Roots Latkes

Most kids, upon reviewing what they ate during college, will talk about late night burrito runs. There will be a fair share of ramen noodle stock-up stories, and an assessment of the school’s dining facilities. For a student who has moved off campus, such a topic is likely to provoke a discussion of microwaveable meals. I had my share of those as well, I’ll readily admit, particularly during the month after a stunningly disorienting and unexpected breakup during which I subsisted mainly on Coca-Cola, boxed stuffing mix, Godiva ice cream, and carne asada burritos to-go from a restaurant next door to the grocery store where I was buying the rest of my supplies.

Food Blog November 2014-0694Thankfully, that month or so was an exception. For much of my off-campus college career, I lived with one other girl in a duplex her mom rented to us, and we fed each other. Sometimes it was easy stuff: pancakes, omelets, pasta with jarred red sauce, sometimes something a bit junkier like Oreo milkshakes. But we definitely introduced each other to our classics. One of mine was a modification of an old Ghirardelli oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe. One of hers was a simple, lovely little roasted vegetable dish her family just called “roots.” Roots consisted of, well, roots. Russet potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, and sometimes beets got peeled, cubed, and tossed with salt, pepper, and olive oil. The first time she made it for us, K. said that she wasn’t sure how much olive oil to use, but that her mom said it should be just enough that the raw cubes of vegetables “glistened.” Then we loaded them into large glass casserole dishes and roasted them until they were done.

Food Blog November 2014-0681Roots comprised whole meals for us during those years. Sometimes there would be some kind of green side, but mostly we just sat down (never at the table, always on the couch) with big bowls of autumnal cubes, toasty and brown on the outside, starchy and pillowy soft on the inside, and inhaled them. It was reasonably good for us, it was filling, it was delicious, and best of all, it was cheap. The biggest disadvantage to the whole endeavor was getting a cashier at the grocery store who didn’t recognize “weird” vegetables like rutabagas and parsnips, and would take a long time looking up the codes to ring them up.

Food Blog November 2014-0682Over the years, I’ve made roots more times than I can count. They are a lovely comfort food dish: simple to make, hot and forgiving, and easily changed up depending on what vegetables and herb combinations you like the best. Over time, I’ve eliminated beets from the equation, and opted to add plenty of chopped rosemary to the requisite salt, pepper, and olive oil.

But recently, I got thinking about roots again and wondered what it would be like to turn these simple cubed, roasted vegetables into a latke. This would increase the ratio of crisp edges to soft interior, always a good thing, and cut down a bit on preparation as well as cooking time – you can just shred everything in a food processor before frying it up, rather than cubing by hand before waiting out the hour or more the original takes in the oven.

Food Blog November 2014-0687This was, as it turned out, exactly the right thing to do. I opted for potato, carrot, parsnip, and rutabaga as my key players. They whiz into a tangle of starchy threads. Half an onion joins the party – it’s part of a standard latke, and it’s a root vegetable too. As a nod to the common practice of serving latkes with applesauce, I added a tart green apple to the vegetable combination and was pleased with the sweet sharpness it contributed. And I preserved my own love of rosemary with a hefty tablespoon in the mix.

A few eggs, a toss with some flour, and salt and pepper to season, and you carefully drop-pour dollops of the sticky mixture into hot vegetable oil, preferably in a nicely seasoned cast iron pan. It sizzles, it browns, you flip it, and within ten minutes from your first addition of batter, you are passing out hot roots latkes to your delighted diners. Or, if you want to serve everything together, you can stow each batch in the oven on a rack in a baking tray to keep them warm and crisp.

Food Blog November 2014-0690What you are left with is a reasonably quick, reasonably easy (both provided you have a food processor with a shredding disk) meal that doesn’t cost much but tastes exactly right for the approach of chillier weather. The flavors are more complex than your standard latke – there’s a mix of sweetness from the addition of the carrot and the apple. The parsnip and rutabaga have a spicy, earthy flavor that reminds me somehow of incense, a feeling pleasantly intensified by the rosemary.

Since I’d already captured the applesauce element by adding apple to the batter, I served these with a dollop of sour cream as a nod to another classic pairing.

