It's October -- a lovely month, my birthday month, probably my favorite month of the year. The weather has cooled off from the steamy days of summer, but it's still great weather for walking and exploring the city (or country!). I correlate October with other "O" words, especially ORANGE. When I think of this month and the real beginning of autumn, I think of orange leaves, sunsets, sweaters, brilliant flaming fires in the fireplace, and above all else, delicious orange food. What does orange food offer?
Besides a great variety of delicious fruits and vegetables, many of them seasonal to autumn, orange foods boast carotenoids, which are fat-soluble nutrients that produce the orange, bright yellow, or red color in the foods that contain them. The best known carotenoid is beta carotene, which our bodies convert to Vitamin A when it enters our bloodstream. Orange foods are, on the whole, anti-inflammatory and full of nutrients that fight aging and skin issues, they help sharpen our vision, they aid in weight loss with a high fiber and low caloric content, and often help our digestive and immune systems. They help fight cancers and cardiovascular disease and basically amp up our systems to work at their most efficient.
Trips to the farm stand this time of year are wonderful: this is when harvests are at their most bountiful, and a stroll through a well-stocked farmer's market provides a sensory explosion (more on this later in my seasonal "MARKETS" blog post). October offers a vast variety of orange and orange-tinged foods, many of which are outlined for you below, along with their key nutritional benefits, and some ideas on dishes to prepare with the excellent orange primary ingredients...
Carrots: Rich in vitamin A, they help ward off various types of cancer, they prevent macular degeneration, slow down cellular aging, and keep skin clear. I love roasting whole baby carrots, tossing them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses and some sea salt, and baking them at 400 degrees until charred on the outside.
Papaya: This fruit is known for the wonders it works on digestive health, and serves as an immunity booster. It also contains digestive enzymes that make all food go down a lot easier. Try it out of hand, or in fruit smoothies. Green papayas are great in Thai salads, though they don't share the same healthful properties as regular papayas.
Butternut squash: This dense, orange squash is high in fiber and potassium, and helps build and preserve bone strength. It's incredibly versatile, and little do most people know, but the canned "pumpkin" sold across America for pumpkin pie? It's really a butternut squash puree. You can oven roast the peeled pieces of the squash for a homemade puree for baking if you're a DIY-type. Or use the roasted butternut in salads with vegetables, grains, and fruits.
You can whip the roasted squash in a food processor to make a topping for crostini, as in the photo here, where I've made many of my clients' fall favorite: butternut squash crostini with crispy pancetta, parmigiano, and sage. You can also boil the peeled butternut squash with some veggie stock until it's soft, and then use an immersion blender to turn it into a healthy and nutritious soup -- no cream needed.
Pumpkin: There are many varieties found across America and Europe, but the typical pumpkin that's good for eating is on the small side and is more squat than round, or cylindrical like the butternut squash. Pumpkin keeps your eyesight sharp, aids in weight loss, and its seeds protect us from heart disease - -and they're a delicious snack when roasted. One of my favorite dishes of the season is pumpkin ravioli (which can also be made with butternut squash), with the roasted puree filling hand-made fresh pasta dough. I cook them simply with a butter and sage sauce, and top with either parmigiano and toasted hazelnuts, or with a crumbling of amaretti cookies to bring out the sweetness of the pumpkin.
And speaking of sweetness, pumpkin sweets are a fabulous way to make desserts a tad healthier in the autumn months. Menus all over are stuffed with pumpkin donuts, pumpkin spice cupcakes and layer cakes, pumpkin panna cotta, and one of my personal favorites, pumpkin cheesecake. The photo at right is dressed with a cinnamon sour cream topping, candied rosemary, sugared pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds), and pumpkin seed brittle.
