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They’re definitely not a glamorous holiday vegetable, but there they were, a box of 20-some rutabagas sitting on my porch, where the mail carrier dropped them beyond the snow just after Thanksgiving. Lucky me, and I mean it!
They were a gift from Charleen Badman, one of my favorite chefs. Her restaurant is FnB in Scottsdale, Ariz., and it was during a recent visit there that I was introduced at last to the Gilfeather rutabaga — a vegetable I had known about since it was boarded on the Slow Food Ark of Taste years ago but had never seen until then.
I met the farmer who was growing them the Friday before Thanksgiving, and Badman served them at a luncheon she made the next day, adding them to a menu based on recipes from my cookbook “Vegetable Literacy.” It was a week later that the enormous box of rutabagas arrived on my doorstep.
Gilfeather rutabagas a tasty treat no matter how they are prepared
What to do with them? Could they possibly be my holiday vegetable? I lay awake at night wondering, then during the day made a soup, then a ragout. But I kept thinking about what Badman did with her rutabagas, something that yielded a handsome heart-shaped golden slab. Working out my version of her dish, I steamed the roots whole until they could be pierced with a sharp knife, let them cool, then sliced away the skins.
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Unlike the yellow-fleshed rutabagas we are mostly familiar with, Gilfeather rutabagas (also called, though incorrectly, a Gilfeather turnip) are white skinned and fleshed, so what I ended up holding in my hand to peel was a large, pale-skinned tuber. (Unlike turnips, they have a long root and two bands where rootlets appear running down their sides.) I sliced it lengthwise about a half-inch thick, then heated up a grill pan and brushed it with butter mixed with sesame oil.
I cooked the slabs over low heat until they were well marked, then I turned them to make marks in the other direction, flipped them and did the same on the second side. They started to color up due to their sugars caramelizing, and they were tender and surprisingly mild tasting. My husband and I had them for breakfast and found them to be almost sweet except for the blast of horseradish mixed with sour cream I added as a topping, which is truly great here. Indeed these became the appetizer for one holiday meal.
But I was curious — what other seasonings would work with this vegetable? I tried dark sesame oil, ghee, Aleppo pepper, smoked paprika, minced celery leaves, smoked salt, Maldon sea salt, isot pepper flakes from Turkey and dried oregano. They were all good — I’d go with any of them any day and I have. But I have to say that the grilled rutabagas were especially good with the leftover juices from the Christmas short ribs — a slick and shiny dark puddle of sauce under the white and gold heart-shaped vegetables.
I also turned to our more familiar variety of rutabagas, those with the purple tops and yellow flesh. They aren’t all that different — perhaps somewhat less mild than the Gilfeather — but the color is luscious and distinctly appealing.
Gilfeather rutabagas are named for Vermont farmer John Gilfeather, who grew them in the early 1900s. To protect his vegetable/product, to which he gave his name and the odd choice of the word turnip, he trimmed away the long roots and the top matter so no one could possibly propagate them. Eventually, others did figure it out. Today, if you want to grow them, you can look for the seeds at Fedco Seed Company, also in Vermont. If you do grow them and have the chance to leave them in the ground until after a good frost, you’ll be rewarded with extra delicacy and sweetness.
Top photo: A Gilfeather rutabaga before and after being cooked. Credit: Deborah Madison
When my husband was invited to practice his art of painting in rural — the word was emphasized many times in the acceptance letter — Ireland, we jumped on it and decided to go right away rather than wait until summer. Our stay was from Halloween to Christmas, covering the major holidays, which were pretty much nonexistent for us that year.
Winter is perhaps not the most perfect time to be on the rough and wild Atlantic coast of the Emerald Island — which, as you quickly come to understand, has to do with the copious amount of rain that falls. It was cold. And damp. Our cottage was stone, and there were gaps in the ceiling that allowed a view of the sky. My husband’s studio was heated, but for me, getting warm and staying that way was the challenge of each day. The recipe called for lots of hot water and alcohol.
