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Seasonal kitchen: Root vegetables offer flavor treat

Wed., Dec. 18, 2013, midnight

Hidden beneath the earth’s surface lies a vast underworld of buried treasure.

Edible gems – ranging in color from the palest of white to sunny yellow, vibrant orange and the deepest of purple – root vegetables are a storehouse of nutrients, flavor and unexpected beauty.

Judging only by appearances, one might be suspicious of their often stodgy, dull colored and sometimes gnarly exteriors. But like most things, there is more to root vegetables than what meets the eye.

Root vegetables are classified into categories: true roots, taproots, tuber roots, tuberous roots, tubers, rhizomes, corms and bulbs.

The most familiar and highly consumed – potatoes, yams, carrots, onions and garlic – invoke comfort and warmth.

Others invoke fear.

Holding celeriac – also known as celery root – in my hands, I am amazed, quite frankly, at how anyone would have been brave enough to eat it. It looks terrifying with its twisted roots and hairy tendrils.

But beneath its villainous exterior resides the most tender of hearts. And given proper consideration, one discovers a huge and amazing secret: incredible flavor.

You might feel as though you’ve known it all your life. And you have. Celeriac is a very close relative of celery. Light familiar flavors of celery and parsley flirt with the palate, while underlying notes of earthiness, nuttiness and spice add mystery and depth.

But to unlock theses flavors you must brave the beast. Arm yourself with a good knife. Slice away the top of the root and then the bottom, creating a steady base, and cut the remaining peel off in vertical strips from top to bottom, following the shape of the root, until all the rough mottled skin is removed.

The interior, crispy when raw, is delicious and crunchy in salads. Cooked, it’s luscious and decadent, making it the ideal candidate for healthy, low-fat soups or mashes. The following recipe for Creamy Celeriac-Fennel Bisque is – when you use vegetable instead of chicken stock – deceivingly vegan. The bisque, along with the other root vegetable recipes in today’s Food section, could make flavorful side dishes for holiday meals.

Beets, potatoes, parsnips and more

The first time I cut into a raw beet, I was completely startled. How could something that came out of the brownest of dirt be so red? Thirty years later, I still find myself getting choked up by the extraordinary beauty of beets. Bright golden yellow, red-and-white striped, crimson and deep burgundy, all laced with delicate patterns and lines, each one different like a snowflake.

Carrots and potatoes, too, come in unexpected colors: yellows, reds, indigos. The bright goldenrod color of turmeric root is downright shocking.

Roots provide a color palate from which to create and become inspired, making cooking even more of a joy. During the holidays, festive Beet bruschetta with goat cheese and basil is one of my favorite go-to appetizers, not only for its flavor and gorgeous color, but for how it transforms the humble beet into a rock star.

Not only are the colors of root vegetables brilliant and astounding, so too are their flavors. Take a walk through the produce section in any Asian market and you will discover a whole world of flavorful and unusual roots.

Bold and pungent tubers, rhizomes and bulbs – like ginger, wasabi, galangal, turmeric, horseradish, licorice, onion and garlic – have been seasoning dishes for thousands of years around the world.

Still, root vegetables – with the exception of potatoes, yams and carrots – remain under-appreciated. This might be due to bad childhood memories of mushy turnips, parsnips or rutabagas, making even the mere mention of their name a conversation ender and giving even the mature adult permission to make that face. You know the one.

Bringing up the incredible health benefits and nutritional value doesn’t seem to matter to those folks. Nor does the fact that root vegetables are inexpensive, easy to prepare, and readily available in winter. It’s darned near impossible to convert a root hater to the other side by hitting over them over head with facts.

Perhaps, some roots are an acquired taste. But like other foods in this category – coffee, wine, beer, dark chocolate – I’ll argue they’re worth the effort. I’ve come across hoards of people who have fallen in love with parsnips.

Yup, parsnips.

I admit, it wasn’t love at first sight, maybe not even at first bite. It came on gradually, like getting to know a new friend. Having the willingness to experience something like Parsnip Gratin with an open, unprejudiced mind sometimes yields the most pleasing of surprises.

Parsnips, when you get to know them, are earthy and robust, with just a hint of sweetness. Upon further investigation, something mysterious and quite alluring will surface: a whisper of spice.

In the gratin recipe below, thinly sliced parsnips are layered with Gruyère cheese, heavy cream and fresh nutmeg and baked in the oven until tender, golden and bubbly. When you open the oven door, the warm and disarming aromas wafting through your home will soften any resistance you may encounter.