Sweet potatoes: These tubers are rich in Vitamin A, which is anti-inflammatory and keeps skin clear. Roasted in the oven is a great, simple way to have them, and peeled and fried is a healthier alternative to french fries. But I love them peeled, grated, and turned into sweet potato latkes. Perhaps it's the innate Jewish mother in me, but I think these savory little pancakes are delicious, especially as I serve them at cocktail parties, with a chipotle sour cream and topped with wasabi caviar. They certainly lend themselves to sweet iterations -- hold the onions in the latke prep, and add a dash of cinnamon instead. Top with homemade apple sauce or pear butter.
Cantaloupe: Though this is mostly a summer melon, you can still find it into the fall. It's high in vitamins A and C, and in beta carotene. It's great on its own, blended as a cold soup, or sliced and wrapped in some prosciutto for a light lunch.
Apricots: These are also mostly a summer stone fruit, but you can sometimes find them into the autumn months, and you can certainly find them dried throughout the year (though obviously sugar content rises in the dried version). This fruit is high in iron, fiber, and potassium. And they work really well both with sweet preparations and as a savory accompaniment to meat and poultry dishes.
I make crostini with ricotta, herbs, and fresh apricots. I use fresh or dried apricots in North African meat tagines and a dish I make that my parents flip for, a Moroccan chicken I make with apricots, almonds, chick peas, and North African spices over couscous. I also do a brined, grilled pork chop that's juicy enough to stand on its own, but it's brought up to another level when served over an apricot-red pepper sauce, brightened with citrus and vinegar and a pop of spice. I serve it all with wilted kale for a delicious meal in the summer or fall.
Golden beets: All beets are wonderfully healthy for us, but golden beets are particularly healthy (and beautiful!) and full of fiber and potassium, and they prevent constipation. Another plus: their color is lighter and stains less than the traditional magenta beets -- an added benefit if serving them in a "white tablecloth" setting. They can be roasted, blended into a soup (golden borscht!), or served sliced raw into a salad. They pair well with bitter greens like arugula, and their sweetness also pairs well with cheeses, from goat cheese to a potent blue cheese.
Guava: This tropical fruit is orangey-pink, and has high levels of lycopene, making the fruit heart healthy and anti-cancer, particularly effective in preventing prostate cancer. It's also high in potassium. This is great as a juice on its own or mixed into smoothies.
Mangoes: This fruit is high in beta carotene, and helps to prevent prostate and skin cancers. It's great, when ripe, to eat out of hand, or to serve sliced with some coconut rice pudding. The sorbet is actually a really healthy treat as far as desserts go, and you can find mango in fruit shakes and Indian lassis (kefir yogurt-fruit drinks), which do wonders for your intestinal tract and also supply probiotics to keep the good bacteria in your tummy in good health.
Turmeric: Though technically not a food you'd eat on its own, turmeric is a rhizome (like ginger) that seems to be the wonder-food of the year. Its anti-inflammatory properties are well-established, and it helps to prevent kidney and cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. In its powder form, it's a part of most curry mixes, and it's sometimes dubbed "poor man's saffron" because it lends its bright orange-yellow color to dishes like rice and stews where saffron is too costly. But it's also great used like ginger as a flavor base for meat and fish stews, soups...even juiced with some apples, lemon, and ginger to make a great post-workout replenishing drink.
And of course, in speaking about orange foods, I'd be remiss not to name the one food actually named for its color: the orange. Fall is not prime season for this citrus fruit, but drinking a glass of orange juice has become how so many Americans start their days, and it is very versatile, especially when its season rolls around in early winter. It doesn't have the A-vitamins many orange foods have, but it's quite high in Vitamin C and folate, so it's great to incorporate into the diet of women who are expecting, or hoping to expect in the near future. You can use orange zest to liven up dishes, its juice to cook into sauces and soups, as a stand-alone drink, or as part of a smoothie or even a cocktail. The possibilities are vast.
I know I'll be getting my fill of ORANGE FOODS this autumn, and happily so. October is the peak month for so many delicious food items that if we remember to eat in season, we'll be that much closer to eating a healthy, well-rounded diet. Just remember: O. October. Orange. It's simple. Get it while you can!