Grown-ass men and women have recently been spotted walking around the city with dark purple stains extending from the corners of their mouths. This is a telltale sign of a trip to the farmer’s market in Union Square, where it is impossible to resist a cup of grape juice made fresh from Concord grapes, which are just in season. In fact, the market has swelled to a record sprawl—more crops are harvested in autumn than at any other time of year.
No matter how appealing it can be to imagine life in a place with consistent, mild weather year-round, New Yorkers suffer through the most atrocious heat and the bleakest cold knowing that a new season is always just around the corner, bringing with it a plethora of foods we have missed. As hard as it can be to let go of, say, fava beans in May, and tomatoes in September, the mourning is cut short by the thrill of the next harvest. Removed from the farm as we are, it’s hard to envision a life in which food isn’t an indicator of time. Right now, a casual stroll through the farmer’s market makes it clear that—no matter how warm the weather—fall is here. Below are some favorite autumn vegetables that have returned to stands.
Giant displays of winter squash (technically a fruit, but let’s not quibble), the quintessential sign of fall, have taken over the markets. The assortment is dizzying, from butternuts, acorns, pumpkins, and delicatas to the more exotic and decorative varieties, like the inedible speckled swan, a dark green-skinned gourd with light splotches and a rotund belly that gives way to a thin, curved neck.
Though the sight of them usually brings back memories of classroom decorations and Thanksgiving centerpieces, squash, which are incredibly versatile, are put to better use in the kitchen. At Barbuto, butternut squash, a favorite for its rich, meaty flesh, stars in a simple risotto with Parmigiano cheese, which adds tang and salt to balance the mellow, sweet squash in the dish. Pumpkin “lune” (little moons, a playful name for ravioli) are on the menu at Babbo, where Mario Batali adds a simple and traditional butter and sage sauce. At Franny’s, squash is fried as an appetizer.
Alias‘ menu, which changes weekly and is devoutly seasonal, shows welcome signs of squash mania. It is used as a side note in some dishes, like the garlic gnocchi with grilled acorn squash and the roast chicken with squash cornbread stuffing. It even takes center stage in an entrée: An acorn squash stuffed with oyster, cremini, and chanterelle mushrooms, wild rice, Manchego cheese, and pea shoots.
Broccoli, Cauliflower, and Romanesco
Squash is probably the ultimate vegetarian option for hardy eating (aside from meat substitutes invented by humans), but broccoli is another example of why fall is the best time to forego meat and still eat substantial meals. Many of us think of it as kids’ food, and have long since abandoned it ourselves, but when it’s good (the coloring should be dark green, sometimes with purple shading—never yellow) it is crunchy and complex, with a spicy quality inherited from the mustard family, to which it belongs.
Not long ago, its leafy Italian counterpart, broccoli rabe, was unpopular because of its bitter taste, but these days it’s practically a staple on restaurant menus, and is stocked in most supermarkets year round. It is shipped here from far-off places most of the year, so the prices vary greatly, but now that it’s in season locally, get it at its best and cheapest. Italians often pair broccoli rabe with sausage and pasta, or eat it as a contorno (side dish) simply sautéed with olive oil and garlic (like at Beppe and Max).
Another fall vegetable that many of us may not have considered since childhood is cauliflower, which is beloved by many chefs and celebrated as a seasonal delight, although it too is easy to find any time of the year. At Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton offers a side dish of cauliflower with brown butter, which plays up the nutty quality of the vegetable, and capers, which brighten it. Cauliflower is extremely common in Indian cooking and often paired with potato, making for hardy comfort food (try Alu Gobi at Chennai Garden).
Foodies who crave something more exotic should try romanesco, that crazy-looking light-green relative of broccoli. Romanesco has florets just like broccoli and cauliflower, but its flowers come together in conical points. Buy it at the farmer’s market now and steam, roast, sauté, or blanch it like broccoli. Or try it at Alias, where a North Atlantic Hake is served with an ode to the trio—broccoli rabe, cauliflower puree, and spicy romanesco.
The piles of rainbow-colored peppers at markets now are so beautiful they don’t even seem real. Some are deep purple, or a blend of green and purple, bright yellow, orange, brown, black, and red. Their presence is a great example of what makes fall such an exciting time for food-lovers, since they peak as summer ends. As we see at the market, their late harvest overlaps with the first arrivals of more standard autumn fare.
Rainbow bright: Sweet peppers at the farmer’s market
photo: Nina Lalli
Raw peppers are crunchy and juicy and work well in salads, but are much sweeter and meatier when cooked. Because they are so different, many people love one preparation and detest the other. Cooked peppers are appealing this time of year, lending a lot of flavor to whatever they are paired with, and easily replace meat because of their intense, dense flesh. A classic Italian American appetizer is roasted red peppers with thinly sliced raw garlic, which is traditionally served cold, as at Roberto Restaurant near Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. At Poetessa, short rigatoni are tossed with roasted eggplant, peppers, chopped arugula, and goat cheese, and at Abboccato, free-range chicken is stewed with sweet peppers, tomatoes, olives, and rosemary.
These are just some of fall’s offerings—the market is overflowing with more seasonal delights like Jerusalem artichokes (a/k/a sunchokes), local apples, mushrooms, fresh beans, and more. Restaurant creations can be a great reference when combining flavors you might not have thought to put together. But don’t think you have to spend a fortune to experience the best of the season—the greatest preparations are often the simplest, and the market can’t be beat for inspiration.