plants from their supports and removing, cleaning, and storing the stakes and netting is an arduous task. Since pests like squash bugs and tomato viruses can overwinter on plant debris, farmers must diligently remove the often overgrown and spiky plant matter to compost elsewhere on the farm.
Fruiting vegetables, like tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, and cucumbers should all be available at markets throughout the fall season. This is also a good time of year for green beans. Look for green and purple beans, as well as flat Romano beans and the strange-looking yard long beans. All these beans are great roasted or quickly sautéed in a hot skillet until blistered and lightly charred. Dress with a simple vinaigrette and serve immediately, or add to cold salads.
September and October are good months for peppers, both sweet and hot. Sweet peppers can be a tricky crop to grow in our region, as intense sun can scald the fruits before they have a chance to mature. To avoid sun damage farmers grow sweet pepper varieties that ripen quickly or have denser foliage to block the sun. Many of these scald-resistant sweet peppers look like hot chile peppers. If you are unsure if a pepper is hot when you are shopping, ask the farmers.
It is possible to find hot green chiles preroasted at markets, but they are also easy to roast at home. If you have a gas stove-top, the chiles can be laid directly onto the metal grates of the stove top. You can also place chiles under the broiler or on an outdoor grill. Once the peppers are mostly charred, remove then from the flame, place in a paper bag, and fold to seal. The steam will help loosen the skin, which should slide off easily once the peppers are cool.
The first indications of the changing season are usually large piles of winter squash that farmers start bringing to market. There are many small squash to choose from, including the honey nut and metro squash, which are both miniature butternut varieties. Buttercups, acorn squash, and dainty delicatas are also good single-serving squash. There are also massive squash in all different colors and shapes. These squash look beautiful on display but can be intimidating to cook. But their flesh is delicious and versatile—well worth the effort. Combine with end-of-summer produce like peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. Or use winter squash in place of zucchini in recipes for an unexpected twist. Dishes like ratatouille and eggplant caponata are delicious with the addition of winter squash. Of course, the winter squash are also great in any sweet pumpkin recipes, like pies, breads, and pumpkin butter.
Winter squash is a perfect addition to fajitas. Cooked alongside sweet and hot peppers and lots of onions, this combo is great served in tortillas with all the fixings, or piled onto toasted bread with cheese melted on top like a Philly cheesesteak.