The glorious season of autumn has arrived with its bounty of plump orange pumpkins, red and golden trees, and a plethora of delicious fall root vegetables. While the pumpkin and the gourds reign supreme outside the house, inside it is time to cook with the season. It is always a healthy idea to eat seasonal foods as that is when the respective fruits and vegetables are at their most nutritious peak. Looking at our evolution, humans had no choice but to eat with the seasons. However, no one has told our DNA that we can buy almost any food we desire at supermarkets open 24/7 so our bodies still crave seasonal foods.
Fortunately, autumn brings vegetables that are colorful and loaded with nutrients. The stars of the season are butternut squash, sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, brussel sprouts, and acorn squash. All these vegetables are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates: the beneficial kind that are absorbed slowly into the system providing an even and smooth supply of energy and nutrients. The nutrients they supply include potassium, copper, riboflavin, magnesium, carotenoids, and they are low in saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol.
Sweet potatoes have more than twice the amount of beta-carotene of most fruits and vegetables as well as loads of vitamins C and E, all of which work as antioxidants to neutralize the free radicals that damage cells. These antioxidants have been shown in studies to protect the eyes, reduce incidents of cardiovascular disease, and to lessen the incidence of several cancers. The antioxidants provide the diverse colors in these vegetables. Butternut squash was originally grown only for its seeds until the rest of it was discovered to be tasty. It can be roasted or used as filling for soup or pie. Choose one with a skin that is smooth and shiny.
An ancient vegetable dating back 2000 years in the Near East, turnips were a popular vegetable in this country until they were replaced by the potato. They are usually white in color with some purple or green based on their exposure to sunlight. Brussel sprouts have a sweetness when roasted especially with chestnuts. When my husband contracted Hepatitis B as a medical intern, he was unable to eat any food except for brussel sprouts. His body was urging him to eat these tiny cabbages because of the compounds in them that help detoxify the liver and help it regenerate, a process true of all cruciferous vegetables.
So how to prepare this cornucopia of veggies?
Except for the brussel sprouts, they should all be peeled and cut into bite size pieces and put in a roasting pan. The butternut squash is more easily peeled and cut if it is put in the oven or microwave for 2 minutes to soften its hard skin. Drizzle olive oil over the mixture and add some fresh or dried herbs such as sage or thyme and some shallots and garlic cloves. For a slightly different, sweeter taste, add cinnamon, apple cider, and a little maple syrup to the olive oil. Roast in a hot oven for about 40 minutes, turning occasionally. The acorn squash can also be heated briefly to soften it enough to cut in half. Place the cut sides down on a roasting pan partially filled with some liquid, either water, vegetable broth, or apple cider and bake until soft. For serving, turn them right side up and fill with either applesauce and pumpkin pie spice or a mixture of sautéed onions, celery, dried cranberries, and chestnuts.
If you are fortunate enough to have a farmer’s market near your home or work, it is best to buy locally. A farm stand carries produce that is fresh and has not been on a truck for days and then sitting on a supermarket shelf for another few days until you bring it home. Root vegetables are stored best at around 50-55 degrees, preferably in an unheated garage or porch.
Aside from packing a lot of nutrients for very little calories, the sweetness of root vegetables can be a deterrent to a sugary dessert after dinner. Make your dinner plate a rainbow of colors and enjoy the beauty and bounty of this season.