A Case for Buying Ugly-Duckling Vegetables
Knotty and gnarly and oddly colored, the vegetables at the tail end of winter yield much more flavor and satisfaction than you might expect. Our writer investigates.
It’s a strange time to visit the farmers’ market in the northeast. We had a few blasts of spring-like weather, so I’d thought maybe I’d spy some ramps, asparagus, or something bright and gorgeous at the New York City farmers’ market. I wanted to concoct a “recipe for spring,” or maybe make something involving winter and spring veggies, like a bread pudding with leeks and ramps.
This winter, I bought most of my produce at the nearest grocery store, because I loathe cold weather and am lazy, and I didn’t feel great about it. I like buying local produce. I want to reduce my carbon footprint and put money right into farmers’ pockets. (The summer I participated in a CSA, when you pay for a share of produce up front so farmers can anticipate costs, yielded some of the best fruit I’ve ever had.) And the produce at even the “nicest” supermarkets is sub-par. Yes, I can get cauliflower, but it’s flecked with brown spots and flown in from another country. It’s a crucifer with one big carbon footprint—and at $4, it’s the same price I’d pay at a farmers’ market.
Since I had the advantage of free time (as not all of us do), I took the subway to the big market in the heart of Manhattan. It was 28 degrees, and the farmers were shivering. One man told me he knew he wasn’t selling enough that day, and he was nervous about disappointing his sons at the farm in upstate New York. I bought a couple of gnarled Jerusalem artichokes (also called sunchokes) from him. I’d had them at restaurants and knew I liked them, but I didn’t know how to cook them. I bid him good luck and strolled to a different stand, picking up a basket of tiny, adorable blue potatoes. Half a dozen Granny Smith apples tumbled into my bag at the next stand—apple season here is eternal!—and I’ll turn them into apple tart, a tarte tatin. I bought curly-tailed, Seussian parsnips, and pawed through a bin of purple-orange “dragon” carrots, which were new to me. I bought a giant bunch of fresh sage for two dollars, and a small container of maple syrup from a woman who told me she’d had a difficult, short sap season.
It’s kind of liberating, shopping without a recipe. I hadn’t cooked parsnips or sunchokes before, but the comfort of winter veggies is that nearly all of them can be roasted with oil and salt. Since I knew I needed protein, I stopped at a cheesemonger, buying a slab of creamy raclette for a few dollars. Easy enough to par-boil those blue potatoes in salted water, I thought, coat them with cheese, and slide them under a broiler to make the classic Swiss treat. (Raclette is the puffy winter jacket of dishes.)
Winter vegetables make their own strange, lovely rainbow. When I snapped a shot of mine, they looked like a painting by Vermeer. I got home and started googling. I found a Nigella Lawson recipe to use as a starting point—vegetable oil and maple syrup—and took a bite of both the parsnips and sunchokes, raw. They were about the same texture, so I peeled the parsnips and sliced both veggies about a third of an inch thick, tossing them with oil and syrup. I cooked them at 400 degrees, stirring the veggies periodically so they wouldn’t scorch, tasting them as they cooked. They needed salt, heat, and freshness, so around the 20-minute mark I stirred in handfuls of sage and a powder of cayenne. Five or so more minutes, and they were done, tender to the bite, sweet and earthy.
There’s something about adding a whole new vegetable to your diet that’s very satisfying. Next time I’ll try olive oil instead of veggie, as it has a superior flavor. The raclette was fantastic—fondue without the hassle—and I can’t believe I haven’t made it before now. And I’m so pleased with how my sunchokes turned out. Parsnips proved a little sweet for my taste, particularly when slicked with syrup, but sunchokes? I’ll buy those ugly little critters every time I see them at the market until my farmers stop selling them. I’m pleased I caught them before the beautiful, showy asparagus of spring and swans of summer—tomatoes; peaches; watermelons—come into season. Beauty lurks where you look for it.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.