Thursday, February 28, 2008

Roots Rock

For dinner last night we had a salad buffet. Why? Because we could.

The wind was rather howling down the plain, and a comforting bowl of hot soup might have been more suited to the weather (in fact I had a pot of sour borscht in reserve, just in case). But I wanted to show that even at the end of February, four months after the last farmers' market of October, you could put together a locally grown salad bar, a meal made up entirely of fresh, local vegetables.

So I took myself down to the root cellar--which is to say, the second fridge we have in our basement--and I pulled out the makings of an assiette de crudités that would make any northern locavore proud. We still had leeks, beets, carrots, and celery root. (We also had cabbage, squash, pumpkins, apples, and various preserved things, but I decided to focus on the roots, for thematic coherence.)

All the root vegetables came from our garden. All had been keeping fairly well in the fridge since last fall. The carrots and celery root hadn't suffered at all from the long cold storage. The beets were a little soft but roasted up just fine. The leeks didn't look awfully appetizing, a bit dried and withered with some black fungal patches, but those outer layers peeled away to reveal a perfectly edible vegetable within.

I wasn't consciously planning to put together a French salad bar, but the ingredients naturally suggested classic bistro treatments: carottes rapées, céleri remoulade, and leeks in vinaigrette. The beets I bathed in a dressing that was an inspiration of the moment based on various dregs we had sitting around--of a few not-quite-empty bottles of red wine, and the last of a jar of buckwheat honey. The result was very good; I've dubbed it "Bloody Beets."

Here's what the finished products looked like:

I don't know about you, but I find that awfully appealing. I just ate all that last night, and looking at it this morning makes me hungry again. I think the picture makes my point, which is the point of this "blog" as a whole, that eating local foods isn't a "challenge," as some would have it, nor should we undertake it in some sort of attempt to achieve salvation through suffering, donning the hairshirt of culinary penance in a misguided epicurean ascetic endeavor to prove that I can do without more than you can, that my table is greener than yours, or hoist a self-righteous banner of provincial gastronomy to shame the supermarket-shopping hoi polloi into genuflecting before an iconic poster of St. Pollan the Pure!

No! That isn't it, at all.

I want you to eat this stuff because, like my "Bloody Beets," it's bloody good. I hope I don't protest too much. Trout Caviar has a philosophy, is a philosophy, and that philosophy is that our stuff is as good as anybody's stuff, and part of reason that it's good is that it's ours. Mary remarked during dinner last night that maybe part of the reason these foods taste so good to us is that they come from our terroir, and that same terroir is in us, just as it is in these foods. And so a sort of sympathetic magic occurs when we consume them, making it all more than the sum of its parts. Could be.

Back to the roots, and a few radical recipes. We all know carrots, and we've all had carrots in salad, but how many of us would think of making a salad entirely of carrots? If you've been to France you would. If there's a traiteur (French deli) in the whole of the republique that doesn't carry this simple carrot salad, I haven't found it. As cole slaw and potato salad are to the American deli counter, carottes rapées and céleri remoulade are to the French traiteur: ubiquitous, in a word. The name simply means grated carrots, which is sure not to impress your guests, so I suggest you use the French name with company, for maximum, you know, pretentiousness.....

Fortunately, the recipe is as simple as "grated carrots" would make it seem:

Carottes Rapées

2 medium carrots, about 8 ounces, peeled

Grate the carrots medium to coarse, or shred them on a mandolin. Mix with:

1 Tbs grapeseed oil (or other light vegetable oil)
1 tsp apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
good pinch sugar
pinch or two salt

Let sit at least an hour before serving, if you have time.

Then add.... Nothing. That's it. That's the whole recipe! Bon appetit!

I mentioned a "mandolin" just there, and I don't mean a stringed instument commonly heard in bluegrass music. You probably know I'm referring to a fixed-blade slicing device that will make quick work of tough root vegetables, turning them into paper-thin slices, fine julienne, and perhaps other shapes, depending on the sophistication of the machine (and will do the same to your fingertips and/or knuckles if you're not very careful).
This is one of the lower-end versions, the venerable "Benriner." Note that it counsels you in both English and Japanese to "Watch your fingers"!

These can usually be found at Asian supermarkets. Or you can pay a couple hundred dollars for the stainless-steel European versions that do pretty much the same thing. I'm sure that my Benriner has been serving me well for at least fifteen years. I think I'm due for a new one. It's a tool that gets a lot of use in our kitchen.

Celery root, or celeriac, is slowly becoming more familiar and more available in this country. This knobby, dirty, hairy root presents a most unpromising facade, but once you get through to its crunchy, savory, fragrant heart, you'll find it's worth the work. (That's trimmed celery root pictured with the Benriner above.) It's not the root of the celery we're most familiar with, but a related plant. The celery-root plant does produce stalks and leaves not unlike regular celery, but thinner, darker green, a bit tougher, and much more intensely flavored. You never see the tops of celery root in grocery stores, which is a shame. We've grown celery root in our garden the past couple of years, and have found many uses for all parts of the plant. The stalks we chop fine to mix into egg salad and the like, or to flavor soups, stews, stocks and braised dishes. The leaves lend an intensely green, slightly bitter flavor to salads.

