Back to my roots

They may not be pretty to look at, but root vegetables are just the thing to put a smile on your face this winter. Mark Hix digs deep
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Straight from the ground they're muddy and sometimes knobbly; they don't always even scrub up that well, appearance-wise. Roots aren't exactly the supermodels of the vegetable catwalk but what they lack in looks they make up for with their personalities. As with so many things, you shouldn't be put off by appearances.

Straight from the ground they're muddy and sometimes knobbly; they don't always even scrub up that well, appearance-wise. Roots aren't exactly the supermodels of the vegetable catwalk but what they lack in looks they make up for with their personalities. As with so many things, you shouldn't be put off by appearances.

Take the humble parsnip, for example. Not much to look at I grant you, but it's got such a sweet personality. It roasts to perfection, especially drizzled with honey for the last 10 minutes of cooking, it makes delicious velvety soup and you can turn it into the sweetest, most irresistible and strangely shaped crisps on the planet.

When we don't think beyond the obvious veg we're losing out on so much. In my early working days in big hotel kitchens in London the vegetable section, where everyone starts their career, only seemed to churn out French beans, spinach, broccoli and the obligatory turned carrots. Turning the carrots involved paring so they took on the shape of a barrel. Why on earth do that to a carrot - or a potato for that matter - you may well ask? Well at the time it was all the rage to garnish plates with vegetables that had had a bit of a face lift. Looking back it seems a complete waste of time, and a waste of good vegetables too as you'd end up throwing more than half the carrot away, unless your really were a master turner. We used to compete against each other to get the tedious job done quicker so we could get down the pub. Now I'm convinced that the best way to get the most flavour from your carrots is to slice them and simply cook them in butter, water, a little seasoning and sugar.

Mutton and root vegetable broth

Serves 4-6

Yes - I'm on the mutton crusade again, and I'm in good company. The Prince of Wales has put his name to a campaign to give the meat the recognition it deserves. Mutton has such a great flavour and cooking with it helps the farmers find a home for those sheep that are slightly over the hill, as it were. Once you've cooked or braised mutton and discovered how tasty it can be, your slow-cooked lamb just doesn't seem as interesting.

200g neck of mutton fillet, cut into rough 1cm dice
1/2tsp chopped thyme leaves
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 litres lamb or chicken stock or made from a good quality cube
30g lentils, soaked in cold water for 1 hour then drained
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into rough 1/2cm cubes
1 medium parsnip, peeled and cut into rough 1/2cm cubes
100-120g swede, peeled and cut into rough 1/2cm cubes
1 small turnip, peeled and cut into rough 1/2cm cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp chopped parsley

Put the lamb, thyme and onions into a large pan and cover with the stock. Season, bring to the boil and simmer for a little more than an hour until the mutton is tender.

Add the lentils and vegetables and simmer for another 30 minutes.

Add the parsley and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Check seasoning and serve.

Scallops with Jerusalem artichokes and bacon

Serves 4

The humble Jerusalem artichoke has an earthy taste that perfectly offsets the sweetness and luxuriousness of the scallops. Ask your fishmonger to clean the scallops as they can be tricky for the uninitiated to deal with.

12 medium scallops, cleaned and left in the cupped half shell
300g Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and halved if large
1tbsp olive oil
6 thick rashers of streaky bacon, cut into rough 1/2cm dice or you can buy the equivalent of pre-diced pancetta
80g butter
1tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cover the artichokes in salted water, bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until tender. Drain well and blend until smooth in a blender or food processor. Return to a clean pan on a low heat, stirring so it doesn't stick, until the purée is spooning consistency, but not wet and sloppy. Season, stir in about 30g butter and keep warm.

Meanwhile remove the scallops from the shell and season. Rub a non-stick pan with the tiniest amount of olive oil (too much will make the scallops boil not sear) and heat until almost smoking. Add the scallops and cook for a minute on each side, then remove from the pan and place on to a plate. Lower the heat and add the bacon and the rest of the olive oil to the pan. Cook gently for 2-3 minutes, stirring every so often, add the rest of the butter and heat until it begins to foam, remove from the heat and add the parsley.

