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7 Ways to Celebrate Autumn

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You don’t need us to tell you why autumn is wonderful, but we’re going to tell you anyway. We offer seven ideas for savoring the simple joys of the harvest season, from cooking up fresh garden produce to adding fall panache to your home.

One of our favorite things about autumn: farmers markets

1. Bring Home the Harvest

A good farmer’s market is a joy to body and soul, and autumn is the best time to visit. Does anything taste better than fresh fruits and vibrant veggies picked in the past day or two? There’s also something wonderful about receiving a sack of produce from the person who actually planted it.

Produce to watch for in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin this time of year includes apples, arugula, basil, beets, blackberries, blueberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupes, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, edamame (soybeans), eggplants, figs, garlic, gourds, grapes, green beans, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, most mushrooms, okra, onions, parsley, parsnips, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, radicchio, rosemary, rutabagas, sage, shallots, squash, spinach, sweet potatoes, turnips and zucchini. Whew!

If you’re not sure how to prepare vegetables like jicama or round black Spanish radishes or patty pan squash, don’t despair: The friendly vendors will tell you.

Check out the Eat Local section at simplesteps.org to find a farmer’s market near you. One of our favorites is the Beloit Farmers Market on Saturdays, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. It features more than 80 vendors and produce from A to Z, as well as fresh flowers and specialty meats, cheeses, honey, preserves, baked goods, popcorn, pet treats and much more.

2. Plant Fall Bloomers

Autumn is bittersweet. After months of nurturing bright summer plants, it’s hard to watch the first frost turn them into limp, brown noodles. Fight back! Grow some fall plants that shine, undaunted, until early winter.

“Mums take frost really well and add a lot of color,” says Jordan Graffin, vice president of retail sales at K&W Greenery, 1328 Hwy. 14 East, Janesville, Wis. “But don’t be fooled by labels that say ‘hardy mums.’ Mums are all the same and not that hardy. They may or may not live over from one year to the next.”

The best way to maximize enjoyment of a beautiful potted mum is to take it home and plant it in the ground right away. “All plants do better in the ground than in pots, because they can regulate moisture much more effectively,” says Graffin. Planting them near a structure and mulching them with leaves, in the same way that rose bushes are prepared for winter, ups their survival odds.

Newer breeds of pansies not only survive heavy frosts, but often reawaken in springtime, just like a perennial. “Look for the ‘Icicle’ brand of genetics in pansies,” says Graffin. “They come in all the colors you’d expect, and if you put them in the ground, they’ll be some of the first plants to appear again in spring.”

People tend to love or hate kale and cabbage plants. Graffin is the former. “I think it’s fun to mix them in with plants of other textures, in the ground or in a planter,” she says.

Narrow Leaf Blue Star Amsonia is a fine-textured perennial that offers pretty blue blooms in summer before the entire plant turns into a bright cloud of gold in fall. Relatively new in popularity, and named the 2011 perennial plant of the year by the Perennial Plant Association, it’s not always easy to find, but it’s worth the search.

Consider not only the color of foliage but of fruit when selecting landscape plants. The American Highbush Cranberry, for example, has attractive bright-red berries in autumn. And of course, there’s that vine with pretty orange fall fruit that sums up the very nature of the season: bittersweet.

3. Follow a Wine Trail

A country drive in autumn is magical, and a winery makes a worthy destination. Several wine trails have been organized in the region, including the Northern Illinois Wine Trail, which offers a map and tips at visitnorthernillinois.com.

One of our favorite stops is Rocky Waters Vineyard and Winery, 2003 W. Hanover Road, Hanover, Ill., in Jo Daviess County. It has three things we really like: tasty wine, stunning scenery and warm hospitality. Getting there from points east requires driving past breathtaking vistas of pastoral valleys along Route 20 near Elizabeth. This is followed by a lovely country drive on 84, southbound to Hanover. The tasting room and gift shop at Rocky Waters are located high on a bluff overlooking vineyards, woods and farm-dotted fields. Gorgeous any time of year, the view on a fine autumn day is stunning.

Ten varieties of wine are made on site, entirely from grapes grown at Rocky Waters by owners Jared and Phyllis Spahn and their family. Grapes include Marechal Foch, Leon Millet, St. Croix and white varietals of Lacrosse and St. Pepin. The Spahns studied winemaking in Napa Valley, Calif., and it shows in the design of their vineyard, winery, tasting room and gift shop. Live musicians entertain on Sunday afternoons through Nov. 6. Rocky Waters is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. What an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon!

4. Make a Pot of Soup

Need we say more? It tastes great as cool weather settles in, and leftovers are easy to freeze or warm up for tomorrow’s lunch. Resist the temptation to open a can. Make your own, instead. For every leaf that falls, there are a dozen soup recipes, or so it seems. Here are three of our home-tested favorites that yield wonderful flavor with minimal effort. Serving them in cheery fall bowls or crocks will turn a simple supper into a harvest celebration.

Michele’s Southwest Chicken Soup
Sauté 1 cup finely chopped onions in 1 Tb. olive oil. Add 2 ½ tsp. cumin, 2 cloves chopped garlic, ½ tsp. oregano, 1 tsp. lemon pepper, 4 cups cooked diced chicken (rotisserie chicken works well), 1 can (15 oz.) chicken broth, 2 cans (15 oz.) northern white beans (undrained), 1 small can diced chiles (undrained), 2 Tb. lemon juice, 2 small boxes (9 oz.) frozen shoepeg corn, , ½ cup whipping cream and 1 cup of sour cream.
Simmer for 30 min. Add 2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese just before serving. Yum.

