In History's Kitchen
March 28, 2011
Among the best offerings of spring’s garden are the tender new roots that flourish in the slowly warming earth—the slim young carrots, bright beets and radishes, and sweet baby turnips. Rarely found in conventional markets, these delicacies are what make growing one’s own produce, or at the very least, finding the nearest Farmer’s Market, worthwhile.
Spring turnips in particular have a sweetness and delicacy that all too soon gives way to more robust flavors as the vegetables grow large and fat in summer’s lusty heat. To preserve their delicacy and bring out their best, I rarely look any further than this lovely two-hundred-year-old recipe from one of the South’s earliest (and still best) cookbooks:
Ragout of Turnips.
Peel as many small turnips as will fill a dish; put them into a stew pan with some butter and a little sugar, set them over a hot stove, shake them about, and turn them till they are a good brown; pour in half a pint of rich high seasoned gravy, stew the turnips till tender, and serve them with the gravy poured over them.”
— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824.
Mrs. Randolph’s ragout is actually a classic French recipe for glazed turnips, one that she almost certainly learned from the French-trained cooks at Monticello. Jefferson’s great granddaughter, Martha Jefferson Trist Burke recalled having had the dish there, but unhappily her recollections were dim at best and her attempt at a recipe was, to put it bluntly, completely inept. Fortunately, her great-grandfather’s cookbook-writing cousin was paying better attention, because her rendition is lucid and absolutely right.
At Monticello, this would have been prepared (as Mrs. Randolph suggests) on the stew stove in the state-of-the-art French kitchen that Jefferson added to the south wing dependencies in 1809. Here, for modern cooks, is the same recipe with a little more illuminating detail.
Ragout of Turnips (Navets Glacés, or Glazed Turnips)
2 pounds very small young turnips of the same size
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup rich, well seasoned veal or beef broth
Wash, peel, and trim the turnips to uniform rounds or ovals. Over medium heat, melt the butter in a sauté pan that will comfortably hold the turnips in one layer.
Add the turnips and raise the heat to medium high. Shake the pan until they are evenly coated with butter and then sprinkle the sugar over them. Sauté, shaking the pan to keep them rolling, until they are uniformly golden brown, about 4-to-5 minutes.
Add the broth, bring it to a boil, and then cover and reduce the heat to medium low. Simmer, frequently but gently shaking the pan, until the turnips are tender, about 10-15 minutes.
What Mrs. Randolph doesn’t tell us is that the “gravy” should be reduced to a glaze. If it isn’t, uncover and briefly raise the heat and cook until the liquid is almost evaporated, again gently but almost continuously shaking the pan. She also doesn’t mention what I usually do—swirl in a pat of fresh butter at the end, which is in keeping with classic technique.
Pour the turnips into a warm serving bowl and serve immediately.
March 22, 2011
When it came time to write the inaugural essay for this page, the thought that kept swimming to the surface was a theme from an essay I wrote last year: with thousands of “blogs” crowding cyberspace and literally millions of words floating around on the Internet, does the world really need yet another one?
Probably not; almost certainly not.
Most blogs (horrid word, that) are just silly, self-absorbed, attention-getting streams of consciousness that begin and end with the author’s ego. They have about as much substance as a cozy Hallmark moment.
Do I really want to add more of that to the world just to get attention?
But then it occurred to me: fool, you just started your own web site. Your name is has been dot-commed. The whole purpose is to get attention, and if you didn’t want to do that, you’d never have gone to this much trouble. What’s all this demure posturing about?
The ugly truth about writers is, we can’t stop ourselves. Just like painting, composing, sculpting—writing is a compulsion we can’t help. We’d do it even if no one read it, even if we were dogged by critics who said our words were no good.
There are countless novels tucked away in boxes under the author’s bed, novels that no one else has—or ever will—see.
But just because there’s a compulsion to put words on the page, it does not follow that those words have to be vacuous. If this turns into little more than a lot of navel-gazing streams of time-wasting, meaningless fluff, it’s no one’s fault but my own.
The contributions here may not be regular; but I do promise not waste my and your time just to keep myself in front of you.
Having said all that, from here on, this is what you’ll find here: nothing new.
I have spent most of my life looking backwards into history, and what really interests me in the kitchen is less of where we are going than where we have been.
Most food professionals nowadays spend too little time thinking about that past, and it shows. Cooking is no different from anything else: without a firm understanding of where we’ve come from, the cooking, no matter how clever, will have no roots, and without those, like spring lettuce pinched from its bed, it soon withers and is forgotten.
This page looks back to the kitchens of our past. They weren’t perfect, but they still define our kitchens present and future, whether we like it or not.