Root crops and squash. Not very glamorous names, but the flavor of these vegetables can't be matched. You can combine them with autumn-harvested herbs in delicious and healthy dishes.
There are a number of vegetables in this family, including rutabagas, turnips, parsnips, beets and carrots. The varieties of squash include acorn, patty pan, turban, spaghetti, Hubbard, crookneck, scaloppini, gold neck and pumpkin. All of these vegetables grow well in our southwest gardens and are ready to be harvested. Check your local farmers' markets on a regular basis, because new varieties are showing up weekly.
Another fall crop to remember is Brussels sprouts. (When I was a child the mere mention of these made me cringe. I thought they were used as some type of culinary punishment. Now I can't do without them!) Named after the capital of Belgium, where they may have first been cultivated, these mini-cabbages are actually at their peak of flavor when harvested after first frost. The ping pong-ball-sized sprouts grow in a tight spiral pattern on thick stalks with a burst of large leaves at the top. They are similar to cabbage in taste, but have a milder flavor and denser texture. Nutritionally, they have the same anti-carcinogen potential as cabbage and other brassica vegetables because they contain the nitrogen compounds called indoles and a significant amount of vitamin C. Brussels sprouts also have high amounts of folic acid, potassium and a small amount of beta carotene. A bright green color is the best guide to freshness and good condition; yellowed or wilted leaves are a sure sign of age or mishandling. Old sprouts also have a strong odor. Avoid spongy sprouts by choosing small, firm, compact ones with unblemished leaves. The stem ends should be clean and white. Always soak Brussels sprouts in warm water for about 10 minutes to loosen any dirt or get rid of insects, then rinse in cool water. You can also buy Brussels sprouts frozen at the grocer's and they still retain color, flavor and nutritive value.
And what about the poor parsnip? Traditionally a northern crop, parsnips actually can be grown in our area. They have a similar growth pattern as carrots and have a mild flavor. Parsnips have been known to grow 15 inches long in the right soil. This is another root crop that is high in vitamin C and folic acid. Parsnips have been used in vegetable-soup bases and stocks and can also be boiled and mashed, then served as a substitute for mashed potatoes. They are a good addition to a relish tray, when peeled and sliced into strips. Sprinkle a little seasoned salt on them and serve with your favorite dip.
If you are fortunate enough to have a root cellar, you can store root vegetables in moist sand over the winter. Cut the tops and place them in the sand so they do not touch each other and completely cover with another layer of sand. The cool, dark consistent temperatures in a root cellar keep them firm and flavorful.
Root crops have always been a staple of soups and stews. Savory chunks of these in a bubbling pot of hunter's stew can satisfy the heartiest of appetites.
Some of our most aromatic and delicious herbs are the heavier oiled varieties that are at their best in October. Rosemary, sage and thyme are hardy perennials that can be harvested and dried or frozen for winter use. If you have a mature, established plant, cuttings may be taken all winter. Once our weather turns colder, however, these herbs develop a much stronger flavor and you will need to adjust the amounts used in your recipes.
One of my favorite ways to dry and use autumn herbs is to make a large "'kitchen bundle": Clip stems 8-10 inches in length from each of the above-mentioned herbs. Tie them together in a large bunch with cotton string or twine and hang in the kitchen away from direct sunlight. Snip as you need for recipes. The bundle will fill your kitchen with a warm, delicious fragrance.
Root crops are not just meant to be boiled and plopped into a serving bowl. They can be baked, fried or grilled and used in combinations with other vegetables. Here are some delicious ways to prepare these vegetables:
Have a wonderful fall and winter and I'll be back in March with ideas to get your gardens off to a great start!
Alice Pauser is the owner of The Kitchen Gardener in Silver City.