Food lovers and cooks now find themselves suddenly in the full throes of fall, bidding a tearful goodbye to summer and its late-season treats as they fade away: the sweet tomatoes, the summer squash. Gone are the simple joys of throwing together local heirloom tomatoes, local fresh mozzarella and basil and calling it dinner. Gone is a meal-in-a-bowl based on whole grains like faro or quinoa, embellished with a variety of in-season vegetables and perfect for picnics and potlucks.
While I love a good well-made pumpkin pie made with a pie pumpkin and appropriate sweet spices, in my opinion that taste doesn’t belong in my latte or ale, but that’s just me. Preparing and enjoying fall foods is so much more than flavoring everything with “pumpkin spice.” Pumpkin, an icon of the fall harvest season, is a vegetable (usually: some types are edible, some better as jack o’lanterns). It is not a flavoring but rather should be flavored, with sage or thyme or butter, for example.
As someone who prefers summer to any other season, my consolation for that loss is the return to the complex braises and stews that have little appeal when it’s hot out. Along with the soups and the roasted things, they let us leave the oven or stove on for a while, enjoying their cozy fragrance.
With cooler temps, our desire grows to build sumptuous soups and stews with layers of flavor, which begin with caramelized aromatics and pan juices and expand in complexity with other additions, from tomato to wine to local proteins, vegetables, whole grains. We can also now bake pies and cakes with fall fruits, and breads for the therapeutic meditative benefits of kneading dough and a calm mind when thinking about the oncoming winter. You can leave the oven on all day as seductive aromas waft through the house, and no one will mind at all.
And it’s still nice enough outside to keep grilling. Try sweet-potato slices dusted with cumin and a pinch of cinnamon and cayenne, or something you made not have tried before, like marinated tofu or Provençal duck.
There are so many edible items that are harbingers of autumn that our bodies rightfully crave this time of year. I don’t need to tell you why local and in-season is better on so many levels; if you’re reading this it’s likely you know all the reasons already.
What screams autumn to me is winter squash. When I can bring myself to buy the first one and bring it home, that tells me that my psyche has finally accepted summer’s end and the advent of fall. Although not technically in season now, and likely harvested at summer’s end, winter squashes keep so well, long into fall and winter.
Besides being delicious and extra-nutritious, they’re gorgeous besides, always orange or golden inside but with a variety of exteriors, from the bland-looking butternut to the bumpy, warty kabocha. Squash is easy to love and versatile, with its sweet flesh and range of flavors and textures, from nutty to earthy, from moist and delicate to dense and drier.
With them I make smooth purees, rich gratins, soups silky or chunky, ravioli gilded with sage butter. Or often just simple roasted chunks, or steaming, mashing and sprinkling with salt and pepper and a hint of butter or oil. Either is all they need to be perfect, no need to fuss. And before you get around to that — no rush — they beautify the kitchen counter and make you happy.
Fall mushrooms that the lucky forager in field, market or restaurant table might find around now include oysters, maitake (hen of the woods) or black trumpet. If foraging, as always have everything identified by an expert before consumption, but after that you will be richly rewarded with the unique fleeting flavors of wild mushrooms in their season.
On ten million trees New York grows more varieties of apples than any other state, and as they’re yet another thing in the good keeper category, we can enjoy the ones just coming into season, like the Ida Red and the Mutsu, as well as the ones that were picked earlier and kept in cold storage. As snack, dessert, or even ingredient in a savory braise, the possibilities are endless. Most pear varieties may be out of season too but evoke fall, and work just as well as apples as snack, pie filling or savory stew ingredient.
Potatoes are another good keeper long after harvest, why they are almost always on our holiday tables in mashed form. But varieties are many these days, and they agree with the roasting oven, the grill and the well-seasoned cast iron pan. Don’t forget your roots and tubers, more good keepers from beets to yellow turnips, and many more.
This is peak season for many of our tasty and healthful cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale, including those that are sweeter after a frost, like Brussels sprouts, another old friend on holiday groaning boards.
Alot of our local CSAs keep offering up seasonal bounty through the fall and often into the winter as well. Check out small and big farm stands like Davenport Farms in Stone Ridge. And of course the municipal farmers markets all over the Hudson Valley; Rhinebeck’s runs until Thanksgiving on Sundays 10 to 2 before moving indoors for the winter. Adams Fairacre Farms’ four locations feature local produce and an expanding organic line. For all-organic, check out Mother Earth Storehouse’s produce departments in Kingston, Saugerties and Poughkeepsie (full disclosure: I work part-time for them but don’t get paid extra for saying that their produce departments really are awesome).
One of the most delightful things about this time of year for us avid cooks is obsessing and planning what we’ll make for Thanksgiving. Besides the obligatory turkey or Tofurky, there’s a myriad of possibilities. But no pumpkin spice Brussels sprouts for me, thank you!
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Roasted squash circles with sage butter
This simple and pretty side is festive with a rack of lamb or a roasted quail. Delicata also slices into nice shapes for this dish but I prefer the bolder look and taste of the acorn.
1 small-medium acorn squash
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon thinly slivered sage leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400˚ F. Slice squash into half-inch rounds and remove seeds and pulp with small sharp knife. Brush both sides of circles with oil and place in a single layer on baking tray.
Roast for about 30-35 minutes for acorn, (20-25 for Delicata), or until squash is tender to knife, turning once halfway through cooking time.
When squash is almost done, melt butter in small saucepan, add sage leaves and keep over low heat a few more minutes or until the sage wilts. Season butter to taste with salt and pepper and pour over squash rounds.