It has been a white winter in more ways than one!
Snow is the white that has been so obvious on the outside, but shades of white have also been prevalent in my pantry. In a last minute load-up, I purchased a profusion of produce before the seasonal closing of Morning Glory Farm.
The greens went first, eaten almost immediately, and then slowly I consumed the other colors: orange carrots, red beets, yellow squash. As a new month dawns the fresh food supply has greatly diminished, but shades of white remain to feed us through February.
The roots of my obsession (and affection) include turnips, parsnips and rutabagas. These ground-growing goodies will provide the last of the local harvest, leaving me with a long wait for the Island’s spring greens and a few months of well-traveled, grocery-bought vegetables.
Don’t despair if you are not familiar with the aforementioned triumvirate of terrestrial delicacies. Fill the remaining long, dark and cold nights with experimentation and tasting.
Parsnips are a favorite — sweet and easy to identify. They resemble stubby carrots (and are related to them), but are off-white in color and have a bit more girth. The Romans used them in stews before the potato was introduced. Historically, they were a starchy mainstay for folks in the Middle Ages. Roasting or boiling parsnips are common ways to prepare them, and a pinch of nutmeg works well when they are pureed.
Next of the wondrous whites would be the rutabagas and turnips. While they often have a purple crown, their flesh is fair. These two vegetables cause even more confusion. Both are in the mustard and cabbage family, and one is a crossbreed of the other.
Turnips, also called white turnips, are true turnips through and through, and also go back historically to the ancient Romans. They have a smooth texture and are more bitter than their rutabaga progeny. A special variety, the Macomber turnip, was created in Westport, and is a source of statewide root vegetable pride and good taste.
Rutabagas are an 18th century invention. These are a cross between turnips (providing 20 of their chromosomes) and cabbage (providing 18 extra chromosomes). With a rough texture, they are known to be starchier and sweeter than turnips.
The name rutabaga is derived from the Swedish word ‘rotabagge,’ which translates to “ram root.” It is not always revered, since it was known as a food of last resort in Germany, owing to its association with food shortages in World Wars I and II. It has the same legacy in my late-season refrigerator.
And if you haven’t yet been convinced and made curious about these vegetable varieties, there is another reason to consider eating them on a lonely midwinter night. Take this culinary suggestion from Aristotle to spice things up at home. He touted these foods for their power to increase male prowess and suggested that they encourage physical enhancement. His recipe demanded the whites of winter, suggesting that one prepare “parsnips, artichokes, turnips, asparagus, candied ginger, acorns, bruised to a powder drunk in muscatel” as a sure-fire way to help any gentleman rise to the occasion.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.