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photo: B.A. Nilsson

The Root of the Meal
By B.A. Nilsson

Root veggies prove that all that glitters does not grow above ground

Funny, in a way, that they’re called root vegetables, because they form so much of the foundation of a holiday meal. In some cases, it’s the only time you see some manner of rutabaga and turnip and beet on the table—but don’t forget that onions and garlic, carrots and potatoes are part of this family as well.

They’re the character actors of the dinner table. You may marvel at the flashy antics of the short-season stars, the lettuce and beans and even those first mustardy broccoli florets, but those wan, tough tubers are there for you meal after meal and never let you down.

This year’s Thanksgiving dinner at my house will feature a roasted beet salad with tarragon and chives, a tri-color casserole that alternates carrot and parsnip purées with a green column of peas for contrast, sweet potato pie and some manner of rutabaga because I feel obliged every year to figure out some way to make it toothsome.

Most of the veggies in question respond nicely to a preparation you already know well: boil chunks of them until tender, then mash them with butter, salt and pepper.

But the potato is the longtime star. According to the Random House Book of Vegetables, it is “without doubt the most important of all vegetables, and is at present (1993) the fourth most important food crop in the world.” It’s a cousin to deadly nightshade, and even its own fruit is worth avoiding. Mash the heated tuber with butter, however, and you’re talking culinary heaven.

In fact, the simplest and most satisfying mashed potato recipe is the one I dare you to make: it’s an emulsion of one part butter to one part potatoes, whipped carefully to avoid turning it gluey.

Here’s another approach to add richness to the tater, from Charlie Trotter’s Vegetables (Ten-Speed Press, 1996): Twice-Baked Yukon Gold Potatoes with White Alba Truffles.

Bake four Yukon gold potatoes at 375 degrees until soft (45-60 minutes). After they’re cool, cut off and discard (or munch on) the top third of each potato, sliced lengthwise. Scoop out the insides, leaving behind a quarter-inch or so for support. Mix what you scooped with 1/4 cup heavy cream, two tablespoons chopped fresh herbs like chives and parsley, four tablespoons white truffle oil and a half-cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Refill the potato shells and bake at 350 degrees for another 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve with a drizzle of truffle oil and some white truffle slices.

The day before Thanksgiving, as I’m making the soup and whatever side dishes benefit from having flavors blend overnight, I roast a few heads of garlic. These go into mashed potatoes, turkey stuffing, anything that can benefit from its aromatic sweetness. And you can squeeze it directly onto a slice of crusty bread for a better-than-butter spread.

Slice the tops off a couple of garlic heads and peel away loose skin layers. Arrange the heads in an oven-proof dish and moisten them with olive oil. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes—look for them to be little brown on top.

Miraval Spa executive chef Cary Neff gives a wonderful recipe for Fava Bean Roasted Garlic and Truffle Potato Patties in his book Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002): Boil 1½ cups of fava beans for 2 minutes; transfer the beans to ice water and save the hot water to boil 1½ cups of baked potatoes for one minute. Peel the fava beans, and add 3/4 cup of them to the warm potatoes.

Combine an additional 1½ cups of cold baked potatoes with the rest of the fava beans. Send the warm potato-bean combo through a ricer or food mill into the cold mixture. Stir in 1 cup vegetable stock, 1 tsp. chopped parsley, 1/4 cup truffle oil and salt and pepper to taste.

Form the mix into patties (1/4 cup per patty) and cook them on a medium-hot griddle until golden, about three minutes per side.

A garlic variation is the confit described in Thomas Keller’s gorgeous new book Bouchon (Artisan, 2004), a
follow-up to his French Laundry Cookbook, but this time concentrating on bistro fare. He describes garlic confit as a great flavoring device “for everything from shellfish to mashed potatoes, or to be stirred into a soup or spread on a baguette for a tartine.”

Start with a cup of peeled garlic cloves (about 45), and cover them in a small saucepan with enough canola oil to top them by an inch. Cook (over a diffuser) over medium-high heat for about 40 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so. Cool and refrigerate.

Keller also addresses the importance of glazing, “a great technique (which) may be the perfect way to cook root vegetables.” Begin with the shape, which should be about an inch and a half long and a half-inch wide. Cooking time varies with the size and the vegetable, but you want them to simmer in an inch of water with a teaspoon of sugar and a pat of butter. “The aim is to have your vegetables three-quarters cooked by the time the water level is reduced to about half their height.” Turn up the heat so that the rest of the water boils away quickly while you keep the vegetables in motion. “When the liquid is gone, the vegetables are done.”

You can’t judge the seasons by the supermarket produce shelves any more, but that also means that root vegetables can gain a more prominent year-round place on the menu. However, they still offer the defining moments of any holiday meal, and their colors, to me, are the defining colors of autumn and winter.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp, authors of The Book Club Cookbook, will be at the Schenectady County Public Library (Clinton and Liberty Streets, Schenectady) from noon-5 PM Sunday, Oct. 17, to discuss and sign their book. The event is a fund-raiser for the Capital Campaign to expand the downtown library to include a new children’s center, gallery and performance space. Samples of food made by area restaurants from The Book Club Cookbook recipes will be offered for sale. Gelman and Krupp interviewed book-club members all over the country to see what they were reading and eating; the result is a collection of 100 entries, each focusing on a literary masterpiece. . . . The Hudson Valley Council of Girl Scouts will hold its third annual Cookie Cuisine event from 6-9 PM Tue, Oct. 26 at the Italian-American Community Center (Washington Ave. Ext., Albany). Honorary Chair Carmine Sprio, Ric Orlando and a host of talented culinary teams take on the challenge of preparing gourmet entrées and desserts using Girl Scout cookies. This year’s participants include the Arlington House, Aromi D’Italia, Capital District EOC, Carmine’s, Crowne Plaza, Magnolia’s, New World Home Cooking, Real Seafood, SUNY Cobleskill and 333 Café. Tickets are $35; pony up $75 and you’ll be part of the honorary committee. For reservations, call Sharon Smith 489-8110, ext. 105. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com)


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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