Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Lost Vegetables: What They Are, and Why You Should Find Them

While fishing through the aisles of familiar green peppers, tomatoes, and onions, you might have happened upon a few almost-foreign ingredients in your local produce section. These vegetables are not the ingredients that form the ubiquitous pico de gallo, and are generally not found in the eight-dollar salad you had for lunch at the corner bistro.

If you venture into the unknown and place one of these comestibles in your shopping cart, the cashier might look at you quizzically and point an airbrushed acrylic nail at your bagged item and ask you what they call that “thing.” You have no idea. Largely ignored or forgotten, these Lost Vegetables deserve a spot on our dinner tables.

Unfortunately, these veggies can be intimidating because of the lack of publicity they receive. Most reached their prime in the Middle Ages, and since then, very few have unlocked their secret flavors, textures, and health benefits. No one knows how to cook them, so they lay fallow on supermarket shelves. Never fear. The Lost Vegetables that follow are not only inexpensive, but very versatile and packed full of nutrients.

The Turnip (Brassica rapa)

Harold McGee, in his heralded book, On Food And Cooking, rebukes “The turnip has been under cultivation for 4000 years…it is mainly used by the poor and for animal fodder.” This is unfortunate. The round, white and purple root vegetable is a versatile and fiber-packed bombshell worthy of an ovation.

Packed with fiber and Vitamin C, the beautiful lavender color looks great in a raw vegetable platter with dipping sauces. The turnip is also an excellent source of potassium and iron. Their protective phytochemicals are useful for controlling glucose, a claim that their cousin, the potato, could never make.

The Leek (Allium ampeloprasum)

With their subtle, sweet flavor, the leek has been complimented by gourmands as being “the more refined onion.” It looks like a massive scallion (green onion), with a tender white root end and brittle, mostly inedible, dark green leaves. The leek has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years and is mentioned in the Bible as one of the things most missed by the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt. Leeks are in season from September through April, though they can be found year round at supermarkets.

The leek has been called “the poor man’s asparagus.” While sharing few of the same flavors, the leek and the asparagus are distantly related through the Lily family, which also includes chives, garlic, onions, and shallots. The “poor” connotation transfers into the leek’s French name, poireau, which is a colloquial term meaning “simpleton.”

Far from being simple itself, the leek is an excellent source of dietary fiber, folic acid, calcium, potassium, and vitamin C. It has mild antiseptic qualities, and has some properties of an anti-arthritic. It also serves as a mild laxative or diuretic, and has been used by French women for centuries to shed those few pesky pounds before a big event, as recorded in the bestseller, French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano.

Use leeks as an alternative to onions in soups and omelets. Wherever lurks a flavor that is usually overpowered by the use of a strong onion, substitute a leek. They’re excellent flying solo, too.

The Parsnip (Patinacea sativum)

In the years before the potato, the parsnip reigned as the staple food to the Greeks and Romans. It is native to Eurasia, and its formal cultivation began in the Middle Ages, while the potato was still relatively new. Then it was used to sweeten dishes and add a more filling component. Since then, however, we have forgotten it. The parsnip looks like an anemic carrot, devoid of color and, unlike the carrot, its conical shape is often deformed and irregular. It is not a pretty vegetable, which is most likely why it fell out of favor with most of the culinary world. It is inexpensive, but its value as a comestible far surpasses the price we have placed on it.

Parsnips carry a light 63 kcal.serving of half a cup compared to ____ of potatoes. They have been deemed “excellent” sources of Vitamin C, fiber, calcium. Parsnips are also a good source of potassium, which is instrumental in lowering blood pressure, preventing and treating kidney stones, and preventing strokes. They pack a load of B-vitamins and folate, which aid in digestion and – ahem – regularity.

Store parsnips in a dark, dry place for a few days prior to cooking them. This will allow some of the starches in the parsnip to convert to sugar, making it easier to caramelize the parsnip and obtain a texture close to that of carrots.

Kale (brassica oleracea)

Perhaps you’ve seen what have been called “ornamental cabbages.” They have broad leaves with frilled edges and either a white or purple center. That’s kale. Kale is native to Asia Minor and the Eastern Mediterranean. It has a cabbage-like flavor with a bit of a kick added at the end, just to make sure it’s distinguishable. Kale hasn’t been quite “lost” just yet – it often shows up on our plates at All-American diners as a vehicle carrying chicken salad or as another plate garnish.

However, that one piece of kale that usually gets scraped into the garbage can packs 10 whopping grams of fiber per serving, and is an excellent source of protein, vitamins A, C and K (1328% of the RDA), calcium, and manganese, all of which are instrumental to regulating our bodies and fighting away pesky germs and disease. Oh, and 1 cup of boiled kale has only 36 calories, so add it to your diet regimen as soon as possible.

Kale can be used anywhere cabbage is found. Coleslaws and soups are a little brighter and flavorful with a deep green leaf of kale. That peppery punch that you taste will develop over time. After a light frost, kale is sweeter, so the prime time for kale is somewhere in midwinter, where it’s a fantastic addition to Thanksgiving and other holiday meals.

The Rutabaga (Brassica napobrassica)

If ever a vegetable has been lost, it is the rutabaga. The root vegetable looks significantly like a turnip, but without the purple pigment near the stem-end. Originating around 1660, it is believed to be a hybrid of the turnip and the cabbage. The name “rutabaga” come from the Swedish “rotbagga,” (the Swedish word for “thick root”) and is the reason why the vegetable is often called a “swede.” It is a popular accompaniment to haggis in Scotland. Unfortunately, the rutabaga lacks the same popularity on this side of the Atlantic. Because colder climates yield sweeter root vegetables, Canada and some northern states are the highest producers of rutabaga.

The rutabaga is beta-carotene rich, and jam-packed with vitamin A. It is also rich in calcium, encouraging consumption by people who aren’t able to get calcium from more popular sources such as dairy products. Rutabagas are also an excellent source of potassium, like the parsnip and the turnip.

Rutabagas are excellent substitutes for potatoes, add them to your next batch of mashed potatoes or serve them mashed and seasoned well. Their crunchy texture make them great to add to salads for an unexpected surprise. Rutabagas make excellent gratin, layered with grated Emmenthaler (more commonly known as “Swiss”) cheese, cream, salt and pepper and a sprinkling of nutmeg.

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