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Archive for the ‘Vegetables’ Category

I know what you’re thinking: “No post for a week, and then you give us brussels sprouts?” But I promise, this recipe is a winner. I’m not trying to compare it to a gianduia mousse cake, but don’t be discouraged by the main ingredient.

Children are taught to hate brussels sprouts before ever seeing what these mini cabbages even look like. I’m sure this stems from the days when we used to cook our vegetables for ungodly lengths of time, yielding green beans and asparagus so overcooked that you could turn them into bow ties.

This sort of merciless overcooking preordains a particularly dire fate for the brussels sprout. Brussels sprouts contain high levels of glucosinolates, which contain both sulfur and nitrogen. Brussels sprouts contain several types of these compounds, which makes cooking the sprouts properly a little tricky — one of the major glucosinolates is bitter, but produces a non-bitter product when heated…the other is non-bitter, but produces bitter products when cooked for a long time.

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So if you cook them too quickly, or too long, they’re still bitter — you always end up killing one bitter thing but producing another. The sulfur compounds end up forming trisulfides, which are stinky. So basically you feel like you’re eating a forkfull of rotten eggs. Ew.

So needless to say, after decades of cooking brussels sprouts to death, their reputation has been duly tarnished.

But come on folks. It’s almost 2008. We’re not wearing beehive hairstyles anymore either.

Cooked properly, brussels sprouts are wonderful. I’m hardly the first blogger to make this claim. But somehow, despite an abundance of praise throughout the blogosphere, the vegetable’s reputation is still in the dumps.

If they haven’t already won you over, maybe this brussels sprout hash will change your mind. I hope so. The poor vegetable has certainly paid its dues.

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There are fruits and vegetables whose appearance alone can make me salivate: fat heirloom tomatoes, juicy summer peaches, bright orange peppers. And then there are vegetables so ugly they look like a genetic abomination. Case in point: celery root.

Celery root

Celery root, also known as celeriac, is quite possibly the world’s ugliest vegetable. It’s hairy, it’s dirty, it may or may not have emerged from John Hurt’s chest in Alien.

So what is this thing, and what does it taste like?

As its name suggests, celery root lives underground and is associated with a special variety of celery, but the part we eat isn’t the root itself. What we eat is part of the plant that channels nutrients between the root and the celery leaves. Unlike true root vegetables, which store lots of starch, celery root is only about 5-6% starch by weight.

After some serious peeling and cooking, the flavor of celery root is really wonderful: reminiscent of celery, with another more mysterious flavor I can’t put my finger on. The boiling celery root smelled, to me, faintly of mild curry, but it didn’t taste like curry, so I’m having trouble pinning it down.

Pureed with potatoes, butter and some salt and pepper, celery root is transformed into a creamy, luscious side — similar to mashed potatoes, but more complex. I can assure you that the sight of this hairy excuse for a veggie won’t have me smacking my lips any time soon, but the memory of this scrumptious puree certainly will.

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Peeling butternut squash is one of those unfortunate and unpleasant tasks that, to my dismay, almost always end up being worth it.

If recipes requiring peeled and chopped winter squash wound up being eh or even just okay, I’d swear off peeling squash forever. But the sad fact is, the payoff is usually tremendous. So I soldier on.

Sure, all that slicing and peeling is tedious, but that’s not what bothers me most. What gets me is what the little buggers do to my hands.

At first I thought I was the only one who had this problem. Every time I’d get the brilliant idea to peel and chop a butternut squash, my hands would end up looking chapped and raw, with a strange film covering the surface of my skin. No matter how many times I’d wash my hands and slather them with lotion, that strange sensation wouldn’t go away. I felt like Lady Macbeth.

But then I heard more family and friends making the same complaint. “I just spent all afternoon chopping up squash,” my mother once said to me over the phone, “and now my hands look like I stuck them in acid. I hate what that vegetable does to my skin!”

So it isn’t just me. And after a little Googling, I came across a scientific paper entitled “Butternut Squash (Curcurbita moschata) dermatitis,” written by two dermatologists. Apparently, a compound in butternut squash can cause contact dermatitis, a localized rash or irritation of the skin. This isn’t necessarily the case for everyone, but it happens to enough people that now I don’t feel like I’m crazy.

You can imagine my reaction, then, when I saw a phenomenal recipe for saffron risotto with roasted butternut squash, for which the first instructions read, “Peel squash, remove the seeds and chop into 3/4″ cubes.” Oh no, not that again. But the recipe looked so good and I couldn’t get it out of my head. There had to be another way.

That’s when it came to me: rubber gloves. A perfect solution? As it turns out, nearly, and it was certainly better than raw hands or — horrors — no risotto at all. I threw on a pair of tight-fitting rubber gloves and peeled away — a task that does not become any less tedious with gloves, but at least I didn’t need to sacrifice my skin in the process.

So problem solved. I peeled the squash, the squash didn’t peel me, and I made a risotto that was most definitely worth the effort.

Edited to add: If you’ve had a bad skin reaction after peeling and chopping squash, wash your hands with cool water and soap, then rub some cortisone cream all over your hands.  This should help heal the contact dermatitis, though the rash and strange sensation will not disappear immediately.

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What’s in a name? Well, if you’re a sweet potato, not much.

Sometimes called a yam, sometimes called a sweet potato, the sweet potato is actually neither a yam nor a potato.

What what?

Yes, it’s true. All three are basically underground organs where plants store their starch. But that’s about where the relationship ends.

Yams are tropical “tubers,” the place where tropical grass and lily plants hold their starch, and are native to Africa, South America and the Pacific. They come in varying textures, colors, sizes and flavors and have been know to grow up to 6 feet (yes, 6 feet) in length.

Potatoes, on the other hand, are tubers of a stem plant that bears yellow or silver flowers and are native to moist, cool regions of Central and South America.

So then what is a sweet potato, that wonderfully syrupy starch that so many of us eat at holiday dinners, often adulterated with a hefty dose of marshmallows and brown sugar?

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are actually root vegetables — which are similar to but different than tubers — and are the storage root of the Ipomoea batatas plant (helloooo botany). They are native to northern South America, but today China is the sweet potato’s biggest consumer and producer.

There are a slew of different varieties: some dry and starchy, others moist, some deep orange or purple and others pale yellow. The “garnet” and “jewel” variety are the kinds you find most often in the supermarket, usually labeled as “yams,” which — as we have just established — they are not.

So…why do we call them yams?

There are a couple of theories. The prevailing one seems to be that yam is a derivative of a Western African word meaning “to eat” as well as the word for true yams (“nyami” and “anyinam”). African slaves brought to America started calling sweet potatoes “yams,” the term spread and then in the 1930s, food marketers ran with it, promoting sweet potatoes as yams in their advertising campaigns. To me, that’s sort of like saying, “Hey, let’s promote turnips by calling them parsnips!” But whatever, clearly I don’t think like a food marketer…

Sweet potatoes macro

Happily, they got the “sweet” part of the sweet potato’s name right. There’s an enzyme in sweet potatoes that, when heated, breaks down all that starch into a sugar that’s about a third as sweet as table sugar. So the longer you cook those babies, the sweeter and lovelier they will taste.

Boiling or steaming will cook them too fast and you will lose some of the sweetness. But if you roast them…mmm. You will be rewarded with a delicious, soft and mouth-watering accompaniment to any fall meal, no sugar required. And if you whiz them in a food processor with some vanilla-infused half-and-half, butter, salt and pepper? Sweet heaven.

So whatever you call them, if cook them right, you’ll be in for a treat.

Sweet potatoes above

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