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Late winter’s bounty

Mar 5th, 2011 | Category: Cooking

by Charles Claassen

In the deeps of winter, I often daydream of summer’s colorful markets, the stalls bursting with ripe heirloom tomatoes, fluffy piles of sweet baby greens, crisp emerald cucumbers. My mouth watering, I open my refrigerator. I have half a warty celery root, three of the last of K&M’s ailsa craig sweet onions, a few beetroots. Will winter never end? The days are growing longer, but we are still a long way from even the first fruits of spring, let alone summer’s bounty. What’s an eater to do?

Make the most of late winter veggies like onions and beetroots. PHOTO BY CHARLES CLAASSEN

Teddy Roosevelt said “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” This time of year, I take that advice to heart and use what I have to get by. And as it turns out, “getting by” can be pretty tasty, too.

Throughout the year, one of my most loved vegetables is the humble beet. I love getting the first of the thinning beets, ping pong ball-sized and as sweet as a cherry. I can count on beets through the summer, enjoying the golden beets and cioggias, roasting, shredding, juicing, and pickling them, sauteeing the greens with a little cider or tossing them into my salad mix. Beets stay with us through the fall too, swelling to perhaps as large as a softball while still remaining tender and flavorful. And guess what? With a little foresight, some beets will even make it through the winter, left cozy underground, maybe a little worm-tracked, but an earthy reminder of those cherry-sweet beets of spring. Come winter, I most frequently just cut my beets into wedges, toss them in a little grapeseed oil with salt and cracked pepper and roast them. Hot or cold, they are a tasty snack.

Mike Neuroth at K&M Red River Farm north of Bellingham grew several thousand pounds of sweet onions last year. Ailsa Craig is the variety that I was attracted to when he started selling them last summer. They are huge, maybe four pounds apiece, and sweet and crisp. And as it turns out, they actually keep pretty well for a sweet onion. I bought 50 pounds of onions from Mike about a month ago, and although I’m down to my last few, they provided me a delicious glimpse into the sunny past. Mostly I caramelized them, transforming them into sweet, molasses-dark onion conserves to spread on breakfast toast with fried eggs, but I also made a huge batch of bistro-style French onion soup. Years ago, a chef-mentor of mine, who was trained in France under the tutelage of Roger Verge, taught me his authentic version of onion soup. Unlike the thin, brothy soup we as Americans may be familiar with, bistro French onion soup is thick and rich with buttery roux and caramelized oniona. Served with brown, bubbling gruyere melted over the top, it’s a perfect winter warmer, with a nod back to the long days of sweet onions.

As a chef dedicated to sourcing my ingredients locally, winter is a time when I indulge in a little guilty pleasure. Shaved celeriac and fennel, with a few rings of sweet onions, are transformed into a crisp bite of sunshine when I squeeze in the juice of a seasonal Meyer lemon. Though I usually use the pickled fennel I put up last October, a fresh bulb of finnochio adds a bright crunch in combination with succulent celery root. I also drizzle with a smidgeon of pumpkin seed oil before shaving some Samish Bay Montasio  over the top.

I suppose one of the things I love the most about summer is that I have to wait to enjoy it. So while I’m fondly wishing for sun-warm veggies that are months away, I can at least appreciate the things that I do have, here where I am.

Charles Claassen has been a professional chef for almost 20 years and focuses on using local, organic, and wild-harvested edibles in his cooking. He operates the Book Fare Cafe in Fairhaven.

Bistro-Style French Onion Soup

4 sweet onions, julienne
8 large cloves garlic, minced
½ cup butter
1 cup flour
1 cup sherry
2 quarts veggie or chicken stock
1 large sprig fresh thyme, leaves picked
1 bay leaf
freshly cracked black pepper
croutons (thinly sliced baguette, toasted crisp)
gruyere cheese (or other stinky swiss cheese)

In a stock pot, melt the butter.  Add the onions and garlic and sauté over medium to low heat, stirring frequently, until deep brown, about 45 minutes.  Add the flour, stir to combine, and cook an additional ten minutes.  Add the sherry, stock, and bay leaf.  Simmer the soup 10 to 15 minutes longer, and add the thyme leaves.
Ladle the soup into individual serving bowls.  Float a crouton in the soup and cover with shredded cheese. Melt in a hot (425 degree) oven, until golden and bubbling.  Serve immediately.

Fennel and Celery Root Salad with Meyer Lemon

½ celery root
1 fennel bulb, stems removed
½ cup sweet onion, very thinly
1 cup flatleaf parsley leaves
juice and zest of one Meyer
salt and cracked pepper to taste
pumpkinseed oil for drizzling (about 1 tablespoon)
Samish Bay Montasio (or other semi-hard aged cheese like Pecorino or Reggiano)

Peel the celery root and cut into fine julienne by hand or use a mandoline. Trim the fennel, reserving the fronds for garnish. Julienne the fennel bulb and toss together with the celery root. and sweet onion. Add the parsley leaves. Zest the lemon into the celeriac and fennel, squeeze in the juice, and toss it all together thoroughly. Season with salt and freshly cracked pepper. Drizzle with a bit of pumpkinseed oil, then shave the Montasio over the top.

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