Monday, January 3, 2011

Fruits of the Earth: Or how I learned to love root vegetables Part I

Do you try to eat seasonally but often find yourself stumped when winter rolls around? Do the mounds of creamy white parsnips and purple beets at the farmers market intrigue you, but you can only imagine them ending up in endless muddy colored stews? Does the persistent oder of dirt that hangs around winter roots put you off? Yep, that was me, but I was so inspired by these storage organs of the plant world, that in a burst of optimistic fervor, I bought one of those dauntingly huge $5 bags of mixed root vegetables at the market, figuring that the guilt and shame of leaving them to rot in my fridge would force me to find ways of incorporating each and every last mysterious little tuber into my meals. In other words, I was so afraid of root veggies, that I deliberately backed myself into a corner and gave myself no option of escape. It was eat that bag or starve. And here's the clincher, everything I made had to taste good! Now there's a new years resolution!

I decided to narrow things down a bit by eating by color. First up, the whites: parsnips, potatoes, and sunchokes.

Parsnips were more popular in medieval times than today, later developing a reputation as animal food. Despite their pallid appearance, they contain carotenoids, vitamin C, calcium, and potassium, and are also rich in fiber.

Luckily for this experiment, a good friend had just lent me a wonderful book called 50 Chowders by Jasper White. Right there on page 178 was a recipe for Parsnip Chowder (I had no idea that New England has a grand tradition of non-seafood based chowders known as Farmhouse Chowders!).

For those of you that have never had them before, raw parsnips have a flavor not unlike carrots. A bit less sweet (unless they are allowed to remain in the ground throughout the winter) and a bit more spicey, but very similar indeed. They cook down into a surprisingly creamy texture with a lovely buttery color.

Here is the recipe I used from Mr. White's book:

3oz meaty salt pork, rind removed and cut into 1/3-inch dice (I used a tbs of bacon grease that Ihad in the fridge instead)
2tbs unsalted butter
1 large onion, cut into 3/4 inch dice
1 lb parsnips, peeled and sliced into rounds (thin-about 1/3 inch-toward the top and thicker toward the bottom
1 lb Yukon gold, Maine, PEI, or other all-purpose potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4 inch dice
3 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups heavy cream (I only used about 1/4 cup)
(I also added in a few sunchokes that I had in my bag o roots)
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat a 3- to 4-quart heavy pot over low heat and add the diced salt pork. Once it has rendered a few tbs of fat, increase the heat to medium and cook until the pork is crisp and golden brown. With a slotted spoon, transfer the cracklings to a small ovenproof dish, leaving the fat in the pot, and reserve until later.
2. Add the butter and onion to the pot and saute, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for 6 to 8 minutes, until the onion is tender but not browned.
3. Add the parsnips, potatoes, and stock, turn up the heat, bring to a boil, and cook vigorously for about 12 minutes. Reduce the heat to low.
4. Remove 2 cups of the chowder from the pot and puree in a food mill held over the pot so it falls directly back into the chowder, or puree in a food processor, then return it to the chowder. Let the chowder simmer slowly for another 5 minutes; the broth should look silky-smooth. Remove from heat, stir in the cream, and season with salt and pepper.

White instructs that the chowder should be left at room temperature for up to an hour before reheating and serving, to allow the favors to meld, but hunger was overtaking me and I skipped that step.

The result was a thick creamy soup with chunks of potato and parsnip that were soft enough to pleasantly dissolve on the tongue. I found the flavor to be a bit sugary for my taste, but for those of you with more of a sweet tooth, this might be right up your alley. Except for the cream this is a rather low-fat dish, but it has all the comfort-food appeal of a thick clam chowder. Jeff, who had been mountain biking all day, just about wolfed it down.

Am I into parsnips now? Will I eye them with lust next time I see them at the market? Probably not...but next time I see their pale shapes in a bag of roots, I'll know just what to do with them.

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