By Julia Turshen There’s a poem I love called September Tomatoes by the Massachusetts-based poet Karina Borowicz. In it, she evokes the feeling and details of the season change, like the fruit flies that erupt from tomato plants and the compost that cooks build from what remains of summer. It closes beautifully: "My greatgrandmother sang with the girls of her village / as they pulled the flax. Songs so old / and so tied to the season that the very sound / seemed to turn the weather."
Borowicz captures in her poem what I try to capture in my kitchen this time of year: the palpable shift from one time of year into another. Cooking with autumnal produce means juicy grapes and crunchy apples, tough-skinned squash and pumpkins and tender heads of cauliflower and, my favorite, tall stalks thick as branches dotted with Brussels sprouts.
Apples, my take includes warm wedges cooked in brown butter that can veer savory with sage or sweet with brown sugar. You can serve the savory ones alongside roast chicken or pork chops, or on toast that you’ve slathered with goat cheese or ricotta. The sweet ones can be offered in the morning to make usual oatmeal less usual, or for dessert over ice cream. But for days when fall doesn’t quite feel like fall, you can do a cold, crunchy apple salad with fish sauce and cilantro, a nod to Southeast Asian green mango salad. A fall fruit that can be dressed in warm weather clothing, an apple is a versatile thing. Use crisp, firm apples for all these preparations.
Butternut squash, or any winter squash for that matter, offers similar versatility. You can grate the flesh and mix it with Parmesan, thyme, a bit of flour and egg and fry the mixture into irresistible fritters that are perfect to serve with cocktails at your next dinner party. You can even tuck the fritters into warm flatbread that you’ve spread with yogurt and top with some cucumbers and salad greens for a delightful vegetarian sandwich. While it’s delicious made crisp, squash is also wonderful rendered soft. Try it in a simple, creamy soup spiked with pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika) or pureed into a mash with a bit of saffron. Serve the mash as a side dish for nearly anything, including — but not limited to — braised lamb, roasted salmon or chicken thighs.
Brussels sprouts can also take on so many forms and lend themselves well to strong flavors. One of my favorite techniques includes mustard in three forms: mustard seeds that add crunch and pop (these are optional, but do try them if you can find them); Dijon mustard, creamy but sharp; and grainy mustard, sort of a cross between the first two. Combined, they transform plain roasted sprouts into a side dish with an incredible depth of flavor. Serve with bratwurst or roast pork loin. Or peel the leaves off each sprout, roast quickly and top with salty pecorino cheese and bright lemon juice. These are incredibly good and can be served on their own as a snack (like kale chips, but better) or as a side dish. You could even toss them with cooked pasta and call it a day. Or you can skip cooking altogether. Just combine thinly sliced raw sprouts with crumbled Gorgonzola and chopped, toasted hazelnuts for a rich, satisfying and unexpected salad.
Cauliflower, with its sturdy florets, can also stand up to big flavors. I like to roast a whole head broken into pieces until they’re browned and crisp at the edges and toss with butter and hot sauce, like chicken wings sans the chicken. Or roast and drizzle with a simple cheddar cheese sauce (like nachos sans the chips). Both of these remind us that vegetables can be just as satisfying as anything else.
Grapes, while available all year, hit their peak in the fall. Besides just eating out of hand, try cooking with them. I like to throw them on a sheet pan with bitter broccoli rabe and fennel-scented Italian sausages and roast the whole tray. The grapes get soft and concentrated, almost like cherry tomatoes. Or make a shrub, the delicious and versatile vinegar-based fruit syrup. You can mix it with sparkling water for an alternative to soda or mix with gin and serve over crushed ice. To make it, all you need is a jar and a little patience. Just crush grapes with sugar and let them sit for a day before straining the mixture and adding an equal part apple cider vinegar. The shrub can sit in your fridge for up to a month. It’s a great thing to bring to someone’s house if you’re invited for dinner. And the easiest way to make grapes last longer? Throw them in your freezer and pull them out whenever you want a healthy, refreshing snack. They’re my go-to, especially when I’m writing. In fact, I’m eating some right now.