Root vegetables. The staple of the winter dinner table. Those vegetables which grow late in the season and keep well in the root cellar. Those vegetables with the best price at this time of year, as hot house or tropical vegetables command prices well above their taste.
Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, onions, turnips, beets, squash after squash variety. And let’s add cauliflower and cabbage into the mix as well, even though strictly speaking they’re not ‘root’ vegetables. Vegetables that roast well and enrich stews and make hearty soups. Still, by the time you get to the end of February… aren’t you just the tiniest bit anxious for spring and summer vegetables fill up your plate?
Asparagus! Snappy thin stalks of emerald green asparagus with their purple tips. Barely steamed, drenched in lemon butter served hot, or dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette served cold, either way reminding us that, oh thank god, spring is fully here.
Lettuce! Soft, tender leaves support a dash of lemon juice, a swish of olive oil, and enliven a slice of roast chicken in a most temperate way, another gift of spring.
Tomatoes! I want tomatoes that are heavy and sweet and make juice run down my chin when I bite into them. The best of the locally-grown tomatoes is months away but they’re not the only, local, fresh vegetables for which I long.
Sparky scallions, crunchy pea pods and tender peas, the first crop of radishes, the first burst of spinach, tender baby spinach meant for salads, not older spinach in bags perfect for creaming and serving with (again!) root vegetables.
Even potatoes taste different in spring and early summer, when they are those lovely little nubs of tiny new potatoes, potatoes that are perfect for a pot of salty boiling water, cooked to tenderness, squashed open for a pour of parsley butter, a twist of fresh ground pepper. These are not merely spuds, they are the taste of spring!
All this ruminating about root vegetables is a sign, I think, of how long this winter has been. How long and cold and snowy, with little sunshine and seemingly no hope that we will ever see grass, or asparagus, again. I pull dirt encrusted potatoes and parsnips out of burlap bags. I go through my cookbooks once again, seeking another way to make a silk purse out of sow’s ear or, in this case, a delicious gratin of carrots and parsnips. There is borscht one more time this winter, an excellent soup the first three or four times we slurped it down this season. Roast cauliflower is coming to the dinner table this week, perhaps dusted with cumin and turmeric again. Or perhaps smothered in a cheese sauce because everything, even root vegetables in March, taste better in a cheese sauce.
Cooking inventively is the definition of cooking well with root vegetables, and certainly in the winter months, I think it’s definition of cooking inexpensively. Perhaps our mothers, definitely our grandmothers, knew this sort of cooking, in an age when there were few hot houses, little transportation from Florida or California, and really no food coming from Chile or Israel or Australia. So perhaps, because they were not tempted by tomatoes both over-priced and also, sadly, mealy, or thick stalks of Mexican asparagus that has woody ends and the lingering hint of illegal pesticides, or bags of baby lettuce for seven dollars and no guarantee it would not wilt before you got home, perhaps without those temptations, they would continue to cook and enjoy root vegetables. Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that our mothers and grandmothers understood and lived better with the cycle of food that our four season climate gives us.
Whatever this malaise that might affect my taste buds by mid-March, I will rally. I will roast beets and roast onions to go with the pork chops and sauerkraut for supper. I will make another batch of carrot-ginger soup. And I just might “borrow” Neil Perry’s idea for squash pancakes and try a version of these unctuous and savoury treats for myself. All of these choices will be delicious and nutritious, and because they are seasonal also inexpensives. And I will try to remember that last summer, in the middle of corn and tomato and watermelon season, I scrubbed some new beets and roasted them, along with the some potatoes, to round out a barbecue meal because, as I said, “roasted beets are so yummy!”