Finding warmth in Ireland
Here’s how it worked. First, we were told not to use hot water unless it came from the night storage, a concept we found hard to follow but eventually understood: Electricity is cheaper at night than during the day, so water heated at night is more economical than water heated during the day. So I started the day by submerging myself in water that was as hot as I could stand and staying there until I really couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I dressed in an infinite number of layers that padded me like the Michelin Man, but they kept me warm until noon, when I repeated the process.
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About 3 p.m., when the light caved, I joined Patrick, my husband, in the pub across the street from his studio, where I had a hot whiskey with lemon and clove — divine because it warmed my hands as well as my insides. Then maybe I had a second one just to seal in the hint of warmth that I was sure was coming on. These drinks were pretty mild as alcohol goes. Even two weren’t nearly as strong as the real Irish coffee I had in a pub in a nearby town, where the combination of caffeine, sugar, booze and cream was simultaneously such an upper and downer that your day was done by the last sip. By comparison, the hot whiskey was like tea.
When we returned to our cottage, it was dark outside and cold inside. The first task was to light a peat fire in a fireplace that would never become hot it so dwarfed our expensive bundles of peat logs. There was a heater on one wall, which, if you leaned against it, could make a small portion of your bottom warm, but that was the sum total of its effectiveness.
Because cooking dinner helped produce some warmth, we headed to the kitchen. When Patrick would get a bottle out, it wasn’t that nicely chilled red wine temperature we’ve come to appreciate, nor was it frozen. But it was so frigid you might want to wear mittens to handle it. The wine glasses, too, were like bowls of ice. So we lit the burners on the stove, placed the bottle and glasses among them, and waited until the bottle felt right. By then the glasses would be, too, and dinner would be nearly prepared. We ate it huddled against the big metal fireplace that at least suggested coziness.
Finally, I’m ashamed to say, the best part of each day came, and that was getting into bed and lying on the enormous heating pad that worked like a reverse electric blanket: warming the bed rather than lying on top of you. Finally, here was warmth, and it stayed — regardless of the wind and the rain, which sounded like it was shot from nail guns. While in bed I read a lot about the famine years and tried to comprehend how people could be this cold and starving and yet continue on, while I was being such a wimp about it all.
Christmas in Dublin
By Christmas we were in Dublin, which felt very far from County Mayo in every way. The hotel room was warm; people were festive and jolly; the food was varied and good; there were amazing cheeses to be found; and a farmers market was filled with treats. The pubs were bustling, and there were warm cobblers with cream or mushrooms on toast for breakfast. I’ve never loved Christmas that much, but in Dublin it felt like a real celebration, with music on the streets and a big feeling of happiness in those around us. Of course, that’s when the Celtic Tiger was a big glossy cat, but it was last year, too, when we were there and the economics were quite reversed.
By far, the best holiday scene was one I had the good fortune to happen upon, and it had nothing to do with food. I was walking down a street when I noticed at least a 100 Santas standing together in front of a rather grand building. They were talking and smoking in their Santa outfits. That alone was quite something to see, and I would have been utterly content if it went no further. But then all at once the door of the building opened, and the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, stepped out, and all the Santas burst into boisterous song: “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” And they cheered the president in her red dress, and I think they might have tossed hats into the air.
Top photo: County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison
At a reading a few weeks ago in Portland, Ore., I finally blurted it out for the first time: “I hate the word veggies!” There was a stirring in the audience. I expected trouble, but instead, there was a solid murmur of agreement. One chef, Cathy Whims of Nostrana, said she couldn’t stand the word either, but was sometimes horrified to hear herself using it on occasion because it’s just around so much. Like using “like.” Can we make it go away?
