Bacon, Cream And Other Secrets Of Enjoying Late Fall Vegetables

We hear a lot about eating seasonally. I bet Maira Kalman’s illustrating a Michael Pollan rule about it RIGHT NOW. In fact, I bet she already did. And I love eating seasonally—yes, it makes me feel superior and in tune with Mother Earth, ohm, but also it just tastes good. Like, a seasonal tomato versus a February tomato, those are two different vegetables. Two different planets. Two different galaxies. Two different universes that only Brian Greene can explain the simultaneous existence of. One is a vegetable, and one is gross, tasteless nonsense. Okay and also I do enjoy feeling sort of touchy-feely at-one with the planet, eating in-season, because otherwise, in the city, I barely know what the seasons are. I can see a slice of park trees from my bedroom window, three blocks away, and they are orange for a month, but otherwise I don’t really notice them. I am usually terrible about knowing how heavy a jacket I need, sweater or scarf. So vegetables are really all I have.

Most people trying to seduce the world into eating seasonally like to ooh and aah and induce salivation about summer fruits like peaches and plums and those late-July tomatoes. Or the ramps and fiddleheads and other useless garnishes that are the first products of spring. Now it’s fall, and late fall at that. You’re out of luck, right, it’s just you and frozen creamed spinach until June. What can you do but go lay out $3 for a sad bunch of swiss chard at Whole Foods while lamenting all of the produce you missed during the growing season. It’s cold and the trees have no leaves, and don’t you remember when it snowed two weeks ago?

Wait! Stop! Get thee to the farmers market! And not just for the maple syrup cotton candy, not at all, because we are too old for that, aren’t we. There is still plenty of produce there, lovingly sold to you by farmers who’ve been up since 4 a.m. Obviously, first of all, there are apples, duh. My mom has this new obsession with farmers market apples. I’ve been telling her for years, like I’ve been telling lots of people who don’t care, that they really taste different, better, like apples. But she had to find her own path, and she did, straight to the honeycrisps. So apples, yes. And then winter squash. There are all these glorious foods that keep for months in a cold cellar, if you happen to be living before the invention of supermarkets and trans-continental trucking routes. (Winters of apples, onions and squash. Oh my, I roll my eyes. How did you not just off yourself around February, you imaginary New Englander of 1875?) These long-storing fruits and vegetables taunt us at this time of year, like, Sure, you’re real excited about me now. Lol. But it’s not only those hardy ones that you are left with—there is still plenty right now that is fresh from the ground and sometimes even green. This is actually the time of year for what I would argue are the tastiest vegetables out there. (Tastiest and easiest to prepare, bonus.) I’m not even gonna listen to that class clown in the back of the readership, tastiest vegetable? oxymoron! You’re the oxymoron, bro. Vegetables are delicious, and they help you not die. Shut up.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS
I was watching an episode of “Chopped” the other day, because the “Iron Chef: America”-shaped hole in my heart is too vast for the Food Network’s programming choices to fill, and a contestant, a chef, said that he hates Brussels sprouts. He was like, “I don’t know what to do with these, because I hate them, because they are gross,” more or less.

Another time on “Chopped,” the contestants were freaked out by having to cook rattlesnake. Sure, I can buy that. But Brussels sprouts?! What the hell, guy?

Brussels sprouts are the bacon of vegetables. That is not my line! It’s my boyfriend’s! The same boyfriend who blames himself for me quitting vegetarianism, but who should actually feel guilty for rekindling my torrid love for Doritos. He thinks Brussels sprouts are like bacon, okay? Trust him. They are amazing.

They key to Brussels sprouts is to avoid steaming them. Steamed (or boiled, god), they give off that dead-mouse smell common to this family of veggies (see also: cabbage and cauliflower). But roasted, broiled or sauteed, Brussels sprouts are rich, caramelized heaven. They also look adorable, like tiny cabbages or brains.

My favorite way to cook Brussels sprouts is on the stovetop. This recipe covers it, but anything other than salt and olive oil is totally superfluous. Stick with small sprouts, as they’ll cook through without steaming. For something even faster and less finicky, shred them thus.

CAULIFLOWER
There is something wonderfully meditative in cutting up a head of cauliflower, discovering the fractal symmetry and hacking away at it with a chef’s knife. The inner leaves curl around the florets like pale little hands. It’s all very lovely and intimate. Cut up a head of cauliflower, stick your hand into a chicken’s cavity to pull out the bag of organs lovingly placed there by some distant butcher. Column A, column B.