The root can be eaten raw or cooked. It takes a lot of peeling, as the pictures show. Céleri remoulade is the classic salad treatment. You can boil the root along with potatoes to give a twist to mashed potatoes. You can throw chunks of it in to roast along with a chicken. We've enjoyed an oven-fry of mixed sticks of celery root, potato, carrot, and squash. Pretty much anything you would do with other dense root vegetables can be applied to celery root.

This recipe is adapted from Julia Child's and Jacques Pepin's Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.

Céleri Remoulade

1 medium-size celery root, about 12 ounces untrimmed, 8 ounces trimmed
1/8 tsp salt
juice of 1/4 small lemon

Grate the celery root medium to coarse, or shred it with a mandolin. Toss the shreds with the salt and lemon juice, and let sit at least 30 minutes. To the celery root add:

1 1/2 Tbs mayonnaise
1 1/2 Tbs sour cream
1 tsp Dijon mustard
freshly ground peppper to taste

Mix it all in, let sit at least an hour before serving if you have time. Serve with a sprinkling of fresh herbs like chives or parsley, or a dash of paprika or espelette pepper for color.

Leeks are sometimes referred to as "poor man's asparagus" in France. They're a little more common here than celery root, but still under-appreciated. They're useful in many more ways than just the leek-potato soup that springs immediately to mind. They, too, can be cut in chunks and roasted along with other root vegetables. They can be slowly braised in stock and finished under the broiler with a glaze of butter for a first course or side dish with a luxuriousness not usually associated with oniony roots. Blanched and halved and annointed with olive oil, salt, and lemon juice, they do very nicely on the grill.

A lot of recipes tell you to use only the white part of the leek. We use the whole thing. You usually have to remove a few of the tough outer layers, and trim off much of the dark green leaves, but the lighter green parts are perfectly edible. Save the trimmings for stock. You can just wad them up and jam them in a plastic bag and bung it in the freezer. At right is what I look for in a trimmed leek. Well, you'll want to trim the root a little more than that, acutally.

Leeks Vinaigrette
four servings

4 small leeks, about 1 pound trimmed

Clean the leeks well--a lot of dirt can hide in the layers of leaves. Trim off the root end, then, using a paring knife and being quite careful, push the tip of the knife through the leek just above the root end. Slice the leek all the way through the top of the green end. Do the same thing again to slice the leek in quarters the long way, with the whole thing held together by the intact root end. Wash thoroughly.

In a saucepan with a lid bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil. Add the leeks, cover, and simmer briskly till the leeks are tender, about 5 minutes. Now that the leeks are soft, I like to take a fork and roll them up, sort of like you were twirling spaghetti. Place them in a serving dish. Save the cooking water. Top the leeks with a vinaigrette made up of:

2 tsp grain mustard
2 tsp white wine vinegar
2 Tbs olive oil
2 Tbs of the leek cooking water
a good pinch salt, several grinds of the pepper mill

This can be made several hours or even a couple of days ahead. Bring to room temp before serving. With a piece of crusty bread this makes a delightful first course, a real bistro classic.

And finally, those

Bloody Beets

1 1/2 pounds beets--an assortment of red, golden, and chioggia makes a beautiful salad

Wash the beets, place in a covered baking dish, and roast at 400 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes, till they pierce easily with a paring knife. Beets larger than, say, tennis ball-size will cook faster if you cut them in half. Let cool, then peel and cut into bite-size chunks, like 1/2-inch thick and 1-inch square pieces. Make the bloody dressing:

1/2 cup red wine

In a small saucepan bring the wine to a boil and reduce till there are just two tablespoons left. Watch very carefully as you near the end, or it will all boil away in a flash. Pour the reduced wine into a bowl and add:

2 tsp buckwheat honey (other flavorful honey could be used, but the earthiness of the buckwheat matches that same quality in the beets very well--Talking Oak raw buckwheat honey is available at Farm in the Market in the Midtown Global Market, and from Sandy the honey lady herself at the Saint Paul Farmers' Market)

1 small clove garlic, minced
1 Tbs grapeseed oil
1/2 tsp red wine vinegar
good pinch salt & a few grinds of pepper

Mix well, toss with beets.
A nice dollop of a soft fresh goat cheese, like the Donnay chevre, also available at Farm in the Market, goes really well with beets.

All of these salads can be made well ahead, and indeed benefit from a rest of a few hours or overnight. The carrot salad was even better on the second night. They'll be tastier if you let them come to room temperature before serving.

Now, this isn't the cornucopian abundance of the farmers' market in September, but people!, this is Minnesota at the end of February! (That big, gorgeous pumpkin, by the way, is a Musquée de Provence that we grew, the biggest one ever. A lovely eating pumpkin, too.) Those are Denny Havlicek's apples, Keepsake, and the sea-green pumpkin behind the leeks is from Peter Marshall (Peter's Pumpkins), as is the cabbage. If you didn't lay in enough winter veg to get you through till spring, you might still find some local produce at the co-ops--parsnips, celery root, beets, and squash are often available late into the winter.

I keep saying that we shouldn't say it's a challenge to eat locally and seasonally, that we should really look at it as a celebration. That said, there is a bit of a challenge to keeping things interesting with this rather restrained palate to work with. Nonetheless, it can be done, and out of it comes abundant pleasure and the satisfaction in keeping that connection to the land hereabouts and to the seasons. And then the celebration can begin.

Brett Laidlaw

text and photos copyright 2008 Brett Laidlaw

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