I am unabashedly fond of the Ugly Betty ingredients of the food world. Not literally ugly, but like Betty, unpopular and misunderstood. Maybe even a little kooky. As we enter this season of earthy foods, I'm feeling like it's time to put some of these underappreciated gems in the spotlight.
Brussels sprouts can be found on a lot more menus these days, especially among the small plate crowd. But, I often hear people say they "hate" them. So, I'll ask them if they'll try mine. After scrunching their nose, they taste, and then the light goes on. "They're not all CRUNCHY like my mom used to make!" Very often a lot of the unsung veggies whose virtues I am about to sing are improperly prepared.
Cooking good Brussels sprouts is a two-step process; first, they need to be boiled vigorously in lots of extra salty water. I prefer to cut them in half before I blanch them. It helps them cook faster, more evenly and readies them for the next stage, searing the sprouts. Pat these little guys dry after you've pulled them out of the ice bath, and put them in a nice, hot skillet or pan, cut side down, with some whole butter. First, they're gonna steam and hiss at you. Then, they'll start to crackle letting you know the butter is browning them nicely. Take a little peek; when they're golden brown, turn 'em over for a minute or two to warm the back side; salt and/or pepper if necessary.
That's the simple version. The better, more delicious version includes adding smoky bacon at the beginning of the browning stage. Mmmmmm- baaa-con. The lardons of bacon, or fat little strips, should brown up at the same time as the sprouts. So that's good; but wanna make it even better? This week at the restaurant we're serving an appetizer of Brussels sprouts and bacon, but we're adding to the mix some house-made crispy duck confit and tossing the whole shootin' match with lentils. Yeah. It's like that.
Celery doesn't really generate the "ick" factor among people, but it does suffer from the misunderstood veggies complex. Yes, that's a bonafide medical term, BTW. Yet, it's versatility of flavor seems limitless. If you're cooking anything with a liquid base, like a soup, stew or braise, celery is in there along with carrots and onions- called mire poix- because it creates a crucial backbone to the dish. When you break out of the box and start putting it in your tomato sauce, for example, which when used with say, a Bolognese preparation, the flavor elevates like you can't believe. It's aroma is exotic, almost curry-like. I've also started incorporating raw celery into dishes. Salad is the most obvious; it excels in texture and the "fresh" factor. Added to any mixture of cabbage to create a slaw, it is essential. And, the tiny leaves that accompany the hearts of celery are both pungent and vibrant in any form of dish, cooked or uncooked.
If you're not into "earthy", it's unlikely you'll become a beet fan, no matter how many tips I give you for preparing them. But, when I was first learning about the components of foods, i.e. proteins, starches, sugars, acids, etc., a lot of bells went off for me. There are natural sugars in almost all foods, especially vegetables, but how you coax them out is the key. For beets, I prefer to roast them. Roasting is the process of using a slow, steady dry heat to cook a food. So, if you follow this logic of roasting a vegetable naturally rich in sugars, you're going to eventually remove some of it's moisture, thereby intensifying the sugars. Roasting beets in their jackets on a bed of salt is my favorite method for enjoying these, the most nerdy of all vegetables.
The salt becomes a softer heat source than a metal roasting pan, and as such, doesn't burn the side of the beet that comes in contact with the hot pan. It also precipitates the reduction of moisture and helps the beets cook faster. But, enough of the scientific; what roasted beets contribute to a dish in terms of flavor is nothing short of brilliant. I've had beets and corn that are similarly sweet and flavorful. When you have a flavor component so vibrant, you can begin to pair it with equally vibrant components. It's this reason that beets pair so well with brutish cheeses like bleu and chevre. Sweet-creamy-earthy-pungent is just one of those unlikely, yet heavenly combos that work. After that, it's just variations on a theme. Replace sweet for sweet. Dabble a little in what is fresh; for example, herbs like basil or tarragon. Or, walk the line on your choice of cheeses in this scenario and you'll be delighted in what you discover.
The same concept of accentuating a food's sugars to produce more flavor can apply to my next wallflower, the parsnip. This little albino carrot packs what has to be the most unique flavor profile of all root vegetables. As with all roots, roasting can provide some of the most satisfying results. Ever had a killer pork roast without potatoes, carrots and onions? The slow, dry heat is the key. Adding parsnips to the mix is the icing on your savory cake. Anywhere you would use a carrot, go for a parsnip. In soups, the simple addition of diced parsnips leaves people asking, "what was that flavor??" Boiled, pureed and whipped into mashed potatoes is one of the most revelatory "first" food experiences you can have. Mounds of pureed potatoes and parsnips with lumps of creamy, rich butter and a dusting of white pepper leaves me swooning for Thanksgiving in March. As a simple puree soup with a hint of truffle- STOP IT.
So, what about my last ingenue de les legumes, les navet, or turnip. As a rule, the smaller a vegetable, the more concentrated the flavor. It's for this reason that a variety of turnip known as the Tokyo turnip is a favorite among chefs. Go ahead- Google Tokyo turnip Images and see how many shots you get from tasting menus and wine dinners in elite and aspiring restaurants. Why more popular? Simple- the smaller variety is first, more appealing to the eye than the baseball sized purple variety. Second, the sugars are more concentrated, so when cooking, the flavor is more intense. I used to braise these little buggers in chicken stock, butter and whole vanilla bean. DAMN, COUSIN! Talk about flavor! They make great accompaniments to lamb and other gamy flavors where a natural sweetness creates balance. A properly cooked mushroom does the same thing. Shaved, raw turnip on an appetizer or salad is a more mild substitution for a radish; earthy without the spice. So, love thy turnip, yo.
Thus ends my defense of the downtrodden of all the food chain. (Well, not ALL the food chain- we aren't talking muskrat, here). If you've eaten my cooking, you've likely had most of these Ugly Bettys, and you've likely enjoyed them, too. So, next time you're thinking about eating or cooking them, don't turnip your nose at them. (No he dittn't). Embrace your inner Betty and walk on the Ugly Side.