I was on the phone with my mom the other day, figuring out a couple of dishes I could make for Thanksgiving at her house. “I’ve been roasting cauliflower a lot lately. It’s really good.” She said that sounded fantastic. I went on, “I don’t know how everyone would feel about this, but it’s really, really good roasted in bacon grease?” I rushed to add, “It’s not any more fat than you’d have with olive oil. Just different. And it tastes amazing!” (I pictured myself heading out to the suburbs that Wednesday evening with a bag of laundry and a small jar of bacon grease.) She didn’t have to think long before asking if we could just stick with olive oil. But you’re not squeamish, right? (I love you, Mom, you’re not squeamish, either.) So buy some bacon. (The best reasonably priced no-nitrates stuff I’ve found is Applegate Farms Sunday Bacon, for what it’s worth.) Cook it. Eat it. Save the fat. A little glass jar in the fridge will work well. (Oven bacon tastes as good as stovetop and keeps your range safe from the sheen of splattered bacon fat: You need that fat for your cauliflower!)

Preheat your oven to 400 or so. Cut a head of cauliflower into bite-sized florets. Melt a few tablespoons of bacon fat over a burner in a metal measuring cup (or however). Mix the florets in a bowl with the bacon fat and a sprinkling of salt. Lay in a single layer on a foil-covered baking sheet. (Minimal cleanup, lazy comrades!) (If you are a compulsive and lazy comrade, take a minute to put any flat, cut sides of the cauliflower face down on the foil, for extra nice browning.) Roast for 30 to 40 minutes, until nice and caramelized and browned. You can toss/turn/mix around after about 20 minutes if you like.

I am able to eat like two pounds of cauliflower at once like this. I have to restrain myself so that a week’s worth of cauliflower lasts the whole week. In case you are wondering, purple cauliflower keeps its color after roasting, orange cauliflower fades. Both taste like the regular white kind. (I always expect orange cauliflower to taste like cheddar popcorn. I am always disappointed when it doesn’t.) Blue roasted cauliflower is awesome in its strangeness straight out of the oven; it’s a little off-putting in those third-day leftovers.

Advanced cauliflower: mix it into an omelette or frittata. Blue cauliflower will keep its color even then.

N.B.: You can cook broccoli the same way. It is also fantastically addictive. Both roasted lil trees are also very tasty cold or room temp, for all you office workers and grad students and itinerants out there.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH
If we’re not afraid of cauliflower in bacon fat, can we also be brave enough for butternut squash cooked in cream? Butternut squash is intimidating in many ways, let us comfort ourselves with some warm milkfat, yeah?

Butternut squash intimidates because it’s a pain and a half to cut up. You can buy it diced in the supermarket, sure. But that is not the point! The point, the whole point, of butternut squash is to buy it in November and leave it on your kitchen table and forget about it for three months until there are no vegetables in season, and you get to say, sayonara, supermarket, I got a seasonal vegetable right here!

I do this with butternut squashes from my mom’s garden. She gives them to me in July, and I save them for when I’m desperate. Also I’m pretty sure the marks on one are from some woodland creature that had tried to gnaw its way in. And this is part of why the butternut squash languishes until desperation strikes. If that beaver couldn’t gnaw into the squash, what chance does my knife have?

Well, it’s easier, at least, than the coconut I once impulse-bought at the supermarket. I tried a hammer. I tried a hammer and a screwdriver. I took the thing out to my building’s courtyard and bashed it against the concrete (admittedly gingerly, lest my Dominican neighbors hear and laugh at the white girl’s travails). Eventually my boyfriend broke the coconut open. Butternut squash is easier than that.

You just need a big sharp knife, a steady hand, a cutting board that DOES NOT SLIP AROUND ON YOUR COUNTER, and a little patience. Have at it!

This is where the cream comes in. And sage. The sage will come from the supermarket. The cream will taste better if it comes from a local dairy at the farmers market. I’m sorry, this is not snobbery, it is just true. But cream is delicious no matter what, because, come on, it’s cream! And this is heavy cream. None of that half-and-half stuff, and, seriously, none of this weirdo fat-free creamer. Heavy cream is milkfat, which, bonus, means it will not bother you (we) lactose intolerants. All fat means no sugar and lactose is sugar! And fat doesn’t make you fat, etc etc, we can talk about this later if you want.

