5 new ways to look at (and cook) root vegetables
In the gloaming of a late-summer day, we lost power. It doesn’t happen often so I was a bit shocked when I opened the fridge for a cold one and it was dark inside. And the house, in the half-light, without the sounds of things that need electricity to function, was quite suddenly quiet.
While I was confident that it was a temporary thing, the dark fridge immediately made me think about food storage, and how we keep stuff cool when the power goes off. It’s always a first consideration.
Fridges are full of “Best Before” food: meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, desserts, leftovers. It’s these items and their families — which demand cold temperatures to remain safe and edible — that need attention when the power fails. Way less vulnerable to temperature changes are produce and the whole family of root vegetables — those earthy delights that can last for a long time in a bottom kitchen drawer, a dark cellar or an earthen cave in the back garden.
A farmer friend, Gordon, who lives down the road, once had cattle in his barn. It’s now where he stores carrots in sawdust, kept cold in a refrigerated room that was once home to sides of aging beef. He gets to eat unspoiled carrots year-round.
I always grow plenty of root vegetables. Carrots, beets, parsnips, rutabagas and potatoes, plus attempts at ginger, ginseng, yams and other roots, tubers and rhizomes that deliciously mature in the dark of Mother Earth. And, as I write, I’m looking at the variegated leaves of two wasabi plants that pair well with the gun-metal colour of my cabbages and cauliflowers. In due course, I’ll dig up the wasabi, grate the roots and enjoy their heat with my own versions of California rolls and other sushi stars.
In my kitchen, I’ve found that root vegetables are very versatile. Steamed and soaked with butter, a favourite herb and a sprinkle of brown sugar, the carrot taproot is a burst of colour and flavour. Roast parsnips in the middle of winter, once they’ve had time to season in the ground, and you’ll make your hero roast a triumph. Can some beets and serve them up with a summer picnic or salad.
The produce department of your supermarket is always well stocked with the root families, and their prices are right. Add something from below ground to the seasonal greens that you’re buying from above.
But back to the power failure for a minute. My choice in the fading light of what became a power-less evening was to sit at the piano — no power required! — and improvise music for an outage. Then, by candlelight, to puddle together titanium white and Payne’s grey to create a stormy acrylic sky for a painting in progress. Was the Mona Lisa done by day, or by the light of flickering candles? And how did those Renaissance guys keep their food from spoiling as they tended to their masterpieces?
Somewhere in the middle of these thoughts, I learned that chef friend James Walt of the acclaimed Araxi Restaurant + Oyster Bar in Whistler was out with another book that was right on topic: Araxi: Roots to Shoots, Farm Fresh Recipes. I have included a couple of rooty recipes from Chef James, who was also in charge of the sixth annual Araxi Longtable Dinner. Held in August, 400 guests — that’s four hundred guests — sat at one very long table in the shadow of Mount Currie in Pemberton, near Whistler, to enjoy his rootin’, tootin’ best.
No doubt about it, roots are magically marvelous. Out of the earth and onto your plate, their promise is distinctive and delicious tastes, and they deliver big time, every time.
roasted beets with chickpea caponata and nasturtium pesto
Serves 4 as an appetizer or as part of a platter
This dish is Executive Chef James Walt’s non-traditional take on caponata. It uses chickpeas instead of eggplant but retains all of the sweet and sour flavour. Says chef: “Nasturtiums are fantastic, and I always love the look on people’s faces when they first eat one of these flowers. Where do you find them? Look no farther than your neighbour’s garden or the farmers’ market. While you’re there, pick up some beets: we like ours somewhere between the size of a golf ball and a pool ball so they roast evenly.”
1 lb assorted beets (golden, red or Chioggia), washed and dried
3 tbsp grapeseed or canola oil
3 sprigs thyme
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
pinch of coarse sea salt
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Cut 2 pieces of aluminum foil, each 10 × 12 inches, and place one on top of the other. Place the beets in the centre of the foil and add the oil, thyme, garlic and salt. Fold the foil around the beets and roll up the edges to create a sealed package. Set the beets on a baking tray and roast for 30 to 40 minutes.
To check for doneness, remove the beets from the oven, carefully unwrap them and insert the tip of a knife into one of them. The knife should slide easily in and out.
When the beets are cooked, remove them from the oven, unwrap and discard the foil and set aside the beets until they are just cool enough to handle.
Using your fingers or a dishtowel, rub the beets to loosen their skins. Peel and then discard the skins. Set beets aside to cool.
1 cup firmly packed nasturtium leaves, washed, plus 10 to 12 smaller leaves for garnish
1/3 cup grapeseed or canola oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed with the side of a knife
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
3 tbsp toasted pecans or walnut pieces
zest from 1/2 lemon
Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil on high heat. Add the nasturtium leaves and cook for 20 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the nasturtium leaves to the ice water to stop the cooking. When the leaves are cool, drain them and pat them with paper towels to remove any excess moisture. Place the nasturtium leaves, grapeseed (or canola) oil and garlic in a blender or food processor and blend at high speed for 1 minute until smooth. With the motor turned off, add the cheese, nuts and lemon zest then process at high speed for a further 30 seconds until thickened. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate until needed. Pesto will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for 2 or 3 days.