Creamy Celeriac Fennel Bisque

1 white onion diced

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large fennel bulb, cored and diced (about 1 1/2 cups)

2 grapefruit-sized celeriac, peeled and diced (about 4 to 5 cups)

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

8 cups chicken or vegetable stock

salt to taste

1/4 cup crème fraîche or sour cream for garnish (optional)

Parsley oil, for garnish (optional)

In a large, heavy-bottom pot, sauté diced onion in 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, over medium high heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Add fennel. Turn heat to medium-low and sauté until fennel begins to caramelize, stirring occasionally about 12 minutes. Add celeriac, pepper and 8 cups stock. Turn heat to high, bring to a simmer, lower heat, cover and continue simmering until celeriac is very tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Using a blender, blend until smooth in batches, only filling blender half way. (Remember when blending any hot liquid, cover the blender lid firmly with a kitchen towel, and start on the lowest speed, to prevent an explosion.) Return to the pot. Taste for salt. When serving, garnish with a swirl of crème fraîche (or sour cream) and a little parsley oil (recipe follows).

Parsley Oil

1 cup packed Italian parsley (stems OK)

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 clove garlic

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoon lemon juice

Pulse all ingredients in a blender or food processor until combined.

Parsnip Gratin with Gruyère

1 large white or sweet onion

Butter, for sautéing and for the baking dish

2 pounds parsnips (about 4 medium-sized roots), peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick

2 pounds potatoes (Yukon gold or peeled Russets), sliced 1/4 inch thick (or substitute 2 more pounds parsnips)

1 quart heavy whipping cream ( not half-and-half; it will not thicken.)

4 cloves garlic, finely minced

2 teaspoons kosher salt

3/4 teaspoon white pepper

2 teaspoons fresh grated nutmeg (or ground)

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, reserving 1 teaspoon for the top

8 ounces grated Gruyère (or substitute a mix of parmesan and mozzarella)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a large 9-by-14-inch baking dish (heavy-duty ceramic works best). Dice and sauté onion in a bit of butter until golden brown. Peel and thinly slice parsnips. Slice potatoes. (Potatoes cook faster than the parsnips.) Whisk together the garlic, salt, pepper, 2 teaspoons thyme and nutmeg into the whipping cream. Begin layering. Start with a single layer of potatoes, slightly overlapping, in buttered baking dish. Lightly drizzle with cream mixture. Follow with a light sprinkling of cheese (about 1 to 2 tablespoons). Then place parsnips on top in a single layer, lightly drizzling with cream mixture and sprinkling with 1 to 2 tablespoons of cheese. Repeat with potatoes, cream and Gruyère. Add the sautéed onions. Layer parsnips, cream and Gruyère. Repeat with potatoes, cream and Gruyère. The top layer will be the remaining parsnips. Pour the rest of the cream mixture over the parsnips, and sprinkle with remaining 2 to 3 tablespoons Gruyère. Cover with heavy-duty foil and bake for 1  ½ hours. Remove foil and continue baking for 20 minutes until golden and bubbly. Sprinkle with remaining thyme and let stand for 15 minutes before cutting and serving (This allows it to thicken up and set). This can be made ahead and reheated.

Holiday Beet Bruschetta with Goat Cheese and Basil

3 medium-size beets, halved

1 baguette, sliced at a diagonal into 1/2-inch thick slices

1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for brushing bruschetta

4 ounces goat cheese

4 ounces cream cheese

1/8 cup finely diced red onion or shallot

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cracked pepper

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

10 basil leaves cut into ribbons

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium pot, cover beets with water and boil until just tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. In the meantime, brush both sides of the baguette slices with olive oil and place on a sheet pan in a 400-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until crisp. Set aside. Place cream cheese and goat cheese in a bowl and warm in a microwave until just soft enough to combine easily. (I place the bowl in my toaster oven on low). Mix with a fork until smooth. Set aside. When beets are fork tender, drain pot, refill with cold water and slip skins off the cooked beets under running cold water using your hands. Dice into small 1/3-inch cubes and place in medium bowl. Add onion, salt, pepper, sugar, olive oil and balsamic; stir to combine.

Spread a little goat cheese mixture on each bruschetta creating a trough to hold beet mixture in place and top with a tablespoon of beet mixture. Garnish with a few basil ribbons. It’s really nice to serve when the goat cheese is still a touch warm. Present on a white platter to show it off, or a rustic cutting board.

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, The Seasonal Kitchen generally runs the third Wednesday of each month.

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