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In These Recipes, Lowly Roots Rise and Shine

Grated Carrot and Medjool Date Salad With Gorgonzola Dressing
Winter Vegetable Puree
Braised Carrots
Mashed Yellow Turnips with Crispy Shallots


Georgeanne Brennan is the latest cookbook author to speak up for root crops. "Considered unglamorous, and long associated with poverty and peasantry, roots in fact compose a tremendously versatile and richly flavored group," she writes in the first line of the introduction to Down to Earth: Great Recipes for Root Vegetables. The rest of the book is a 30-root, 80-recipe rebuttal to the lowly conventional view.

To fully appreciate the range of possibilities presented by root vegetables, it helps to have access to a good farmers market or to grow your own, writes Brennan, who was a cofounder of Marche Seeds, a mail-order specialty seed company, and now divides her time between a farm in Northern California and a home in Provence, France. You can have your root crops fresher that way. You can also sample them at various stages of growth -- for instance turnips when they’re jawbreaker-sized and mild enough to toss raw, greens and all, into a salad.

An appreciation for roots is also essential for those committed to seasonal cooking, since subterranean vegetables predominate during the winter months. (Brennan demonstrated her own commitment to eating off the local land when she lived in a village in Alaska, several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. By the time she left, seal, caribou and snowy owl had been added to her repertoire, according to the biography supplied by her publisher.)

Down to Earth covers all the mainstream roots: the carrots, potatoes, radishes and beets. But to hear Brennan tell it, some of the more obscure members of the family show roots at their best. Potatoes mashed with celeriac, or celery root, for example, is "one of the great dishes of the root world," she declares. Then there’s chervil root, a French agriculture professor’s favorite candidate for "forgotten vegetable" with comeback potential. And burdock, salsify, taro and yuca.

A "root notes" section at the front of the book offers detailed information on 30 roots listed in alphabetical order. The rest of the book is broken down by type of dish, from salads and soups to breads and sweets, the better to illustrate the root family attribute that most impresses Brennan: the flexibility with which they can be put to use.

"Root cookery encompasses virtually the entire range of cooking methods," she asserts, and proceeds to prove the point with recipes calling for roots that are grated, sliced, mashed, boiled, steamed, grilled, fried, and roasted, among other forms of preparation.

The following recipe from Down to Earth presents one of the most ordinary of roots -- carrots -- in an unusual new way.

Grated Carrot and Medjool Date Salad With Gorgonzola Dressing

3 or 4 carrots, about pound in all
4 dried Medjool dates, pitted
3 tbs firmly packed crumbled Gorgonzola, Maytag or other blue cheese
cup olive oil
2 tbs Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
tsp cracked black pepper
dandelion, arugula, or young lettuce leaves for garnish

1. Using a vegetable peeler or paring knife, peel the carrots. Grate them on the large holes of a hand-held grater to make 1 cup. Set aside. Chop the dates into pieces about the size of corn kernels and set them aside as well.

2. In a bowl, combine the cheese, olive oil, vinegar, and pepper, mashing and whisking the cheese to make a thick dressing. Add the carrots and the dates to the dressing and turn them until they are well coated.

3. Transfer to a serving bowl or to individual salad plates and garnish with dandelion, arugula, or lettuce. Serve at once.


New York Times columnist Molly O’Neill, in A Well-Seasoned Appetite, her paean to seasonal cooking, recommends pureeing as the best way to churn a little excitement into root vegetables that she admits can be somewhat dull. "With a little imagination and minor acts of alchemy, the dross of winter produce can be pushed and sieved into gold," she exclaims.

Purees can serve as a light meal or they can be added to pan juices to make gravy. They can be served as a condiment, or thinned with cream, milk or broth to make a silky soup.

O’Neill recommends experimenting with unexpected combinations -- like apples and sweet potatoes; or butternut squash and ancho chili; or beets with cloves, allspice and walnut oil. Roasting vegetables before pureeing them adds a "slightly carmelized note," she adds.

