They lie unwanted in the back of the fridge. Dirty, shapeless and forgotten. Tubers – they usually meet their end in a broth bath, where all of their complex sweetness seeps out into the water. After that, they embrace their miserable fate. However, they can be used in many other ways.
The editors of “Przekrój” asked me to write my own food column in order to shed light on the usefulness of widely available and usually underappreciated foods. We prefer chia seeds, avocado, goji berries, hemp seeds and quinoa, little miracles imported from abroad that marketing specialists have labelled as superfoods – products of outstanding nutritional value. Yet we also have such foods in Poland, like those tubers we keep in the back of the fridge.
People tend not to appreciate what they have until it’s gone. In the age of industrial agriculture and globalization, sticking to the rhythm of the seasons is a cliché. In theory, we all know which fruits and vegetables are in season at different times of the year. Rhubarb in April, asparagus in May, blueberry buns in July. Pumpkins are harvested in autumn, alongside aubergines and Brussels sprouts, then comes the drought and the long wait for the first strawberries, which taste of summer. But this calendar does not affect supermarkets. Almost everything we crave remains in stock all year round. If we miss bursting, sun-kissed tomatoes, we can satisfy our craving with small cherry tomatoes that taste like fruit drops. The very thought that not so long ago stores weren’t stocked as well as today is frightening. Historically speaking, this time of the year was the Hungry Gap; at the end of the winter, food would grow scarce, and the harvest months were yet to come. Fortunately, sometimes there were tubers left in the pantry. And that’s when they tasted the best.
I finally started appreciating tubers only after they had stopped being part of my everyday life. In Spain, parsley root and celeriac are luxury goods, unavailable to the masses. Instead, Spaniards cultivate their twin sister: the sweeter, but less aromatic parsnip. Parsley root appears on the menu in chic restaurants, as an ‘exotic’ product, even though not so long ago it was considered uneatable and was fed to pigs.
Because of this seasonal shortage, I started fantasizing. Not a day went by that I didn’t think about my favourite parsley root paste with walnuts, which owes its creamy texture to the root being briefly bathed in rosemary-infused milk. It truly is the Cleopatra of all parsley. After boiling, the root tends to acquire a sweetish, faintly earthy taste, with tinges of nutmeg and aniseed. If roasted with considerable amounts of olive oil and salt, however, it veers towards a feistily tangy, banana-like sweetness. This was put to good use by the British during World War II. Using a combination of parsnip and parsley root, they started making mock bananas, which were impossible to get on the island. In those times, ivory-coloured cakes made from these tubers were baked as often as carrot cake is today. All in all, eating vegetable cake is the most delightful way to smuggle more nutrients into your diet, and parsley root has a surprising amount of healthy macro-elements. Starting with its breath-taking levels of vitamin K (as well as anti-carcinogenic flavonoids), ending with psychoactive substances, such as apiole and myristicin. The latter has a staggering effect, quite literally, since ingesting it affects the body just like cannabis – both cause euphoria and a feeling of happiness. Parsley seeds contain most of the substance, and eating too many may even result in hallucinations. It is myristicin, the main component of nutmeg, that is also responsible for the aftertaste of bechamel in baked parsley.
And what about celeriac? It’s a good substitute for fish, thanks to umami (the fifth taste, which is often described as meaty or metallic), its fibrous texture, and the grace with which it absorbs all aromas. Celery fish has become a classic item on the menu of every experienced vegetarian. The root is prepared with nori seaweed and soy sauce, then processed as if it were fish. It can be coated in breadcrumbs and fried to a crisp, or made into vegan herring with mustard seed and apple, if we are to stick to herbivore remakes of popular dishes.
