Now is prime time for a simple, hearty stew. Slender orange carrots with bushy green tops, baby turnips tinged with violet and white, plump little white onions like scallions bursting out of their skins. Where I live, in Southern California, we've been lucky enough to see tiny vegetables since mid-February, including pale yellow parsnips and infant artichokes scarcely two inches across.
Just two or three vegetables, preferably of contrasting colors, make a fragrant mix. They are easy to prepare, as the skins are so thin. Simply cut off the tops, leaving a half-inch of green for color and flavor, trim the roots, and rub the skins with a pot scrubber under a drizzle of tap water. Alternatively, scrape the surface of the vegetables with the blade of a knife and rinse them in water. If any are much larger than the others, cut them in half lengthwise. Cut turnips in halves or quarters.
Whatever your choice of vegetables, they are best cooked together in a shallow pan so that each piece touches the base. Add water to cover, salt and a very little sugar, and simmer, no lid, about 20 minutes until the water has evaporated. The vegetables will be perfectly tender, crying out for the finishing touch of just-melted margarine and a shower of freshly chopped green herbs. French cooks would go for tarragon, Italians for basil (but never together), and parsley mixes with everything.
Baby artichokes (sometimes called poivrade because of their purple color) need special handling. At this tender age they are totally edible but take longer than root vegetables and so are best cooked separately. Cut about a half inch of the leafy top from the artichoke with a knife and trim the remaining leaves with scissors. If some stem has been left on the artichoke, it is edible too: trim the end and peel the stalk with a vegetable peeler. Cut the artichokes in half lengthwise.
You may notice I have not mentioned beets, and that's because they are tricky to handle. The smallest scratch in the skin, or a root trimmed too closely, and they bleed all over the other vegetables during cooking, staining them bright pink. Golden beets do the same, though of course the color is less vivid. I do not usually add baby potatoes either, as they lack the fragrance of other roots. They are best cooked on their own, in exactly the same way as this vegetable stew, and they will develop a wonderful earthy tang from their skins.
A vegetable medley like this is ideal with grilled fish, turkey or veal. It can stand alone as a first course or vegetarian main, a tantalizing hint of warm-weather pleasures to come.
BABY VEGETABLE STEW
Carrots for color are a must in this lively vegetable mixture, but otherwise the choice is yours. If you leave out one or more of the listed vegetables, simply replace them with more of the same.
SERVES: 4 as a side dish, 2 as a main course
- 1 medium bunch baby carrots (6-8 carrots)
- 1 medium bunch baby parsnips (6-8 parsnips)
- 1 medium bunch baby turnips (6-8 turnips)
- 1 medium bunch baby onions (6-8 onions)
- 6 baby artichokes
- Salt and pepper
- 1-2 teaspoons sugar
- 3 tablespoons cold margarine cut in cubes
- 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon or basil
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
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1. Prepare vegetables, leaving a few green tops on roots for color. Cut any larger roots in 2-3 pieces so all are about the same size. Put them in a skillet or deep frying pan with water to almost cover; they should all touch bottom of the pan and should not float. Season with sugar, salt and pepper. Do not add a lid. Put artichokes cut side down in a smaller pan, add water to cover with a little salt and cover pan.
2. Simmer roots over medium heat, uncovered, tossing often, 8-10 minutes. Then, turn heat up to high and boil until they are tender and water has evaporated, 5-8 minutes longer. Simmer artichokes, covered, also until tender, 15-25 minutes depending on their age. Drain artichokes and add to roots. Vegetables can be cooked an hour or two ahead and kept covered at room temperature.
3. To finish: reheat vegetables if necessary. Dot with cold margarine, sprinkle with herbs and swirl pan so margarine melts and coats vegetables lightly. Taste and adjust seasoning.