Sufficient unto the season are winter's roots, tubers, cabbages

January 26, 1994|By Arthur Schwartz | Arthur Schwartz,New York Daily News

Don't ask me, "Why eat parsnips and rutabagas when there are perfectly good asparagus and artichokes in every market?" First, I'll argue that the asparagus and artichokes don't taste nearly as good now as they will in April and May. Then I'll give you a pompous lecture about cooking and eating seasonally and how it impacts on your personal well-being -- spiritually and physically -- not to mention the well-being of the planet. I hate to go gastronomically correct on you, but that's what would happen.

So let's just assume that in January, February and March, you are interested in parsnips and rutabagas (actually, I'm not all that interested in rutabagas myself) and that you feel as I do right now, which is to say ready to immerse yourself in winter's roots and tubers, cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli and, yes, even Brussels sprouts. They say those last four are anti-cancer vegetables. I just feel they're purging me of end-of-the-year lTC overindulgence.

Cabbage

Try the cabbage shredded and wilted over low heat in a covered pot with a mere trace of butter in which you've sauteed an onion until it, too, is barely limp. It's a cabbage revelation, as a vegetable for its own sake or tossed with egg noodles or bow-tie pasta. My grandmother called that last one cabbage varnishkas, as in kasha varnishkas, except she'd use chicken fat instead of butter.

Cauliflower and sprouts

Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts don't even need that touch of butter. If you don't overcook them and give them the opportunity to shine on their own, they have incredible sweetness at this time of the year. Steam them whole for no more than 10 to 11 minutes, depending on how large they are. Surprisingly, they both get done in the same time, so you can steam them together. The cauliflower will have some outer green leaves you'll want to trim. The sprouts will have tough, dry bases and a few bruised leaves that need to be cut away and discarded. But that's it. Vegetables are nature's convenience foods.

Roots and tubers

Parsnips, turnips, carrots, potatoes . . . celery root . . . need a little more attention. They have to be peeled.

Celery root: Now there's an underappreciated winter vegetable that I'm seeing more and more in the markets. The classic French way to serve it is as a salad/appetizer called celery remoulade, in which the knobby, beige root is well trimmed but not cooked, then cut into matchstick pieces and dressed with a mustard-spiked mayonnaise. For each cup of mayo, add about 1/4 cup Dijon mustard, plus a tablespoon or so of red wine vinegar or lemon juice. After 24 hours in its dressing, the celery root wilts slightly, which is the way the French like it. To speed the softening process, you can parboil it for a minute (blanch it, the French would say) before you dress it.

Celery root (or celery knob or celeriac) is indeed the root of a kind of celery the tops of which you would not want to eat. It also adds a refreshing note to a pot of chicken soup or beef broth. Boiled in water, it's great mashed with potatoes, or roasted along with a selection of other roots.

Ahhhh, mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables. They pass for stylish restaurant food these days. Only 10 years ago, you couldn't find a mashed potato on a menu in this town. Now everyone is mashing potatoes, including chefs who don't know what they're doing, which I find is most of them. I'm being served pasty, gluey, truly awful mashed potatoes everywhere. What's most disheartening is that the generation of diners that didn't grow up on mashed potatoes doesn't know any better.

Roasted root vegetables

As for roasted vegetables, they are so simple to make, such a homey dish, you'd think chefs would be embarrassed to serve them.

Carrots, parsnips, celery root, white turnips and even yellow turnips, the big, waxy ones called rutabagas, get a concentrated, caramel sweetness when they are cooked in the dry heat of an oven.

Be sure to use a shallow roasting pan and not to overcrowd it. High sides and/or too many vegetables in the pan will inhibit browning.

Peel all the vegetables and cut them so they are no thicker than about 1 1/2 inches at any point and so that maximum interior surface is exposed. Parsnips and carrots can be cut on a strong bias. Celery root and turnips can be cubed or sliced.

Coat the bottom of the roasting pan with olive oil, add the vegetables and toss them around so they are glossed with oil.

Roast in a 400-degree oven 20 to 30 minutes, until vegetables are browned. Serve hot or at room temperature.

For a creamier texture but slightly less browning, add 1/4 inch of water or broth to the roasting pan; the liquid will evaporate by the time the vegetables are cooked.

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