03 April 2015

Honey Roasted Parsnips

Familiar Root Vegetables

Over the years I have become familiar with a variety of root vegetables. I have even pulled a few from the ground and brushed the earth off their homely faces. I have gorged on fresh carrots when they are slender, leggy, and easy to love. I have come to appreciate beets for being well rounded and imbued with raw sweetness and voluptuous color. I’ve watched radishes mature quickly and contribute a crisp blush of piquancy to the palate and I’ve avoided turnips like uncles, earthy and substantial with strong and sometimes objectionable opinions.

Parsnips and I, on the other hand, are practically strangers. While they have a rather common reputation I can’t remember ever growing them in our garden back home. Neither do I remember them being served at our table. I have seldom even seen them on a menu. It wasn’t until last year that, out of boredom or curiosity, I picked up a bag at the grocery and made their acquaintance. Now I can only wonder - where have they been all my life?

The Nature of Parsnips

The charm of a parsnip is subtle. They are unassuming at their introduction. Even among humble root vegetables, a parsnip is pale and homely. It’s skin is sallow and etched with brown ridges. It’s shape is generally top heavy and it’s waist is thick. Parsnips are like the carrot’s matronly aunt; graying and full-figured. Neither sugary sweet nor piquant, they keep their persuasions to themselves. When pressed, however, they shyly begin to reveal their nature.

Beyond their dowdy appearance and modest character you will discover an unexpected freshness at the heart of a parsnip. Inside there is a hint of citrus, notes of green grass and fresh herbs. The juxtaposition of appearance and aroma makes me smile. Something about its surprising yet gentle unfolding informs me of the hope of spring.

Parsnips are great for roasting. While they are gently sweet, unlike sweet potatoes, they retain their texture nicely, softening without turning mushy, holding their edges while only gently yielding. Sliced into long thin strips they curl slightly in the oven giving them an interesting appearance as they brown. Pair them with beef or lamb or serve as a point of contrast on a vegetable plate.

Honey Roasted Parsnips
Adapted from a recipe in Real Simple magazine

1 ½ pounds parsnips
1 Tablespoon honey
1 Tablespoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

Preheat oven to 425F.

Wash parsnips and cut into 3 to 4-inch lengths. Halve thinner pieces and quarter thicker pieces, lengthwise.

Combine parsnips, honey, oil, salt and pepper in a gallon sized Ziploc bag. Seal the bag and shake until the parsnips are well coated.

Spread the coated parsnips on a rimmed baking sheet.

Roast at 425F, turning occasionally, until golden brown, approximately 30-35 minutes.

Note: For a more colorful side dish, you can combine parsnips with similarly sliced carrots.


14 March 2015

Cooking Constants

How are Magazines like Rabbits?

Cleaning up around my house I am always amazed at the way magazines proliferate. On a quick evening clean up I put a couple of magazines in a basket on a shelf. The next time I check the basket I am sure they have multiplied.

Looking through the basket I find issues from November……and the November before. Somehow I never seem to find the time to look through them in season.

I sit down and flip through a few. I am a sucker for a pretty picture. I find cookies from Christmas that look too good to throw away. I linger over a few side dishes and a pie from Thanksgiving. Some look so fine I promise to try them as winter winds down.

A Picture's Worth…

At first glance, that recipe for the pretty pie appears wholesome. After all it is about sweet potatoes, a nutritional powerhouse and one of my favorite vegetables. The slick photo confirms its virtue. The pie photographed just couldn’t be more gorgeous …and we learn from an early age that beauty and virtue walk hand in hand, right? What’s more I see “½ cup sugar” in the recipe, a relatively low amount for a pie, along with a few other basic ingredients.

I go to the grocery store and buy the cutest little sweet potatoes, already scrubbed and sorted for a microwaveable side dish. They looked just right in size and shape for the sliced rounds used in the recipe. I also pick up some pie crusts and an orange and I am ready to start cooking.

Lessons from Childhood

Since I was a child cooking from Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls I have been instructed “Before you start to cook…..Read your recipe and all directions in it very carefully.”

I have read or heard that rule countless times since, and still, often enough, in my enthusiasm to try a new recipe, I skip over that sage advice, along with “Wear an apron to keep your clothes clean”. Both omissions I have later come to regret.