Food Blog November 2014-0695

Roots latkes
Makes about a dozen  3-inch latkes
1 yukon gold potato
1 large carrot, peeled
1 large parsnip, peeled
1 medium rutabaga, peeled
1 large tart apple, cored
½ large white or yellow onion, ends and papery skin removed (either color is fine, so long as it’s not a sweet onion)
1 tablespoon minced rosemary
1-½ cups all-purpose flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon pepper, or to taste
½-1 cup vegetable oil
Sour cream, for serving (optional)

 

  • Begin heating ½ cup of vegetable oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium heat – it will take a few minutes, but you are looking for it to just shimmer when swirled around the pan. If you plan to make the whole batch at once and need to keep them warm, preheat the oven to 300F and position a baking sheet with a wire rack on it inside the oven.
  • Fit a food processor with the shredding disk, or address the largest holes on a box grater with care for your knuckles. Cut the vegetables into the size needed to fit comfortably down the feeding chute of the food processor, and carefully feed the potato, carrot, parsnip, rutabaga, apple, and onion through the machine to create long, thin shreds of vegetable.
  • Dump the whole mess into a large bowl and mix them up a bit with your fingers to distribute evenly. You’ll be left with strands of vegetable confetti.
  • Add the rosemary and flour to the vegetable shreds and toss well with your fingers to combine. Then add the eggs and the salt and pepper, and mix well to combine. You could use a spoon or spatula for this, but I just use my fingers. They do a better job ensuring everything is evenly distributed.
  • When the oil is shimmering, plop ¼ – ⅓ cup dollops of the mixture into the oil. In my 10-inch skillet, I can fit three dollops of batter comfortably without touching – don’t crowd them. When they hit the oil, they should sizzle lightly. If the oil spits aggressively, it’s too hot. Turn the heat down or remove the pan from the heat for a minute to cool it down.
  • Sizzle the latkes for 4-5 minutes on the first side, until it is evenly golden-brown and crisp. Flip carefully (oil splatters) and cook for 2-3 minutes on the second side, until it too is brown and crisp. Move to the rack in the oven to keep warm, or directly to a plate for immediate consumption.
  • Repeat until batter is used up. If the oil level gets low or the latkes begin to brown unevenly, add additional vegetable oil to the skillet, giving it time to heat up before adding more batter.
  • Serve with sour cream, if desired, or applesauce, or just an anxious fork.

Creme Anglaise

Food blog June 2014-3984Everyone starts off in the kitchen somewhere, whether it’s spreading peanut butter thickly onto a piece of barely toasted bread, or stirring spaghetti tentatively with a long-handled wooden spoon and watching it relax into the water, or even scrambling eggs because the planned entrée for that night looks “weird.” In my case, I started with dessert. Cookies and cakes were the first things I “helped” make, which probably explains why I’ve developed such a sweet tooth over the years. Mom would let me stir batter, pour pre-measured cups of sugar, taste a beater. She was there while I jammed my thumbs into an egg trying to crack it, while I spilled powdery fluffs of flour onto the counter and sometimes the floor. She was there, though not watching, when I had my first lesson in ingredient deception: my first taste of cinnamon. A few brown grains on the counter, a small, damp index fingertip, and the sourest face dipping away from the countertop. Vanilla extract was the same way. Each time, I’m sure Mom turned and saw, and probably tried not to laugh, as I learned that in dessert as in so many things, a dose of sugar makes things better.

Food blog June 2014-3981It seemed only fitting, then, when I embarked on the dessert selection of my sauce project, that Mom should be there. Together, in my bright, narrow kitchen, we talked and laughed and spilled and fumbled our way through crème anglaise.

Food blog June 2014-3959Crème anglaise is essentially an all-purpose dessert sauce, and provides a base for so many lovely simple sweets. Egg yolks, cream, sugar, and some vanilla for flavor, cooked gently but whisked fervently, and you have a beautiful, rich sauce that lovingly coats the back of a spoon. Cooled, run through an ice cream machine, and shoved impatiently into a freezer, you’d have vanilla ice cream. A few more yolks and a long, slow bake in the oven, and you’d have crème brulee. Some cornstarch to thicken during the cooking process? Pastry cream. But left liquid and chilled, it makes a beautiful summer treat poured in decadent quantities over a bowl of glistening berries. And if you want to build the whole thing atop a slice of cake, well who am I to stop you? Since Mom and I are both grown-ups now, we added a whisper of bourbon to our creation, for a floral warmth and slightly more complex flavor.

Food blog June 2014-3969I think the hardest thing about crème anglaise is waiting for it to cool so you can eat it. But the second hardest thing, which is not much of a challenge at all, is separating the eggs. This isn’t as dicey a prospect as separating the whites for a meringue or angel food cake, because a bit of white slopped in with the yolks does no damage at all. It’s just that we are after the glossy, dense fat of the yolk here, and so the light liquidy quality of the whites is better saved for something else.