Elmer’s Easy Beef Stew
This dependable recipe isn’t gourmet, but it’s super easy. The result is tasty, and the aroma is wonderful.
Combine 2 lb. cubed stew meat with 3 medium potatoes, cubed; 5 carrots, sliced; 3 onions, thickly-sliced; 1 can peas; 1 can tomato soup; and 1 can cream of celery soup. Cook in crockpot or dutch oven at 275 degrees for five hours.

Julia’s Acorn Squash Soup
In a large saucepan, sauté a medium chopped onion with ½ cup chopped celery in 2 Tb. butter. Stir in 2 Tb. all-purpose flour, 1 tsp. chicken bouillon granules, ½ tsp. dill weed, ¼ tsp. curry powder and a dash of cayenne pepper. Gradually add 2 cups vegetable or chicken broth and one 12-oz. can of evaporated milk. (Editor’s note: evaporated milk is not the same as condensed milk.) Bring to a boil, then stir while cooking for 2 minutes. Add 3 cups mashed acorn squash and heat through. In small batches, process the soup in a blender and serve, garnishing with fresh chopped dill, crisp crumbled bacon/pancetta, chopped nuts or goat cheese.

5. Sync Your Decor With Nature

It just plain feels good to have your home interior in tune with nature’s color scheme. There are plenty of ways to lend a subtle autumn feeling to your home, beyond the pumpkins on your front porch.

“Replace floral artwork with landscapes of trees in golds, paprika, browns and reds for a glow of color on the wall,” suggests Sheila Anderson, designer at Gustafson’s Furniture and Mattress, 808 W. Riverside Blvd., Rockford. “And think about heavier, cozier textures and deeper color tones for items like pillows, area rugs and accent furniture pieces. You could replace a sleek coffee table with a fabric or nail head-trimmed leather ottoman, for example, and toss a nubby throw across it at an angle. It’s a look that just invites you to curl up and have a cup of cocoa.”

Fall is a time to be inspired by nature: Think woven spheres made of natural materials; resin lamps that appear to be made of antlers; oversized gourds in gold, burnt sienna and moss green. “And a splash of decorative amber glass can catch the dwindling afternoon light,” says Anderson. “Since the sun sets earlier each day, why not place mood lighting in unexpected places, to warm the ambiance in your home?”

And don’t forget the bedroom. “Replace your lightweight bedcover with one that incorporates colors of the season, like mocha, sage or cinnamon, in big or little doses,” advises Anderson. “If you don’t want an overly-fallish comforter, or you prefer contemporary to traditional, think about using an earth tone bedspread with an interesting texture and accenting it with geometric-patterned pillows that harmonize with the colors outside your window.”

6. Discover Natural Wonders

Autumn is a magical time to explore natural beauty, and we have so much of it in our corner of the Old Northwest Territory. The number of high-quality state parks that “we the people” own – not to mention all of the great smaller parks and nature preserves – is a precious asset.

All together, just in Northwest Quarterly’s 13-county coverage area, there are 16 – count ’em, 16 – state parks to explore. How many have you visited? For a complete listing, visit the Wisconsin and Illinois Department of Natural Resource websites.

Each of these parks offers something unique. For example, enormous Governor Dodge State Park in Iowa County, Wis., offers 5,270 acres to explore, with bluffs, hills, valleys, two lakes, a waterfall and other geology unique to the “driftless area,” land untouched by the receding glaciers that filled in and flattened so much of our region.

Wyalusing State Park in Grant County, Wis., is famous for its majestic blufftop views of the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. Shabbona Lake State Park in southern DeKalb County, Ill., is known for its 318-acre man-made lake designed just for fishing. It averages 17 feet deep and has rewarded many a fisherman with catches of award-winning muskie and walleye.

White Pines, Castle Rock and Lowden state parks in Ogle County, Ill., are a triad of rare beauty.
Drive across the concrete fords spanning streams at White Pines or visit the park’s privately-owned restaurant, dinner theater, gift shop and log cabins. Hike the sandstone bluffs at Castle Rock, along the west bank of the Rock River, where 710 of the park’s 2,000 acres are designated as Illinois Nature Preserve. Get up close and personal with Lorado Taft’s Indian sculpture overlooking the Rock River from Lowden State Park.

Why not make it your business to visit one or more of these stunning properties before the first snow flies? After all, you own them!

7. Be Festive

There’s still time to catch any number of fall festivals and other outdoor fall events. Most celebrate the harvest in some way, like the family-friendly Pumpkin Festival in Sycamore, Ill., Oct. 26-30, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. A more adult event is Nouveau 2011 in Galena, Ill., Nov. 18-19, celebrating the release of Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery’s nouveau wine, in French tradition. There are ample Oktoberfests, an All Hallows Eve event at Midway Village Museum in Rockford on Oct. 22, and the Galena Hot Air Balloon Glow and Halloween Parade Oct. 28-29, as well as the Beloit Halloween Parade and Party at Horace White Park Oct. 29. For comprehensive event lists, go to visitnorthernillinois.com and travelwisconsin.com.

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