Summer may be when gardens produce popular favorites, but fall's harvest is filled with less well-known, flavorful vegetables and fruit that should not be missed.
Let's take a look at some of fall's hidden food gems. Once you've roasted these great roots and fruits yourself, you'll see why I'm so eager for you to try them. Choose foods of different colors to maximize your nutrient intake, since the colors of fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients that protect us against a long list of ailments.
Some of my fall favorites include:
Beets are rich in folic acid (an important member of the B vitamin family) and cancer-fighting antioxidants, as well as fiber, potassium, iron, and vitamin C. In addition, beet juice can lower blood pressure. If you're not fond of the taste of red beets, look for the golden variety, which has a milder flavor.
A good source of fiber, potassium, and folic acid, parsnips are low in calories, making them one of fall's most underrated treasures. A naturally sweet-flavored relative of the carrot, parsnips can be roasted, steamed, eaten raw, or sautéed. Parsnips look like creamy white carrots. For best flavor, choose small- to medium-sized parsnips with a firm feel and unblemished skin.
Rich in fiber, vitamins A and C, antioxidants, and an antitumor compound known as betulinic acid, persimmons can be eaten fresh or stewed. You can also use the pulp—sans seeds—as an ingredient in baking. Look for fuyu persimmons, which you can eat like an apple, if you choose, rather than the much more astringent hachiya variety. Fuyus are rounder than the heart-shaped hachiyas. If you're not sure which is which, check with the fruit seller.
Once primarily used as a decorative element in fall cornucopias and floral arrangements, pomegranates are now hailed as a remedy for everything from cancer to heart disease and more. Major supermarket chains sell pomegranate juice, but don't overlook the actual fruit. If you drink only the juice, you won't get the benefits of the fiber and
nutrients contained in the seeds (known as arils), including vitamins C and B5, potassium, and three important types of antioxidants.
Pomegranate arils look like tiny juice sacs. You can eat the arils fresh, right out of the fruit. The easiest way to extract them is by cutting the pomegranate in half and placing the two sections in a bowl of water. After 5 to 10 minutes, you can easily pull the arils from the white membrane with less risk of staining your clothes or hands with the juice. After all of the arils sink to the bottom of the water bowl, skim off the white membrane. Drain the arils in a colander, and pat dry with a paper towel.
In addition to the seeds, you can eat the fruit itself, but avoid the bitter membrane, and discard the leathery, inedible skin.
Also known as yellow turnips, rutabagas are high in vitamin C, minerals like potassium and magnesium, and fiber. They're also low in sodium and free of fat and cholesterol. I recommend peeling rutabagas because they are usually coated with wax to prevent dehydration, and peeling is the best way to remove the wax.
Loaded with vitamin A, an essential nutrient for healthy eyes and skin as well as a strong immune system, sweet potatoes are also very low in sodium and fat. They're very easy to cook. Just pop them in a 375°F oven for 45 minutes or so, and use them in place of regular potatoes.
When shopping, look for the classic red-skinned, orange-flesh Beauregard sweet potato, which makes a delicious mashed-potato substitute as well as sumptuous
oven fries. There's also a purple-skinned, white-flesh Japanese variety that's outstanding roasted.
Winter squash, including butternut, buttercup, and acorn
With fiber, vitamin A, B complex vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, winter squash is a big family of vegetables with lots of nutrients and a pleasantly mild flavor. Squash is also versatile. You can use it in everything from soups and stews to stir-fries, but roasting is the simplest and most flavorful way to prepare it. Don't forget to save the seeds, too. Delicious roasted, squash seeds are potent sources of protein, fiber, minerals, and a type of good fat.
As always, I recommend buying organic whenever possible. Organic produce may be a bit more expensive, but it's more nutritious and has fewer toxins, so you're actually getting more for your money than conventional produce provides.
You should also frequent your local farmers markets, which is the best way to make sure the food you're eating is in season, i.e. most flavorful and most full of nutrients. The fruits and vegetables I mentioned above may not grow locally to you, but your local farmers will have produce and recipe ideas if you can just take a few minutes to chat.
Many times when I'm speaking to a group about food and health, there are quite a few questions about how to cook fall produce. As I mentioned earlier, I find oven roasting to be the easiest and most flavorful cooking method for vegetables. As an added bonus, roasting retains nutrients better than boiling or microwaving.
"How do I get my family to eat new vegetables?" is another frequent question. Children can be stubborn about trying something new. But in my experience, adults can be just as bad. So here's what I suggest: Mix the new veggie into a familiar dish, like soup, stew, or a casserole.
For example, let's say that you're making real (not packaged or frozen) oven-baked macaroni and cheese. Chop up one cup of 1-inch chunks of parsnips or rutabagas, and mix them into the pasta and cheese mixture before baking. They'll cook along with the pasta and add their healthy nutrients to the dish. Their mild flavor blends in nicely, so no one is likely to complain.