It is officially autumn. For me the true marker of the seasonal shift is designated by the moment I eat my first bad tomato. Last week I had my first bad tomato, it was bland, mealy, and a little bitter. I sighed, I knew it was coming, I knew it was only a matter of time.
I first started learning about seasonal cooking because I was unsatisfied with what I was eating in the colder months, and I was bored of cooking the same things over and over again. In fact, I used to really hate this time of year. It made me depressed to think about the impending cold and dark, and heavy carb filled meals with depressing side salads.
At first I just continued cooking summer vegetable dishes into the winter months, but it was never satisfying. The quality was terrible, and it was expensive to buy cherry tomatoes and fresh basil in the middle of winter. I branched out and found resources like the chart above. Charts like this are helpful when you first begin cooking seasonally, and you can find them for nearly any local area.
Rather than longing for summer produce, I’ve been diving mouth-first into gorgeous autumn fare!
The apples outside our 24-hour produce store are so fragrant that I actually smelled them before I saw them. Since we’re in New York most of our produce comes from upstate [New York] and Pennsylvania. Today I counted 13 varieties of local apples in the store! Usually people think of using fresh apples for cider or pies (and those are great), but I use them for so much more! One of my favorite Autumn dishes is one of my own invention, I roast yellow potatoes in butter with peeled and chopped apples, garlic, and a cinnamon stick- it’s glorious. I also like to make mixed apple relish with horseradish and a touch of maple syrup- it’s delicious on pork chops. Poached apples with fresh ricotta is another favorite, along with apple sausage hash and apple stuffing!
Broccoli is a no-brainer in cold weather, it’s great in stir fry, curries, drenched in cheese, sauteed in butter and garlic, or even steamed with a bit of lemon juice. I love eating broccoli in cooler months because it tastes so fresh and vibrant, and it’s a nutritional powerhouse. I even like to use my food processor to create gorgeous toppings for vegetable casseroles, like the one pictured above.
Mushrooms are glorious, and there are a million different varieties. I love making stuffed mushrooms (such a cute appetizer/party food) using classic white button mushrooms, meaty baby bellas are perfect over polenta or in marinara. I love to use enoki and shiitaki mushrooms in my stir fries and Asian inspired soups. Cremini and morel mushrooms are my favorite for Italian or French style dishes, I make a cremini risotto that’s to die for (if I do say so myself). I often use mushrooms in place of meat when we eat vegetarian meals, and I mix them in with meat to stretch our dollars (burgers, meatloaf, meatballs, you name it, I hide mushrooms in it). They are one of the most versatile foods- learning to cook mushrooms correctly is key. People put time in to learn how to cook various cuts of meat, but they often don’t do that with vegetables and it’s a shame. I believe that most vegetable dislikes stem from people having poorly prepared vegetables.
Mushrooms are high on the list for a couple of reasons, one is because the texture can get bad if you don’t cook them properly. Mushrooms absorb water, if you wash them in water they absorb it, if you saute them for days and days they turn to mush. Well prepared mushrooms should have an appealing texture. I’ve made mushrooms for many self-described “mushroom haters”, and they have been totally converted.
Brussels sprouts are another food that many people claim to hate- more for me! My fella started asking me in JULY if it was time for brussels sprouts yet. That’s right, even amid the myriad summer produce he yearned for brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts never get the credit they deserve (except maybe in my apartment), there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. Traditionally, many home cooks prepared brussels sprouts by steaming or boiling them. This is the worst idea ever. Boiling or steaming these gorgeous beauties degrades them nutritionally and culinarily. It turns them into stinky flavorless mush, and I simply won’t stand for it! I might have to become a brussels sprouts crusader of sorts. Saute them in butter until they’re crispy! Fry them in bacon grease, and then toss them with the bacon! Have I convinced you yet?
Cauliflower stays in style all winter long, and you can do a lot more with it than you might think. Last fall I cooked it whole, like a roast, I often add a head of boiled and pureed cauliflower into my mashed potatoes, I even food process heads of cauliflower and fry the resulting grains like rice!
And finally we come to the real heroes of fall and winter cuisine: the root vegetables. I love root vegetables, you can use them in a million ways, and there are so many kinds.
Carrots are fantastic, they are nutritional powerhouses, they are delicious and easy to prepare, and they are insanely affordable. The easiest and a favorite carrot dish in our house doesn’t even require a full recipe. Wash and roughly chop your carrots (about 2″ pieces), no need to peel them. Toss in olive oil, and throw in the oven (375) uncovered. Check every 30 minutes or so. When they are done, they are soft and sweet, I like to add in whole cloves of garlic- when you bake garlic, it turns to butter, you can literally spread it on bread. I also love to saute carrots in balsamic vinegar, I make raw carrot rice by tossing them in the food processor with a load of ginger and maybe some leeks. I like them julienned in stir-fry, and even tossed in a dutch oven with a roast or a whole chicken, and I created a beautiful recipe for creamy whipped and baked carrots (similar to a souffle) which I will be posting soon!
