Now that the days are shorter, the nights colder and the sun not quite so bright, it’s almost hard to remember the flavor of those summer treats that filled our baskets and our stomachs. Gone are the fist-sized heirloom tomatoes, the honey-sweet yellow peaches, the finger-staining blackberries and that sweet Sloughhouse corn.
It’s around this time of year that cooks turn to the pantry rather than the produce aisle. Roasted meats and heavy stews are front of mind. Salad takes a back seat. Pastry chefs pull the preserved fruit off the shelf rather than take a risk on off-season produce.
It’s a shame, truly, that we don’t give fall and winter produce its due. California is still one of the largest agricultural producers in the world, and some of its greatest bounty comes between the months of October and March.
Here’s a list of some nutrient-packed, high-flavor local produce that you can snag at the megamart, the co-op or any one of the area’s many year-round farmers markets.
APPLES. Do we need to go any further? Almost no food on earth is more associated with autumn. Some tend to view apples as a sweet, almost decadent treat. They might think of apple pie or baked apples with sugar and butter before it occurs to them the health benefits, and simple beauty, of the raw apple.
That’s right. Raw. Simple. Right off the tree. In its raw state, the apple, especially the apple skin, provides the highest amount of nutrition.
According to Danielle Best, on-site manager for the Certified Farmers’ Markets of Sacramento, “Apples have natural pectin, which is a type of soluble fiber. Eating soluble fiber like natural pectin is a great way to lower harmful cholesterol in the bloodstream.”
The folks up at Apple Hill tell us the last few varieties to ripen in the late fall are Fuji, Pink Lady and Arkansas Black.
CACTUS. You may have heard of cactus fruit or prickly pears (heck, some of you might even drink Cactus Coolers), but we’re talking about the actual cactus here. Cactus paddles (that’s right, they’re not leaves, they’re “pads” or “paddles”) are frequently used in Mexican cooking but have many other uses as well.
According to Amber Stott, founding executive director of the Food Literacy Center, “Cactus tastes like a citrusy, crisp green bean. Cactus can help regulate blood sugar and reduce cholesterol. You can find it in fall but not winter. I buy it from the farmers market or at the Latin grocery stores. Sauté [cactus pads] with onions and bell pepper to add to scrambled eggs, quesadillas or tacos. Grill them, cube them and mix with chunks of tomato, avocado and black bean for a great side salad.”
If shopping at a farmers market or market where labels are in Spanish, look for nopales or nopalitos.
WILD MUSHROOMS. When rain arrives, so do the mushrooms. Much-needed rain in California brings with it a treasure trove of healthy, delicious fungi. Local favorites include chanterelles and morels.
Monica Randel, registered dietitian at Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento, is a big fan: “Mushrooms are a great source of vitamin D. This vitamin is usually fortified in higher-fat products, so eating mushrooms is a more natural way to get vitamin D intake during the winter months without the fat. All mushrooms can make vitamin D when exposed to direct sunlight. Unwrapping store-bought mushrooms and placing them in the sun for 30 minutes will greatly increase the amount of vitamin D the body absorbs. I love mushrooms because they are a good source of protein as well. They taste meaty and dense without the cholesterol and saturated fat. My mother taught me my favorite mushroom recipe of sautéing them in olive oil with slices of zucchini and garlic. The flavors blend very well. It’s great over pasta or spaghetti squash.”
PERSIMMONS. There are two main varieties of this fall favorite: Fuyu and Hachiya. Traditional Fuyu persimmons are flat on the bottom. Giant Fuyus are bigger and rounder on the bottom. These can be eaten out of hand like an apple, and are crunchy and smooth. Hachiya persimmons are heart-shaped and primarily used for baking in moist cookies and breads.
Amber Stott suggests keeping a bowl of fresh persimmons on the counter so your family can grab an easy, healthful snack. She says they’re also great sliced and added to a peanut butter sandwich or chopped in a small dice and added to grated carrots and a squeeze of orange juice for a healthy salad.
Persimmons are rich in vitamin C, antioxidants and lycopene.
