Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

Category: Vegetables

Discovering turnips

Oh, turnips. I’m sorry. I clumped you, a humble toot vegetable, into a throw-away category with radishes, bok choy, celery, watercress, and other forgotten produce: vegetables I do not yet understand. I realize that these real foods, born of the earth and sun, must be divine in their own way. Plucked straight from the soil raw or paired with precisely the right spice in precisely the right cooking method, each would be a revelation, I’m certain. But so far, I haven’t come across them in such a setting.

Until, for turnips, today.

Bundle of turnips

Turnips, trimmed of their spicy leaves, ready for their fate

I found these at the Charlottesville farmers market on a chilly December Saturday, hanging out with the other less glamorous winter produce. Cabbage. Carrots. Sweet potatoes. Onions. Oh, and kale, which has recently become oddly popular. The other vegetables try not to be jealous, I imagine, but it would be hard not to wonder about the sudden mania. “What did kale ever do to deserve the gushing frenzy? Why not me?” thinks the sad kohlrabi.

I had no idea what to do with these turnips, which is often as good a reason to buy something at the market as any: I’m guaranteed to embark on a kitchen adventure, like it or not. And so I bought them, a bargain $3, including the leaves, which I hacked off immediately. Think mustard greens, a jolt of spiciness.

(Side note: I think these turnips might actually be white Japanese turnips, according to a non-scientific Google search. They certainly didn’t bear the tell-tale purple marks of a typical grocery turnip, and their sweetness and lack of heat seems to be a hallmark of white turnips, too. Being a complete turnip novice, I can’t say for certain, but this is my hunch. If you know, please do confirm or refute this suspicion!)

I tried the turnips first raw, this bundle of pretty bulb-like spheres. Crisp and vaguely sweet, they reminded me of white carrots, the alien-like kohlrabi of our German days, or perhaps the mysterious salad-frequenter radish. Fine, but nothing I would seek out on a quest at the farmers market.

Then I peeled them and chopped them up, and followed a simple recipe for braising in “How to Cook Everything” by the infallible Mark Bittman.

I didn’t quite get braising until today. Why braise when you can sauté?

How naive I have been. Braising takes a bit longer, true, but it melds the flavors and melts the dish in a luscious way that the quick flash of sautéing cannot do.

How to braise? The short of it is: You let the turnips simmer in stock and fat, until softened and imbued with flavor.

turnips-pan

What surprised me – shocked me, even – was how luscious these previously crisply stalwart vegetables became. They melted into a silky, nearly buttery consistency, a magical state of matter between liquid and solid. On the plate, they masqueraded as mashed potatoes. The turnips themselves seemed to eek out sweetness, even producing a hint of cinnamon or nutmeg in the background. I so wish I had bought two bundles.

Next time. Lovely white turnips, I won’t make the mistake of underestimating you again.

Braised turnips
Adapted from “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman

– 4-6 smallish white (Japanese) turnips, peeled and chopped
– 1 tablespoon olive oil
– 1/2 cup of vegetable stock
– pepper

Add the turnips, olive oil, and stock to a pan. Bring to a simmer and let simmer with a lid on for 5 minutes or until softened. This is a forgiving recipe, and one you can cook longer or shorter depending on the needs of the rest of the dinner’s dishes. Remove the lid and let the liquid boil off. Mark suggest the requisite pepper and salt to taste, which for me means a few cranks of the pepper grinder and no salt. Eat at once, and marvel at what a turnip can be.

Heirloom tomatoes: a taste test

rows of tomatoes

A stand at the Charlottesville farmers market on a recent Saturday – where does a tomato lover even begin?

The Charlottesville farmers markets are a rainbow of tomatoes right now, stripes laid out on benches of soft red, sunset yellow-pink, peach orange, neon green, purple-red.

I usually stare, googly-eyed, at the exotic mix, and then pick up anything basic red that’s $2 a pound and smells like a tomato – that tell-tale burst of nose-tickling aroma you never find in a grocery store stack.

While this amateur method has never steered me wrong, come a recent Saturday, we decided it was time. Time to try heirloom tomatoes.

First, what are heirloom tomatoes? A detective with only visual clues might think: any tomato with (1) a color other than classic red and (2) especially those bulbous oddities, shaped more like a squat mini pumpkin than a baseball and (3) priced above $2 a pound, into the $3 or $4 realm.

I would also add, which is just short of giving this entire taste-test experiment away, (4) an exquisite taste and color far more vivid than any supermarket variety.

Which is more like diagnosing an illness by its symptoms than understanding its essence. Not entirely helpful.

In actuality, heirloom is a fuzzy term for varieties that are open-pollinated (without human help) and have not been crossbred for more than 40 years. They can be family creations passed down through the generations, for example. And unlike supermarket hybrids, which are breed for portability, shelf longevity, and consistent shape and color, heirlooms spoil much quicker. All the more incentive to devour them immediately!