To serve, warm the shells in a low oven for a few minutes then spoon the Jerusalem artichoke purée into the shells and place a scallop on top. Divide the shells between the plates and spoon the butter and bacon on top of the scallops.

Carrot and cumin salad

Serves 4 as a salad

I have a thing about cumin. It's one of the many spices found in curries that makes you crave them so badly they can almost become addictive. In North Africa cumin is widely used with meat, fish and vegetables, as in this simple carrot salad. The carrot and cumin seem made for each other.

Serve this salad as part of a mezze selection or as an accompaniment for a roast joint, like lamb (or mutton), as in North Africa.

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1tsp ground cumin
1tsp cumin seeds
4tbsp olive oil
6 medium sized carrots, trimmed, peeled and thinly sliced
100ml orange juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp chopped coriander leaves

Gently cook the onion in the olive oil on a low heat with the ground cumin and seeds for 4-5 minutes, without colouring and stirring every so often. Add the carrots and orange juice, season and add enough water just to cover the carrots. Bring to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer until just tender. Remove the lid, turn the heat up and cook on a medium heat until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Transfer to a bowl and leave to cool. Stir in the coriander and serve the carrots at room temperature.

Bubble and squeak

Serves 4-6

This was traditionally made with leftovers from, normally, a roast meal. You don't have to rely on leftovers, though, to enjoy bubble and squeak. It can be made the day before and moulded, then fried for breakfast or brunch, or kids' tea, the following day, served with a fried egg on top, or to go with bangers or a chop.

150g swede or parsnip (or both), peeled and cut into chunks
250g cabbage, trimmed
250g Brussels sprouts, trimmed
1 leek, well rinsed, trimmed and roughly chopped
250g Charlotte or similar waxy potatoes, peeled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Celery salt
Worcestershire sauce
Vegetable oil, to fry
Flour, to dust

If you haven't got any leftovers, you'll have to cook all the vegetables from scratch. Cook the swede or parsnip and potatoes together and get the sprouts on in another pan, adding the cabbage and leek half way through. Drain all the veg well, quarter the potatoes and chop the cabbage and sprouts. Put all the cooked vegetables in a bowl and mix well. Season with salt, pepper and celery salt, then add Worcestershire sauce to taste.

Heat some vegetable oil in a non-stick or heavy bottomed frying pan until it is almost smoking and fry the mixture a little at a time until it begins to colour, turning it with a wooden spoon. Then return it to the bowl and leave it to cool. Adjust the seasoning, mould the cooled mixture into even-sized cakes and refrigerate.

When you are ready to serve them, lightly flour the cakes and heat some more vegetable oil in a frying pan. Cook the cakes for about 3-4 minutes on each side, until golden brown.

Thyme-roasted beets

Serves 4-6

This is the time of year to enjoy beetroot with game and roasts instead of hooking it out of a jar of vinegar. Lots of shops and greengrocers will sell beetroots ready cooked, but you're better off buying it raw and doing it yourself. Beetroot is catching on these days. English farmers are cultivating old coloured varieties for this season in white, yellow, orange and even striped for all you fashion-conscious veggies. If you are choosing different colours then cook them separately as you would when you're washing your whites with your colours.

1kg raw beetroots (different colours if you wish)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp fresh thyme leaves
70-80ml olive oil
A good knob of butter

Put your beetroot in a pan, cover with cold water and add a good tablespoon of salt. Bring to the boil and simmer for about an hour or until tender. You can test by just putting the point of a knife or skewer into the centre of the beetroot, they may take longer depending on the size.

Drain in a colander and leave to cool, you can speed up the process by plunging them into cold water. Remove the skins by rubbing them off with your hands; a pair of rubber gloves will save you getting red stained hands. Cut the beets into even sized chunky wedges, quarters or halves if they are small.

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/Gas mark 6. Put the beetroot in a roasting tray with the olive oil and seasoning and roast for 30 minutes, giving the occasional stir. Stir in the thyme and return to the oven for another 15 minutes, again stirring every so often. Add the butter, stir well so it melts over the beets, and serve.