And why would I bother to have and squander any emotion at all about the word veggies? I’ve wondered myself about why I don’t like it and won’t use it. I think it’s this: The word veggie is infantile. Like puppies. Or Cuties. It reduces vegetables to something fluffy and insubstantial. Think about it: We don’t say “fruities,” or “meaties” “or “wheaties” — unless it’s the cereal. We don’t say “eggies” or “beefies.” We don’t have a Thanksgiving birdy; we have the bird. But we don’t seem to be able to say vegetable. Certainly it’s no longer than saying “Grass-fed beef” or “I’ll have a latte.”
Veggie turns vegetables into something kind of sweet but dumb, and in turn, one who eats a lot of vegetables might be construed as something of a lightweight, but one who can somehow excused. “It’s just veggies, after all. They’ll snap out of it.”
‘Vegetables’ speaks to their many strong traits
But the word isn’t used just by errant omnivores. Vegetarians are very fond of the word too, and they use it all the time. Plant foods, especially vegetables, are the backbone of vegetarian magazines, yet even there they’re reduced to veggies. I think vegetable is a more dignifying name by far. Just think of what plants do and what they’ve gone through to be on our plates.
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They’ve been moved all around the world and gone rather willingly to where we humans have wanted them.
They’ve been altered to be pleasing to human palates.
They have adapted to all kinds of circumstances and survive against all odds and at extremes ranges of heat and cold, wetness and aridity.
The tiniest sprouts can move concrete. Eventually.
They can be dangerous and deadly, or they can be tender and sweet. And some come close to being both in the same plant. Like potatoes and tomatoes.
They can cure ills, for example, aspirin comes from willow; liver remedies are derived from members of the aster family, which include artichokes, burdock, chicories, milk thistle and lettuce among others; brassicas may prevent cancer. There’s the whole pharmaceutical stance one can take regarding vegetables given the truly amazing nutrition they offer.
Vegetables have serious means of protecting themselves — with spines and thorns, or by emitting subtle odors or substances. They can keep other plants at a distance so they alone can make use of limited amounts of water and nutrients; they can find ways to use other plants to climb on. Seed pods are cleverly designed to attach a ride to a jacket, a hat, a dog’s fur to be carried elsewhere to grow. (The burdock burr was the model for Velcro.) And they can defend themselves against predators; pinions discharge a sap that keeps bark beetles from boring in. (The food part is the pine nut).
Plants also keep other forms of life going by attracting bees and hummingbirds, moths and insects, which they feed. They can sometimes cajole birds into carrying away their seeds to plant elsewhere. Plus they give us flowers and fruits in abundance. We love honey of all varietals — especially that derived from thyme, a member of the mint family, and flowers, too. We even use flowers in the kitchen.
Their seeds can sometimes last for hundreds of years or more. Some sprout only in fires, which is one reason burned forests can recover some kind of growth soon after a fire.
They don’t complain when we waste them by using only the most tender parts and ignoring rough-looking leaves and stems and cores. Chickens are grateful of them.
In short, plants are generally quite amazing, strong and clever beings that evolve with time. Whether you are an omnivore or a vegetarian (or a chicken), we all benefit by eating plants. Plant foods. Vegetables. Fruits. Seeds. Stalks. Heads. Crowns. Skins. Cores.
I hadn’t thought about it when I was working on “Vegetable Literacy,” but I think — I hope — that the book, among other things, offers a way to go beyond the “veggie” concept of vegetables by introducing them as the eccentric and powerful personalities they are.
Top photo: Rainbow chard. Credit: Deborah Madison
A few carrots that didn’t get pulled one summer made their beautiful lacy flowers the next year, and it was easy to see that those blooms looked a lot like Queen Anne’s lace, cilantro blossoms and the diminutive chervil flower. Were they somehow related? More than just a pretty face, I knew there was something behind these flowers and the gorgeous vegetables I loved, something that united them and their forms, flavors and behaviors. But what?
