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Friday, January 04, 2019

The Root of the Meal

From the Food Vault Dept.: It’s the time of year to celebrate the tubers and such, so I dug up this piece I wrote nearly fifteen years ago for the long-gone Metroland magazine.


ALL THAT GLITTERS does not grow above ground. It’s funny, in a way, that they’re called root vegetables, because they form so much of the foundation of a holiday meal. In some cases, it’s the only time you see some manner of rutabaga and turnip and beet on the table—but don’t forget that onions and garlic, carrots and potatoes are part of this family as well.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
They’re the character actors of the dinner table. You may marvel at the flashy antics of the short-season stars, the lettuce and beans and even those first mustardy broccoli florets, but those wan, tough tubers are there for you meal after meal and never let you down.

This year’s Thanksgiving dinner at my house will feature a roasted beet salad with tarragon and chives, a tri-color casserole that alternates carrot and parsnip purées with a green column of peas for contrast, sweet potato pie and some manner of rutabaga because I feel obliged every year to figure out some way to make it toothsome.

Most of the veggies in question respond nicely to a preparation you already know well: boil chunks of them until tender, then mash them with butter, salt and pepper.

But the potato is the longtime star. According to the Random House Book of Vegetables, it is “without doubt the most important of all vegetables, and is at present (1993) the fourth most important food crop in the world.” It’s a cousin to deadly nightshade, and even its own fruit is worth avoiding. Mash the heated tuber with butter, however, and you’re talking culinary heaven.

In fact, the simplest and most satisfying mashed potato recipe is the one I dare you to make: it’s an emulsion of one part butter to one part potatoes, whipped carefully to avoid turning it gluey.

Here’s another approach to add richness to the tater, from Charlie Trotter’s Vegetables (Ten-Speed Press, 1996): Twice-Baked Yukon Gold Potatoes with White Alba Truffles.

Bake four Yukon gold potatoes at 375 degrees until soft (45-60 minutes). After they’re cool, cut off and discard (or munch on) the top third of each potato, sliced lengthwise. Scoop out the insides, leaving behind a quarter-inch or so for support. Mix what you scooped with 1/4 cup heavy cream, two tablespoons chopped fresh herbs like chives and parsley, four tablespoons white truffle oil and a half-cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Refill the potato shells and bake at 350 degrees for another 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve with a drizzle of truffle oil and some white truffle slices.

The day before Thanksgiving, as I’m making the soup and whatever side dishes benefit from having flavors blend overnight, I roast a few heads of garlic. These go into mashed potatoes, turkey stuffing, anything that can benefit from its aromatic sweetness. And you can squeeze it directly onto a slice of crusty bread for a better-than-butter spread.

Slice the tops off a couple of garlic heads and peel away loose skin layers. Arrange the heads in an oven-proof dish and moisten them with olive oil. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes—look for them to be little brown on top.

Miraval Spa executive chef Cary Neff gives a wonderful recipe for Fava Bean Roasted Garlic and Truffle Potato Patties in his book Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002): Boil 1½ cups of fava beans for 2 minutes; transfer the beans to ice water and save the hot water to boil 1½ cups of baked potatoes for one minute. Peel the fava beans, and add 3/4 cup of them to the warm potatoes.

Combine an additional 1½ cups of cold baked potatoes with the rest of the fava beans. Send the warm potato-bean combo through a ricer or food mill into the cold mixture. Stir in 1 cup vegetable stock, 1 tsp. chopped parsley, 1/4 cup truffle oil and salt and pepper to taste.

Form the mix into patties (1/4 cup per patty) and cook them on a medium-hot griddle until golden, about three minutes per side.

A garlic variation is the confit described in Thomas Keller’s gorgeous new book Bouchon (Artisan, 2004), a follow-up to his French Laundry Cookbook, but this time concentrating on bistro fare. He describes garlic confit as a great flavoring device “for everything from shellfish to mashed potatoes, or to be stirred into a soup or spread on a baguette for a tartine.”

Start with a cup of peeled garlic cloves (about 45), and cover them in a small saucepan with enough canola oil to top them by an inch. Cook (over a diffuser) over medium-high heat for about 40 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so. Cool and refrigerate.

Keller also addresses the importance of glazing, “a great technique (which) may be the perfect way to cook root vegetables.” Begin with the shape, which should be about an inch and a half long and a half-inch wide. Cooking time varies with the size and the vegetable, but you want them to simmer in an inch of water with a teaspoon of sugar and a pat of butter. “The aim is to have your vegetables three-quarters cooked by the time the water level is reduced to about half their height.” Turn up the heat so that the rest of the water boils away quickly while you keep the vegetables in motion. “When the liquid is gone, the vegetables are done.”

You can’t judge the seasons by the supermarket produce shelves any more, but that also means that root vegetables can gain a more prominent year-round place on the menu. However, they still offer the defining moments of any holiday meal, and their colors, to me, are the defining colors of autumn and winter.

Metroland Magazine, 18 November 2004

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