Dancing with the starches

While the winter weather hems and haws, trying to decide whether to leave us alone or slam us with snow and ice, the gardens and the fields here in northern Ohio make it pointedly clear that if you’re looking for fresh produce, you’d better be prepared to look long and hard. Most grocers won’t have an abundance of local produce to sell, and if you didn’t spend your summer and fall tucking away jars and freezer bags, you might just give up your quest to become a dedicated locavore.

This is nothing new to those of us born in less favorable climes. Our ancestors learned a long time ago that with a good root cellar or cold storage (some place cool, dark, and dry with air circulation), many vegetables and some fruits could be kept for months and savored during the dark days of winter, even without shelves full of canned and pickled produce. High-starch foods like potatoes and sweet potatoes, winter squash, turnips and rutabagas, and — to a lesser extent — carrots, parsnips, and apples all make up the classic winter foods here in the north, and many continue to grace local farm stands and orchards well into the snowy months.

Starches, like other carbohydrates, consist of long strings of glucose molecules, and as they are digested, they break down into sugars in the body. For this reason, they get a bad rap among diet-driven folks who may not realize how vital glucose is to the proper functioning of the human body, especially the brain. These starchy vegetables release their sugars slowly into the body, providing a moderated and necessary flow of energy to cells, and they also pack a nutritional wallop with loads of vitamin C, carotenes, and potassium — all useful vitamins and minerals necessary for keeping a person healthy during cold and flu season.

I can hear you thinking, Sure, that all sounds great, but good grief, isn’t that a rather boring selection of produce for the long, cold, dreary months of winter?

Well, if that were all we had to eat from November through March, then yes, many of us would go absolutely stir-crazy. (Ever hear of cabin fever?) That’s why food preservation becomes so important during the harvest season.

But even these unassuming vegetables can take on a bit of glamour with just the right preparation. Let’s see what they can do…

Spud’s new?

Potatoes, to me, are the ultimate food, loaded with good nutrition. Baked, steamed, boiled, fried, roasted, or tossed into soups and stews, they can go from simple to elegant and from ordinary to blissful. Because of their bland nature, they pair well with almost any herb or spice, any cuisine, and almost any other food. Sweet potatoes may not seem quite as versatile, but they, too, can be prepared with a number of different techniques, spices, and cuisines. And when you combine the two, the blend of colors and flavors can take a plain potato dish to new heights.

Among my favorite ways to prepare potatoes and sweet potatoes in the cold weather are:

•Hash browns: They’re so easy to prepare, and if you feel a little adventurous, they’re even better with a dash of curry powder and a dollop of yogurt or chutney on top — for breakfast or for dinner!

•Roasting brings together the best of all worlds: a soft center with a crisp outside. I love potatoes roasted with olive oil, rosemary, and sea salt, as well as roasted sweet potatoes with Indian spices.

•While potatoes and sweet potatoes are natural additions to soups (includes recipe) and stews, I especially enjoy them in any number of Indian dishes that simmer in a spicy sauce. (I’ve found that potatoes turn out extra velvety when I use whey left over from paneer-making in these dishes.)

•Asian flavors provide comfort in a sweet potato stir-fry, often with dark greens like kale or bok choy.

Being good, relatively unobtrusive starches, both potatoes and sweet potatoes can add moisture and depth to baked goods, from yeast breads to cakes and pies. I’ve made a couple kinds of bread and crackers from mashed potatoes, and a recipe for sweet potato crescent rolls periodically calls to me.

Someone to squash over me

When I really want to come up with a comforting but classy winter meal (especially for friends), I pull out the squash. My favorite is the big, intensely orange-fleshed butternut, and I usually stock up on them when I see them at the farmers market come fall, or when I find them at the local orchard, though sometimes acorn squash have more appeal when I want to roast and stuff them. As long as the skin isn’t dented or broken, a good squash will last for months, even just sitting out on the table.

Winter squash has a more distinctive flavor than the tubers, but its mild sweetness and rich texture make it an ideal partner for other foods and spices. I usually like to build on that soft, rich flavor and add other foods with deep flavors, accented with something bright and tangy and/or something crunchy. That’s why I enjoy coming up with meals like these:

Pizza! Take a whole wheat and spelt crust (homemade with local grains); spread it with a puree of roasted garlic, toasted pecans, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, dried thyme, salt and pepper; and top with thin slices of roasted squash, carmelized onions and apples, small kale leaves, crumbled goat cheese, and a drizzle of more pomegranate molasses. Savory, sweet, salty, piquant, rich –- it’s got everything I want for a meal on a cold night.