Food blog June 2014-3964Food blog June 2014-3965Food blog June 2014-3966I prefer to separate my eggs by plopping the yolk back and forth between the halves of shell, letting the white drip down directly into the open mouth of a zip-top freezer bag. Once most of the white has detangled itself, I add the yolk to my work bowl and move on. You can also crack the egg directly into your hand and let the white ooze down through your fingers, while the yolk stays plump and golden in your palm, but the shell method works better for me. When all the whites are contained in the baggie, I write the number and the date on the outside and freeze it for later use.

Food blog June 2014-3973Food blog June 2014-3970Eggs managed, it’s a simple prospect of whisking in some sugar with the yolks, heating milk and cream together, adding the warm dairy to the thick, sweetened yolks, and cooking the whole thing to a thickness like, well, melted ice cream, since that’s basically what it is. Incorporate flavorings, strain the mixture to ensure a nicely textured final product, and chill until ready to use.

Food blog June 2014-3980With berry season upon us, I see no better motivation to make this sauce. Maybe for your mom. She’ll probably love it.

Food blog June 2014-3986

Food blog June 2014-3987Crème Anglaise
Barely adapted from Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio
Makes about 1 ½ cups sauce
½ cup heavy whipping cream
½ cup milk
3 egg yolks (save the whites for another treat)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-2 teaspoons bourbon (optional)

 

  • First, prepare an ice bath by filling a large mixing bowl with water and ice cubes. Set another bowl inside, so it rests in the bath but is in no danger of getting water inside.
  • In a small pot, warm the milk and cream together to a bare simmer.
  • While the dairy warms, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a medium bowl until quite thick. You want the sugar to be well incorporated to make the integration with the liquid easier.
  • When the milk and cream are just simmering, slowly – and I mean slowly! – pour them into the yolk and sugar mixture, whisking the whole time. If you pour slowly and whisk assiduously, you will end up with a smooth, thick mixture. If you don’t, you will end up with scrambled egg yolks.
  • Pour your smooth sauce back into the pot and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, for 2-5 minutes, until the sauce is thick that when you dip in the back of a spoon and draw a line through the coat of sauce with your finger, the line remains clean.
  • Add the vanilla and bourbon, stir, and remove from heat.
  • Pour the sauce from the pot through a strainer and into the bowl you’ve rested in the ice bath. Whisk or stir as it cools to room temperature, then liberate from the ice bath and refrigerate until cold. Serve however you wish. I recommend a mixture of fresh berries, with or without a slice of moist cake, but a plain old spoon and no interruptions would be just fine too.

