This old earth is gently slipping into autumn, just as she does with admirable precision every year at this time. And just as precisely and predictably, in the northern hemisphere at least, autumn vegetables shine in markets and gardens and supermarket produce bins:
- squashes, of course, in dozens of shapes, colors, and sizes from giant pumpkins to warty, dusky green Marina di Chioggia to the aptly named delicate-textured Delicata, a squash with skin so thin you can eat it all (these are at Bosco Falconeria in western Sicily)
- autumn greens with their characteristic spicy flavors and hints of bitterness (welcome after summer’s sweet tomatoes and aubergines), especially broccoli rabe (rapini, cima di rape in Italy), Tuscan cavolo nero (lacinato kale), cauliflower, leeks and fennel, and not to forget Napoli’s friarielli greens, so perfect with sausages, like these which are actually on display in a market in Puglia;
- and then the brilliant range of multi-colored root vegetables
—turnips, beets, carrots, celery root (celeriac), potatoes and sweet potatoes. I’m sure I’ve left out something significant—let me know, please, if you have a favorite I’ve missed.
Truth to tell, in our modern global markets, most of these vegetables are available right the year round, but for those of us who love them, they still mark the season as precisely as turning, falling leaves, the glint of hoar frost on chilly mornings, and the smell of woodsmoke on the air. And for those who do not love them, olive oil comes to the rescue. I would venture to say almost any vegetable is better with olive oil and even the ones people love to hate become more acceptable, they go down more easily, with a glistening slick of extra-virgin.
“I’m the President of the United States,” the late George H. W. Bush famously said, “and I don’t have to eat broccoli if I don’t want. And I don’t!” But I bet even Bush would have loved broccoli the way we make it in my family, steaming the florets until they’re barely tender, then draining them and tossing them in a hot skillet with olive oil in which the cook has melted an anchovy fillet and a crushed clove of garlic, turning them until the vegetable has absorbed all those good flavors. I sometimes add a pinch of chili flakes, just to accent the natural pungency of the vegetable, and some people add a spritz of lemon juice, too. I don’t but you can suit yourself.
This is a kitchen technique that works with almost any autumn greens, including cauliflower and romanesco, that odd, fractally structured version of—well, I don’t know whether it’s cauliflower actually or broccoli or somewhere in between. It’s an adaptation of the way Neapolitans prepare friarielli, only there, where the greens are so tender, cooks drop them straight into a pan of hot olive oil, without bothering with preliminary blanching–reminding us that long before Neapolitans were known as avid consumers of pizza, they were called mangiaverdure, vegetable eaters. Try their technique sometime with young, fresh spinach greens, another autumn favorite, just turning them in hot oil until they’ve wilted, then raising the heat slightly to get rid of the excess liquid the spinach will give off.
Cooking root vegetables in a similar fashion, start to finish in olive oil, will up their appeal considerably too. Carrots, for instance, celery root, and turnips are all made more excellent (and more healthful too, of course) by cutting them in fat chunks and sautéing them in plenty of olive oil just until they start to soften and crisp up along the edges, then adding a little liquid (wine, stock, or plain water), maybe some chopped fresh herbs, and letting them steam until barely tender. Beets can be done this way too but keep in mind that beets need to cook on their own since they color everything else with which they come in contact, not always a desirable presentation.
A great sauce to finish sautéed beets or carrots or turnips is North African chermoula, made with garlic, plenty of chopped cilantro and parsley, ground cumin, ground coriander and a pinch of saffron, plus olive oil and lemon juice. Add this to the hot vegetables when they’re done and have absorbed all the liquid.
One last suggestion: You can treat these vegetables like salad and marinate them, raw or cooked, in a savory olive oil-based dressing, a vinaigrette made with a good aged red wine vinegar and a dollop of mustard. Cooked leeks (cook them whole, first rinsing them carefully) are delicious made this way, and so are raw grated carrots or celery root. But try the same with grated raw beet—you may be surprised at the unexpected flavors.This salad, as made at Nina June Restaurant, is a combination of julienned raw beets, sliced cooked beets, and beet greens–just so good!
Health and nutrition authorities nag us, over and over, to eat more vegetables. It’s not hard to follow the commandment if olive oil makes it all go down, happily and easily. Even President Bush the First might be won over.