Plate of tomatoes

Our first round of tomato tasting. From the purple one, going clockwise: Carbon (purple), Golden Queen (yellow), Virginia Sweet (peach-yellow with rose tints), an unidentified pretty orange variety  (any ideas?), Brandywine (blush red), and a sad specimen that snuck in there and tasted like freezer-burned foam. We thought of it as the control group.

For our taste test, we bought a selection of heirloom tomatoes home and invited our friends Erin and Dave – wonderful gardeners themselves – to help us sample them. Here are thoughts on a few of our favorites:

Golden Queen

This lemonade-colored tomato, sliced below, has reportedly been around since the 1880s. We thought it was light, creamy, “like a summer day.” And possibly, we ventured, a nice pairing with goat cheese.

A Carbon tomato and a slice of the beautiful yellow Golden Queen

A Carbon tomato and a slice of the beautiful yellow Golden Queen

Carbon

This gorgeous purple-green variety, above, looks like nothing I’ve ever seen in a store. The inside glistens with more of the deep bruised maroon and an outline of kelly green. It tasted a bit acidic, rich, robust. This was the red-wine tomato of the samplings.

Brandywine

This is the most quintessential tomato of the set, the one I imagine is used as a model in creating children’s plastic toy food or the slice on a Burger King Whooper image in  larger-than-life ads.

The Brandywine, below, is exactly what you envision a tomato should be. It’s a love tomato, our taste-test friends pointed out, a tomato that begs for mayo and lettuce and a burger.

The stunning Brandywine

The stunning Brandywine

And our absolute favorite:

Virginia Sweet

A slice of Virginia Sweet

A slice of Virginia Sweet

The huge, squat beauties are a deep yellow with a rosy glow, especially pink on the bottom. As one seed supply company notes, ” This heirloom variety is simply one of the best tasting, best producing gold-red bicolors we have ever grown. On top of that, the tomatoes are stunningly beautiful and enormous, weighing at least 1 pound each.”

The flavor is luscious, nearly peach-like, with a vividness unsurpassed. A bite is so fresh and light, it feels like dipping in a swimming hole. Thick, meaty slices are made for sandwiches. And Virginia Sweets are simply exquisite – you can’t help but marvel at their prettiness.

The only drawback: You must eat them very quickly. Given a week to hang around, Virginia Sweets will descend into mushiness and their sublime sweetness will pass you by.

Guy Friddell, columnist and tomato lover, will be missed

tomatoes

When I started at The Virginian-Pilot as an intern, Guy Friddell was a faithful figure in the night newsroom cast. He was legendary for his thoughtful columns and his decades covering Virginia politics. I can still see him, frail by then, in his 80s, walking slowly through the newsroom on a quiet evening, framed by his oversized glasses and kindly smile.

By the time I arrived, his column focused more on tomatoes and Boomer the dog than Richmond politics. It was a highlight of my night to rim a Guy column, though I knew it might come with the challenge of writing a fresh 1-column headline on another vegetable laudation. I loved his gentle prose, poetic in a way rare to reporters.

Guy was generous to all, and the copy desk was no exception. He would tell his editor, even an uncertain intern young enough to be his granddaughter, how much she improved his column with the tiniest suggestion. He was humble, sweet, sincere. He gathered devoted followers and fans like no other columnist I know.

Guy was a Tidewater icon, an old-school newspaper writer, and a Southern gentleman.

Earl Swift has written a wonderful tribute to Guy, who passed away this past Sunday at 92.

Of course, it includes a section on tomatoes. No one loved the tomato like Guy.

Earl writes:

His attention often lingered on nature’s contributions to his diet. Columns celebrated the taste and texture of buttered corn on the cob, decried the indifference accorded to okra, referred to black-eyed peas as if old friends. Apples, peaches and plums, squash and strawberries, pumpkins, onions, leeks – if it grew, Friddell ate it, loved it, and wrote about it.

Two fruits held special rank in his heart and stomach. Scores of his columns enumerated the merits of the watermelon, instructed the reader on how to pick a good one, or featured one as a central player in the narrative.

His feelings for the tomato, however, bordered on exaltation.

“With spring coming and summer close behind, thoughts of tomatoes tend to occupy my mind,” he wrote in March 1998, a year in which his byline appeared over 10 columns praising his favorite fruit – a tally he matched in 1990 and 1991, and topped with 12 in 1995. “Improve the tomato?” he wrote another day. “How can one perfect perfection?”

Left to his own devices, Friddell might have lived on tomato sandwiches: “Has it crossed your mind,” he wrote in August 1994, “that to eat a tomato sandwich, as well as build it, is a work of art?

