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Posts Tagged ‘parsnips’

For a dinner party for eight this week, I needed a vegetable dish that would be (a) autumnal, (b) good alongside a roasted capon, and (c) easy to finish, so I could concentrate on my barely adequate poultry carving ability and get all the filled plates to the table promptly. Roasted root vegetables turned out to be an ideal dish for the occasion.

Preparation of the vegetables does take a fair amount of work, most of it peeling and chopping, but it can all be done well in advance. Even the roasting can be done early in the day: If anything, the dish is even better when reheated in the oven. And it’s good to have a number of people to feed: The more diners there are, the greater the variety of vegetables you can include.

Here’s the mixture I used this time. Clockwise from the top, butternut squash, white sweet potatoes, garlic, carrots, mushrooms, cipolline onions, red Bliss potatoes, and parsnips. (Turnips are another common choice, but I’m not overly fond of them.)

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Though mushrooms aren’t a root vegetable, I like to add them for textural contrast, as well as flavor. When all the roots have become meltingly tender, the ‘shrooms remain a little al dente. Other times I’ve tossed in green beans, broccoli, or asparagus.

My faithful knife man and I started work in the morning of the dinner party – I peeling all the veg and he reducing them to more-or-less one-inch chunks. I put them in my largest roasting pan and tossed them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, chopped fresh rosemary, and salt.

cut-up veg

Recipes I’ve sometimes tried for the dish say to spread the vegetables in a single layer in the roasting pan. I’ve found that isn’t necessary. In fact, in a 450° oven, it’s too easy to dry them out and turn them into leather that way. (Those recipes also say to use extra-virgin olive oil, which I feel is wasted in long-cooked dishes.) I just stir my vegetables around every 15 minutes or so as they cook. In that close contact, they render quite a bit of liquid at first, which I think helps keep them tender and blend their flavors, and it all evaporates by the time they’re done.

The denser the batch, the longer it takes to cook, of course. Mine this time took about 1½ hours. When it was done, I let it cool and set it aside, covered, in a cool place. In the evening I stirred a little more olive oil into the vegetables and heated them through, uncovered, in a 375° oven.

roasted

As always, they were excellent. Their natural sugars had caramelized just enough, and the flavors had had time to harmonize beautifully. This is a dish that naturally combines the pleasures of comfort food with an almost haute cuisine subtlety. When I offered seconds on the main course, I had more takers for the vegetables than the capon.

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I’m not a big fan of California cuisine. I feel that too often it throws together too many not-really-compatible ingredients, so the flavors clash rather than cooperate. But I keep looking into it and hoping for the best.

An attraction for me of Christine Hanna’s book The Winemaker Cooks was the restrained exuberance of many of its California dishes. Last fall I did a highly appreciative post on its Prosciutto-Roasted Fennel recipe, which has become a favorite of mine. Accordingly, with vegetables on my mind this week, I went browsing through her pages again, and came up with recipes for three staple vegetables – green beans, zucchini, and parsnips – that called for combinations of flavors that, while interesting and unusual, didn’t seem over the top.

Given the season, all the vegetables and their accompaniments were available in the market, so I bought a batch to work my way through on successive nights:

Pretty, aren’t they? They gave me great hopes they would taste as good as they looked.

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I started with the recipe for Sautéed Romano Beans with Shallots, Pine Nuts, and Mint.

These big flat beans, though often clunky and coarse looking, are always more flavorful than regular green beans. I freeze a lot of them for eating all winter long. Because this recipe starts with parboiling the beans, I thought it might be a nice way to dress up defrosted beans too, so I was particularly interested in trying it. You sauté chopped shallots and garlic in olive oil, add the partially cooked beans and cook until they’re tender, then finish them with toasted pine nuts, chopped mint, salt, and pepper.

They were good. Not transcendent, but good. Mainly, they were just good green beans, but the shallots and garlic provided a little bass note of richness, the pine nuts added a tenor crunch, and the mint sang a bright soprano accompaniment. It’s an attractive dish, too – could be nice for a dinner party.

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Encouraged, the next evening I went on to make Fragrant Zucchini with Mustard Seeds.

This one, described as an exotic twist on sautéed zucchini, didn’t work so well. Closely considered, the recipe’s basic approach is absurd. Six servings’ worth of zucchini, cut in one-inch chunks, to be sautéed in only one tablespoon of olive oil and done in five minutes? No way! Even for super-crunchy, almost raw zucchini, that wouldn’t be enough oil or time. The mere two portions I was making needed more oil and took much longer. But that was easy enough to adjust, and I fear the main fault was mine.

The “exotic” part of the recipe (the part that originally interested me) was the first step – cooking whole mustard seeds in the oil before adding minced garlic and those zucchini chunks. My black mustard seeds had been around for too long a time, and they just didn’t have any pungency left. So what I had was plain sautéed zucchini decorated with little black dots:

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Oh, well; can’t win ‘em all. Next day I tried the third recipe: Roasted Parsnips with Shallots and Sage.

Again I had to struggle with the instructions. Whereas with yesterday’s recipe the ingredient list called for six “small” zucchini (a size that could be anybody’s guess, given the huge range of sizes zucchini come in), this recipe specified a weight for the parsnips. That was good, but then it said to quarter them lengthwise. Since parsnips also come in a great range of sizes, that means the thickness of the widest parts could vary greatly.

Also, parsnips are a hard, dense vegetable, and the recipe’s roasting time – 20 minutes covered and 20 uncovered, at 350° – seemed rather short. But my parsnips, fresh and first of the season at the Greenmarket, were almost tiny, so I thought they might be done in that time. So I only halved them lengthwise, quartering just a few of the biggest parts, and cut them into two-inch pieces as instructed.

I tossed the pieces along with several whole shallots in olive oil, chopped fresh sage, salt and pepper, and put them in the oven. Forty minutes later they were still hard as rocks. Fifteen more minutes later, with the heat boosted to 400°, they were at best leathery, and beginning to dry out.

We did eat some of them, chewing industriously. The flavors would have been fine if the texture wasn’t so tough. The rest of them are sitting in my refrigerator, waiting to be chopped small, cooked longer, and made into a cream soup.

I really should have known better. I often roast mixed winter vegetables, but I always do them in a 450° oven for about an hour, with more generous olive oil; and with parsnips in much smaller pieces.

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Oh, California!  I’m afraid I’m just not good at your kind of cooking. I may have to give up on you.

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