The trouble with these unwritten family recipes is that we know exactly what they are supposed to taste like. But how do you recreate them? If you haven’t been cooking side-by-side with a relative for years, there is no way you will know the secret ingredient or technique they use to get that special, ineffable, taste.
This is especially true for the most simple of dishes. My father, who is about to turn 81, is the acknowledged master of baked beans and the very traditional mashed carrots and turnips that are a must at Thanksgiving. He cooked eight pounds this year and it was gone before anyone had a chance at seconds–or to take a picture. He points out that this dish is less about a recipe and more about shopping for the best, freshest, ingredients. That would be true for all of the recipes in this post.
Mashed turnips and carrots
3 pounds carrots (Dad buys what he calls “chef’s carrots,” which are quite large)
3 pounds Macomber turnips or rutabagas (don’t use purple-top turnips, they are too sharp tasting)
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Peel vegetables and cut into similarly-sized chunks, about 1 inch in diameter. Put the carrots and turnips in separate pots, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Simmer until very tender, about 20 minutes. The carrots will likely take a bit longer than the turnips. Drain the vegetables and return them immediately to one of the pots. Add the butter, salt, and pepper. Mash well with a potato masher. This is meant to be a rustic dish, not a puree. A hand masher is required. Consider it your workout for the day.
My go-to side dish–which is also barely a dish–is roasted vegetables. You can cook almost any vegetable using this technique, but the cooking time varies widely between, say, asparagus and cauliflower. Each, however, is delicious when subjected to high heat in the oven. Watch tender vegetables carefully, and if your attention is divided by helping kids with homework or talking on the phone, by all means just lower the heat so they don’t burn. I keep my veggies separated on the roasting pan, so I can remove one variety when it is cooked before the rest. Today, because I wanted my vegetables to be finished at roughly the same time, I limited myself to root vegetables. Of course, in December, roots abound. I chose sweet potatoes, carrots, golden beets, onions, garlic, and Macomber turnips (a sweet large turnip that was developed in Westport, MA; it’s in the upper right corner of the photo above). You could certainly also choose from among white potatoes, parsnips, red beets, rutabagas, leeks, or yams. None of the above need careful watching, as they take some time to soften and caramelize. Bonus!
Roasted root vegetables
2 small white sweet potatoes
4 golden beets
1 medium to large Macomber turnip
4-5 small carrots
1 large sweet onion, sliced thickly
6-8 cloves garlic, peeled
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Peel and cut the roots into similar-sized pieces, so they’ll cook at approximately the same rate. Put the cut-up pieces of each vegetable into a bowl, drizzle some olive oil, and toss to coat. Spread the vegetables in one layer on a large roasting pan. Repeat with each vegetable. Onions and garlic can be strewn over the top. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and caramelized. Salt and pepper to taste.
This last recipe is a riff on the above, and a different twist on the now-ubiquitous butternut squash soup, which I love. Last week, I purchased locally grown butternut squash and a Macomber turnip the approximate size and weight of a duckpin bowling ball. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon–the kids had a lot of homework to complete–so I made soup. The turnip cut the sweetness of the squash and added earthiness and depth.
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large Macomber turnip, cubed (about 6 cups)
1 butternut squash, cubed (about 6 cups)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
Melt the butter and oil in a 4-6 quart pot. (The oil keeps the butter from burning.) Add the vegetables and cover. Cook on medium-high, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and slightly caramelized, about 15 minutes.
Add salt, pepper, and stock, and simmer until vegetables are completely soft, another 20 minutes or so. Puree the vegetables and liquid in a blender or food processor, until smooth. I go to the second step of then putting the puree through a fine mesh strainer, but this is not strictly necessary unless you are a fanatic about absolutely silken soup. If the soup is still too thick for your taste, you can add more stock or water. Serve piping hot, garnished with sriracha hot sauce, a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, or more pepper.