I grow a lot of unusual vegetables, and unusual roots fascinate me most of all.
Every year I grow something I’ve never heard of: Skirrett? Check. Parsley root? Gotchya. Salsify, and it’s cousin scorzonera? Every year. Even the carrots I grow are odd; I prefer a French version that’s bright yellow.
Why? For starters I am attracted to the unusual, always have been. Second, I think biodiversity is important, and some of these varieties are pretty rare. Third, I can buy regular carrots anywhere, so why bother growing them?
Finally, there is taste: Parsley in a root? Another root that tastes like artichoke hearts? Crunchy little tubers that look like the Michelin man and taste like water chestnuts? Count me in.
I get my seeds from a lot of different places, but Seeds from Italy, Cook’s Garden and John Scheeper’s are my favorite sources. As for cooking roots, no one has written a better guide than Diane Morgan in her aptly titled book, Roots: The Definitive Compendium with more than 225 Recipes.
Sometimes I cook my roots solo, to highlight them, but sometimes the best way to walk through all this novelty is in a vegetable ragout… or sugo or ragu or whatever you feel like calling it. A soup or stew would also be good, but I was not in a stew mood when I made this.
Besides, a ragout is just exciting. Visually there are all those colors and shapes, and texturally not all vegetables cook at the same rate, so some will be soft and some still a bit firm. There is a lot going on, even if you are an avowed carnivore.
What the hell is hopniss? And crosnes? Isn’t that an auto-immune disease? Scorzonera? Huh? Bet you didn’t know there was so much diversity underground, eh? There is, more than you know. It’s planting time here in NorCal, and it soon will be in the rest of the country. You could do worse than to put a few new roots down.
- 2 onions, quartered
- 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
- 1 pound fingerling potatoes or jerusalem artichokes
- 1/2 pound crosnes (optional)
- 1/2 pound hopniss (optional)
- 4 or 5 salsify roots (optional)
- 2 large carrots, cut into chunks
- 2 or 3 parsley roots or parsnips
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and black pepper
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1 large can peeled whole tomatoes, 28- or 32-ounce
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 2 cups chopped chard or other leafy greens
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup polenta or grits
- 1/2 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 450°F. Cut all the vegetables for the ragout into pieces you'd want to eat with polenta: bite-sized or whatever. Coat with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Put the veggies into a roasting pan and roast in the oven until they are nicely browned, about 30 to 40 minutes. Turn them occasionally.
- Meanwhile, make the polenta. Bring the water to a boil in a medium pot and add a healthy pinch of salt. Sprinkle the polenta into the boiling water with one hand while you stir the water with another. This helps prevent lumps. Turn the heat to medium-low until the polenta bubbles gently. Cook, stirring every few minutes, until the polenta is creamy, about 30 minutes. When it's creamy, turn the heat as low as it will go for now.
- When the vegetables are ready, move them into a large, wide pot, like a high-sided frying pan. Pour the white wine into the roasting pan and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Pour all that into the pot with the vegetables.
- Crush the canned tomatoes by hand into the pot and pour in all the juices from the can. Add the bay leaves and thyme. Stew this over medium-low heat for 15 minutes. Add the butter and cheese to the polenta, stirring well. If the polenta is too thick, stir in a little water. The polenta should be smooth and be able to flow a little in a bowl.
- Add the chard and parsley to the ragout and cook until the chard has wilted, about 3 to 5 minutes. Serve in bowls over the polenta.