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Culinary Rootsby Gary Allen

In the Hudson Valley, we're just emerging from the deepest part of winter.

Even viewed from cozy indoor sanctuaries, vegetable gardens are grim, lifeless places. Nights are long and bitingly cold; days, not much warmer, provide pathetically thin sunlight, barely revealing the shrouded skeletons of summer past, protruding from mounds of snow. The funereal appearance of gardens is, in part, deceptive. Some plants, those that entertain hopes of a spring revival, have withdrawn into their reserves of nutrients, storing them deep in their roots, well away from wasting winds aboveground.

While roots stockpiled nutrients for the plants, our ancestors built root cellars to keep root vegetables for the long cold winters. Potatoes, onions, garlic, horse carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets and rutabagas rested in the cool darkness of the cellar, a faint ember of life glowing in each, remaining fresh through the frozen months.

Of course, our culinary forbears had more than root cellars to feed them through winter. They dried herbs and spices to add interest to their stored foods. They made reductions of some liquids, in order to save space, increase flavor and improve storage life (maple syrup and molasses). They fermented others (wines and vinegars). They salted, smoked, pickled and preserved.

Winter survival, whether by plants or people, necessitates a hunkering-down, a descent into places of safety and warmth. We want the comforting foods of the past to fortify us against the cold uncertainties of the future. Traditionally, winter foods have a satisfying depth of flavor that we don’t need as much in the warm months.

In summer, we want salads or quickly-cooked foods, often cooked outdoors—techniques best suited to the bright flavors of young produce—while shunning unwanted heat inside the house. In winter, however, we prefer slow cooking. It tenderizes tough older foods, liberating and concentrating their full-favored goodness. We don’t mind heating up the house—indeed, the warm house-filling savor of slow cooking comforts us, supplying the nostalgic sanctuary we need to weather harsh northern winters.

Our ancestors’ foods contained an abundance of fat because they needed its body-warming calories. It was not a coincidence that they called the food storeroom a “larder.” We, who live and work in centrally heated homes and offices, no longer need the calories—but we still crave the fullness of flavor those fats provided.

Our hunger is no less gnawing because it’s rooted in psychology.

Sensorially-deprived winter palates demand foods that feature a rich complex of flavors and aromas. Satisfying this need requires us to draw upon all available resources, and to understand the processes involved. To obtain the robust flavors we desire, we must begin with ingredients that are inherently full-flavored, then deepen them by slow cooking. The primary processes involved are caramelization, the Maillard reaction, extraction, and reduction.

Caramelization is the familiar browning of sugars through exposure to heat. Many complex chemical reactions change simple sugars into a host of different flavoring compounds. For example, one of the breakdown products of glucose, when heated above its melting point, is diacetyl—a compound normally found in butter. It’s one of the reasons that butterscotch has a more interesting flavor than the mere sweetness of sugar.

Maillard reactions are similar to caramelization, except that they involve the interaction of sugars and proteins at high temperatures. They account for the wonderfully savory browning of breads and some cooked meats.

Caramelization and Maillard reactions require temperatures that cannot be reached when water is present (the boiling point of water limits cooking temperature to 212 degrees Fahrenheit or less). Caramelization starts around 310, Maillard reactions even higher.

Extraction is the release of flavoring compounds from ingredients into a solvent. Extraction can be used to remove unpleasant flavors, or to accumulate pleasing ones. In cooking, the usual solvents are fats, alcohols and water.

Reduction is the concentration of favorably flavored solutions by evaporation (that is, by removing much of the solvent). Fats don’t evaporate—they burn—so reduction is used, primarily, with alcohol- or water-based solutions.

In looking over the descriptions of the four processes above, it should be apparent that there is a major difference between them. Caramelization, Maillard reactions and reduction all take place at temperatures higher than the evaporation point of water (and much higher than that of alcohol). Extraction, however, can only occur when the solvent is present in liquid form.

To make best use of these techniques for enhancing the flavor of foods, they must be used in combination. The trick is that, while browning and extraction cannot be used simultaneously, they can be used separately, either in time or space.

When food is roasted in a pan, Maillard reactions occur on the surfaces that are exposed to high heat—but not on the bottom, unless the food rests on fat. So it’s desirable to even browning, on all sides, by constant turning. When we baste roasted items with pan juices, we are spreading the foods’ dissolved essence onto the items, where the solution is reduced by evaporation. Repeating the process encourages the formation of a crust of the flavorings on the items, and hot surface fat permits caramelization and Maillard reactions to occur.

When we make brown stock, we roast bones and vegetables (carrots, celery and onions) together first, then simmer in water, dissolving all the complex flavors that have developed into the stock. The stock can then be chilled (so the fat—which has done its job, and is no longer needed—can easily be removed) and, if necessary, reduced to concentrate the flavors and proteins to desired levels. By the way, a good vegetarian stock can be made using roasted vegetables alone—a satisfyingly rich, almost meaty, flavor develops through Maillard reactions.

In the recipe below, root vegetables and other preserved foods are used in conjunction with the four processes listed above to provide an updated version of a satisfyingly traditional winter dish.

Oven-roasted Root Vegetables

Serves four, generously, as a side dish

For this dish, use the largest carrots and beets you can find. They’re tough, but they have more flavor than smaller vegetables, and the long cooking time will tenderize them nicely. Horse carrots, in particular, have an aromatic quality that is completely absent in their smaller brethren.

What you need:

2 oz. pancetta or bacon, cut in small dice (see below for vegetarian substitute)

4 tbsp. olive oil (not extra virgin)

1/2 tsp. rubbed sage

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

3 large beets, peeled and quartered

2 large baking potatoes, peeled and cut in eighths

2 large horse carrots, peeled and cut into rounds an inch and a half thick

2 medium yellow onions, peeled and quartered lengthwise

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Choose a roasting pan large enough to hold all ingredients in a single layer without too much crowding. Brown pancetta/bacon in roasting pan, atop stove. Set the pancetta aside on paper towels. Drain and discard most of the rendered fat, leaving any browned bits in the pan.

Combine remaining ingredients in roasting pan. Roast for sixty to ninety minutes, turning frequently, until vegetables are tender inside and nicely browned on the outside. If vegetables are not crowded in pan, virtually all juices should have evaporated. When vegetables are nearly done, reheat the pancetta in a separate pan in the oven. Remove vegetables to warmed serving dish and garnish with pancetta.

NOTE: Vegetarians can omit the pancetta or bacon, and substitute 1/8 tsp. of ground chipotle chile for the black pepper. This restores the smoky flavor, and makes a slightly spicier dish. Serves two as a vegetarian main course.

As the beets cook, they release quite a bit of red-pigmented juice. This will tint all the vegetables, but enough of their own color will show through to allow easy identification. If you prefer more distinct color, cook the beets in a separate pan.

The recipe does not call for extra virgin olive oil because the characteristics that make such oil desirable are volatile, and are lost when the oil is cooked. Save your best oil for salads.

You can find more of Gary Allen’s speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) stick in his mouth—his own foot being a prime example of the latter—at his website

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