Last week's warm weather got me thinking about playing outdoors, gardening and shopping at farmers markets.
But until spring arrives next month, I'll be staying indoors and trying to think of ways to jazz up our family meals. Fortunately, I found one.
A news release from About.com captured my attention when the website's local-food expert, Molly Watson, mentioned winter's white vegetables.
"We all know we're supposed to 'eat a rainbow' — fruits and vegetables in lots of different colors — to get great nutrition, and it's an excellent guideline," she said. "Yet in the process of promoting variety, less colorful vegetables have sometimes taken on a bum rap. In the depths of winter, there is a variety of creamy white winter vegetables that can be lovely and delicious."
In a telephone interview from her home in San Francisco, Watson said that sometimes, eating seasonally in the winter is forgotten about.
"I love winter vegetables. They're my favorite," she said. "What I like about them is what they have in common: they are all white. Putting chicken, cauliflower and potatoes together sounds delicious to me, but it doesn't look good."
Even in Kentucky, we can buy local winter vegetables at Lexington Farmers Market, which is open on Saturdays this winter at Cheapside Park. Local farmers have parsnips this week, market director Jeff Dabbelt said.
Here's a look at the seven white winter vegetables that are plentiful this time of year in supermarkets.
Because cauliflower is something of a blank canvas, it absorbs flavors well, according to Tara Duggan, author of Root to Stalk Cooking, The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable (Ten Speed Press, $22).
"The conventional way to cook cauliflower is to remove the floret from the less tender stalk at the core," Duggan writes. "But that means losing a fairly large and completely edible chunk of the vegetable, including the edible leaves that are often attached, which have a flavor similar to cabbage, but less pronounced. The stalk actually has a satisfyingly dense texture, and to take advantage of this quality, you can cut clear through the head to create steak-like cauliflower pieces."
This recipe, from Root to Stalk, uses cauliflower cut crosswise into 1/2-inch "steaks."
Pan-roasted cauliflower steaks with tomatoes and capers
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes
1/2 head cauliflower, cut into steaks, plus any leaves
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons capers (soaked in water if salted), drained
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley (optional)
To prepare cauliflower steaks and leaves, first remove the outer leaves from the cauliflower and trim the very bottom of the stalk. Place upright and use a large knife to cut through florets and stalk, making 1/2-inch thick slices. If the leaves are large, remove the ribs and cook them separately, and longer, than the leaves.
Heat olive oil in a large cast-iron frying pan over medium heat. Add garlic and red chile flakes and swirl until fragrant. Add the cauliflower steaks in a single layer, and any extra cauliflower pieces, making sure they all touch the pan. Season to taste with salt.
Cook the steaks without turning until caramelized, about 8 minutes, then flip and cook until browned on the bottom and tender, 8 to 10 more minutes. During the last few minutes, add the cauliflower leaves, tomatoes, and capers, and cook until the tomatoes and leaves wilt. Adjust the seasoning with salt, scatter with parsley, and serve immediately.
Makes 2 servings.
Celery root, also known as celeriac, is just what its name indicates be: the root of the celery plant. This ugly brown hairball of a vegetable has a mild, celery-like flavor, with a starchy, rather potato-like texture, according to Watson. Freshly harvested celery root is sometimes sold with the stalks and leaves attached.
This recipe from The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook by Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman (Workman Publishing, $22.95) can be served as a main course or as an appetizer with a garlicky mayonnaise.
Celery root cutlets
2 large celery roots, each at least 1 pound
1/4 cup whole-wheat flour
2 large eggs, well beaten
1 cup fine dry bread crumbs
6 tablespoons butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
Fill a medium-large saucepan halfway with water and bring it to a boil. While the water is heating, trim, peel, and scrub the celery roots. Before they have a chance to brown, slice them into 1/2-inch thick rounds and drop the rounds into the boiling water. (If they must sit a while before cooking, float them in a bowl of cold water to which you have added 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar.)
Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer the celery root until it is just tender when pricked gently with the tip of a small knife, 8 to 10 minutes.
While the celery root is cooking, prepare three shallow bowls: one containing the flour, one with the eggs and one with the bread crumbs.
Drain the celery root, and while the rounds are still warm, dip each one in the flour to coat both sides, then in the egg, and then in the crumbs. Set them aside in a single layer on a large plate or sheet of wax paper.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the foam subsides, use a spatula to gently place the breaded rounds in the skillet. (Do this in two batches if needed.) Sauté them on both sides until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes a side. As you remove each round, set it on a warmed platter.
Makes 4 servings as a side dish.
Daikon, an Asian radish, is very large and is often sold cut into pieces. It's ivory white and mild, and it's especially common in Japanese and Korean cuisines.
"Its snap and crunch make it a great addition to salads, whether thinly sliced so it's crispy or cut into chunks so it's crunchy," Watson said.