However, in order to experience the true taste of celeriac, it should be roasted whole and sautéd. Pierce it with a knife (20 or 30 aggressive stabs should be enough), generously sprinkle it with salt, soak it in olive oil and leave it in the oven for a minimum of two hours, while dousing the culprit in its own sauce from the baking tray. If roasted this way, celeriac has an exceptionally deep flavour and performs nicely as an appetizer, provided it is served with lemon slices on the side. On the other hand, for main course options it would be best to add the root to boiling potatoes, then mash everything into a thick puree whose sweetness may be kicked up a notch with hazelnut milk, brown butter and a pinch of freshly ground pepper. Personally I prefer raw celeriac – I grate it on the largest shredding holes (you can also use your food processor, if you’re the lucky owner of one), then I mix it with apple and rémoulade made with mayonnaise, sour cream, capers and mustard. It’s a French classic, served with a side of carottes rapées – grated carrots, a staple of Polish cuisine.
Speaking of carrots, everyone likes them, even children, but not everyone holds them in high esteem. Admittedly, each of us could enumerate the nutrients they contain: plenty of beta-carotene, precious vitamins A, B6 and K, as well as a whole lot of mineral elements. But we tend to forget about the potential of carrots in the kitchen. They are sweet as candy, with an aftertaste of wood and pine that combines well with cinnamon, cumin and aniseed. You can do anything with carrots. They look wonderful in between the layers of a gratin with chilli and ginger, as well as pickled with cucumbers and packed into a baguette with sticky, pan-fried sweet and spicy tofu. Carrots can also be caramelized with lime and red onions. The only thing that doesn’t sound sexy is carrot soup, a bit like warm vitamin juice. However, it’s a different story if we bake the carrots before making the soup, since the root takes on a sweet, smoky taste that resembles turmeric. The roasted carrot should be blended with chickpeas and peanut butter to a satin-smooth cream and seasoned with cinnamon.
In her book The Art of Eating, the American food writer M. F. K. Fisher quotes French critic Paul Reboux on how to spice up a bland diet. He suggests sprinkling boring salads, “barely edible but for those with the soul of a rabbit”, with carrots and oranges, chopped into needle-thin sticks. According to Reboux, such enhanced salads will amaze every foodie and make them wonder about carrot-flavoured oranges and orange-flavoured carrots.
The lesson is: to make life more exciting, you should eat the tubers from the back of your fridge.
Carrot (root) 100g
energy 41 kcal
calcium 33 mg
iron 0.3 mg
magnesium 12 mg
potassium 320 mg
zinc 0.24 mg
vitamin C 5,9 mg
vitamin B 60.14 mg
vitamin E 0.66 mg
Parsley (root) 100g
energy 36 kcal
calcium 138 mg
iron 6.2 mg
magnesium 50 mg
potassium 554 mg
zinc 1.07 mg
vitamin C 133 mg
vitamin E 0.75 mg
Parsley (leaf) 100g
vitamin C 192 mg
vitamin A 8000 IU
energy 42 kcal
calcium 43 mg
iron 0.7 mg
magnesium 20 mg
potassium 300 mg
zinc 0.33 mg
vitamin C 8 mg
vitamin B 60.17 mg
vitamin E 0.36 mg
Source : FoodData Central
Roasted carrot soup with peanut butter and chickpeas
600g carrots (approx. 8 pcs), peeled and halved
1 tablespoon turmeric
½ teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 litre vegetable broth or water
1 can (400g) chickpeas (drained)
3 tablespoons peanut butter
½ teaspoon honey
sea salt – to taste
Greek yoghurt – for serving
coriander or parsley – for serving
Preheat oven to 220°C. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Toss the carrots with the cinnamon, turmeric, salt and olive oil. Roast for 30 minutes until the carrots become soft. Cut the carrots into smaller pieces.
In the meantime, boil the water or broth. Add the carrots and half a can of chickpeas. Cook 10 minutes to let the flavours combine.
Add the peanut butter and honey. Blend into a silky cream. Toss in the rest of the chickpeas with a spoonful of olive oil and a big pinch of salt. Serve the soup with a splash of yoghurt, chickpeas and a little parsley or coriander.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Piechura
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