I took those unread botany books off the shelves and found out that yes, these were all members of the umbellifer family and they all make umbel-like flowers, though varying enormously in size. This family includes a lot of wild but familiar plants, including the deadly hemlock, and it turns out that — minus the hemlock — they all happen to be harmonious in our mouths, both the vegetables and the many herbs in that family.
It’s all relative when it comes to vegetables
I started looking more into plant families, who is in them, their stories, their shared characteristics and the way they play in our kitchens. Like people, plant family members are indeed relatives.
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By Deborah Madison
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The daisy (composite) family, a group of ruffians, includes the prickly artichokes and cardoons; salsify and scorzanera all with their habit of oxidizing; the bitter chicories; plus milk thistle, dandelion and burdock — a feisty bunch of plants. Break any of the roots and a thick white sap appears. Taste it and you will recoil from its bitterness. But a lot of these bitter plants are good for the liver, it turns out. Interesting.
Members of the nightshade family have been universally resisted wherever they’ve been introduced. Tomatoes were thought to cause stomach cancer. The Russian Orthodox Church believed potatoes were not food because they weren’t mentioned in the Bible, and besides, why eat what a dog didn’t even find interesting? Eggplant was thought to cause leprosy, and the consumption of eggplant (and nightshades in general) stimulates the pain of arthritis, which is why some people avoid it, even today. Belladonna got its name because when ingested, the pupils of the eyes grew large and dark, which was considered a form of beauty in women. The difficulties in this family, presumed or real, are due to alkaloids that can be deadly in large quantities but helpful in smaller ones; we all get our eyes dilated by the optometrist so the doctor can look deeply into our eyes, though not because of their lustrous beauty.
The chenopods, or goosefoots (yes, I looked at a goose’s gnarly foot to confirm the association), include spinach, chard, beets, wild spinach or lamb’s-quarters, and all are related to quinoa and amaranth, whose leaves can be and are eaten as well as the seeds. Speaking broadly, they are interchangeable in the kitchen with respect to flavor. And if you have chard bolting in your garden, might you still be able to eat the leaves as they becomes smaller and further apart on their ever-lengthening stems? Indeed you can. And at this stage they taste more like some of the wild greens they’re related to. This is the kind of stuff that I find fascinating!
Anyone who gardens has opportunities that deepen one’s vegetable literacy and excitement. You’ll find treasures that won’t appear in your supermarket, such as coriander buds that are still green and moist, so surprising in the mouth and so well-paired with lentils. You get to see — and eat — the whole plant, not just the parts and pieces that show up in the store. Broccoli leaves, as well as the crowns and stems, are quite tasty, and the same is true of radish and kohlrabi leaves.
Leeks produce enormous ribbons of leaves, sometimes referred to as flags, and indeed you can wave them back and forth to signal someone, if need be. When left in the garden over winter, the shanks can grow to a few feet in length(!), by which time a firm core has formed, too dense to eat, but a great ingredient for soup stock. When a leek is left in the garden long enough to bloom, its enormous spherical flower mimics that of the pretty chive blossom. And when you finally encounter a mature leek in the garden you can see that it is a mighty and noble vegetable (one variety is named King Richard). Is it surprising that the leek is the national symbol of Wales?
The name knotweed (the family that includes rhubarb, sorrel and buckwheat) refers to jointed stems, but you might see that the blossoms of these plants resemble the kind of embroidery that consists of little knots. Not the botanical definition, but my own, and you may have your own interpretation of names, too. I might add it doesn’t take much imagination to bring these three challenging plants together in a recipe.
Does any of this matter? Yes and no. We can still buy vegetables and cook them without knowing a bit of botany or history. But it is enormously fun to bring the familial nature of vegetables into view, to know that what relates in the garden often does so in the kitchen, which encourages both confidence and daring. And if you garden at all, your eyes will be open to possibilities that just don’t exist elsewhere.
To me, vegetable literacy enriches our world — and our culinary possibilities — by regarding the whole, wonderful plant and its relatives, not just the pieces and parts of a few cultivars.