GREENS. Spinach, collards, kale, mustards and the elusive broccoli rabe— all sorts of great greens are grown in late fall and early winter. Some are bitter, some sweet; some can be enjoyed raw, and some love a significant soak in a savory stew. When they’re well prepared, greens are one of the healthiest things you can eat.
According to dietitians Debbie Lucus and Lynea Albers from Sutter Medical Foundation, greens are high in vitamins A, C and K and folate. They’re also rich in phytonutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin. These antioxidants help fight free radicals and may help protect us against certain cancers.
Add them to your minestrone for a healthy and savory bite. Or pile them high on a pizza crust with a touch of pesto and Parmesan and bake at 500 degrees for 10 minutes. Or go for the simplest preparation possible: Just rinse with water, chop into small pieces and add to a large pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil or vegetable broth. Saute until wilted, about 3 to 5 minutes.
BRUSSELS SPROUTS. A greatly derided vegetable for many generations, Brussels sprouts have had something of a rebranding over the last decade. Gone are the stories of Mom boiling her sprouts for hours, bringing out the worst flavors and pungent smells of overripe garbage. Now, you’re much more likely to hear about these little treats in any manner of hearty yet hip preparations involving skillets, cheeses and bacon.
Harvested in the late fall and early winter, these babies are packed to the brim with nutrition and can be prepared in a variety of ways, even without bacon, perish the thought.
Lucus and Albers from Sutter prefer this preparation: Cut large sprouts in half. If they are small, it’s OK to leave them whole. Season with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in a 375 degree oven for about 25 minutes. Flip over halfway through cooking. For extra flavor, season the sprouts with a small amount of whole-grain mustard—this brings out their natural mustard flavor and adds a little kick to the sprouts.
These little beauties are rich in vitamins C and K and folate, like most greens.
SQUASH. According to Kaiser’s Monica Randel, the winter-squash family is packed with vitamin A and carotenoids, which are very strong antioxidants that are beneficial for the eyes. Because they are also loaded with vitamins B6, C and E, they really help keep you healthy as the cooler weather comes around. Another bonus of winter squashes is that they are much lower in carbohydrates than pasta for those managing their blood sugar.
Whether we’re talking about butternut, delicata, acorn, Sweet Mama, turban, pink banana or spaghetti, winter squashes are that tremendous combination of delicious and nutritious.
They’re a favorite of Danielle Best of Certified Farmers’ Markets. “There are so many shapes and sizes,” she says. “All of the squash are wonderful roasted. Seeds have nutritional minerals and can be saved and toasted for snacking. The yellow- and orange-flesh squashes (such as acorn and butternut) are a wonderful source of vitamin A. Roasting with oil or adding a little cream to the soup actually helps your body absorb this nutrient because A is a fat-soluble vitamin.”
Stott loves pumpkins, and rarely ever as a dessert. Here are a few ideas for eating pumpkins that don’t require a pie crust: Carefully cut a small pumpkin in half. Scoop out and discard the seeds. Place on an oiled cookie sheet, flesh side down, and roast at 400 degrees until tender (15 to 25 minutes). Once the pumpkin is cool, you can slice it into long pieces and eat just like you would a melon in summer. You can also cube the pumpkin, top with some grated cheese, add greens and your favorite dressing and eat as a salad. The cooked flesh is great tossed into rice with chicken, added to a burrito or even eaten as breakfast with a dash of maple syrup.
Like other squashes, pumpkins can keep your eyesight sharp, improve your mood and protect your skin.
ROOT VEGETABLES. Nutritional powerhouses like turnips (vitamin C), rutabaga (fiber, vitamin C, potassium) and parsnips (fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate, magnesium, potassium) are staples of Northern and Eastern European cooking. These winter favorites can keep you healthier during cold and flu season with their heaps of vitamin C, all the while improving gastrointestinal health and controlling cholesterol levels with their high fiber content.
Try using parsnips and turnips in soups and stews in place of potatoes. Or, for an easy winter side dish, chop rutabaga, turnips and parsnips into half-inch squares. Spread on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season lightly with salt, pepper and fresh thyme. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes.