It’s important to know your roots. In the vegetal sense that is. Not that mandarins of botany have made it simple. With a track record like theirs of the misclassification of fruits and vegetables, it’s a bit hard to understand how they’ve maintained their positions in the rise and fall of economic winds. They do, however make a few distinctions in what we generally call root vegetables, specifically between taproot and tuberous roots. What this botanical parsing provides is unclear to me, but it must be important somewhere. Accordingly, potatoes and sweet potatoes are tubers. While beets, carrots, celeriac, parsnips, turnips and rutabagas are taproots. Clarified?
What is important to understand is that these vegetables grow under the earth’s surface where they store up energy which they later contribute to human health and well-being. Most of these roots are substantially long-lived and can be stored for months after their harvesting, particularly in root cellars. The ability of stretching out lifetime of a food staple is a significant plus in extreme climes. The American poet, Rothke noted in his poem, Root Cellar: “Nothing would give up life: Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.”
Many root vegetables have unique personality quirks, such as the parsnip which becomes sweeter if harvested after the first frost. The rutabaga is the result of the unlikely marriage between a turnip and a cabbage. (Exactly how did that work?) An ancestral turnip was the first Jack-o-Lantern according to one devilish Irish/Scottish tale. Certain folklore holds that carrots improve the eyesight, especially one’s night vision. This is now said to be a myth propagated by the British in WWII to mislead the enemy about British capabilities. Finally, lactating mothers who consume beets produce pink milk. Mother Nature at her whimsical best.
Virtually all of these root vegetables are valued food staples as they contain high concentrations of carbohydrates. They are found in every cuisine and consequently in every kitchen. One way to look at all these buried treasures is as storage vaults that safekeep energy in the form of natural starches and sugars. Americans’ taste and demand for sugar continues to trend upward and exceeds our ability to produce enough of it within our borders. Before the advent of cane sugar, the sugar beet was the primary source of sugar. There is a reason it is still on the commodity exchanges.
This entire underground group are the source of many great soups. Perhaps because they lend themselves to being pureed. Their flavors are benign as opposed to sharp and consequently blend well with lots of other foods. Soups have long provided a warm, satisfying and often an economical meal.
The market is full of these glorious roots at this time of year. Almost as full as our website is of delicious root recipes such as: Mixed Roasted Roots, Maple Roasted Carrots, Golden Beet Flan, Spicy Parsnip Cake with Ginger Cream Cheese Frosting, and Roasted Beet Hummus to name a few. Plug your primary ingredient into the search box of the website and take a toodle around. You might be surprised by the options you find. Today we are offering a Creamy Turnip Soup that’s as pretty as it is terrific. It is Kay Carroll’s adaptation of a recipe from Taste of Home.
Acorn squash that is. For some inexplicable reason, it is sometimes called Des Moines squash, though it is native throughout North and Central America. Call it what you will, this dark green globe, occasionally splashed with orange, and its orange pulp is yet another fruit misclassified as a vegetable. Even within that category, it is most often labeled as a winter squash along with Kabocha, Hubbard, Buttercup and Turban squashes. In fact, it is a member of the same branch of the Cucurbita family as zucchini, yellow and pattypan, all summer squashes. Someone should declare a global reclassification effort. Never mind, that’s a bad idea. It would probably make the United Nations look easy.
As a representative of fruit/vegetable/winter squash, the acorn squash is a pretty smooth operator. Its sweet nutty flavor is amenable to the being sweetly enhanced or spiced up. Its very shape nearly begs to be stuffed. Acorn squash makes terrific soups; plays well in the oven roasted or baked; can be steamed, sautéed, pureed and creamed. Mighty indeed.
It’s always an extra little plus when a food comes with its own natural container. As in this case, it is also a very attractive way to put something on the table. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. You will find on our website quite a number of squash dishes, some elegant, like the Acorn Squash with Maple Syrup and Sage Cream or the hearty Lamb Stuffed Acorn Squash. Today, thinking about the impending holidays and all the busyness that entails, we’re focusing on good but simple with Roasted Acorn Squash with Nutmeg. It is deeply satisfying with nominal effort.
A good life it is indeed, especially in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. As mentioned last week, this is chestnut, porcini mushroom, truffle, pear and pumpkin season. Other autumn specialties include an astounding amount of local wild game such as rabbit, venison, duck and boar. In Emilia-Romagna, where the level of their cuisine is famous even in Italy, there are two cities that claim prominence in the food world. Parma, for its Parmesan cheese and Prosciutto ham; and Modena, home of the-stuff-of-dreams automobiles: Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati and the birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti. Modena is also the home of balsamic vinegar.
The Italian chestnut tree, like our American chestnut tree, suffered a terrible blight in recent years from which it has recovered more rapidly and without the magnitude of loss that we endured. Porcini thrive in the Northern Hemisphere and are a valued commodity throughout Europe. Recently an American variation has been identified and is called California king bolete. Given the depth and density of their flavor, I’m betting (and hoping) that these will appear soon annually in our neighborhood markets.
You have to watch your step not to trip over fine food in these parts. Well, after all, they’ve been perfecting their offerings for more than 2,500 years. A good example of their contribution is the aged balsamic vinegar made of blending wine vinegar with grape must. The term balsamic is a derivation of a Greek then Latin word meaning curative or restorative. In its birthplace, this vinegar has long been used for more than salad dressing. Well-aged balsamic vinegar frequently appears as a sweet element; sometimes drizzled over an aged piece of Parmesan, brushed lightly over grilled fish, trickled atop fresh strawberries or pears, and occasionally a drop will be added to eggs. Inspired by long tradition, yes. But there is never a fine chef who will be limited by tradition.
When we get home, I will not get on a scale for at least a week. It has, however, definitely been worth it. In Modena we were lucky enough to find yet another wonderful restaurant where we enjoyed a pork loin, perfectly roasted with a rosemary emulsion served with a chestnut purée. At that point, I was ready to start looking at apartments. The generous chef was willing to share the recipe and to the best of my translation ability, here it is.