Top photo: Deborah Madison holds an allium. Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer
Last month, my husband and I went to Dublin, Ireland, to make up for an earlier visit that was ruined by a bad oyster. We still wanted to see this city, and so we returned. As for food, we had no particular agenda except that we wanted to go to the same place several times just for that feeling of having a place in a strange city.
We’ve always like the food at the Avoca stores, which we knew from living in Ireland. Avoca features Irish products, from woolens to oatcakes, and Dublin’s store also has a restaurant that offers food both traditional (fish pie in cream under mashed potatoes) and contemporary (accompanied by a salad of micro greens). The staff was friendly the way the Irish tend to be, so when my husband forgot his hat that first jet-lagged day, from then on we were greeted and teased not to forget it again. There’s something to be said for being a regular someplace, but the other side is that once you’ve eaten a good way through a menu, you’re hungry to explore other choices.
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On our previous visit in 2005, I, who did not get the bad oyster, was doing a piece for Gourmet magazine to accompany a story on Dublin. I ate at the most expensive restaurants, but only one of them was seemingly concerned with provenance. When we finally gave up our place at Avoca and turned to “eating out,” we had quite a different experience than in 2005. Here were menus where the source of every item, from vegetables to fish to game to breads, was named, along with those who made the bacon, made the cheese and smoked the haddock. It was surprising, astonishing even. The food was absolutely delicious and I was only sorry that we didn’t have another week to dine our way through the offerings at The Winding Stair, Chapter One and L’Ecrivain, among others.
Among the dishes we enjoyed was an earthy Jerusalem artichoke soup with ceps (they do not shy away from homely vegetables); Irish boxty with flat-cap mushrooms; Irish Hereford beef shin with colcannon (tender and oh so good); salmon cured with buttermilk whey; a spelt pearl risotto with beets and shaved fennel (and clearly a lot of good Irish butter); slow-cooked pork belly; and Ted Browne’s crab claws. Despite walking miles every day in chilly air, the desserts — of the rich and filling variety — were sadly unapproachable because there was absolutely no room for them.
Good Food Ireland a common theme during travels
One thing in common was that these restaurants claimed to be proud members of Good Food Ireland. What was that? Essentially, it’s a non-governmental industry group that links producers of Irish food to those who serve it. That sounded good, but was it for real or was Good Food Ireland (GFI) an organization that was just hitching a ride on the trend for the authentic and local?
As luck would have it, a few days after returning to New Mexico, Darina Allen, the doyen of Irish food and Ballymaloe Cookery School, called. She happened to be in Santa Fe, so we went to lunch and I asked her about Good Food Ireland. “Oh, that is a wonderful group!” she enthused. “And yes, they are the real deal!” Knowing that Darina’s opinion is based in reality, I was relieved. I liked the idea of Good Food Ireland. A lot. I wanted it to be just what it claimed.
GFI was started in 2006 by a woman named Margaret Jeffares, who was in the marketing business and lived on a farm in Wexford. It seemed obvious to her that there was a gap between the wonderful, authentic foods of Ireland and places where they might be experienced. Wouldn’t Irish tourism, both local and international (and with it farmers, producers and providers), be better served if there was a way to have a brand that established connection and authenticity to particular eateries? GFI is all about promoting Irish foods and linking food sources to restaurants to create “a trusted standard for authentic local food experiences.” The meals we ate at The Winding Stair, for example, certainly reflected this linkage, and to think that six years ago we never saw a menu that had so much transparency (or any, for that matter) regarding food sources.
Hearing Jeffares talk about founding GFI is to realize, as is always true with success stories, that her simple, obvious idea took an incredible amount of work to realize and its success was based in part on collaboration with the business sector of Ireland, with which she was familiar. She saw that “food tourism,” in which people should be able to experience the best foods a region had to offer, would benefit Ireland and its food producers and tourism in general.
