As a regular farmers’ market shopper, I’m always disheartened to see the thinning of the crowds in late fall. While I don’t miss all that elbowing and shoving to get to the tomatoes and corn, I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more enthusiasm for those first turnips, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and parsnips. I suppose that many home cooks overlook these classic fall vegetables simply because they don’t recognize their delicious potential, or perhaps because they just don’t know what to do with them.
The truth is that I can understand why some people have hang-ups about certain fall vegetables; they’re often prepared in untempting ways, cooked in a manner that brings out their less appealing attributes or smothered in sauces that mask their flavor. I take the opposite approach, choosing cooking methods and flavorings that highlight the natural flavor of the vegetable. My aim is to keep the preparation simple so the vegetable can speak for itself. Trust me on this. You can’t help but fall for these vegetables once you try the recipes at right.
Turnips are one of the most unappreciated of all the fall vegetables, which is too bad, as they have a complex and intriguing flavor. Up front, they’re strong and peppery, yet there are undertones of sweetness as well. Their open-grained texture does a remarkable job of absorbing flavors when they’re simmered in stews and braises. I treat turnips as I do potatoes: I cut them in wedges and roast them alongside chicken or pork. Or I steam them until tender with a potato or two, mash with a bit of cream and butter, and fold in fresh chives or parsley. Good flavor pairings for turnips include apples, bacon, sage, mustard, and spices like cumin or coriander—all of which help to balance turnips’ assertive flavor.
Parsnips are incredibly versatile. Like turnips, they’re wonderful mashed with potatoes for a silky purée or roasted with pork. One of the simplest ways to cook parsnips is to cut them into thin sticks, toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast until sweet and caramelized. They make great puréed soups, either on their own or as a subtle “mystery ingredient” in broccoli, cauliflower, or squash soups. If possible, buy small to medium parsnips since they tend to be more uniform in shape and will cook more evenly. Larger parsnips have a tough core that should be cut away before cooking. I like pairing parsnips with rosemary, thyme, warm spices, and browned butter.
Brussels sprouts grow on large stalks, and some markets carry them in this impressive form. If you encounter them, look for the stalk with the smallest sprouts, which will be sweeter. Cooked properly, Brussels sprouts have a pleasantly assertive, nutty, cabbagy flavor. But they’re not forgiving, and when overcooked they become stinky and limp. One delicious preparation is to slice them and sauté them with browned butter and pecans. I also like to braise halved sprouts in stock with a bit of butter until tender and then reduce the liquid to a glaze at the end; then I toss with lemon juice and fresh thyme for a lovely side dish. Other good pairings for Brussels sprouts are bacon or pancetta, walnuts, chestnuts, mustard, sage, and other hardy herbs.
Sweet potatoes come in several varieties, some creamier and sweeter and others less so, but I use them interchangeably. Many markets label sweet potatoes as yams, but true yams are very starchy and not as sweet, quite a different tuber alltogether. Sweet potatoes’ earthy richness makes them a natural for gratins, soups, and pies. For a quick side dish, toss sweet potato wedges in olive oil and roast them; they cook faster than white potatoes. Or simply bake sweet potatoes in their skins and serve with butter or sour cream. I like to add a touch of maple syrup, molasses, or brown sugar to highlight the vegetable’s sweetness. Or I use that natural sweetness as a counterpoint to play off stronger flavors such as ginger, chiles, and lime, spices like cumin and coriander, and herbs like cilantro and thyme.