Marvelous Roasted Chicken

On the heels of a miserable post-winter cold monster, I’ve been craving comfort foods. Soup. Mac and cheese. Spaghetti. All serviceable. All edible. All have tamed the tissue-gnawing beast a bit.

But the blue-ribbon winner of the week? Roasted chicken.

Roasted chicken, done

Roasted chicken, carrots, onions, potatoes. Heaven on a Sunday evening.

That’s what I’ll be making again, even after my nose turns back to its normal color.

Roasting also feels like perfect weekend cooking. It’s a bit of prep, and then you get a lazy evening to relax as the aromas fill the house. And the leftover meat makes terrific sandwiches to take for lunch.

I think I sort of knew already, back in some dust-bunny crevice of my brain, that roasted chicken was a certifiable winner. That it’s one of those classic meals that gives you 10 times the return for the effort. It is so so so good. It is the kind of meal where you wonder, why in the world would we ever go out to a restaurant to eat? This is a $5 chicken and $2 worth of vegetables. And it’s fabulous!

There are a more or less a quadrillion ways to roast a chicken. The experts have their tips. Salt the chicken a day ahead. Let the chicken come to room temperature before roasting. Use a cast-iron skillet.

But, in the end, I turned to two standards: Ina Garten and Martha Stewart. And they seemed more or less in agreement on the critical bits:

1. Wash and dry – thoroughly – the chicken.

2. Salt and pepper the chicken skin.

3. Stuff some flavor magic in the cavity, like a half a lemon, a few cloves of garlic, some herbs, a half an onion.

4. Rub butter all over the chicken skin. If you have fresh herbs around, mash that into the butter first.

5. Place the chicken in the bottom of a roasting pan or something similar.

And then there’s my own rule:

6. Add vegetables.

This seems to be optional for the celeb chefs.

But not for me.

Roasted vegetables are delicious in their own right. But these vegetables? These vegetables cuddle around the chicken and cook in chicken juices. They soak up the most exquisite natural broth and grow caramelized and yet crisp. Dreamy. Seriously.

Pan of veggies

Veggies, ready for their chicken neighbor and the oven spa.

Even veggie haters need to consider this. Think of it as a veggie gateway.

Besides, why would you bother boiling or sauteing a side dish when you have extra space for rent around the bird? Do you have a secret game for making washing dishes fun?

If so, please share.

I advocate one pan for one dinner whenever humanly possible. (By the way, an official roasting pan isn’t essential. I used my all-purpose 9×13 Pyrex dish, and that worked fine.)

Here’s my recent recipe, but it’s really up for grabs. Swap the veggies with fennel, parsnips, or any root vegetable. Change out butter for olive oil. Nix the garlic. Make it exactly how you like it.

Marvelous Roasted Chicken

  • 1 whole chicken, 3-4 pounds (you can easily go bigger, just cook it longer and add more veggies as needed to fill your pan)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Butter
  • Fresh herbs (optional)
  • Dried herbs, like herbes de provence (optional)
  • 2 carrots
  • 6 small potatoes
  • 4 small onions
  • 1/2 lemon

Preheat the oven to 425F degrees or 210C.

Wash the chicken and dry it thoroughly. I used paper towels to pat it down.

Place the chicken in the middle of a baking pan with sides. Sprinkle salt and pepper all over the chicken.

If you have fresh herbs – oregano, basil, rosemary, dill, sage, etc. – mince up a few tablespoons and mash them into a few tablespoons of butter.

Using your freshly washed fingers, spread the butter, with or without herbs, all around the skin.

Sprinkle dried herbs all over the chicken.

Into the cavity – make sure it’s otherwise empty, no bag or giblets or anything – stuff a half a lemon and a small onion peeled and cut in half.

Chicken to be stuffed

Stuff the chicken with lemon, onion. Garlic and herbs are nice, if you like.

Peel the carrots and potatoes. Slice them up into carrot rods and potato chunks. Don’t make them too thin or small or they will cook quickly and burn. Peel and quarter the small onions. (Cut them into chunks if you only have large onions.)

Add the vegetables all around the chicken.

Drizzle the vegetables with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and herbes de provence. Toss the vegetables with your hands so the oil and seasonings get spread around.

Ready for the oven

You can tie the legs shut, but I didn’t bother. Turns out it’s a myth that trussing is essential. Though, if you want to tie it up, here’s a great video detailing how.

Pop the pan into the oven. After 15 or 20 minutes, check the oven. If the veggies are looking slightly too done already, turn down the oven to 400 or 375. (I had to do this.)

Cook for an hour (3-4 pounds) to an hour and a half (5-6 pounds).

Take the chicken out and let it rest for 10-15 minutes before cutting and serving. This seems ridiculous, but it’s the difference between a good bird and a succulent, moist, and memorable roasted chicken.

Have a marvelous weekend!