As with Slow Food, Vermont Fresh Network and other movements here that promote authenticity and a true farm-to-table experience, even successful efforts involve a relatively small segment of the food-producing population. “Such establishments will always be in the minority,” Jeffares admits, in Ireland, too. But even so, there are more than 500 businesses committed to GFI’s core values of using locally produced food and products of high quality and service standards. And these core values apply not just to high-end restaurants but to B&Bs, hotels, pubs, cafes, cooking schools, farmers markets, food shops and more. It’s a great model for any country, but it probably helps to be a smaller one, like Ireland.
If you go to Ireland, look up Good Food Ireland and use it as a guide. You can even make your own tour based on where its member businesses are, if an authentic Irish food experience is what you want. And in my limited experience, I’d say it’s well worth having.
Photo: Cheeses for sale at a Dublin, Ireland, farmers market. Credit: Deborah Madison
Recently, I was at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, getting some last images for my new book, “Vegetable Literacy.” Although the late summer days were hot, it was chilly at 6 in the morning. Dew wet our feet and hems while gloves and socks, unthinkable until that moment, were very much desired. But the display garden at dawn mitigated any discomfort, especially the beds of Brassica vegetables — kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages — which had the whole summer to grow and were now displaying their enormous leaves.
There’s always that moment when a garden starts to sigh and sink and say, in so many plant expressions, “Enough. We’re done.” It looks so exhausted that you can’t imagine there’s much left to harvest. Probably all our gardens are looking this way about now. Yet if you dig around you often discover there are still a few more tomatoes yet to ripen, the Jerusalem artichokes are coming on strong, and tiny cabbages are starting to emerge on the stems of the Brussels sprouts. The garden is far from finished, despite the strain it shows from a summer of growth, and what’s really looking big and strong, albeit somewhat tired, are cabbages and collards and those other big Brassicas.
The cabbages were especially impressive. They always are because they take up so much more room than their harvested heads would lead you to imagine. The enormous old grandmother-grandfather leaves that had been there since the start of the plants’ growth showed their scars. Though weathered, punctured by hail and nibbled upon by insects, they were still gathering sunlight and feeding the edible head. They’re hard-working plants. My respect for them, already considerable, grew even more.
The broccoli’s larger heads had long been picked, but smaller sprouts were ready for the taking — had this not been a demonstration garden, that is. The kales seemed energized by the cooler days and looked as if they were ready to sprint along for the next several months. Nothing looks as if it would be better for you to eat than kale — it is just so robust. If it were a person, I might add tightly wound.
Collards? Also huge. Brussels sprouts? What an architectural plant with the branches jutting out from the stalk leaving a window that you can peer in and see the sprouts starting to take shape.
Garden color arrives with vibrant hues of Brassica vegetables
But among all this vigor what really stood out was the extraordinary range of garden color these plants exhibited. We think of cabbages of red and green, but the leaves themselves are more of a dusky plum or a muted grayish blue-green. Pull away the leaf that just covers a head of red cabbage and beneath it is shiny purple, nothing like the smoky purple outer leaves. The broccoli and the Tuscan kale leaves are a surprising shade of blue-green-gray that escapes you until you see them en masse, not just in a bunch. The stems of the Brussels sprout leaves radiate a suggestion of violet, while the little sprouts are that calm slate green of the leaves. Taken together, the effect of all these shades and hues is breathtaking and utterly surprising. What we think of as green is actually a wide range of hues that embraces purple on the one side, green-blacks on the other, with shades of slate, blue-green, gray-green and every other shade in between. It’s another good reason for having a garden, or for visiting one like that at Heritage Farm. The goodness of plants is nothing if not layered — taste, nourishment and beauty all at once.
(Heritage Farm is the headquarters for the Seed Savers Exchange. Visiting hours and events are posted on its website at www.seedsavers.org.)
Top photo: A Mammoth Red Rock cabbage at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. Credit: Deborah Madison