Now that autumn is officially here, it’s time to celebrate the season’s abundance. 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. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that many of my patients bypass fall foods. They’re happy enough with old standbys — apples, corn, maybe some sweet potatoes. But most people skip the squash, rush past the rutabagas, and pass on parsnips, even though these foods are some of the most nutritious available in any season.
Let’s take a look at some of fall’s hidden food gems. Once you know how easy it is to cook many of these foods, you’ll see why I’m so eager for you to try them. Just remember to choose variously colored foods to maximize your nutrient intake, since the colors of fruits and vegetables contain healthful compounds known as phytonutrients that protect us against a long list of ailments.
Fruits and Roots
They may not be as familiar as tomatoes, peppers, and other summer produce, but don’t be put off by the different hues and sometimes strange shapes of fall’s fruits and veggies. Most of them are root vegetables that have been growing underground for months, storing up nutrients and flavor. As a bonus, root vegetables have very long shelf life, so you’re far less likely to open the veggie bin and find that the beautiful produce you bought a few days ago has already spoiled.
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.
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 produce manager at your supermarket.
Once primarily used as 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 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.
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 (see recipe below). There’s also a purple-skinned, white-flesh Japanese variety that’s outstanding roasted. Here again, avoid microwaving any variety of sweet potato, as it can make them fibrous and tough.
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 (see recipe below.)
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.
Here’s another recipe that you can tweak to introduce new vegetables to skeptical family members, followed by several of my favorite fall recipes:
Braised Chicken Breasts with Sweet Onion, Carrots, and Parsnips
Pair an old favorite, like oven-braised chicken and vegetables, with a new addition to encourage reluctant eaters to try something new. You could easily replace the parsnips in this recipe with a different root vegetable, such as rutabaga, to introduce it.
Oven-Baked Sweet-Potato Fries
These fries are so delicious, my family prefers them to the regular version. More importantly, sweet potatoes are a good source of magnesium, a nutrient most Americans are lacking. This essential mineral fights stress and benefits the heart, bones, skin, and more.
Roasted Root Vegetables
This easy-to-make dish not only looks great on the table but is loaded with vitamins and minerals. Roasting brings out the vegetables’ slightly sweet, distinctive flavor and minimizes nutrient loss. Save leftovers — if there are any — to reheat or use in salads later in the week.
Roasted Winter Squash or Pumpkin Seeds
Save those seeds! Every time you prepare a squash or pumpkin, set aside the seeds for snacking. They’re easy to roast, plus squash and pumpkin seeds are full of nutritional goodness, including protein, good fats, and minerals like magnesium, potassium, manganese, and the cold fighter zinc.
Arugula Salad with Persimmons
Loaded with vitamins A, B complex, C, and K, arugula is a great salad base. Here it’s combined with fiber-rich persimmon for a light but nutritious side dish or mini-meal.
Autumn-Spice Apple-Pomegranate Bread
Apples are a fall-season fruit, but since they’re so familiar, most people don’t need help figuring out what to do with them. This flavorful bread combines pomegranate arils (the little seeds inside the fruit) with fresh apples and applesauce for a nutritional powerhouse. Try it toasted for a delicious, filling breakfast.
There’s so much more wonderful produce available in autumn, I hope you take the time to make some fall-food discoveries of your own. If you shop at farmers’ markets, get to know the vendors. Most of them know their products inside and out and can provide you with nutritional information, shopping tips, and recipes if you just ask. Autumn can be so much more than a lovely season — it can also be a learning experience and an opportunity to turn your health around.