Most of the time, I cook vegetables very plainly. Baked, boiled, or steamed, they’re the supporting cast of the meal, not the stars. But I have occasional urges to do something more elaborate with them. It’s not a bountiful time of year for vegetables, of course, but I thought I’d see what I could do with new recipes for some out-of-season varieties.
I turned to James Villas’s Country Cooking, which does a lot with vegetables in its mostly buffet-style menus for entertaining. The book is organized seasonally, so I turned to its “cold-weather” lunch and dinner sections. Here are three dishes I tried.
Gratin of Leeks and Turnips
I think of white turnips as a spring vegetable, but they’re in the stores year-round now. Though not as fresh and crisp as they should be, the ones I could get worked well enough in this recipe.
The first step was to slice both vegetables into rounds: one-eighth inch for the peeled turnips, one-quarter inch for the leeks. The turnips got sauteed in butter for a minute on each side and removed to a plate; the leeks sauteed for a minute, on one side only.
Then I arranged both vegetables in alternate layers in a cast-iron pan, drizzling melted butter on each one and seasoning with salt, pepper, and oregano. The pan, covered, went into a 425° oven for about an hour. The idea was to press down on the vegetables a few times to firm them into a cake and, at the end, unmold it onto a plate. Making only a quarter of the recipe, I achieved only two layers, which didn’t hold together despite pressing, so I served them straight from the pan.
As it was, I cooked them a little too long, though those blackened edges didn’t taste too bad. Overall, it was an excellent dish: I wouldn’t have thought those two vegetables could enhance each other as much as they did. The recipe is definitely a keeper, and I look forward to making it again when fresher turnips are available.
The next two recipes were not as successful.
Zucchini and Peppers Vinaigrette
This is basically a cooked vegetable salad. The ingredients were promising, but I found the handling of the zucchini strange. To begin with, they were to be cut into shortish, half-inch planks – which is a clumsy shape. The red bell peppers were to be cut more normally into quarter-inch strips, and onion and garlic chopped.
The recipe then said to saute all the vegetables together in butter, stirring constantly, for two minutes, until barely soft. Well, the zucchini hadn’t been tender, fresh ones to start with, and I knew that they wouldn’t soften in that little time. So I’d sliced them thinner and cooked them somewhat longer, but they were still hard as – well, planks.
Everything then was to go into a shallow serving dish, to be tossed with a mustardy vinaigrette and steeped for an hour. I think the marination was supposed to further “cook” the vegetables, as in a seviche, but it couldn’t do much for the zucchini; they remained extremely crunchy. The red peppers probably wouldn’t have softened much either, but these were some that I’d roasted and frozen back in the fall and defrosted for this dish, so they’d had a useful head start.
Finally, I was dubious about the vinaigrette proportions. The recipe wanted only twice as much olive oil as wine vinegar, which is very heavy on the vinegar. I did it, however, and I guess the butter from the sauteeing counteracted the acidity, because the finished dish wasn’t overly sharp. It was a decent preparation, but not exciting. Not one I’m likely to make again unless I’m inundated with farm-fresh zucchini and peppers next summer – in which case I’m more likely to just sauté both in olive oil and be very happy.
Baked Eggplant with Parsley, Onion, and Tomato
I used this recipe as a concept rather than a blueprint. It was impossible to follow exactly because of some irritating vagueness in the ingredient list. The first item was two eggplants, to be sliced in half-inch rounds. Since eggplants can range in size from plums to cantaloupes, it was anybody’s guess what quantity Villas wanted. He did give quantities for the parsley, onions, and “Italian plum tomatoes” – one cup of the latter. I took that phrase to mean canned tomatoes, since fresh ones are rarely measured by cups, but nothing was said about slicing, chopping, or pureeing them.
Well, those are all good flavors, so I picked up a one-pound eggplant and gave the dish a try, using my judgment for all the other quantities. I arranged half the eggplant slices (salted, rinsed, and dried) in one layer in a baking dish and sprinkled on a lot of parsley. I laid on sliced onions, roughly sliced tomatoes, minced garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and more parsley. The other half of the eggplant slices went on top, along with a generous sloshing of olive oil.
I covered the dish and put it in a very low oven (275°) for three hours – an extraordinarily long time. Then it had to be let cool completely and be served at room temperature – another strange thing for a wintertime dish.
How did it taste? Well, edible is the best I can say of it. The texture was predictably mushy; none of those normally very compatible ingredients did anything to improve the others; and the eggplant didn’t respond too well to being served cold: It rarely does, in my opinion.
So, the score stands at one very pleasant dish and two mild disappointments. Guess I’d better stick with winter vegetables for a while longer.