Monday, 2 April 2012

Underground vegetables

Common old root vegetables are often thought of as a rather unglamorous bunch but rarely as culinary stars in their own right. Let me show you that this doesn’t have to be the case, as richly flavoured root vegetables can be highlighted in many outstanding ways.

To take full advantage of what these underground vegetables have to offer I like to use them in just about every possible manner. One of the remarkable features of root vegetable cookery is that it can encompass the entire range of cooking methods from boiling, steaming, baking, grilling and frying to braising and roasting. As an example in innovation, I’ve cooked these slow braised lamb shanks in vibrantly spiced carrot juice, instead of stock, and scattered baby carrot and turnips around the meat to create a whole meal.

Consider a twice-cooked creamy gratin: a medley of very thinly sliced celeriac, carrots, potatoes and parsnips, layered with ham or spicy sausage, drenched in stock or cream, and baked until golden brown. This is a great way to let root vegetables claim centre stage.

Infinitely versatile, root vegetables can take on many shapes and guises. They can be grated, chopped, minced, sliced, diced, juiced or pureed, or left whole to shine in all their glory. I’ll include root vegetables in everything from salads, stews, soups, breads, scones and even the odd dessert or cake, such as rich, moist Carrot Cake. Carrots have an extremely high natural sugar content so they are perfect as the main player in this cake.

Soup is one of my favourite habitats for root vegetables. I adore my celeriac soup; it’s as sumptuous and smooth as silk. Celeriac is available in the colder months (that’s soon) and while it looks rather bumpy and ugly it has a flavour that is deliciously unique.

When celeriac is not available, I will exchange nutty tasting Jerusalem artichokes (also a limited season), or parsnips (available all year round) for the celeriac to create different versions of this favourite soup. If truffle oil is a bit beyond you, then a dollop of basil pesto, which melts invitingly into this creamy soup, is just as heavenly.

Chef’s tip: Root vegetables lend themselves beautifully to purees. Boil or roast until tender your chosen vegetable, such as beetroots, carrots or parsnips. Blend to a smooth puree in a food processor with a clove or two of garlic, if desired, and lots of extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot as a side dish or cold as a dip or spread or as a salad or antipasto.

1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
500g celeriac, peeled and roughly chopped
500g (about 3 large) mashing potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
6 cups vegetable or chicken stock or water
½ cup cream cheese
sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
truffle oil, to serve (optional) or quality extra virgin olive oil
toasted pine nuts and chopped parsley, to garnish
1 Heat a large saucepan, add oil and butter to melt, then onion and garlic and cook for 10 minutes over a gentle heat until softened but not coloured. Add celeriac, potatoes and stock or water and bring to the boil. Simmer until vegetables are tender.
2 Puree mixture in a blender or food processor – this may need to be done in several batches. Add a little cream cheese to each batch and blend until smooth.
3 Season well to taste with salt and white pepper. Gently reheat to serve hot but do not boil or the soup may split. Serve drizzled with truffle oil or olive oil if desired and garnish with a sprinkling of pine nuts and parsely.
Serves 6