Saturday, January 3, 2009

Getting Back to our Roots

We experience winter a bit differently down here. While it is true that we pull our sweaters and jackets out a few days each year, it is just as common to see shorts and flip-flops about. Growing up, I thought that only a few folks had the white Christmases as seen on TV. I believed then that the palm tree was a more common tree than the pine. Amazing how we grow up in our little bubbles.

One place that winter is noticeable here in Florida is the grocery store; produce section, to be exact. While most spring and summer vegetables can be found year round thanks to big boats coming up from South America, there are a few subtle differences. It’s more about what I CAN find versus what I CAN’T. Gourds and root vegetables specifically now have whole sections of the produce market dedicated to them and every year there seems to be a new squash hybrid that I am introduced to. I would say it wasn’t until the past couple of years that I began really exploring the different selections available. Boy, what was I missing?

I have recently exalted the virtues of gourds but the root veggies need some time in the spotlight. Things like turnips, parsnips and beets have become part of my weekly shopping and rightly so. The definition of a true root vegetable has something to do with it being an energy repository (in the form of sugars) for the entire plant. That means there is culinary delight to be found in those sweet earthy flavors and I needed to find the ways to bring them to life. Here are a few examples of ideas to try that I have found deliciously simple.

Turnips –I had some company over the other night and made a lovely mustard and citrus pork roast. On the side, I served the following super simple but delicious side dish that felt quintessentially winter (even though we ate on the patio). While potatoes are technically part of the Tuber family, quibbling is silly and they pair perfectly with turnips here.

Roasted Turnips and Potatoes with Thyme

2 cups peeled and diced turnips (approx ½ inch cubes)
2 cups peeled and diced Yukon Gold potatoes (approx ½ inch cubes)
8-10 fresh thyme sprigs
Salt and pepper to taste (as always I believe in generous seasoning)
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Serves 6 as a side

Don’t blink or you’ll miss these tough directions. Combine ALL ingredients in a bowl and toss to evenly distribute. Lay onto large baking sheet and place in a 325 degree pre-heated oven for about 35 minutes. Cooking times can vary. They are done when the edges are slightly browned and fork tender. Fish out the thyme stems and serve.

Beets –OK I love beets. I mean, I REALLY love beets. They are probably the healthiest food product that has such a high place on my “depth” chart. Roasted fresh beets with a touch of oil and salt are enough to make my mouth water at the mere thought. As a kid my mom made a beet and onion salad that I thought was fabulous. I have recreated that several times as an adult and the vinegar and herb dressing enhances sweet beet and onion flavors to new heights. My new favorite beet recipe was inspired by a dish at Al Forno, my oft described and coveted Italian restaurant in Providence, RI. Their roasted beet and avocado salad is beyond description. Buttery, velvety avocado slices paired with sweetly roasted beet slices make one think that these two crops must have been destined for togetherness. It is, in fact, hard to believe that they share no similarity or growing climate. I posted this recipe last summer and here it is. I’ll share my mom’s German heritage recipe. She used sugar in most of her vinegar based dressings but I found that a bit too sweet so I usually omit it.

Beet and Onion Salad

¼ cup vinegar (Your favorite is fine. Balsamic changes the flavor but is equally as delicious. I once used an Asian pepper infused vinegar as well.)
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ tsp dried oregano
½ tsp dried thyme
1 tbsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup sliced beets (OK I like roasting my own but mom used canned. Both would be good but roasting fresh beets will deepen the flavors tremendously.)
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
Mint for garnish

Combine the first 6 ingredients. Wisk in the olive oil vigorously to emulsify. Add the dressing, beets and onions to a large re-sealable plastic bag and seal. Toss to coat and refrigerate at least 2 hours. Garnish with fresh mint sprig.

Serves 4 as a salad

Step out of the box and be creative. Google Taro root or Yucca and look up some tropical root preparations. For Yucca (which I haven’t made in a while), cut and fry as you would French Fries. Try the twice fried prep (like Pomme Frites) for great results. Serve that with a slow roast of pork with garlic and olives (very Puerto Rican) and you have a hit. For parsnips, the carrots “black sheep” cousin, try slicing thin and pan sauté with butter and brown sugar and add lots of fresh basil at the end. Decadent. Yum.

There are very few rules, you know. Try boiling, roasting, sautéing and combining bright flavors. See what turns up. I recommend picking up something new from the market today. I can’t think of any meat, poultry or fish that we could not make a stunning compliment for.

It’s time to get back to our roots.

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