My hostess' kitchen filled with the aroma of rosemary and garlic as I removed the cover from my platter. Guests gathered around the buffet table and were soon relishing the plate of roasted winter vegetables. I didn't breathe a word as they helped themselves to more turnips; given its bad reputation, I'm sure few realized what they were eating. I couldn't help thinking what a far cry this was from the dreaded boiled root vegetables I had pushed around my plate as a child.
My love affair with winter vegetables is still fairly new. I have long been enamored of summer fare like tomatoes and corn, but pan-roasted parsnips, baked beets and raw baby turnips have been a long time coming. They were worth the wait. Part of my reliance on summer fare stems from my childhood struggles with winter vegetables. They had always been boiled and never had much in the way of seasonings.
But a lot, I'm sure, was due to the fact that for modern Americans the seasonality of vegetables has become a blur--and it was years before I became disenchanted with an endless summer of anemic tomato and lettuce salads. Thanks to today's chefs, who are emphasizing quality local produce enjoyed in season, I have learned to shun the inferior quality of out-of-season produce and have begun exploring a wonderful array of high quality winter fare.
Throughout the country, grocery stores have displays filled with winter vegetables, but even more choices are available to home gardeners. These fortunate ones relish the cylindrical red beets and yellow ones, too. Also in favor are small white Japanese turnips that are eaten raw and rutabagas that turn orange when cooked. Chefs often select the baby root vegetables. Gardeners have the luxury of growing the huge, dense sweet carrots, rolling pin-sized leeks and giant beets and turnips.
With the cornucopia of winter vegetables, we are rediscovering many of the old traditional recipes. But we also have a feast of new ideas from which to choose.
BEETS -- Beets in the grocery store are usually red and about two inches across. But beets can also be orange or white, or red with pink and white rings inside like the Italian Chioggia. Beets can range in size from the little 1-inch babies to some old-fashioned varieties that can grow 10 inches across. Most beet varieties are round, but there are also cylindrical ones that make uniform slices that are great for pickling.
Beets are one of the sweetest vegetables -- after all, they're related to the sugar beet. When preparing beets, wash them and remove the green tops, being sure to leave about an inch of stem connected. Then cook the beets whole. Don't throw the greens away; they are delicious cooked quickly in a covered pan with just the water which remains after washing.
If the beet skins are tough, peel the beets after cooking. Rubbing the hot beets under cold running water for a few seconds will take the skin right off. Rubber gloves will protect your hands. The bright red beets bleed into other foods so they are often cooked separately. Yellow and white beets need no such treatment.
Flavors that combine well with beets are onion, lemon, nutmeg, cucumber, cream and vinegars of all types. A truly classic dish is pickled beets. Chef Jesse Cool of Flea Street Restaurant in Menlo Park, Calif., likes to add hard-cooked eggs to the pickled beets a few hours before serving. The egg whites turn a bright magenta. Cool also uses raw grated beets in her salads.
Beets were a staple for Colonial cooks who would put the large ones, called "keepers," in the coals to bake. This made them sweet, juicy and smoky. In summer, it's easy to approximate this cooking method by rubbing the beets with oil and putting them on the barbecue. In winter, beets are wonderful baked in the oven. For eons, Russian and German cooks have made a hearty borscht from large, meaty beets, and Italian cooks serve beets on antipasto plates and combine them with ricotta cheese to fill ravioli.
CARROTS -- The familiar carrot is invaluable. Available all year round, carrots are often sweeter in cold weather. To prepare carrots, wash and peel the medium to large ones. Small carrots or those being grated often need no peeling. The standard long orange carrots show up in recipes as varied as soups and cakes, they add sweetness to stews and stir-fries and can be grated and added raw to salads and sandwiches. The young tender carrot tops can be used to make a traditional French cream soup.
Cool pickles carrots with chiles, makes a carrot salsa and uses carrots in a fresh thyme timbale served with roast duck. Other flavors that combine well with carrots are mint, chervil, garlic, onion, orange, parsley, cinnamon, vinegar and dill.