Homemade Mayonnaise and Toasted Potato Salad

Food Blog May 2014-3905My interests for some time have been food and bodies. Academically, as I’ve noted on my About page, I studied bodies. I’m interested in the way we represent them in literature, and increasingly, the way we represent them in our own self-presentation. This makes me a better teacher, I think, because it keeps me aware of my students as people – as living, breathing bodies who think and act and speak not always according to logic or reason, but to their status as physical beings ruled by whims and appetites. It also makes me, I hope, a better human being, since I recognize what this kind of embodiment means for my fellow beings.
Food Blog May 2014-3895Outside of academics, I love food (I’m sure you would never have guessed this). This pair of interests makes total sense to me. Bodies, after all, require food. It fuels us, it nurtures us, and it affords us pleasure of many sorts. The pleasure of a full belly. The pleasure of a silky custard against the tongue, or a thick hunk of steak between the teeth, dissolving into creamy fat at the edges.
Food Blog May 2014-3886All too often, though, our associations between food and bodies are negative. We use the slippery jiggle of jelly to describe a stomach or a bottom that we deem too ample or not sufficiently firm. Our brains are “fried” or “scrambled” when we feel tired or off our game. “Muffin top” is a newer construction thanks to the popularity of tight and midriff-baring wardrobes (deemed, interestingly enough, one of the most creative words of 2005 by the American Dialect Society). And of course there is the classic complaint of “cottage cheese thighs.”
Food Blog May 2014-3891I want to propose a new one, to break this concentration on the negative textures and attributes we give our bodies, and refocus attention instead on their strength and abilities: mayonnaise arms.
Food Blog May 2014-3889At first glance, this sounds just as negative as the others. The rich fatty consistency of mayonnaise calls to mind a sagging bicep rife with cellulite. But I’m not talking about a visual comparison. I’m talking cause and effect. Though she certainly has a more traditional exercise routine, after my weekend of making mayonnaise from scratch, you could tell me First Lady Michelle Obama’s amazing arms were forged whipping her own condiments and I wouldn’t be at all surprised. The sustained whisking mayonnaise requires, pulling egg yolk and oil together into a magical, fluffy, silky, creamy emulsion, has the potential to produce incredible toned limbs (and then sit down to a perfectly dressed BLT. Just saying).
Food Blog May 2014-3892This is my fifth installment in 2014’s Project Sauce,* and for the first time I have to admit I was quite nervous. Even the fussiness of last month’s hollandaise didn’t throw me off all that much, since I’d made it before. But the idea of whisking a raw egg yolk and some oil into a fluffy spread had me feeling tentative. First of all, despite understanding a bit about the power of emulsions, it seemed so unlikely those humble ingredients could even approximate something like the jar of Hellman’s hanging out on my fridge door. Secondly, even though I knew my chances of getting salmonella from my homemade spread were quite low, I still felt a little uncomfortable about what seemed like dangerous cooking.
Food Blog May 2014-3893However, there’s nothing like the internet for at once increasing and assuaging fears. Amongst articles about salmonella poisoning babies and questions about whether it’s safe to eat macaroni salad that has sat around on a picnic table for hours, I found a few mayonnaise recipes that suggested heating the egg yolk gently to 150F, at which temperature the bacteria that causes salmonella bites the dust. This is also the temperature where egg proteins solidify, but the addition of acid in the form of lemon juice or vinegar raises the coagulation temperature, so you still maintain a liquid yolk even while reducing the already minimal chances of food-borne illness. Other cautious suggestions offered using pasteurized eggs (this heating process is basically pasteurizing them), or washing the shell carefully before cracking (since the shell itself is where bacteria like to hang out). This gentle heating sounded like a reasonable suggestion to me, so using a combination of recipes and procedures (privileging Michael Ruhlman’s suggestions in Ratio, to which I find myself returning again and again), I whisked and measured and heated and cooled and whisked and whisked and whisked and ended up with a bowl of fluffy, creamy, pillowy spread that looked almost identical to the commercially produced stuff I’ve been buying and greedily applying to fried egg sandwiches for years! Several times, in between shaking out my arms as they screamed at the endless whisking, I said aloud, stunned, “It looks like mayonnaise! It actually looks like mayonnaise!” This was, apparently, one of those things I never really conceived of making myself.
Food Blog May 2014-3894So. Mayonnaise is possible. Though like the other sauces I’ve created, it needs a vehicle for consumption. As Ruhlman notes in a defense of fat-based sauces, “you wouldn’t want to eat a bowl of vinaigrette or a cup of mayonnaise or a stick of butter” (165). I laughed – in my deepest, guiltiest heart of hearts a cup of mayonnaise sounds attractive, though probably not without some kind of starch or vegetation to cut the thickness – but he’s right. It’s not a lone ranger.
Food Blog May 2014-3897With Memorial Day upon us and summer leaping ever closer, then, I went to one of my favorites: potato salad. In my version, fingerling potatoes are boiled and then crushed and lightly toasted in olive oil, so their skins get slightly crisp and they break apart gently when mixed with the other ingredients. Hard boiled eggs, capers, dill, garlic, and a generous scattering of green onions provide the colors and flavors for that beautiful blank canvas of potato and mayonnaise to play with. And I can’t resist a little squeeze of mustard. Creamy. Toasty. Fluffy. Perfect.
Food Blog May 2014-3905As summer gets ever closer, instead of complaining about our beer bellies or muffin tops or cottage cheese thighs, I vote we create, and celebrate, mayonnaise arms instead!

*Yes, mayonnaise is considered a sauce, even though the thick, creamy spread we most commonly envision when we hear the term is used primarily as a condiment. But think aioli: basically a thin mayo with garlic added. Even hollandaise is similar to a thin mayo, with the egg yolk heated and emulsified with butter rather than oil. In perhaps my favorite application, Belgian in inspiration, mayonnaise is used to sauce french fries, and what a glorious sauce it then becomes…

