Not Bread Alone: Finding your roots
The root vegetables were piled high at the Westport Farmers Market last week. Gone are the tomatoes, sweet corn, and tender vegetables of summer, replaced by sturdy and flavorful roots — the final crops of the farming calendar.
Late fall turnips, parsnips, and celeriac join the season-long carrots, beets and potatoes on the market tables. They’re so freshly dug that some of the damp farm soil still clings to the roots. These crops, a mainstay in the time before refrigeration, are a little out of fashion these days.
Fresh from the fields, they are sweet and packed with flavor, ready to be roasted, pureed, made into soup, or in some cases, even eaten raw. Coming back from the market with a bag of vegetables, we set about putting together a seasonal root vegetable dinner.
Marsha pureed the long, tapering, white parsnips into a silken soup flavored with apples, curry, cumin and coriander and garnished with homemade parsnip chips. An easy blend, the base of the Irish Parsnip Soup can be simmered up ahead of time and then reheated and finished with some cream right before serving.
A roast chicken was the foil to the diverse root veggies. I like the roasting method of Thomas Keller, the renowned chef of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley. In his “Ad Hoc At Home” cookbook, from his nearby, more approachable restaurant in Yountville, roasted chicken on a bed of root vegetables is number three, right near the top of Keller’s culinary priorities.
His method calls for high temperature — 475 degrees for the first while, and then 400 degrees till done. The flavorful juice from the chicken drips down on a bed of turnips, rutabagas, carrots, onions, and potatoes as they caramelize in the hot oven.
This time I wanted to roast my vegetables separately to vary the seasoning, but I did put a layer of carrots and celery under the bird to flavor the juices and to eliminate using and washing a rack.
At the market we picked up a bunch of salad turnips. Pure white and about the size of ping pong balls, the farmer told us they could be eaten raw like a radish or roasted. We paired them up with some fingerling potatoes for roasting with garlic and fresh rosemary. The fragrance kept drawing us to the oven door for a whiff.
The sweet young carrots barely needed to be peeled. Steamed for a few minutes and then tossed with chopped parsley and butter, they were a hit. Sometimes simple is the best.
Chioggia and gold beets were roasted a day ahead. Just as the beet season is winding down their perfect partner, navel oranges, are ramping up, the two overlapping in November. A salad of alternating beet and orange slices was lightly dressed with a citrus vinaigrette and topped with crumbled fresh goat cheese.
There was no room for rutabagas on the menu, maybe sometime soon. Celeriac, the root most often seen on restaurant menus, didn’t make it either. We had to take a pass on fall fennel too. It’s crunchy texture and anise flavor add a refreshing note to a range of dishes. When it becomes plentiful in the market, I like to pickle a batch to have on hand for salads and garnishing.
In the last will and testament of the original owner of our 1840 house, there is considerable attention given to the heir’s access to the cellar. His widow got a life tenancy that included “the south half of the cellar” as well as the right of “passing to and from the cellar in a reasonable manner.”.
Cellars were important back then for the storage of food — mostly root vegetables — through the winter. Today’s unfashionable root vegetables were essential staples before refrigeration. A cool, dark, dry cellar was a valuable asset to be parsed out carefully among descendants.
If a suitable basement was not available, then a cellar could be dug elsewhere. When you see what seems to be a roof sitting on the ground behind an old house, that may be an old root cellar dug into the side of a hill — a place to keep their winter’s supply of foodstuffs.
Root vegetables often find their place on the Thanksgiving table, but they deserve more than one day of fame. In season now, easy to prepare and cook, and packed with flavor, they’re the right stuff for fall eating.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.