I follow this recipe. Don’t let the title fool you—parmesan cheese is just an accent here. It is all about the cream. And sage. This is like butternut squash ravioli, minus the pasta nonsense.

For brownie points: save and rinse the seeds; roast in salt and a little oil in your toaster oven.

KALE
Kale and Brussels sprouts (and broccoli, and cabbage too) are all in the same family, they’re all cruciferous vegetables (family: Brassicaceae). These guys are full of vitamins (C, K, et. al.) and buckets of anti-cancer compounds. Thank you, science.

And I don’t know the science behind this part of it, but these Brassicaceaes taste awesome with three things: high heat, oil and salt. That’s it. That’s all those Brussels sprouts needed, that’s what you’re doing roasting cauliflower (or broccoli), and that’s how you turn kale from vegan health food to oh man that’s delicious. This is like that book Jerry Seinfeld’s wife wrote a few years ago about tricking your kids into eating vegetables, except instead of stirring a tablespoon of sweet potato puree into brownie mix, we’re transforming green vegetables into delicacies with the simple application of salt and high heat.

Tear up some kale leaves to the large side of bite-size. Discard the stems. (Into your compost collection, obvs.) Rinse them and, with a salad spinner or other piece of ingenuity, get them pretty dry. Heat oil in a hot skillet. Add the kale, sprinkle some salt. Toss as it cooks. Let some bits get almost burnt-looking. Taste as you go, until it’s as done as you like. (Get to know your vegetables!)

Varsity kale: tear up a leaf, sans stem, and add that to a fruit smoothie. You know—milk (soy, cow, coconut, what have you), berries, banana, yogurt. Whatever. And that handful of torn kale? It will turn the smoothie green. This will be weird, but you will not be able to taste the kale. (If you have sweet fruit in there, go ahead and add a quarter—a half!—of an avocado. And laugh, because who know eating vegetables could be like this!)

APPLES
Not a vegetable, yes, I know, but oh so tasty! (I guess butternut squash are technically a fruit as well, carrying their seeds, as they do, inside them.) Do like my mom did and get to know some weird little apples. Supermarket Red Deliciouses have always made my mouth feel tight and dry. And what conformity in the supermarket fruit aisle: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith. Ew ew ew. Go see some of the crazy stuff that farmers are bringing you from upstate or whichever direction the farms are from your particular city. They also have amazing names: Macoun, Gala, Lady, sure, but also Ashmead’s Kernel, Black Gilliflower, and, my apple of the year, Stayman Winesap. And pears! Have a Bartlett and think of “The West Wing.” Have an Anjou and think of Elizabeth—“I am Anjou!” Or maybe we don’t have all the same sorts of media associations. I’m sure you will find some of your own.

There is a lot you can do with a few apples, other than eat them raw. (Eventually you might get bored of that, or maybe sometimes it gives you a weird stomach che. Or you might just want to feel fancy.) Baked apples, apple crumble, apple pie (there are a billion recipes, but I swear by this crust), applesauce. Apple butter, if you have a food mill. I bet your grandma does, and I bet she will let you borrow it.

This Thanksgivng I made a Honeycrisp Apple Crisp. If you have ideas for other weakly clever, not-really-even-pun names for desserts, please let me know.

***

I was a vegetarian for thirteen years. For the first chunk of being a vegetarian I was also a teenager, and I ate things like chik’n patties on hamburger rolls with mayonnaise, and that was a meal. Weirdly, getting to know and love vegetables may have been the beginning of the end of the meatlessness. Learning to cook vegetables was learning to cook was learning to love cooking was learning to love vegetables. It all kind of happened together. There are bajillions of awesome things at the farmers market, but after a few years they’d all become familiar. I got bored. I wanted more new things to cook, and that’s a big part of why I made my way back to meat.

Demographically, odds are that you, reading this, eat meat. So think about all these vegetables you could get to know. They’re really friendly, and they’re around for a little while longer, still, too.


Jaime Green is going to make a steak now, the way Alex Balk said to.

Photos by, from top: Chris Martin, JMacPherson, Clay Irving, Jeremy Keith and SummerTomato.