Homemade Mayonnaise
Makes a scant cup
Note: this is a quite lemony mayonnaise. If you aren’t fond of that flavor or want to dial back the citrus, use just one teaspoon of lemon juice, and a tablespoon of water instead. Alternately, you can use a vinegar of your choosing to create your preferred flavor of acidity.
Note #2: I strongly recommend you get everything ready for this before you begin the process. I’m talking various bowls, ice bath, oil measured, all that. You’ll be happier for it, I promise.
Note #3: Though this mayonnaise stores just fine in the fridge for a week, it may separate a bit as it chills. Vigorous whisking at room temperature, and in a dire case another dribble of water or squeeze of mustard feverishly incorporated, should bring things back together.
1 large egg yolk (save the white for a meringue or angel food cake or fluffy waffles)
1 teaspoon water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 cup (8 ounces) vegetable oil
  • Before you begin, start about 2 inches of water heating in a medium pot. You want to bring this to a bare simmer. While it heats up, fill a large bowl with ice and water and set it in the sink. We are heating the egg yolk in the unlikely event it is harboring bacteria, but mayonnaise is a “cold” sauce, so we will need to cool the yolk quickly once it has reached the appropriate temperature.
  • In a medium, heat resistant mixing bowl (I used glass), whisk together the egg yolk, water, and lemon juice (or vinegar, if you’re using that instead). Set the bowl carefully over the pot of simmering or near-simmering water, being careful not to let the water come to a boil or to touch the bottom of the bowl.
  • Whisk the egg yolk mixture constantly but slowly over the pot until the yolk registers at 150F on a kitchen thermometer, about 4-5 minutes. You don’t need to whisk with particular determination here – we are not looking to change the consistency as we would with a hollandaise; just to keep it moving so it doesn’t scramble.
  • At just under 150F, the yolk will thicken a tiny bit. At first when this happened I thought the whole thing was ruined. It’s not. Don’t worry. The addition of the acid and water will prevent the protein in the yolk from fully coagulating.
  • As soon as you hit 150F, remove the bowl from the heat and carefully float it in the ice bath, continuing to whisk constantly until the yolk mixture cools to room temperature, and taking care not to let any ice water into the mix. You don’t want it to be cold – cold ingredients are reluctant to emulsify (think of bottled salad dressing and the way it separates). Just room temp will do nicely.
  • Once the yolk has cooled, take the bowl out of its ice bath and set it on a counter, wrapping a twisted kitchen towel around the base of the bowl to prevent spinning.
  • Now, add the salt, and begin to drizzle in the oil slowly. You want to add just a few teaspoons at a time, whisking like a madman through the whole process. At first you’ll just have a greasy mess, but slowly as you add more oil, the mixture will get pale and fluffy and creamy, and suddenly will start to look suspiciously like, well, mayonnaise.
  • Continue to drizzle the oil in slowly, whisking the whole time. If your arm gets tired, switch to the other one! If the mixture suddenly starts to look extra shiny or like it might separate, stop adding the oil and whisk extra hard for a minute or two. It should come back together.
  • Once your mayonnaise is fluffy and creamy and stable, taste for salt (this is much, MUCH less salty than a commercial mayo), and use immediately, or store in the fridge for up to a week.
Toasted potato salad with homemade mayonnaise
Serves 1 generously, or 2 as a modest side
10 baby potatoes
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 hard boiled eggs, chopped
4 green onions, thinly sliced on a bias
1 tablespoon capers, chopped
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh dill
1 clove garlic
¼ teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Black pepper to taste
¼ cup homemade mayonnaise (or more, to taste)
  • Boil the potatoes in salted water until they are fork tender (times will vary depending on the size of your potatoes. Check them after the water has been boiling for 6 minutes, then determine for yourself). When they are done, drain them, remove to a flat surface, and use a potato masher or the back of a fork to lightly crush them. You are looking to split their skins and just flatten them a little bit.
  • In the same (now empty) pot, heat the 2 teaspoons olive oil over medium heat until they slick and shimmer around the pan. Add the crushed potatoes and fry for 3-4 minutes, flipping them over halfway through to reveal golden brown toasted bottoms. When both sides are toasty, remove from heat and let cool.
  • While the potatoes cook, prep the other ingredients, tossing the chopped eggs, green onions, capers, and dill into a medium bowl.
  • To prepare the garlic, smash the clove with the side of a large knife, and remove the peel. Then chop the garlic into a fine dice. Sprinkle the ¼ teaspoon coarse salt over the garlic, and make it into a paste by firmly dragging the flat of the knife across it. The abrasive salt crystals will break down the garlic, making it easier to mix into your salad evenly. Add the pasted garlic and mustard to the bowl.
  • When the potatoes have cooled a bit, add them to the other ingredients, toss together, and add the mayonnaise. Mix gently to incorporate, taste for seasonings, and add black pepper to your liking. If you wish, add additional salt, mustard, or mayonnaise to suit your palate.
    Eat immediately, or chill, covered, in the refrigerator until ready to serve.