3 tbsp good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1⁄2 medium red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
pinch of red chili flakes
3 cups cooked chickpeas
1⁄2 cup fresh cherry tomatoes, halved
1⁄2 cup sultana raisins, soaked in hot water then drained
1⁄2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
1 tbsp chopped curly-leaf parsley
Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan on medium heat. Add the red onion, garlic, bay leaves, coriander and chili flakes and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until the onion has softened and the garlic is fragrant. Stir in the chickpeas, tomatoes and raisins and cook for 3 minutes to let the flavours combine. Remove from the heat and refrigerate until cool. Stir in the olives and parsley.
Place 1 tbsp of the nasturtium pesto in the centre of each plate. Spread it across the plate with the back of the spoon. Top with 3 or 4 tbsp of the chickpea caponata. Cut the beets into slices or quarters and arrange them on top of the chickpeas. Drizzle with the remaining pesto and garnish with nasturtium leaves. Serve immediately.
carrot and coriander soup
Another from Araxi: “This is a very simple soup and one that my kids have always loved. It is also a great way to use up carrots, which can take over a farm garden pretty quickly. You can make this soup in larger batches and freeze some for rainy days.”
1⁄4 cup butter
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium white onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tsp coriander seeds
4 lb local carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
8 cups vegetable stock
1 1⁄2 cups whole milk
3⁄4 cup honey
2 pinches fresh nutmeg
sea salt and cracked white pepper, to taste
2 tbsp chopped cilantro
In a large saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil on medium heat. Add the onions and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until they are soft and translucent. Stir in the garlic and coriander seeds and cook for 3 to 4 minutes to toast the coriander.
Add the carrots then the stock and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to low, cover the pot and cook until the carrots are tender, about 15 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the milk, honey and nutmeg. Working in batches if necessary, carefully pour the soup into a blender or food processor and purée at high speed until smooth. Season with salt and white pepper.
Place a fine-mesh sieve over another pot and strain the soup. Discard any solids. Reheat if necessary. And remember, hot soup should be served in hot bowls. Garnish with the chopped cilantro.
Duncan’s winter warm-up
When you have 1,000 square feet of garden that in many stages of its late-summer life is in non-stop production, you must be nimble with the daily pick. As well as fresh-from-the-garden food, stockpots are invariably bubbling with soups, stews and chowders that end up in the freezer late at night. Recipes? You work on them until they taste great, then you stop. In January, February or any time you need a nice surprise when it’s cold out, break open the memories of summer! This recipe won a province-wide contest.
6 large carrots, diced
2 large onions, diced
1 large potato, diced
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cardamom
Dash of ground pepper
Dash of Tabasco sauce
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Handful of finely chopped fresh or dried herbs, such as oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme
6 cups chicken stock
Salt, to taste
Soy sauce, to taste
1/2 cup whipping cream
Blue or Stilton cheese
Simmer and sweat the diced vegetables in the butter, olive and sesame oil over medium-high heat. Add the curry powder, cardamom, ground pepper, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces and herbs, bringing all of the ingredients together.
Add the stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes until the vegetables are soft.
Blend the mixture in your food processor then additionally season with salt and soy sauce to taste. Your soup may be frozen now or served.
Before serving, stir the whipping cream into the warm soup. Do not boil. As an extra touch, add a knob of Stilton to each bowl. If you wish, a minute or so under the broiler works extra wonders.
absolutely delicious baked root vegetables
This one comes from allrecipes.com and makes good use of vegetables that grow below ground.
1 lb new potatoes, halved
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cubed
2 large parsnips, peeled and cubed
2 large carrots, peeled and cubed
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp sweet red chili sauce
1/2 tsp onion powder
1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tbsp steak seasoning
1 tsp ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375˚F.
Toss potatoes, rutabaga, sweet potato, parsnips, and carrots with olive oil and chili sauce in a large bowl until coated. Season with onion powder, garlic powder, steak seasoning and pepper.
Toss again until evenly coated, then spread vegetables into a 9 x 13 inch roasting pan.
Roast vegetables in preheated oven for 20 minutes, then stir, return to oven and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes more.
I’ve been making these beets for about 20 years. Those that we don’t eat ourselves, I give away to very grateful recipients.
8 cups beets, cut into 2-inch pieces (about 15)
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups white or cider vinegar
1 cup water
2 tsp whole allspice
1 cinnamon stick, broken
1 tsp salt
Wash beets, leaving taproots and 2 to 3 inches of stem. Cook in boiling water until just tender (20 to 30 minutes). Plunge into cold water then remove skins, stems and roots. Combine remaining ingredients in a large pot and simmer for 15 minutes. Pack beets into clean, hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. (Slice or halve beets if necessary.) Return liquid to a boil and then use it to fill the jars of beets, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Seal jars and process in a boiling-water bath for 30 minutes.