Monday, March 7, 2016

The Forgotten Vegetable

In The Forme of Cury cookbook from Richard II's court, there is a recipe for "Rapes in Potage," "rapes" meaning turnips. Let me offer my translation of the recipe:
Take turnips and wash them, cut them into squares, parboil them. Take them out of the water, put them into broth and continue cooking. Mince onions and toss them with saffron and salt; add them to the pot. Sprinkle with sweet powder and serve. You can also do this [the author adds] with parsnips and skirrets.
From an 1885 German book
Turnips and parsnips we understand, but "skirrets" are mostly a mystery to modern cooks, despite a few attempts to create a revival.

The plant itself came from China, but traveled westward via trade to Europe. It became known in Germany as Zuckerwurzel ["sugar root"], and Hildegard of Bingen addressed its effects and medicinal properties in her treatise, Physica. The Dutch and Danish also call it "sugar root."

The Forme of Cury not only mentions them as a substitute for turnips, but also has a recipe for skirret fritters. In England, it was called skirwhit or skirwort which mean "white root." The whiteness and sweetness of the roots seem to be their chief attribute, praised by cooks through the ages.

The plant itself is hardy, resistant to cold and pests, and prefers moist soil—making it ideal for the English climate. The roots are best if dug up and eaten when the plant goes dormant in winter, making them a good source of food during the coldest months.

Modern attempts to work with skirret seem to disagree with the cooks of Richard II. The gardeners of Hampton Court have added this forgotten vegetable to their stock, and find that it is delicate enough that even parboiling ruins the flavor. Food historian Marc Meltonville says "Celebrate it on its own. Eat it raw or cube it up and fry it in butter with a little garlic, in an iron pan if possible." [link]

If you wish to try your hand at a long-lost root vegetable, you can order from here or here.

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