It wasn’t until I was well into the recipe that I began to suspect I had been deceived. I cooked the sweet potatoes in the first ½ cup of sugar. Then I noticed another half cup of brown sugar was called for near the bottom of the list of ingredients. What’s more there was a separate recipe for the streusel topping that began at the end of the recipe but was baked right on top of the pie. Its ingredients were added like a note, rather than a stacked list, and included another ¼ cup brown sugar and 1 Tablespoon white sugar.

Pretty Is as Pretty Does

Ugh! Not only is sugar the current nutritional fall guy but I really haven’t had much of a taste for sugar since my surgeries last year and I have been trying to listen closer to what my body is telling me these days.

At that point I considered leaving out some of the sugar but having already worked through part of the recipe I couldn’t decide where it would work best. I felt a little immature when I went ahead and added the whole amount thinking I didn’t want to add to the chances that my pie wouldn’t turn out as pretty as the one in the magazine picture.

So here it is - a pretty pie for certain. It’s stacked architecture gives it a fashionably trendy look like those beautiful kitchen backsplash tiles I’ve seen everywhere the past few seasons. It’s a beauty, but it’s one to be wary of. It is cloyingly sweet and, except for the toasted nuts in the topping, there is little to recommend it in terms of flavor. While I still admire the way it looks, it definitely needs some reduction in process and artifice before I’ll make it again.

Happy Pi Day!

13 March 2015

Lentil Soup

Seasonal Humility

Life has its ways of keeping us humble. Just as the sun begins to shine and the horizon looks level, just when we begin to think we’ve got it made, the road takes an unexpected turn and:

  • That groundhog sees his shadow. 
  • Hopes of an early spring in the deep south are dispelled by ice, snow and cold. 
  • A general feeling of malaise turns out to signal a virus that has left us coughing, sneezing and worse these past two weeks. 
  •  iPhoto does a self-induced update on my computer and suddenly 12000 photos disappear…

But no matter. Let bygones be bygones. Last night I kicked the covers off the bed as I heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. Not once was I awakened by the sound of coughing. This morning white flowers in the small park out my front window proved spring has not been deterred. I have even been able to recover most of my lost photos.

Late Winter Comfort

Though the season has begun to turn I find myself still craving the comfort of humble soups. Last week we made several meals of a large pot of Chicken and Dumplings. This week a pot of Lentil Soup is on the menu. It is fairly simple to prepare. It starts with a few leftover vegetables from the crisper: a rib of celery, a carrot or two and a chopped onion. Add broth, canned tomatoes and dried lentils. Lentils are small and cook quickly so the soup requires little in the way of advanced planning. As is, it tastes warm and healing. Add the panch phoron, coriander seeds and chile pepper for a more exotic flavor and visual interest.

Lentil Soup
Adapted from a recipe by Alton Brown

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
½ cup celery, diced
½ cup carrots, diced
2 cups lentils, rinsed (I used a lentil trio from Costco)
1 14.5 oz. can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
2½ quarts water
2 Tablespoon vegetable base
1 teaspoon ground cumin

Place a large (six-quart) pot over medium heat. When hot, add 2 Tablespoons olive oil. When the oil shimmers add the onion, celery and carrots. Saute until the onion is soft and translucent, 6-7 minutes.

Add the lentils, tomatoes, water, vegetable base and cumin. Stir well making sure the vegetable base has dissolved. (Or use 2½ quarts of vegetable broth in place of the water and vegetable base.)

Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook at a low simmer for 35 – 40 minutes, or until the lentil are tender.

Use a stick blender to blend soup to your preferred consistency.

Spice Garnish

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 Tablespoon panch phoron
1 small dried chile pepper

Place a small heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat. When hot, add 1 Tablespoon oil. When the oil is hot add the coriander seeds, panch phoron, and dried chile pepper to the oil. Stir and cook, watching carefully, for a short time, until fragrant. Remove from heat.

Ladle Lentil Soup into bowls and top with a small drizzle of the spice garnish, reserving the chile pepper.

Stir any remaining spice mixture, and the chile, if desired, into leftover soup. Lentil soup is often even better the next day, after the flavors have had more time to meld. Prepare more of the spice garnish to top any leftovers, if desired.