6 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 44

Root vegetables

The pleasures of winter Simon Courtauld

NOW that the clocks have gone back may we never abandon Greenwich Mean Time — and autumnal October is past, we can get down to the enjoyable business of preparing for winter. It is time to go torpid, to dream of crumpets and stodgy fruit- cake for tea after an hour's duck-flighting, and of long evenings listening to Verdi in front of a log fire. If these dreams are sel- dom realised, I can be confident that, for the next three or four months, I shall at least have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the best 'comfort foods' of winter. I refer, of course, to root vegetables.

Before drooling over the prospect of roast parsnips, mashed swede, glazed turnips, I decided to do a little research.

Not including potatoes and Jerusalem arti- chokes (which, strictly, are tubers; and I wrote about the Jerusalem artichoke in last week's Spectator), I have counted 13 differ- ent root vegetables. Two of them — rampi- on and skirret — have fallen out of fashion and their seed is not readily available.

Rampion appears in Grimm's Fairy Tales; it belongs to the campanula, or bell- flower, family, and its root is carrot-shaped, with whitish flesh. Apart from cooking it as you would other root vegetables, Nell Heaton, author of my favourite old cook- book, The Complete Cook, recommends putting it into pickles. She does not have any ideas for skirret, except to cook it 'like its cousins the carrot and the parsnip'. But I would love to sample this ancient veg- etable, which is said to have been the favourite of the Emperor Tiberius. It was long popular in England, and English cook- ery books of the 17th and 18th centuries offer many recipes for it.

In this age of tabbouleh, tacos and tape- nade, some of our better-known root veg- etables have also fallen from favour. Why bother with time-consuming swedes or turnips, so the modern argument goes, when a packet of prepared green beans from Kenya, or a salad of rocket and radic- chio, taken from a plastic bag and drizzled with olive oil, is so much easier, healthier and prettier on the plate? The short answer, of course, is that roots are more sustaining against the chills of winter, and they have a much more satisfying flavour. One could even go so far as to say that root vegetables — reliable, lasting and full of goodness — represent the forces of conser- vatism, in contrast to the insubstantial pageant, surely soon to become faded, of New Labour gastronomy.

To be fair to modem chefs, some of them recently have revived interest in vegetables such as celeriac and beetroot, though the

The first supper

beetroot is seldom served hot (it is delicious with a white sauce and chopped dill or chives). Celeriac is one of my favourites: full of iron, it improves all manner of winter stews and casseroles and, remembering Jen- nifer Paterson's Spectator lunches of 20 years ago, I would not contemplate eating jugged hare without a celeriac and potato purée. I was surprised to fmd no mention of celeriac in Delia Smith's Complete Illustrated Cookery Course, not even the classic French dish, celeri remoulade, made with blanched, coarsely grated celeriac and a mustard may- onnaise.

At least the French do acknowledge cele- riac as a vegetable. They are, however, dis- tinctly sniffy about the parsnip. Larousse dismisses it as a 'root used as condiment, particularly for flavouring stocks'. If the French are incapable of appreciating parsnips with Sunday lunch, they don't deserve to have our British beef.

Parsnips have a natural sweetness not dissimilar to the sweet potato, which was the first form of potato to arrive in Britain. They are suitable for cooking as fritters, or in a sharp cheese sauce, or a creamy soup with a little curry powder; Gary Rhodes has devised an excellent recipe for parsnip crumble.

A Frenchman, writing in the 19th century, commented that Kant, 'the prince of Ger- man philosophers, was not at all refined in his tastes; he took great pleasure . . . in a purée of parsnips cooked with pork fat'. A discerning fellow, he would probably also have enjoyed a puree of swedes, a vegetable which the ignorant French feed only to their cattle — along with the human sewage and minced dogs and cats. The swede is properly appreciated in America, where it is called rutabaga. It makes a nourishing winter soup when combined with parsnips and turnips, and its green tops are worth eating when the root is still small. Turnips absorb fat easily and so are especially good with roast lamb and duck. Together with swedes and turnips, a third member of the brassica family, kohlrabi, is noteworthy principally because its root grows above ground. I am not sure that I have ever eaten it.

Experimenting this year, I am growing salsify which, for some unknown reason, is also known as the oyster plant. It is proba- bly the only root vegetable more popular in France than in England. I have just had a trial tasting and can report that its flavour is good, akin to palm-tree hearts. There is a similar root, though black-skinned, called scorzonera which according to the books has a better flavour than salsify. I rather think that one of the pearls of wisdom dropped by Stephen Maturin in an early Patrick O'Brian novel is to the effect that scorzonera originates from his native Cat- alonia.

I have yet to mention carrots, rich in vitamins and best known of all root vegeta- bles; but they are eaten all the year round. A winter purée, with a little nutmeg added, is delicious with all roast meat. So are baby spring carrots, uncooked and dipped into mint sauce.

We are left with the radish, which comes in many varieties, including some larger ones which are suitable for harvesting in winter, The Japanese grow enormous radishes which, when cooked and sliced, have the appearance, flavour and consis- tency of flannel. The most important mem- ber of the radish family is surely horseradish. It must be dug, peeled, grated and mixed with cream, with the optional addition of sour cream and mustard pow- der. On no account add vinegar, which is what spoils most jars of ready-made horseradish sauce.

If you don't have it growing in the gar- den, keep a spade in the car and look for it on roadside verges. It should be dug now before the leaves die down, but don't con- fuse them with dock leaves. Then settle down with a sirloin of beef (on the bone, of course), the horseradish sauce, a few pota- toes and parsnips roasted in goose fat, and a casserole of all those other comforting root vegetables. You will then be ready to go into hibernation.