"I've always enjoyed daikon simply peeled and thinly sliced, but here its sharp flavor is mellowed and crisp texture is softened" in this soup recipe.
1 ounce dried mushrooms
4 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 large daikon
1 stalk celery
8 ounces silken tofu
Optional garnishes of minced cilantro, chile oil, toasted sesame oil, finely chopped green onions
Put the mushrooms in a small bowl or measuring cup and pour 1/2 cup boiling water over them. Let soak 15 minutes. Lift mushrooms out of the water, rubbing them clean of any grit as you do. Roughly chop the mushrooms and set aside. Reserve the soaking liquid.
Meanwhile, bring the broth to a simmer. Peel the daikon, thinly slice it and add to the broth. Trim and thinly slice the celery, and add that too. Cook until the vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Cut tofu into small cubes or thin slices. Add the tofu and the reserved mushrooms to the pot. Add reserved soaking liquid, being careful to leave any grit behind. Cook, simmering, until everything is heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Divide between 4 bowls and garnish, if you like. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
"Endive is only white because it's grown in the dark. It's true," Watson said. "Traditionally, the plants were covered with sand to keep them white. Now they're grown in warehouses. They add a nice bright crunch to salads but are, in my humble opinion, at their best when braised. In any case, they bring scads of vitamin A along for the ride."
To avoid discoloration, according to Cook's Illustrated, don't cut the endive far in advance of cooking. Delicate endive can fall apart easily if not handled gently. Move the halved endive in the pan by grasping the curved sides gingerly with tongs and supporting the cut sides with a spatula while lifting and turning. You will need a skillet with a tight-fitting lid for this Cook's Illustrated recipe.
Braised Belgian endive
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
4 Belgian endive, medium sized (about 4 ounces each), wilted or bruised outer leaves discarded and each endive halved lengthwise
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley leaves
Ground black pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons butter in 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat; when foam subsides, sprinkle sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt evenly over skillet and set endive, cut sides down, in a single layer. Cook, shaking skillet occasionally to prevent sticking, and adjusting burner if browning too quickly, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Turn endive over and cook until curved sides are golden brown, about 3 minutes longer. Carefully turn endive cut sides down. Add wine, broth and thyme; reduce heat to low, cover skillet tightly, and simmer, checking occasionally and adding 2 tablespoons water if pan appears dry, 13 to 15 minutes, until leaves open up slightly and endive are tender throughout when pierced with tip of paring knife. Transfer endive to warmed serving platter; set aside.
Increase heat to medium-high to bring liquid in skillet to boil; simmer until reduced to syrupy consistency, 1 to 2 minutes. Off heat, whisk in remaining tablespoon butter, lemon juice and parsley. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, spoon sauce over endive, and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
Parsnips might look like white carrots, but they have a distinct flavor all their own, Watson said. Parsnips tend to develop a tough core, so be sure to trim that out. To see a Cook's Illustrated video on how to cut out the core, go to http://bit.ly/1bPF2NH.
We don't need to sing the praises of the potato. Most of us buy them for everything from baking to mashing.
This recipe from Clean Food by Terry Walters (Sterling Epicure, $30) calls for parsnips, potatoes and celery root.
Sweet and savory root vegetable stew
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
6 shallots, diced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
2 parsnips, peeled and diced
2 medium rutabagas, peeled and diced
2 turnips, peeled and diced
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 celery root, peeled and diced
1 fennel bulb, halved, cored and diced (save fronds for garnish)
1 cinnamon stick
Ume plum vinegar (available in international aisle at supermarkets)
In large pot over medium heat, sauté shallots and ginger in oil 5 minutes or until soft. Add parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, sweet potatoes, celery root, fennel and cinnamon stick. Add enough stock to barely cover vegetables, bring to boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer 25 minutes.
Remove from heat, discard cinnamon stick and gently purée soup 3 seconds, using handheld blender to slightly thicken liquid and blend flavors. Season to taste with a few dashes of vinegar. Garnish with fennel fronds and serve.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
According to Watson, winter turnips tend to be bigger and hotter in flavor, and a bit tougher around the edges. Turnips are a root vegetable commonly associated with potatoes or beets, but their closest relatives are radishes and arugula, which are members of the mustard family.
Roasting mellows the sometimes sharp flavor of turnips and concentrates their texture into a tender, melting vegetable in this easy recipe from Watson.
2 pounds turnips
1 tablespoon olive oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Trim and peel the turnips. Leave baby turnips whole; cut larger turnips into large-ish bite-size pieces. Put turnips into a baking pan. Drizzle with olive oil. Use your hands or two large spoons to toss the turnips to coat them thoroughly with the oil. Sprinkle with salt. Roast turnips until tender and browned, start checking on them after about 30 minutes. Depending on the size and age of the turnips, it might take an hour or more to get them completely tender.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.