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Fall is the sweetest time of year

Autumn is sweet. Think pumpkin. Think winter squash. Think apples. Think sweet potatoes. Think carrots and beets. Think Halloween.

Yes, temperatures are cooling and leaves are falling. Crisp autumn days give way to stark bare trees, cold, wet, gray days and long, dark nights. The summer’s heat and busyness are behind us. Ahead is the chill of winter, and the crazy bustle of holiday preparations.

All the more reason to warm up with a hot cup of pumpkin spice latte or hot apple cider flavored with the sweet spices: cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Yes, this is the sweetest time of year.

The cool gray of autumn brings with it a bounty of sweet fall flavors. We turn on the long-neglected oven to fill our home with scrumptious baked goods. Aromas of fragrant roasting turkey, salty ham, earthy potatoes, a variety of casseroles, and sweet, spicy, fruity desserts mingle in the crisp evening air. We spend more time indoors. We need more comfort food to counteract the cold, damp grayness outdoors.

Fall is apples. Summer fruit, like berries, peaches and plums are gone. But hundreds of apple varieties – some sweet, some tart; some soft, some crisp – are ready for tasting.

Nearly half of the world’s apples — 88 billion apples in 2005 –are grown in China, where apple pickers earn less than a dollar an hour. Yet New York is second (after Washington State) in American apple production, and we have great apple orchards in the Champlain Valley — so buy local. We have all heard that an apple a day keeps the doctor away — so eat up! Nothing compares to the sweet fragrance of baking apples and cinnamon.

Fall is sweet squash. Winter squash and pumpkins have been a food staple in Central America for 8,000 years. Botanically considered fruit, squash is a concentrated food, rich in carbohydrates and natural sugars. It is easy to digest, so is often given to babies. Nutritionally, it is high in fiber, vitamin A, and many other vitamins and minerals. This time of year, it is abundant and relatively inexpensive.

Squash is easy to cook and can be prepared in a variety of ways — roasting, steaming, casseroles, pies, soups — with seasonings from sweet to spicy. One large squash can make several meals, so you may want to freeze some. They’re delicious on their own, simply roasted or mashed. They’re also great in soups, risottos, casseroles and gratins. Chunks of roasted squash or pumpkin are great combined with pungent fall greens like collards or kale. Or use them to top salad greens along with pepitas (pumpkin seeds). And they make wonderful dessert fare – pumpkin pie is one of the quintessential flavors of fall, but squash, apples and even rutabagas can be baked into luscious desserts.

Fall is colorful roots. Beets, sweet potatoes and carrots are delectably sweet and versatile. They can be roasted, fried into chips, mashed or sliced and baked into a cheesy gratin. Sweet roasted beets, arugula and goat cheese make a quick salad.

A traditional winter staple, root crops have a long history. In more moderate climates than ours, they can remain in the soil through most of the winter, providing a ready supply of food. Even after harvest, they have a fairly long shelf life if kept in a cool place, and so were used for winter sustenance in northern regions. This made them an important staple in the diets of early hunter-gatherer societies. As man began to grow food, root crops became an important food source.

Roots store minerals for the plant, so they’re rich in potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese. They’re excellent sources of fiber and vitamins, including important antioxidants. Yellow roots like carrots and sweet potatoes are high in vitamin A. Betacyanin, the dye responsible for the bright crimson color of red beets, is a powerful cancer preventative.

Look for roots that are firm, not too large, and with a smooth skin. Be sure to peel or scrub them well. Try eating them raw with a dip, or grate raw into salads and slaws. Cook whole or cut up; the smaller the chunks, the faster they will cook. They go well with butter or olive oil, and various herbs and spices: basil, parsley, dill, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, cumin and curry are all good choices.

To make the best of the fall harvest, don’t dull the sweetness, but balance it with acid, salt and spice. Bring together sweet and salty, sugary and tangy ingredients. An apple does this naturally: the best ones are all at once sweet and acidic, snappy and crispy. Mixing sweet vegetables like winter squashes or sweet potatoes with a little lemon juice or vinegar does the trick. Texture is important; sweet foods can feel mushy, so pair them up with crunchy nuts or crisp raw vegetables like celery, fennel or watercress.

Sweet & Spicy Fall soup

This soup will warm you up on a chilly autumn day.

Ingredients:

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 small Butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut up

2 sweet potatoes

1 turnip

2 white potatoes

1 or 2 carrots

1 Tablespoon olive oil

2 large onions

2 stalks celery

2 cups finely chopped kale

3 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 pound silken tofu

2 tart apples

Juice of half a lime (about 2 – 3 Tablespoons)

1 cup minced walnuts

1/2 cup snipped chives

Directions:

Bring one quart of broth to a boil. Add the butternut squash, and cook. While squash is cooking, peel and dice sweet potato; add. Then peel and dice the turnip, and add; then the white potato and carrot. The order is important, because the vegetables vary in cooking times.

While vegetables are cooking, heat the oil in a medium sized skillet. Peel and dice the onion, and add; wash and slice the celery and chop the kale, and stir in; peel and mince the garlic fine, and add, along with the chili powder. Cook, stirring occasionally, over low heat, 15-20 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Be careful not to burn.

Remove vegetables from heat. Use an immersion blender, or puree in a food processor – in batches if necessary – along with 1 pound of silken tofu.

When mixture is uniform, stir in contents of skillet (onion, kale, celery and garlic).

Peel, core, and shred the apple; combine with lime juice. Remove soup from heat and stir in the apple – lime. Adjust for seasonings; you may wish to add a bit more salt, chili, or lime. Serve hot, garnished with chopped nuts and snipped chives.

Root vegetable and apple slaw

Ingredients:

1/2 lemon

2 celery roots

1 apple

2 carrots

2 Tablespoons fresh minced parsley

1 Tablespoon mayonnaise

1 Tablespoon sour cream

Directions:

Squeeze lemon into bowl; remove seeds. Peel and grate the celery root in food processor or with a large hand grater, and coat immediately with lemon to prevent it from browning. Core and dice the apple, and add, again coating with lemon. Wash or peel the carrots, grate, and add. Chop the parsley fine, and fold in along with mayonnaise and sour cream.

Make this salad first, as it needs to stand for at least 30 minutes while you make the rest of dinner to blend flavors.

Squash, Greens and Apple Casserole

Ingredients:

1/4 pound sausage

1 large onion

1 large garlic clove

1/2 pound fresh greens, such as kale, collards or turnip greens

Salt and Cayenne pepper to taste

2 cups cooked squash

1/4 cup sour cream or plain yogurt

1 or 2 apples

1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375°F.

In large skillet over medium heat, brown the sausage; add onion, and cook 5 minutes; add garlic, and cook 5 more minutes. Wash the greens and add, with any water clinging to them. Sprinkle with salt and cayenne, if using, cover, and cook until tender (length depends on the particular green).

Remove from heat. Stir in squash and yogurt. Pour into prepared casserole dish.

Core and dice the apples; scatter on top. Top with shredded cheese. .

Bake, uncovered, 20-25 minutes, until hot and bubbly.

Vegetarian version: Omit sausage. Cook vegetables in oil. Add chopped nuts to the casserole, and sprinkle the top with chopped nuts or sunflower seeds.

Serves 2 as a main course.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.

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