(Contributed photo) Chef Erik Niel says he’s most inspired to try new things with fall produce.
“We fail all the time!” he says. “If you don’t mess up, it means you’re only cooking what you know, and just doing that is an easy way to get burned out.”
For Niel, October is one of the most inspiring times of year to try new things, especially as summer produce turns to fall. He sticks mainly to farmers markets because he knows where the food comes from, but also because it takes some of the guesswork out of buying seasonal.
“When you go to a farmers market, you don’t have to think about it — if it’s there, it’s ripe. You know it hasn’t been sitting on a truck for two weeks, especially if it still has a little dirt on it,” he says, laughing.
From beet greens to Cinderella pumpkins (yes, the cute kind people typically only use to decorate their porches but which are, apparently, delicious), these are Niel’s favorite things to cook in October in Tennessee.
Here’s everything that’s in season:
- Bell Pepper
- Bok Choy
- English Peas
- Field Peas
- Hot Peppers
- Lima Beans
- Summer Squash
- Sweet Potatoes
- Swiss Chard
- Turnip Greens
- Winter Squash
In season only in fall
In season year-round
Turnips and Rutabaga
Turnips and rutabaga are both root vegetables, but rutabaga is actually a direct cross between turnips and cabbage. Turnips have a slightly bitter flavor (think big radishes), while rutabaga can be milder but does have some funk from its cabbage side. Both are excellent sources of fiber and vitamin B.
Roasted and mashed
“I love to roast turnips, especially when I can find the smaller ones, which are sweeter and milder and go great with fish,” says Niel. “But my favorite fall vegetable is rutabaga. They’re so good yet so underutilized, maybe because they were originally considered peasant food? I don’t know why, but I love them.”
Niel roasts rutabaga whole starting at 400 degrees for an hour or so until it’s fork tender. Then he scoops the flesh out of the waxy rind, adds some dairy — cream, butter or milk depending upon how calorie-conscious your meal is that day — and does a quick mash.
“Add a little salt and pepper and you’ve got a great, earthy alternative to potatoes,” he says. “You know, I just remembered rutabaga were originally a Northern vegetable, so maybe that’s why they haven’t taken off here as much. Let’s get them out of the Southern food dustbin!”
Mashing is one of Niel’s favorite ways to get people to try different vegetables, and he says there’s no limit to the combinations you can try — turnip with potato (purple are particularly pretty), carrot and cauliflower, or rutabaga with butternut. Which brings us to:
A mash of butternut squash pairs especially well with pork, but Niel’s favorite way to prepare it includes amping up fall flavors using citrus and nuts.
“In the fall and winter, citrus is so good — oranges, grapefruit, blood oranges — so you have to use them, even though they’re not grown locally,” he says. “Using something like a satsuma (which is similar to a Mandarin orange) really brightens up the creamy, roasted butternut squash. I serve that with grilled trout or lightly crusted catfish and roasted pecans to draw out all the Southern flavors.”
Greens (collard, turnip, mustard, beet), Kale, Swiss Chard, Arugula
Niel has never met a green he doesn’t like. Almost all are good braised, he says, including some you might be dumping in the trash. For example, while you buy turnip greens without the turnips, you usually don’t see beet or carrot greens on their own. But if you get those vegetables whole, you can cook the tops too.
For heartier greens (beets), follow the braising directions below; if your greens are more delicate (carrot tops, arugula), consider dressing them lightly in olive oil, salt and lemon and using them as a garnish for meat, or make a pesto with them.
The secret to any good braised green, Niel says, is seasoning the broth.
“I own a butcher shop, so we always throw a pork bone in our broth, but even just one piece of bacon will give you that smoky flavor and cut down on fat,” he says. “Cook your greens low and slow in chicken or vegetable broth on the stovetop, making sure to season it as you go, and once they’re tender and your liquid is reduced, you’ll have potlikker that is so soulful. It’s amazing to dip your cornbread in.”
For a faster preparation, Niel goes with a sauté. He picks out the younger greens (the smaller, softer leaves, generally found on the inside of a bunch), cleans them, removes the ribs and does a chiffonade, which simply means cutting them into long, thin ribbons. Then he gets a cast iron skillet (though any skillet will work) and wilts the greens along with onions in oil. Once they brown, he deglazes the pan with apple cider vinegar and seasons the dish with salt and pepper. The key to his lighter take on greens: coconut oil.
“My wife got me into coconut oil because it’s great for your skin and body,” he says. “There’s a rich nuttiness but overall it’s a very light tasting fat.”
Coconut oil is a good option for vegans and vegetarians looking to cook without animal fat.
“It really does taste good,” Niel says. “When I do wilted greens, I love to add garlic and lemon to and serve them with shrimp for a lighter version of shrimp scampi.”
Radishes and Beets
Once you’ve trimmed and used your beet greens, Niel offers a preparation that allows you to take out a little aggression while you cook.
“I love to roast beets or radishes and then smash them with a spatula right out of the oven,” he says. “Drizzle them with olive oil and then throw them in a hot skillet or onto a griddle for a minute so they get a little color, and then sprinkle them with salt and pepper. It makes a toasty, rustic side dish or meal.”
If he’s going raw, Niel suggests slicing your radishes really thin and marinating them. Add a little salt and some vinegar, and then leave them for an hour or so. They’ll make bright, crisp toppings for tacos, soups, salads or meat.
Remember those adorable Cinderella pumpkins we mentioned up top? Did you know you can eat those? We didn’t either, but Niel says we’re missing out.
Roasted and pureed
“The Cinderella pumpkins have a real sweetness to them, and it’s so easy to split and roast them and use the meat for everything from pumpkin pie to bread pudding,” he says. “If you want something healthier, you can mash or puree them just like you would squash, and they come in a great variety of colors. It’s funny that we tend to carve and eat the round pumpkins that taste the worst — stringy and bland — and use the ones that taste best just as decoration.”