Though you might think the food processor is a puree afficionada’s best friend, O’Neill disdains the contraption. It has "diminished inspiration" by making pureeing so easy that no thought goes into

the process, she asserts. O’Neill advocates pressing hot cooked vegetables through a ricer, food mill or fine-mesh strainer, an exercise that not only yields a puree with a "more intriguing texture," but also keeps the cook enveloped in fragrant steam, in touch with the essence of the roots.

Winter Vegetable Puree

1 large celery root, trimmed, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 medium baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 medium turnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 medium leeks, white parts only, washed well and cut across into 1-inch pieces
freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Combine the celery root, potatoes, turnips, and leeks in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until all of the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.

2. Drain well and pass the vegetables through a ricer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide among 4 plates and serve immediately.


'I know of no other preparation in the Italian repertory, or in other cuisines for that matter, more successful than this one in freeing the rich flavor that is locked inside the carrot," writes Marcella Hazan, in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

Endorsements don’t often come more unequivocal than that. The recipe is simple enough, requiring little more than carrots, a small quantity of water and patience.

Braised Carrots

1 pounds carrots
tsp sugar
4 tbs butter
3 tbs freshly grated parmesan cheese
salt

1. Peel the carrots, wash them in cold water, and slice them into 3/8 inch disks. The thin tapered ends can be cut thicker. Choose a saute pan that can contain the carrot rounds spread in a single snug layer, without overlapping. Put in the carrots and butter, and enough water to come inch up the sides. If you do not have a single pan large enough, use two smaller ones, dividing the carrots and butter equally between them. Turn on the heat to medium. Do not cover the pan.

2. Cook until the water has evaporated, then add salt and the teaspoon of sugar. Continue cooking, adding from 2 to 3 tablespoons water as needed. Your objective is to end up with well-browned, wrinkled carrot disks, concentrated in flavor and texture. It will take between 1 and 1 hours, during which time you much watch them, even while you do other things in the kitchen. Stop adding water when they begin to reach the wrinkled, browned stage, because there must be no liquid left at the end. In 30 minutes or a little more, the carrots will become so reduced in bulk that, if you have been using two pans, you will be able to combine them in a single pan.

3. When done – they should be very tender – add the grated Parmesan, turn the carrots over completely once or twice, transfer them to a warm platter, and serve at once.

On a stroll through New York City’s greenmarket one day, Danny Meyer got what would prove to be a brilliant idea for a variation on one of his grandmother’s most memorable recipes.

His grandmother had always served mashed potatoes with fried onions on top, recalls Meyer in his cookbook, The Union Square Cafe Cookbook, named after his perennially "most popular" restaurant in New York.

He was inspired by the farmers market to try the same dish with turnips. It has become one of the most beloved dishes at the Union Square Cafe, Meyer claims. But he admits that there is one person who he has never persuaded to give it a try: his grandmother.

Mashed Yellow Turnips
with Crispy Shallots

1 1/2 cups light olive or vegetable oil
9 tbs butter
5 to 6 shallots, peeled and sliced into thin rings
2 large yellow turnips (rutabaga), about 4 pounds
2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup milk
6 tbs butter
tsp freshly ground black pepper

1. In a saucepan, heat the oil with 3 tablespoons butter over medium-low heat until it begins to bubble. Reduce the heat to low, and the shallots, and cook until they are a rich golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes. Stir the shallots occasionally while they are cooking to make sure they brown evenly.

2. Remove the shallots from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Once the shallots have dried and crisped, in about 15 minutes, they can be stored in a cool place, covered, for several days. Serve the shallots at room temperature.

3. Peel the turnips to remove their waxy skins and cut them into generous 1-inch chunks. Place them in a saucepan with water to cover and 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, until easily pierced by a paring knife, about 35 minutes.

4. In a separate saucepan, heat the milk and remaining 6 tablespoons butter over low heat until the butter has melted and the milk just begins to simmer.

5. Drain the turnips and puree (in several batches, if necessary) in a food processor. With the motor running, add the melted butter and milk in a steady stream. The turnips should be very smooth.

6. Return the turnip puree to the saucepan, season with 1 teaspoon salt and the pepper and reheat, stirring over a medium flame. Serve piping hot, sprinkled generously with crispy shallots.


Copyright 2005 Seasonal Chef