Pasta or risotto dressed with sauteed squash can also carry the lush flavors of nuts, the sharp edge of dark leafy greens, the sour tang of a vinegar-based confit or chutney, creamy cheese, and warming herbs like rosemary, sage, or thyme.

–A thick stew or bisque (recipe), using squash that has been steamed and pureed, can either combine multiple vegetables and a grain or simply showcase the satisfying flavor of the squash on its own.

–Mashed and sauteed with onions, garlic, and spices, squash makes an excellent filling for somsas, a Silk Road version of samosas found in "The Vegetarian Hearth" (recipe follows). Easy to make and well-partnered by a tangy chutney, they charm guests in their role as appetizers but also fill a lunchbox very nicely.

Mashed squash also finds its way into baked goods, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has eaten pumpkin bread or pumpkin pie. If you can use pumpkin, why not any other kind of winter squash? I’ve used mashed squash in yeast breads, muffins, coffee cakes, and even pancakes with a variety of sweet spices, all of which leave me (and the occasional lucky recipient of my baking leftovers) clamoring for more.

Don’t get a root much any more

I confess to having a "love ‘em or leave ‘em" attitude toward the root vegetables: I love carrots and parsnips, but when it comes to turnips, I leave ‘em right there on the farm stand or the produce bin. Carrots and parsnips bewitch me with their sweetness, especially when roasted, but the aftertaste of turnips leaves me bothered and, well, bewildered. (And I’ve never tried rutabagas, though I hope to remedy that someday.)

Carrots, of course, can be eaten scrubbed and raw –- the most basic preparation ever -– but they, too, have a wide range of possibilities. Shred them into potato pancakes or make a salad with them on their own, such as the Uzbek carrot salad (includes recipe) I found a few years ago and still rave about (especially on peanut butter sandwiches, strangely enough). Slice or chop them and add them to vegetable soups or stews; they’ll fit in with almost any herb. They find a particularly cozy niche in Indian recipes combining multiple vegetables, and they even show up in halwa, a sweet and satisfying pudding. And don’t forget that they can span the daily menu from breakfast (in muffins; see recipe) to dessert (carrot cake, anyone?).

Parsnips are a little more forward in their taste… still sweet, but with a definite sassy streak. I like them shredded into a parsnip and greens galette, laced with toasted walnuts and sage butter; cooked and pureed with carrots in a curried bisque; or roasted with other winter vegetables.

As for turnips, I know they add a certain something to soups and stews, and I have a recipe for a very creamy and rich turnip gratin, but I just haven’t been tempted enough to try it. Even the turnip sandwiches found in "Plenty" (p.37) fail to rouse my interest (perhaps by the very nature of their last-ditch alternative status to bread). I haven’t closed the book on turnips completely, though: tell me a recipe for turnips that you absolutely love, and I might just give it a try — once the local turnips come in next fall.

In the mood (for winter food)

Granted, all these starchy vegetables get to be a bit much after a while, and I have to supplement them with green vegetables from the freezer, canned and pickled vegetables, and — yes, I admit it — non-local dark leafy greens and citrus fruit from the grocery store. Without that added variety, I would definitely find my passion for cooking waning, and I wouldn’t eat well enough to stay healthy when the viruses start swarming. So during the winter months, I tend to bend a little more on the "local" aspect of SOLE food, as long as I can continue to meet the other ideals.

The high-starch vegetables play an important role in our winter diets, giving us the extra nutrition and energy we northerners need to stay warm and well-fed when the snow flies. But you’d better believe that we’re counting down the days until the start of this year’s farmers market, and the first fresh leafy greens and other spring vegetables!

Silk Road Somsas / Samosas
Adapted from "The Vegetarian Hearth." Makes a dozen turnovers.

1 c unbleached flour
1/2 c whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 c water
1 T plain nonfat yogurt

1 T ghee or canola oil
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small hot pepper, seeded and minced (or use 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper)
1 c butternut squash, peeled, cubed, steamed, and mashed
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp crumbled dried mint (optional)

Oil or 1 egg, lightly beaten, to brush on turnovers

To make dough, whisk together flours and salt. Make a well in the center and add water and yogurt. Mix thoroughly, gathering dough into a ball. Knead briefly in the bowl until dough holds together, then turn out onto floured surface and allow to rest while you make the filling.

