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Excerpted from Central PA magazine, October 2006

Autumn has always been my favorite season. Fall makes me think of jack-o’-lanterns and cornucopias overflowing with the bounty of the harvest. OK, so I’ve never actually seen a real cornucopia, but the rows of fall fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets, roadside stands and the local supermarket are a close approximation.

We’re all familiar with pumpkins, squash and apples, but some of the less popular autumn produce admittedly looks downright strange and can be intimidating to the uninitiated. But chefs and growers know these veggies are divine. Seasonal restaurant menus will start featuring the oft-overlooked parsnips, beets and their autumn brethren. They can — and should — be served in your own home, as well. This fall, instead of tiptoeing past the turnips or rejecting the rutabagas, make a pact to expand your cooking repertoire. Start slowly if you have to by cooking one new piece of produce a week. (Even breaking out of the Red Delicious apple mold is a start.) In addition, take those more familiar fruits and vegetables and experiment with them to create more lively, unexpected dishes. Pumpkin is not just a pie filling, sweet potatoes are not just a bed for marshmallows, and Brussels sprouts aren’t actually supposed to be a mushy mess. Once you realize how tasty and versatile these veggies are, you’ll miss them come spring.

The one thing fall vegetables have in common is that they need cool temperatures to flourish. Many of them, including the rutabaga, turnip, beet, cipollini, potato and parsnip, are root vegetables that grow underground. Potatoes and carrots are perhaps the best-known of the down-in-the-dirt varieties, but these counterparts are equally versatile. Take the rutabaga, also known as the Swede or Swede turnip for its Scandinavian origins. (It’s actually kin to the cabbage.) Its globe of white-purple skin can be peeled as you would a potato, and then its slightly sweet, slightly bitter inside can be mashed or puréed like one. Turnips look a bit like rutabagas but have a higher water content and are members of the mustard family. Their skin doesn’t need to be peeled, and they can be eaten raw or cooked. Parsnips resemble beige carrots and reach their peak in fall and winter. They should be firm and have unblemished skin, and can be used in everything from soups and stuffing to stocks, or as a side dish roasted with some fresh herbs and a few tablespoons of olive oil. For a more delicious preparation of Brussels sprouts, steam them for about 10 minutes instead of boiling. They will taste sweet and crunchy, not bland and soggy.

Brett Owen, the executive chef at Perry County’s Middle Ridge Tavern, adores fall produce and experiments with new ways to utilize it. This philosophy is reflected in the Middle Ridge Tavern’s menu, which includes dishes that she and manager Sarah Vican work together to create. 

Entrees at the Newport restaurant, which Vican and her family reopened last March, include wild salmon in a chive-butter sauce, a spinach salad with Granny Smith apples, homemade spicy cashews, blue cheese and honey-sesame dressing, and the very popular T-bone steak. 

One of Owen’s favorite vegetables is the beloved sweet potato. Tired of the usual candied and baked preparations, Owen decided to use sweet potato to fill homemade ravioli. (Pumpkin, wild mushrooms and butternut squash also make fine fillings in autumn.)

“[This dish] is a great marriage of all the fall flavors,” Owen says. “It’s almost like a Thanksgiving dinner.” Browning the butter adds a sweet, nutty taste and aroma, which is amplified a bit more by the toasted pecan topping. Nutmeg adds spicy warmth, while ground sage gives the dish a subtle peppery flavor. Owen recommends serving it with a nice salad tossed with a vinaigrette to add a bit of acidity and balance the sweetness. Vican recommends pairing the dish with a buttery chardonnay.

Not only should at-home cooks be brave enough to sample new veggies, but they shouldn’t fear making the homemade pasta for Owen’s ravioli recipe. “Making your own pasta is easier than people think,” she says. “People don’t think they can make it at home, or that they need a pasta machine or pasta roller. If you can make a pie crust, you can make pasta.”

Sweet Potato–Sage Ravioli with Browned Butter & Pecans
Serves 4–5 as a main dish (makes approximately 50 ravioli)

1 recipe basic egg pasta or 3/4 pound    sheet pasta (can be purchased at supermarkets or specialty food stores)
3 sweet potatoes
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground sage
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
6 Tablespoons chopped pecans
6 Tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse the potatoes and pat dry. Pierce the skin of each potato with a fork. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes until soft. Let the potatoes cool. Turn down heat to 350 degrees.

Scoop the insides out of the potatoes and place in a bowl. Add brown sugar, sage, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Fold ingredients together in the bowl.

Place chopped pecans on a baking sheet and toast at 350 degrees for 5 to 7 minutes, or until golden brown and aromatic.

Roll out the pasta using a rolling pin or a pasta machine until thin. Cut 2-inch rounds out of the dough. Put 2 teaspoons of potato filling in the center of half of the rounds, leaving a 1/2-inch border around the filling. Moisten the borders with water and top with the remaining rounds of dough. Press all the air out and seal firmly. Lay ravioli in one layer on a floured baking sheet.

To cook, boil in lightly salted water until tender, about 3 minutes. Uncooked ravioli may be frozen for 2 months.

While the ravioli are cooking, heat the butter in a large skillet until it foams and turns golden brown. Remove the cooked ravioli from the water, add them to the skillet, and toss to coat with the browned butter. Pour the ravioli and butter out onto a serving dish. Top with toasted pecans and serve immediately.

Cooking Note: Fresh pasta takes much less time to cook than dried pasta; these ravioli should only take about 3 minutes in boiling water to cook. Pasta needs room in the water to cook evenly, so cook the ravioli in batches.

Recipe courtesy Brett Owen

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