Veggie of the Week - Fire and Ice
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Fire is neat stuff. Nowadays, we tend to worry a lot about its destructive abilities, but that's largely because we've got things we like and need - houses, for example - that fire could take away. Otherwise, it is a nearly unalloyed good, one responsible for things as apparently diverse as space heating and metals, which are important to the development and geographic spread of human culture. But fire's greatest gift is cooking.
Animal matter, from eggs to elephants, is digestible by humans uncooked; much of the vegetable world is not. Sure, most of our vegetables (in broad sense of 'botanical' - including fruits, nuts, and grains) can be eaten raw, but there's a limit to how much raw carrot, broccoli or rutabaga one can ingest, in some cases a pretty low one. More important, many common vegetables - such as the ones mentioned - are largely unassimilated by the human digestive system when eaten raw, most of the calories, vitamins and minerals remaining inside the plant cells, very few of which are broken by chewing. Heat breaks the cell walls, making most of the plant's nutrition available. This week, we'll celebrate the cold weather by celebrating heat, discussing a family of dishes that depend on heat to be really digestible, and which, eaten hot, heat us directly from within.
We've mentioned before the suite of cold-hardy Brassicas, and separately discussed various root crops, which not only persevere through the winter, but are at their best in cold weather, providing us with welcome sources of vitamins, particularly vitamin C, and minerals otherwise in short supply (unless, in much-favored Southern California, you have a grapefruit or naval orange tree). All of these vegetables tend to have something of a reputation to overcome, often being associated with the non-idyllic side of agriculture, considered peasant's food, or food for livestock. And this is largely true: cattle are fed various kinds of roots, while smaller stock - rabbits and chickens, for example - are often given kale of one kind or another during the winter months. The Brassicas are also known for their strong flavors and cooking odors, and this is true of most winter vegetables.
But all cuisine has humble origins. We'll accept and use this, just as we can use the forthright flavors of the vegetables: we'll make soup. There's a sort of tradition of starting with a broth, which would've been built on a basis of scraps and leftovers. If you cook in a way that generates these, and are organized to use them, fine. We'll assume this is not the case, though, and find we can skip the broth because our ingredients - any of the brassicas or common root crops (parsnip, rutabaga, carrot, onion, beet (with tops),...) themselves have rich and complex flavors which are released into the cooking liquid, so our soup is self-brothing. You may want to start off by clarifying the onion and garlic, or you may want to just chop stuff up and toss it all into boiling water. You may want to purée some of the ingredients - carrots and potatoes, for example, or cooked dried legumes - to alter the consistency and flavor of the broth. You've got a wide range of cooking times, too. You'll want the chunks (whatever size you've chosen) of root vegetables to be tender enough to be nicely edible, but this can range from al dente to nearly dissolved, and the leafy greens are very forgiving, too. For that matter, you can serve the soup the first time with vegetables al dente, and enjoy the change in consistency and flavor through a series of reheatings.
One of the nice things about a soup is its flexibility: you can get away with putting just about anything in, and they're traditionally a way of using up various leftovers. Add enough extras, and you've got a one dish meal. Useful here are potatoes, for their calories and vitamins C and B and iron (peels left on), beans, pasta and bread (stale, and well-flavored, maybe a sourdough rye or whole wheat - added just before serving, or put in the bottoms of serving bowls with soup ladled over it), or skip the bread and cook grain - rice, barley, wheat - along with the vegetables. Chunks of winter squash are nice too: added about twenty minutes before serving, they will be nicely firm; added earlier they will soften and start to dissolve around the edges, adding to the broth. If you want animal protein, you can poach a few eggs on top of the warming soup, or top the served soup with cheese, or at Wurst, some kind of sausage, it might be kielbasa or linguiça or andouillette. Season according to whim: lots of herbs will work here, with 'warming' ones like marjoram or oregano being particularly useful. Black and red pepper are nice too, if you like them, because apart from setting off the flavors of the vegetables, they themselves contribute to the warming effect of the soup.
Some Edhat references: