Fall Produce: A Palatable Wonderland
Chefs love all changes of season because they provide a whole new palette of colors and flavors to play with, but fall is an especially popular time of year because the produce actually requires some coaxing from the chef in order to be tasty. Think about it: all summertime tomatoes need is a sprinkling of salt, and corn a smear of butter. But fall mushrooms and winter squashes are quite a different story.
My favorite way to prepare many fall vegetables is to roast them; it brings out the natural sugars and concentrates the flavor. I cut the squashes, butternut, acorn, etc., in half and arrange them cut-side down on a lightly oiled sheet pan. If I am not using the seeds I don’t bother to scrape them out before I put the squash in the oven; the seeds are much easier to scrape out when the squash is cooked. Sometimes I scrape out the seeds first, remove all the membranes (admittedly a tedious job) and then rinse and dry them. I toss them with a little oil and then bake them on a sheet pan in a 350°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until they are golden. Then I toss them with salt or perhaps some spices, like chili powder and cumin, and let them cool. They make the most delicious snack or garnish for a soup. My favorite winter squash by far are those miniature pumpkins (the ones about 4 inches in diameter). Many people still think they are purely decorative, but I find that they have perhaps the creamiest, most intense flavor of all winter squash.
Parsnips (by the way: not in the turnip family, which is why turnip-haters avoid them, but they actually taste more like a sweet white carrot) lend themselves to high-heat roasting, as do turnips and fresh fennel. And there is nothing better than a celery root and potato gratin; thin slices of each layered with salt, cheese, and cream, and baked until golden.
I also love fall mushrooms. Fresh chanterelles and porcini are available at this time of year but even button mushrooms, cremini, portobello, and shiitake mushrooms are perfect for hearty fall recipes because they are so meaty. When fall comes around we are ready for heartier dishes with deep flavor, and mushrooms will add that to any dish. I put them in pasta, risotto, sauces, and soups, or I let them stand all by themselves in mushroom potpie.
The cruciferous family is another star of the fall. I really appreciate Brussels sprouts now that I have found a way to cook them so they taste fresh and not so funky. I learned this trick from the Two Hot Tamales (chefs Sue Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken): trim and then shred the sprouts, preferably using the grating disk of a food processor; then just quickly sauté them in a little oil or butter in a large skillet, and add a squeeze of lemon or lime. They only take 3 minutes this way, and they taste so much better than the traditional boiled way. Most cruciferous vegetables lose their appeal when overcooked, so I try not to overdo it when preparing cauliflower, kale, cabbage, bok choy, and the other fall candidates.
I haven’t mentioned the fall fruit lineup yet, but it is equally as exciting. Most people don’t realize that pears and apples actually have a season, which is at this time of year. They taste wonderful and have the best texture in autumn, and, in my mind, this is the only time we should be eating them. Concord grapes (the “grape jelly” grape— and boy do they taste just like the jelly) make a brief appearance, and, despite their seeds, which are a tad annoying, they are delicious straight up or in salads paired with cheese. Then there are cranberries, which are featured in sweet and savory dishes. From relishes to muffins to elegant desserts, cranberries will brighten up any recipe. Last but not least is the now famous (because of its antioxidant powers) pomegranate. Years ago I learned the best way to get the seeds out without getting juice all over myself from an expert on Moroccan cuisine, Paula Wolfert. She showed me how to break open a pomegranate and pull out the seeds under water. No muss, no fuss. I top many desserts with the seeds, throw them into sauces for pork and duck, and garnish my champagne cocktails with them—very festive!
The splendor of fall is upon us with a bounty that’s ready to tickle our taste buds. Whether you’re a chef, a cooking enthusiast, or simply like to enjoy these seasonal delights, there is no time better for cooking—and eating—than autumn. So grab some utensils and let the feast begin.