Heat and Serve

The evolutionary biologist (and outspoken atheist) Richard Dawkins theorizes that the act of applying heat to food was what enabled our early ancestors to gain the nutrients to evolve. Cooking, in other words, is what makes us human.

I hadn’t thought much about this idea until a few months ago, when I found myself trying to explain the intricacies of cooking on Shabbos. I won’t go into exacting detail here; entire books have been written, and degrees have been earned, about the process. But the person I was helping was absolutely fascinated with the idea that, in according to Jewish law, applying heat to raw ingredients actually creates a new substance, which is forbidden. That’s what cooking is: the application of heat to create something new.

I roasted some root vegetables at my parents’ house earlier this week, and my mom asked what I had added to the mix. “Nothing,” I replied. “It was just olive oil and salt. And, I added heat.” I had taken raw, inedible parsnips and potatoes, added heat, and created a spectacular side dish. In college, I used to create a marinade for my roasted roots, with things like tamari and balsamic vinegar, which created a savory crust to the vegetables.

This simple recipe from Melissa Clark’s newest, Cook This Now, is the perfect example of the application of heat to create something entirely new and unexpected. A simple rutabaga, which I learned this year from Ottolenghi can be spectacular raw, has been cooked this time into a warm dish for a cold night. And it’s cheap; today at Russo’s, rutabagas were 29 cents a pound. Granted, maple syrup is expensive, but I get mine at Ocean State Job Lot for a fraction of what it would cost elsewhere.

Roasted Rutabagas with Maple Syrup and Chile from Cook This Now by Melissa Clark

Ingredients

1 ½ pounds rutabagas, peeled and cut into ¾ inch cubes

2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 Tablespoon maple syrup

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Directions

Preheat oven to 400F.

In a large bowl, combine the rutabagas, oil, maple syrup, salt and cayenne; toss well to combine. Spread the rutabagas in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Roast, tossing occasionally, until the rutabagas are tender and dark golden, about 40 minutes.

Clark adds that if you’re not a rutabaga person to feel free to use whatever root vegetables you are enjoying at the moment.

The Silver Lining

This past June, on the way to my cousin’s baby shower, I got lost. Really, really lost. Like, call my parents on a Sunday morning slightly hysterical lost. Like, call Rich the morning after a bachelor party while he’s eating at IHOP lost. The worst part was I had a GPS, but the road I would have normally taken was being worked on, and every time I turned on the GPS to lead me north, it directed me back to the closed-off highway. By some miracle, I made it to the shower on-time, although I now know that GPS and cellphone reception between Lowell, MA, and southern New Hampshire is a bit spotty in places.

The silver lining to the story is that while I was in the car, NPR’s Weekend Edition introduced me to Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli-born chef now working in London, whose new vegetarian cookbook, Plenty, has become a smash hit this year. Vegetarian and Israeli — basically, a cookbook written for me. My friend Sara tells me that when she lived in London in 2005 she went to his restaurant all the time, but was always surprised that he had so little name recognition in the States.

As soon as I made it back from the shower, I put my name on the waiting list at the library. There were about two dozen people ahead of me, and as his recipes started popping up on blogs I read, I needed to remind myself that patience is a virtue. Last week, I received the notice that the book was waiting for me at my local branch around the corner. I was so excited. It was my turn, finally. Mine, mine, mine.

Except, not unlike the GPS debacle, the book the librarian handed me wasn’t Plenty, but his first cookbook, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, written in 2008. Well, I told myself, a top chef still has top recipes, even if they aren’t the ones I was counting on. So I decided to make lemonade out of lemons — or, in Ottolenghi’s case, preserved lemons — and dove in.

It’s always interesting reading a cookbook from another country because it’s a reminder that there’s a whole lot of world outside of my home. I knew that courgettes were zucchini and aubergines were eggplants, but I had no idea that snow peas were called mangetout, or that I actually had a swede — aka a yellow turnip, aka a rutabaga — in my crisper. I also had celeriac, (celery root) in the house as well, a cast-off from my officemate’s CSA.

The recipe I have for you today, a celery root and rutabaga slaw, is just perfect for these late autumn/almost winter months, and makes me wish these veggies were year-round produce. I’d never considered eating rutabaga raw, as I usually roast or braise them. And boy, have I been missing out! Seriously, the dish is extraordinary. Rich said it was one of the better things I’ve made lately. Not that I’ve been serving him swill; it’s just a really amazing salad.

Here’s what Ottolenghi has to say about this dish:

It is a bit like a rémoulade in its tang, but also has multilayered sweet (dried cherries) and savoury (capers) flavours to create a magnificently intense accompaniment to fish or lamb. It will also make a great addition to a vegetarian mezze.

