Roots of nobility

FOOD Roast vegetables: the heart of a Sunday lunch

Sometimes I think there is as much pleasure - but only just - in preparing and eating winter vegetables as there is in podding the first peas and broad beans, washing tiny new carrots and Jersey Royals, and stringing thin runner beans. By winter veg, I mean roots and tubers.

Mashing is one of our favourite pastimes: some may look upon it as a national obsession. Swede is the one that is particularly controversial, bringing to mind school dinners and the works canteen. It is also synonymous with Scotland, where it would be unheard of not to serve a puree of swede to accompany haggis, referred to as neeps. Jane Grigson points out, in her endlessly informative vegetable book (Penguin, pounds 4.95), that the name neep derives from the Latin for turnip, napus - as does the French word navet. But for some time now bashed neeps have always been fashioned from swede - and a good thing too, for a puree of turnips does not, for me, have much going for it. Far better that small, whole turnips be tucked around a roast, to become sweet and golden and add sugary juices to the bottom of the tin, adding depth and colour to a good gravy.

Parsnips do this too, of course. Anybody who loves a good roast knows that the parsnips are one of the very best things about it (apart from the French, who deem parsnips - panais - only good enough for feeding to cattle). And the more fiercely roasted the better. Some, myself included, think that the odd edge of complete carbonisation (burnt black) is what makes a roast parsnip so special. And if we are talking about what contributes to a good gravy, bung in a couple of peeled carrots around the roast, too (and a couple of halved onions - but they don't feature in this week's thesis).

As for potatoes, roasting them requires more care and skill than is generally thought worthwhile. First of all, it is important to use the right potato. King Edwards are good, as are Cara, Desiree, Maris Piper and Pentland Dell, according to Lindsey Bareham in her exhaustive thesis, In Praise of the Potato (Penguin, pounds 9.99). It is also necessary to parboil the potatoes before submerging them in fat. If this is not done, the potato ends up with a leathery skin rather than a crust: it is not possible to get crust unless starch is released, which happens during the boiling process. Be brave: take the potatoes as far as possible before draining. The bits that have collapsed during cooking - through carelessness - will often be the best roasties of the batch.

Celeriac is the fashionable Continental root of the past ten years or so. But I am not so sure of its appeal. It can often be difficult to get right. Some recipes for this favourite puree suggest cooking it in milk, perhaps to add richness and keep its colour. But sometimes this just does not work: the root still turns brown and the milk splits, so you end up with khaki globules and a rather stale smell of stewed celery rather than something that should be fresh tasting and expectantly creamy. Give me swede or parsnip any day, for a good mashed root.

We used to have a great little implement at home to make mashed carrots. It was a simple-looking thing with a green handle, two metal spurs that connected to a corrugated chopper, and no electrically motivated switch. All you did was to cook the carrots in boiling, salted water, then drain them and put them back into the pan with a goodly knob of butter and much freshly ground pepper. Out would come the miniature, corrugated garden hoe (for that, in essence, is what it looked like) and with a brisk hand movement the carrots could be chopped and scraped, chopped and scraped, until an orange mass was achieved, all sweetly-buttery-smelling and Sunday-lunchy. A bit of chopped mint might be recklessly added, but that was all the embellishment necessary.

Mashed carrots today can resemble brightly coloured babies' poo (and when you contemplate some of the bottled vegetable purees people feed them with, it is little wonder).

Here are nice things to do with root vegetables.

Roast parsnips

It is a good idea to use large parsnips, as small ones tend to shrivel up and lose their flavour. To achieve good, blackened edges, cut the parsnips in half (after peeling) across the middle, halve the more slender part lengthways and similarly quarter the thicker, top portion. This should give fairly equal parts. Some people insist on removing the core, but I find this unnecessary.

Blanch for 5-10 minutes in boiling salted water and drain well. Roll lightly in flour and plunge into hot dripping. If you're not cooking with a roast, but just fancy roasting parsnips anyway, then a combination of olive oil and butter gives a lovely flavour and also produces a pale golden crust to the vegetable. Some like it put into a little honey in the roasting dish, but I often find that this burns (and I don't much like honey, anyway).

Roast turnips

Turnips need blanching in water before cooking, just to get rid of an inherent bitterness, and it usually needs doing twice. Peel first and then bring up to the boil, drain and repeat. Refresh under cold water and then proceed as for parsnips, but don't flour. Rolling in a little sugar can produce a rich sheen to the surface, and accentuates the flavour, too.

Stewed carrots

I used to think that carottes Vichy were cooked in Vichy water. It seemed a good idea to cook a simple root vegetable in good quality water, particularly one that has flavour to it - slightly salty and sweet from the minerals. But, with all those dishes of carottes Vichy on menus all over the world, there would not be enough of the water left to drink if it were always used for cooking carrots.

It is a simple dish, but requires care and attention. Very little water should be used, just enough to cover, and the carrots should be cut very thinly into circles (a mandoline is best for this), no more than the thickness of a two-pence piece. Traditionally, just for prettiness, the peeled carrot is given five or six lengthwise grooves before it is sliced, using a special canneling knife (simply French for channelling). So when the carrots are in slices their look is almost flower shaped. I happen to like this affectation (along with bristly spring onion flowers and sculpted radishes).

Season the carrots with a little salt and sugar and add a good knob of butter. As the carrots cook, they soak up some of the butter and the water reduces somewhat. The resultant liquor becomes even more tasty if chopped mint or parsley is stirred into it just before serving.

For a luxurious dish of hot carrots, some of the cooking liquor can be drained off into another pan and reduced until syrupy, and some cream added. This is then boiled together and added back to the carrots. Delicious with a leg of roast lamb.

Mashed swedes

First of all, make sure the swedes are firm and smooth (just because they are a hard lump of a vegetable, some greengrocers think they will last for ever). Peel and cut into large lumps; small pieces will allow too much water to soak in during cooking. Simmer gently in salted water until very tender and drain thoroughly. In my opinion, the only method for mashing swede is to use a mouli-legumes. The coarsest blade is best here, as it does not make the mixture too smooth. But the most important next step is to put the mashed swedes to drain in a sieve or colander for 10-15 minutes. This allows any excess water to drain off (one of the reasons for mashed swede being unappetising is because it is often served up as a watery sludge). Now tip the mash back into a pan, turn the heat up and briskly stir in butter - as much as you dare - and grind in plenty of black pepper. An additional touch of double cream can also be recommended.

Roast potatoes with garlic and rosemary

Olive oil is the fat to use in this Italian-inspired recipe. Allow one large potato per person (for varieties, see above). Peel, cut into one- inch chunks and wash thoroughly until the water is clear. Simmer until almost tender in salted water, remove with a slotted spoon and allow to dry on a clean tea towel. Heat a generous amount of pure (not virgin) olive oil in a cast-iron dish - to sit on a flame and also go into the oven - until almost smoking. Carefully tip in the potatoes, season and gently shake around in the oil. Put into the bottom of a hot oven and leave without disturbance for about 30 minutes. Once a crust has formed on the underside of the potato pieces, lift up gently with a fish slice and turn over. Return to the oven with sprigs of rosemary tucked in, and several cloves of unpeeled, bashed garlic. Roast for a further 15 minutes, until golden brown and crunchy. Lift out with a slotted spoon and serve. Collect any excess oil, and use again for other dishes

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