As food season dawns, epicures face wave upon wave of fresh produce to obsess over. Soon there will be strawberries, and then tomatoes, and then sweet corn, all of which are infinitely better when in season.
But as we celebrate the revolving cast of seasonal bounty, it’s important to remember another subset of crops that often slip through the cracks, in part because they are always in season. Always. Literally, figuratively, and most importantly, deliciously. Carrots, potatoes and onions are basically immortal, as far as dinner goes, because they are always available locally, all year long.
At the farmers market last week, for example, as I made my rounds, sipping my latte (in its reusable cup) and toting my (hand-woven fair trade African) basket. I saw new carrots and potatoes for sale, freshly dug and washed, gleaming like polished vegetal jewels. There were also bunches of fresh faced spring onions, new garlic and chives, glowing representatives of the fragrant lily family.
But there were also much older incarnations of these very same veggies, sometimes at the very same farm stand. I purchased, for example, a five-pound bag of old, soft-ish potatoes with bulging eyes from a babushka for $2. They were baking potatoes, a little soft but perfectly serviceable. “White inside,” she promised.
Similarly, some farmers had large old carrots for sale. These honkers aren‘t the sweet morsels that children enthusiastically eat like candy. They’re cooking carrots, and they cook well.
Another farmer had onions for sale. They were from last year, and still rock hard. He wouldn’t tell me how he stored them so perfectly, but I’m pretty sure it involved a hot-wired Ouija Board and a root cellar dug beneath an Indian burial ground. As I gave one of his elder onions a gentle squeeze, the farmer beckoned me behind his stand to show me a box of onions he’d recently culled from his magic storage unit because they had soft or moldy spots. He offered to sell me a 30-pound box for three bucks. Done.
When I got home I set about making a dish that is always in season, despite usually being billed as cold weather comfort food. A simple pan of roasted roots. Sure, we could puree the whole business. Make some vichysoisse and whatnot, but that sounds like a lot of cleanup to me. I’m partial to the ole’ slice and cook, with a bit of sprinkle, drizzle and toss.
I peeled my honker potatoes, cut them into quarters lengthwise, and cut each resulting wedge crosswise into half-inch slices. I sliced the carrots to about the same thickness, at a slight angle for extra fanciness, and added them to the baking dish.
Many people add onions to their roasted roots, which are not technically roots even though they do grow half-underground. Onions add water to the pan, which results in the carrots and potatoes being steam-fried (freamed, if you nasty) until the water is gone, at which point they can get a little brown. The roast onions can add a deliciously dark chewy essence, full of intense flavor concentrate. But they will also be the first to burn, littering your roots with crunchy, carcinogenic bitter bombs. I’m not dissuading you, but extra care is warranted.
As a zingy alternative, let me introduce my Immortal Potato Salad.
I selected the ugliest onion in my box, cut off the bad part, which in that case was most of it, and sliced the good part as thinly as I could. I then marinated the slices in a mixture of lime juice and white balsamic vinegar with salt and garlic powder. I then proceeded to roast the carrots and potatoes.
I drizzle them in olive oil, toss in a few tablespoons of butter, sprinkle with salt and garlic powder, and some kind of seasoning, like thyme or Herbs de Provence, or any number of whacky spice mixtures, from Ethiopian Berbere spice mix to Egyptian Dukkha. Or just leave it at salt and garlic powder with a little black pepper as necessary, and maybe some chili powder. Bake at 400, checking often and stirring occasionally when they start to brown. When they start to look done, taste, season as necessary, and continue cooking until done. About an hour. (One can also skip the carrots and onions and simply make oven fries).
Besides the different cooking times — the onions could, after all be added later — another reason I like to marinate the onions and add them separately is that doing so creates a vinaigrette for the Immortal Potato Salad. When the marinated onions are mixed with the roasted roots, the oil on the roots combines with the vinegar and acid of the onions and dresses a salad that can be made any time of the year and twice on Sunday, with young and old ingredients alike.