Heat ghee or oil in heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Saute onion until it becomes translucent, then add garlic and hot pepper and sauté for another minute or two, making sure the mixture doesn’t brown too deeply. Stir in squash and spices, and continue to cook mixture for a few minutes, until entire mixture has been heated through and flavors have had a chance to develop.

Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease a baking sheet and set aside.

Divide dough into 12 pieces and roll each piece out into a 4" square or circle. Place a heaping tablespoonful of filling on half of each piece. Fold the other half of the dough over the filling, sealing the edges. (You can shape the turnovers as rectangles, folding from one side to another, or as triangles, folding from corner to corner.) Set turnovers on baking sheet and brush lightly with either oil or beaten egg. (Oil will add to the browning only slightly; egg will cause the dough to become golden brown, shiny, and a little crackly.)

Bake somsas for 20 minutes, until dough has firmed and turned light brown. Remove from baking sheet and serve warm, preferably with chutney.

10 Responsesto “Dancing with the starches”

  1. Ed Bruske says:

    Great piece, Jennifer. Very thorough. Potatoes may be a bit of a problem who are watching the glycemic index. Really fresh turnips are a thing of beauty. Try mashing the with potatoes, or with blue cheese. You need to try rutabagas. Fank Zappa would insist. I will send you my recipe for rutabaga souffle if you like.

  2. The glycemic index can be a problem with any of these starchy foods, I know, which is why I always try to eat them with other vegetables. But they’re still worth eating, just in moderation.

    I would, indeed, appreciate your rutabaga souffle recipe, Ed. I can save it for next year! I forgot to mention that I’ve had a cream of turnip soup at the local Bistro and enjoyed that rather well (perhaps because of the addition of roasted garlic?) And my dad informs me that I should eat turnips raw as they taste more like kohlrabi (which I love). So, I’ll give them a go again sometime.

  3. Leah Koenig says:

    Great post – and fantastic title and sub-headings. They made me laugh :)

    Editor, The Jew & The Carrot

  4. ExPat Chef says:

    Try the less common varieties of turnips, not the purple tops. The all white ones lack that odd bitterness. Also, I have a recipe for honey-glazed turnips that is pretty good back on my site. Squash recipes sound good. I still have about 75 lbs. of various squashes lurking in the basement.

  5. Thanks, Leah… somehow I found myself enjoying good big band music while I wrote. Good inspiration! :-)

    ExPat Chef, thanks for the suggestions. I did find baby red turnips at the farmers market last spring, and they were better than the regular ones. I’ll take a look at your honey-glazed recipe… that might just do the trick!

    (And I still have three walloping big squashes waiting for me at home. I can’t bear to look at them after working on this article, so I had to thaw a bag of frozen asparagus!!!)

  6. azurite says:

    I enjoyed this post very much–you talk about your interest in eating locally, how your managing to do so during the winter (as much as possible), in an interesting and informative way and without self-righteousness or preaching. I live in a different climate but deal with a somewhat similar reality–root veg is what’s around, although leafy greens are also possible. Sometimes (my Italian parsley is still alive despite some pretty cold weather for here), so kale might still be alive too (if I had some growing). I’ve been trying a variety of squash recipes (latest was a squash risotto from a recipe from Eating Well) for the past two years as well as experimenting with parsnips & turnips.

    You’ve given me some more ideas as well as two recipes to try. A good post.

  7. azurite says:

    Oops, it should be you’re, not your, in the second line.

  8. Thank you, Azurite… I know I can get preachy or dogmatic about local foods at times, but I remind myself that pleasure is important, too! Squash risotto is a definite winner (maybe I should make that soon). And I’m happy to report that my pot of kale is sprouting yet more leaves after I picked it almost clean on New Year’s Day… oh happy day!

    Let me know if the recipes work out well for you! Enjoy!

  9. Mellifera says:

    We did find one really good use for turnips (even the purple-tops from the store, and even if they’re a little older and spongy):

    Mashed turnips! Half-and-half mashed turnips/mashed potatoes are SO GOOD. Potatoes are kind of bland, and turnips are pretty mustardy; put together they have a flavor that’s good even without salt or butter. Turnips mash much smoother than potatoes, so mashed poturnips end up very velvety. One word on preparation, a chunk of turnip seems to cook slower than an equal chunk of potato, so when boiling them cut the turnip chunks a little smaller.

  10. Thank you for the excellent tips, Mellifera! That sounds like it’s worth trying… besides, who can resist saying “poturnips”? :-)

    Upon checking with my dad, he mentioned something similar. Which just goes to show you should listen to your parents, I guess… ;-)