Variations on this dish are endless. Try using kohlrabi, beetroot, turnip, carrot or cabbage, or a combination of them for this salad. Most soft herbs would suit, and don’t forget the acidity from citrus juice or vinegar to lighten it up.

I always have capers in the house, and I keep dried cherries from Ocean State Job Lot on hand in the pantry at all times, making this a great pantry recipe. I’ve made this dish twice in a five day period, and that’s without my large food processor. If you do have a food processor, this whips up in a jiff; if you don’t, I promise you it’s worth the extra effort. I didn’t have any sunflower oil on hand, so I used olive oil exclusively for the salad. I also used regular sugar in lieu of caster sugar. The slaw was still wonderful.

Don’t be scared of the ugly celery root. Give it a rinse to get some of the dirt off, and stand it up on the cutting board and cut the skin off by slicing down the sides of the bulb with a large sharp knife. You can cut the waxy skin off the rutabaga in the same manner.

The recipe is in grams, so my digital scale got quite the workout this week. I’ve converted it into ounces and cups for a more Continental-friendly audience, but the grams are the original measure and most accurate.

Sweet and sour celeriac and swede (aka Sweet and sour celery root and rutabaga) from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook

Serves 4-6

250g (9 oz., 1 1/2 cup) celeriac, peeled and thinly shredded

250g (9 oz., 1 1/2 cup) swede, peeled and thinly shredded

4 Tablespoons roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley

4 Tablespoons roughly chopped dill

50g (2 oz., 1/3 cup) capers, drained and roughly chopped

4 Tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 large lemon)

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

4 Tablespoons olive oil

4 Tablespoons sunflower oil

3 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 teaspoons caster sugar

100g (3.5 oz., 1/2 cup) dried sour cherries

Salt and black pepper

  1. Place the shredded celeriac and swede in a mixing bowl. Add all the rest of the ingredients and use your hands to mix everything together thoroughly. ‘Massaging’ the vegetables a little will help them absorb the flavors. Taste and add salt and pepper to your liking You might also want to add some extra sugar and vinegar.
  2. Allow the salad to sit for an hour so the flavors can evolve. It will keep for up to 2 days in the fridge. Add more herbs just before serving, for a fresher look.

A Taste of Date-Honey

Rich and I have been together for a few years now, so when I say things like, “Wow, this would be perfect for Tu BiShvat,” as I did last month, he just smiles and takes another serving.

Tu BiShvat, or the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shvat, is the new year for the trees. It falls on January 20th this year. It’s a holiday with a practical origin. Ancient Israelites were required to tithe from fruit trees three years of age or older, and Tu BiShvat was used as the official cut-off date.

Today, Tu BiShvat marks the beginning of springtime in Israel, and Jews celebrate it by hosting kabbalah-inspired seders and eating the seven fruits and grains named in Deuteronomy as the main produce of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. (I also remember gnawing on pieces of dried carob, or buksur, when I was a little girl. I had no idea why, but if you’re interested, I found this very helpful.)

I hadn’t set out to make a dish for the holiday. What happened was this: I became totally enamored with the rutabaga, aka golden turnip, last month. I would steam one and eat it for breakfast. Underneath its sharpness I could taste a sweetness that’s almost floral. Wanting to draw out that flavor, I headed to the dried fruit section of my pantry. (Yes, dried fruit: an unsung hero of the pantry. A handful of raisins or cranberries can really brighten any dish.)

After a  little digging, I decided on the date. Looking back, I realize I must have been inspired by a grilled turnip and dates dish I had at the Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia this past summer. The tasting menu was an incredibly reasonable $36, an unbelievably low price considering the amount and quality of the food. If you have seen a tasting menu at a lower price, please please please let me know. I must emphasize that this restaurant is Israeli but not kosher. They do serve meat, but dairy eaters and vegetarians will still walk away with a very full belly.

Anyhow, my guess was right, as the date really enhances the fruitiness of rutabagas, while the bit of thyme here plays up its floral quality. The soft medjool dates are used here as they are in biblical texts, cooked down to make a kind of date-honey.

Rutabaga with Dates and Thyme

One rutabaga, peeled and diced

One small onion, peeled, halved and sliced thin

Four dates, pitted and chopped

Five sprigs of thyme

1/2 cup of stock

2 tablespoons butter

Salt to taste

Directions

Melt butter in a medium-sized saucepan on a medium-low heat. Sweat the onions with a few pinches of salt until they’re soft and near translucent, about nine minutes. Add the chopped dates and stir until they have melted down and coated the onions. Stir in the rutabaga. Add the half cup of stock, give a stir, and cover for about 50 minutes, until the rutabaga’s flesh is easily pierced with a fork. Stir in the leaves of thyme, cook for a minute or two longer and serve.