Ten minutes with vegetables

Now that I’m about halfway through a fall CSA, I want to post some thoughts here about how it has affected cooking, shopping and eating. On average, I’m still going out to eat as much as I cook (about 1 in 3 meals out). That’s fine with me because I enjoy eating in a restaurant as much as I do eating in. This is for another post, but there are some things I believe should not be prepared by home cooks. Pizza, for example.

I’ve commented before that I don’t think costs have changed much. I still spend about as much on groceries as I did before, including the cost of the CSA per week.

One thing that has changed, however, is the amount of planning I do. Getting a weekly shipment of vegetables dictates at least some of the things I’m going to make. I’ve found that this constraint can be either a nagging annoyance or an unexpected pleasure. This depends on the amount of planning you are willing to put in and fun you are willing to have with it.

It doesn’t require much time, actually, just a few minutes with your vegetables. I like to array them on my desk or on top of a flat shelf behind the couch. I clear everything else off and let them sit there silently. A few dull moments and then the ideas come. I use this as an excuse to write with pen and paper, something I rarely do otherwise these days. I jot things down. Raw materials I have and must use within the week are underlined. Arrows are drawn from one to the next, boxes go around the names of complete dishes, showing the way ingredients can fit together to form something greater than the sum of the parts. Then in the margins, those ingredients that I don’t have are listed. An instant shopping list for the week and a chance to ask myself it all of those extras are really necessary.

This is something I am starting to look forward to ahead of time. Both productive and enjoyable, it’s a way to use my hands and eyes to come up with wild ideas when the stakes are low. The worst that can happen is that a meal doesn’t taste as good as you thought it might.

I’m not advocating spending an hour (unless you want to and then I’d say go for it). Just ten minutes with a clear surface, an array of ingredients you want to use, and some writing utensils.

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Two purple-topped rutabagas are currently staring me down and I’m feeling a bit intimidated. I could peel them, chop them and roast them in a pan but that feels like an easy out. I turn to my bookshelf for support and pull off two of my standbys: Nigel Slater’s Tender and The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook. I like them each for different reasons: the former for its taxonomy by vegetable (in alphabetical order!) and the latter for its regimen of straightforward and sensible dishes that are vegetable-heavy but never bland. Another thing I like about this practice: ten minutes with vegetables results in more cookbook reading.

I thumb through the pages. Slater has an entire section devoted to rutabaga. One recipe immediately stands out. It’s titled “A baked cake of rutabaga and potato.” The recipe calls for very thinly slicing rutabagas and potatoes, layering them in a pan with a sauce made from butter, garlic, Dijon mustard, thyme and vegetable stock, adding plenty of salt to taste, and baking until golden brown. According to Slater, “Rutabaga’s ability to sponge up liquid is shown to good effect when it is baked with butter and vegetable stock.” I have potatoes in my share this week, and Dijon mustard in the fridge. One should always try to have butter and stock kicking around. I’m sold.

Tonight I have to spend some more time planning how to use the rest of this week’s veg, and I have leftovers to use up from last week, but I’m already looking forward to making that rutabaga and potato cake in a couple of days. I’m going to update this post when I do.

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Update [Dec. 16, 2012]: I did eventually make Slater’s cake of rutabaga and potato and, as promised above, am posting it here now:

A baked cake of rutabaga and potato (From Nigel Slater, Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch)

Notes: I made this twice- it was a great way to use rutabaga. Good-tasting mustard is key since you will be putting 2 tablespoons of this in the sauce. I had a vinegary grain mustard on hand, but the recipe calls for dijon. Either way would work, just make sure you like the taste of whatever you choose. I didn’t have butter so I used olive oil. This was also fine, and lightened the taste substantially. Next time I’ll try butter though.

Ingredients:

1 lb potatoes

1 lb rutabaga

4 cloves garlic

7 tbs butter or olive oil, or a mix thereof

Dijon or vinegary grain mustard

1/2 cup vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Peel the rutabaga and wash the potatoes well. Fill a large bowl half way with cold water.

Slice the washed and peeled veg into very, very thin disks (you want them to be semi-transparent). Put the rutabaga slices in the cold water while finishing so that they don’t turn brown.

Peel and thinly slice garlic. Melt butter over medium heat in a pan, add the garlic and sauté until fragrant. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in mustard.

Now pat the rutabaga and potato slices dry and arrange them in a layer in the bottom of a smallish baking dish or casserole. Over this layer, pour about a third of the butter/mustard mixture. Add salt and pepper – be liberal with both. Then repeat this step twice more. Finally, pour the 1/2 cup of stock over the top.

Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil (I didn’t have any, so I just got another dish and made a lid out of it) and put it in the oven. Cook until the vegetables have become soft – about an hour. Then remove the foil and turn up to 425 F, browning the top.

Serve with a crisp salad or simple omelets with chunks of bacon.

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