Bitter, Salty, Sweet, and Sour

June 26, 2008

Of the four tastes available to a person, bitter is my least favorite. Well, right, like I was going to say sweet? But really, I’m not a fan of some of the things that other people love. The chicory family for example. Endive, radicchio, escarole? Not so much. Brussel sprouts? Just too bitter for me.

Or so I thought. I recently grilled radicchio for use in a salad and the heat brought out more sweetness in a vegetable that I had, up until recently, only tolerated. Similarly, I thought I disliked brussel sprouts having only had them boiled or undercooked – in other words, bitter. Last Thanksgiving, a certain recipe where you saute them until brown and sweet turned me in to a brussel sprout supporter, and now I find that I actually crave them.

I used to think turnips were on the black list. Bitter bites again. But I was wrong wrong wrong and it wasn’t even that I needed to blast them with high heat, or saute them with an indecent amount of butter. I just needed to use different turnips. When all you have tasted are those big fat turnips you find in the grocery store roughly the size of baseballs, you can forgive yourself for thinking you don’t like them. Now I’m sure those have their place in the culinary world, or are the favorite vegetable of someone who loves bitter food. But the adorable little ones that you can find in the local farmer’s markets now, those are something else entirely. So tender and delicate that you don’t even need to peel them and, when cooked, just clean and light with a hint of earthiness.

Today I made a Turnip and Leek Gratin with Blue Cheese to highlight these beauties. It is a lovely and simple recipe and it fills your house with the most amazing creamy and cheesy aroma. Along with the Gratin, I made a Rice Pilaf with Chickpeas and Currants, and an Arugula Salad with Strawberries and Hazelnuts. You might be wondering…arugula? That’s awfully bitter for someone who says she doesn’t like bitter. I know. But arugula is #11 on my Top 10 Food List – maybe even #10, I don’t know. (I might need to do some shuffling). It is bitter but in a way that I love. I also really like radishes so I definitely can’t write bitter off for good.

Anyway, I am going to start a feature in this blog called “Let’s Talk About…” where I will de-mystify an ingredient or technique. So, let’s talk about leeks for a moment as they are an important part of the Turnip and Leek Gratin. Leeks are one of my favorite vegetables period and so under-used. What are you looking for when you buy a leek? Most recipes will tell you to only use the white part or, at most, the white and very pale green part. So you will want to look for leeks that have a long white part. Sometimes, that will not be an option so I would suggest buying more than you need so you will have enough white.

What can you do with those pale green parts that you are not using but that you paid good money for? My best suggestion is to use them for a vegetable stock. If you can’t be bothered to make a stock right this minute, just wrap them well and put them in the freezer. I suppose you could use the dark green leafy parts in the stock too, but they are awfully sandy and I just haven’t ever had the energy to wash them well enough. Most recipes will tell you to slice the leek in half lengthwise and wash it under running water. This is to remove the grit that can become lodged in the lovely leek layers (say that 10 times fast).

Turnip and Leek Gratin
Adapted from
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Serves 4 modestly

1 garlic clove and butter for the dish
1 cup half-and-half

6 thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

3 large leeks, white parts only, cut into 1/4 inch rounds

1 1/2 pounds turnips, sliced into 1/4 inch rounds

2 oz. blue cheese, crumbled

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Rub a 2 quart gratin dish with the garlic, then with butter. Heat the half-and-half with the remains of the garlic, 2 sprigs of thyme, and the bay leaf. When it’s close to boiling, turn off the heat and set aside.

Cook the leeks in 2 quarts of boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Scoop them out and allow them to drain in a colander. Add the turnips to the water and cook for 4 minutes. Remove the leeks to a bowl and drain the turnips well in the colander.

Layer the vegetables in the dish, intersperse the remaining thyme sprigs among them, season lightly with salt and pepper, and add the blue cheese. Pour the half-and-half through a strainer over the top. Bake, uncovered, until the cream is absorbed and the top is browned, about 30 minutes.

Dana’s Note: I doubled this recipe and baked it in 4 mini-loaf pans. I baked it for 45 minutes total.

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