Beetroot/beets, or as I call them edible jewels, are a controversial vegetable. I like both golden beets (they are yellow) and traditional red beets. I usually boil them whole with the skin on, once they can easily be pierced with a fork I run them under a stream of cold water and peel them with my hands. The skin comes off effortlessly when they are cooked properly. Then I chop them, saute them, bake them, or do whatever else I want. I like beet and feta salads, beet pasta (which I make using a spirlaizer), simple beet side dishes, and borscht. Beets can also be eaten raw, you can grate them with a cheese grater and use the in salads or slaws! In fact, the texture of them raw might be more appetizing to those who have had previous issues with beet texture. I understand if some people don’t enjoy the texture of beets, as it is pretty unusual, I only ask that you not base your beet judgments on those horrible, awful, canned disks of sadness. That is not what real beets taste like! I think beets are one of the most visually stunning vegetables, I have cut smaller beets in slices and fried them the way you might a scallop or oyster ( a great option for veggie friends!), they are also fabulous in sushi or as vegan sashimi!
Celery! Some consider it a root vegetable and some don’t, either way it is an underrated treat. I use it all the time! It’s ridiculously cheap and you can work it into almost any dish to help stretch your dollars. Celery is great in stuffings and hashes and stocks. It’s not out of place in stir-fry, it goes beautifully in thai curry, it’s fantastic in potato salad, couscous salad, pasta salad, chinese takeout style dishes, dumplings, and I’ve even made celery soup! My celery soup was actually the result of a hilarious misunderstanding. The fella went grocery shopping for me (because I’m the luckiest girl ever), and on the list I wrote “10 stalks of celery”. I had intended to be specific, and wanted to make sure he chose a nice large bunch of celery and not a puny one. When I came home later I opened the fridge and saw nothing but celery, 10 entire bunches of it. I started hysterically laughing, “didn’t you think that was an insane amount of celery???” I was flabergasted. He stared at me looking confused “I don’t know what you’re doing in there!” he gestured to the kitchen. I laughed, and then I got to work tying to use this preposterous amount of celery. It was actually a great thing, it forced me to really experiment with celery. A vegetable that I had always thought of as a throwaway actually became a favorite of mine! Experimentation is key, and as they say, necessity is the mother of invention- celery soup is delicious! Whenever I want some extra crunch, celery is my go to winter vegetable.
Squash, squash, squash. I adore squash. It’s so sweet, so smooth, so satisfying and homey. Butternut squash is simply lovely. I like to just cut it in half (sometimes fella is called in if I can’t get the leverage, you might not know from reading this blog but I am tiny, a little under 5’2″). Then I just cover the butternut squash in, you guessed it, butter (you could use olive oil instead). You can top with a bit of arabic 7 spice, garlic powder, cinnamon, paprika, or just bake it plain. Often we just scoop it out of the shell and eat it with salt and pepper, but you can dice it, puree it, or make a GORGEOUS bisque- I love butternut squash and coconut milk bisque with fragrant cinnamon and lemongrass.
Acorn Squash is like the world’s prettiest and most delicious bowl. Halve and bake them until tender, then add any filling of your choice. Artichokes, wild rice stuffing, regular stuffing, ground lamb, or sausage hash are all delicious. It’s a great trick for a dinner party- it looks so fresh and gorgeous, yet it’s easy and affordable.
Spaghetti Squash is a poorly named vegetable, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not fair. It sets your expectation way too high, and those people who claim you can cover it in marinara and it tastes “just like” spaghetti- well they’re either delusional, liars, or they’ve never had real pasta before. There, I said it. Now, I still like spaghetti squash, just forget the pasta thing. I like it baked with Indian or Spanish spices the best, I like to keep it mild in heat but still bright, I’ll often finish it with cilantro. It’s the perfect side dish for an Indian meal, it provides texture and relief from some of the hotter dishes. It’s also nice with truffle oil and sea salt, or as a bed for a bowl filled with winter’s bounty! Spaghetti squash can also be baked, then separated and fried into little fritters, it’s a great appetizer- you can serve with tangy sesame sauce, teriyaki, or chili paste.
Pumpkin is a classic seasonal choice in cooler months. I actually make a very non-traditional pumpkin thai curry with dried Thai chilis, potato, carrots, and chickpeas, I top it with cilantro and serve it with rice. Pumpkin is suitable for soups, bisques, mashes, pies, breads, and muffins. I like my pumpkin bisque to evoke the feeling of pure holiday joy, so I often keep it on the sweeter side, with cinnamon, maple syrup, and a touch of chicken stock. Delicious!
These are only a few of the wonderful produce options available all through winter! In fact, I just realized that I completely forgot to add sweet potatoes to this list- shame on me! I understand that sometimes you’re tired after working all day and you just want to whip up something tried and true, and there’s certainly no shame in that! But, if you set aside just one meal a week to try a piece of produce that you’ve never cooked before, you’ll emerge with so much more variety and skill, plus you’ll discover some new favorites!
So here’s to winter produce, I’m ready to get cooking! What are your favorite winter vegetables and fruits?