The Sweet Root
It's been pouring buckets over here. Positively torrential. It almost makes me feel nostalgic for those sweltering days, when I'd look quizzically up at the sky, trying to surmise if the promised rain would come already, because my garden was parched, and the rain barrels were empty... Almost. Now I just shake my head at all this rain, overflowing from the sky, flooding my alley, and spilling out of those same barrels that had turned to soupy sludge at the height of summer, before they were emptied out onto a garden that wanted more.
It's pouring outside, and all I can think of are a warm fireplace (that I do not have), and the pan of vegetables roasting in my oven. It smells so lovely, I wish 'smell-avision' existed so I can share this with you!
You might have noticed that I am a one-dish-dinner type of gal. I like mashed potatoes, on their own; a large bowl of soup for dinner; a tomato, sprinkled with salt, and nothing else. While most people will consider a pan of roasted vegetable as a side-dish for supper, for me, it is supper! And now that it is truly autumn, what better than a pan full of roasted root vegetables! Parsnips, rutabaga, carrots, onions, garlic, oh my! Such lovely, health-giving, hearty fare deserve to be treated as stars every now and then.
The first time I encountered a parsnip, I was 10. I was making my mum's birthday dinner and had decided on a scrumptious-looking menu as displayed in an issue of Homemaker Magazine. I don't know if that magazine still exists, but when I was a child, it was a quarto-sized booklet that was distributed for free in every suburban home... The pictures of food were so enthralling! They depicted stuff that looked so different from my parents' cooking, it was fascinating. My mum's birthday dinner was to be a roast loin of veal, on the bone, with parsnips and carrots. I had never even heard of parsnips before, and had to look it up in the dictionary to find out what it was and its French name (panais, if you were wondering). My father and I went on a wild goose chase to find all the necessary ingredients. I seem to recall that it took us two or three days to find everything, and we had to go to several stores before we could find a bag of parsnips.
The meal took the better part of a Saturday to make. In the end, the most memorable part -for me, in any case- were the parsnips and the dessert (orange crème brûlée, with homemade candied peel). The parsnips were a revelation! They looked quite unpromising, all gnarly and dirty; bigger than any carrot we'd ever seen, my dad was convinced that they would be tough and fibrous. Some pieces were indeed a little woody, but most, after their sojourn in the oven, had transformed into tender morsels. They tasted faintly of carrots, but they were also creamy and starchy like sweet potatoes.
Parsnips are old school vegetables, like brussel sprouts, rutabaga, and jerusalem artichokes. These vegetables are what French chefs in the late 1990s liked to call les légumes oubliés: the forgotten vegetables that fell on the wayside in post-war Europe, when food rations finally gave way to a newfound abundance. Those vegetables sustained wartime Europe because they were easy to grow; kept for months on end; were hearty and stick-to-your-ribs kinds of veg that more or less of made up for the scarcity of meat. They were quickly abandoned when meat, sugar and other 'luxuries' became available again, only to come back in favour when super star chefs declared that they were good to eat. These old school vegetables are the winter bane of locavores because they are often the only true local foods in the dead of winter. But they can be oh-so-wonderful, if treated with the respect they deserve.
There are several ways to roast vegetables, from the relatively low maintenance 'prep and throw in the oven' method, to the slightly more involved 'parboil before roasting' method. The former is fine for most vegetables, however, parsnips can be a little stringy when prepared this way. Unless you are roasting your roots under a hunk of meat that will nourish them with its juices, it is best to parboil the parsnips in salted, boiling water for about 5 minutes. The timing really depends on the parsnip's size, but you should keep a close eye on them, you want them to be just undercooked. These roots are notorious for turning from rock hard to mush in the blink of an eye! If you do end up with mush, don't despair, parsnips make a lovely, silky purée or a velvety soup (try it with apples! The combination sounds bizarre, but it is exquisite!)
Once the parsnips are parboiled, throw them into a pan or baking tray (with sides), and season them. You can add other vegetables, cut to more or less the same size. Liberally coat with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, add a sprig of thyme if you like, and bake in a hot oven (375'F-450'F/ 190'C-220'C). It will take the better part of 30 minutes to cook, and you will have to shake the pan every now and then to make sure that each piece of veggie gets coated with oil. Don't worry if some bits start to colour a tad too quickly -they're the tastiest bits! In the last 5 minutes, add a heaping spoonful of butter: it will add loads of flavour, and give the vegetables a boost of caramelisation.