Maybe it's because I just got back from a visit to Iceland, a country where over half the population believes in the existence of elves. A week-long stay there is enough to make you believe in things equally as magical; like the possibility of world peace, houses and water heated with geothermal energy, and a music festival where no one, not even once, spills beer on you.
Leaving behind the seemingly extraterrestrial (or "emotional") landscapes of Iceland for the reality Paris, I got back to my market routine and realized that a lot of our autumn veggies are pretty otherworldly themselves. Here are my top picks for out-of-this-world autumn produce:
I once heard someone refer to this broccoli variety as "alien broccoli". Apparently this appellation was helpful in getting kids interested in eating their veggies, but the psychedelic spirals and odd points and craters of this bright green buddy of broccoli and cauliflower are arguably enough to grab anyone's attention.
What to do with it: Pretty much anything, you can steam, stir fry, or bake romanesco broccoli (it's great in a gratin), but my favorite way to eat it is lightly coated with olive oil and slow roasted in an oven until slightly brown and crispy on the outside.
These cold-weather fruits come as a surprise every time, their glowing orange skin so striking in autumnal market scenes. The fact that I pretty much only see them at markets- and not, for example, in restaurants, served at dinner parties, etc.-has always made these orange orbs a bit of a mystery to me. The possibility of something so bright in a season so grey imbues persimmons with an almost mythic aura.
What to do with them: If you're not going to eat them raw, it seems like all other persimmon applications begin with a simple purée. Use your persimmon purée as a compliment to yogurt or put atop your toast. The purée can also be used as a base for baking projects, such as persimmon bread or persimmon cookies.
Kohlrabi may be pretty common at the market, but that doesn't make the bright purple variety any more mundane. Standing out from other members of the root family, Kohlrabi keeps it's most exciting goods underground. It's striated purple and white striped bulb, with tentacle-like roots make this creature of the deep one of the most foreign looking standards of the season.
What to do with it: Kohlrabi is mostly eaten raw, but it needs to be dressed up a bit. I add it to a simple salad of apples and fennel, generously tossed with a walnut vinegar vinaigrette.
These seasonal squash transport you to 12:01 a.m. in Cinderella's backyard. Among the largest pumpkin varieties that you'll see in Paris markets, they often occupy a place of honor at the farmer's stand, inspiring awe and imagination. However, this doesn't mean that these whimsically named potirons are just for looking at- your local farmer will be more than happy to cut off a slice of fairytale for you.
What to do with them: After talking with a lot of farmers about the various autumn and winter squash, it seems that the general rule is to use smaller gourds for mashes, purées, etc. and save the bigger varieties for soup. Fairytale pumpkins are therefore a great soup candidate, and mix well with some nutmeg or even a little curry seasoning.
Cardoons look like celery from the Jurassic era, or is it just me? Their frosty green skin and fans of soft leaves seem odd, as if belonging to another time. However, these may just be another example of a vegetable that the French left behind. Other cultural cuisines embrace the cardoon. Italians serve it seasonally and North Africans incorporate it in tagines. In France our hair tends to bristle at the site of these unfamiliar thistles, which end up sitting unloved and ignored at the back of the farmers stand.
What to do with them: Cardoons are quite good, it turns out. As I was lucky enough to discover when doing a cardoon challenge with my adventurous epicurean friend Emma. We tried cardoons three ways- in a risotto, sautéed with seasonal vegetables, and in a simple gratin. Though all three plates were delicious, we agreed that the Cardoon Gratin came out ahead.
Here is the recipe Emma used to make the gratin- it's important to boil your cardoon in the lemon water, or else it will lose it's color.
2 cups of chopped cardoons (if the skin is tough, peel it off- like you would a rhubarb)
3 medium eggs
2 tbsps butter
1 tbsp flour
1 cup milk
1/2 cup grated Emmenthal
1. Boil the cardoons until they're half cooked in lightly salted, lemon water, drain them, and sauté them in half the butter. Salt them, and when they have absorbed the butter, sprinkle some of the milk over them and simmer them until done.
2. Using the remaining butter, the flour and milk, make a béchamel sauce. Beat in the eggs. Add the cooked cardoons and check seasoning.
3. Transfer the mixture into a buttered dish (approximately 2 inches deep). Bake the sformato at 150 C/375° F for 25-30 minutes or until done.
Serve hot, accompanied by a green salad. Emma suggests pairing with a a full fruity white wine, such as a Vernaccia di San Gimignano or a Vermentino.