Perfect Wintertime Recipe: Roasted Root Risotto

With all due respect to the potato, few roots, if any, have less flavor. Carrot, beet, turnip, radish, parsnip, celeriac, taro and yam, to name a few, all check in with more fragrance, pungency or sweetness. Mixing your roots also brings a diversity of nutrients to the table, adding the likes of beta-carotene, iron, calcium, potassium and folic acid, depending on the root.

I've been exploring this edible subterranean spectrum with a dish I call roasted root brunoise ("broon-wahh"). The word brunoise is French for "very small cubes." As the small cubes roast, they lose water and shrink, while starches break down into sugars. The brunoise units become chewy with dry, crispy skins.

Munched plain, roasted root brunoise tastes like those Terra brand exotic vegetable chips that come in fancy bags. It can be sprinkled on salad, added to soup, and used many other ways. My favorite is to make roasted root risotto.

Any root is fair game. Whatever's at the store, in your root cellar, in the garage, or still surviving in the garden. It can be a simple mix, like carrot and potato, or you can force the cashier to look up the codes for every obscure tuber at the co-op and bring home rose turnips, chioga beets, salsify and purple carrots.

While roasting mellows and sweetens some fiery flavors, like turnip, it will intensify others, like rutabaga, which becomes especially pungent when roasted. Radishes stay feisty. Carrot, celeriac and parsnip are especially fragrant. Taro, yam and potato are starchy and sweet. Beets, be they striped, yellow or red, are intense and sweet, becoming almost raisin-like in the final risotto.

The word brunoise, in addition to meaning finely chopped vegetables, is also a verb that refers to the series of cuts used to make it. This beautiful technique is the most efficient way to cut uniform pieces with the fewest strokes of the knife.

True brunoise is less than 1/8 inch per side, which means all cuts are exactly that far apart. In reality, you should cut as small as you safely and consistently can. A sharp knife is essential. Peeling is optional; if you don't peel, scrub hard.

The three main steps in making brunoise are: 1) cut your vegetable into sheets; 2) cut the sheets into matchsticks (or julienne); and 3) cut your matchsticks into brunoise.

Your vegetable should always rest flat against the cutting board, so begin by cutting it in half and placing the two halves side by side, flat sides down. With several uniform, parallel cuts, slice the halves into sheets. Don't be afraid to slice slowly--you don't have to be all chopchopchopchop like on TV.

After cutting your sheets, turn them so they rest flat on the cutting board in little piles like stacks of plywood. With parallel and consistent knife strokes, cut these sheets into matchsticks.

Turn the knife (or cutting board) 90 degrees and cut each stack of matchsticks like you would a bunch of chives into a confetti-like pile of brunoise. Keep the brunoise of each type of root separate throughout the roasting process.

Spread each brunoise onto a baking pan or skillet and season with salt and pepper. Shape the brunoise so it's about a half-inch thick. Bake at 350°. Keeping the brunoise separate becomes easier as it shrinks, so bake for about 15 minutes before you first stir it.

Every time you open the oven a blast of steam will escape, and as you stir, keep a close eye on moisture levels and any signs of browning in the brunoise. Stir every 10-15 minutes by using a spatula to carefully pull each type of brunoise into a little flat-topped pile, and rearranging every pile during subsequent stirs. Remove each pile at the first sight of browning -- each root cooks at a different rate. Let the other piles continue cooking until they begin to brown.

As it cools, munch from each pile, confirming how each roasted root tastes.

To make roasted root risotto, it's best if the brunoise has completely cooled, preferably overnight. For every cup of brunoise you wish to use, heat two tablespoons of butter or oil in a pan on medium heat, and sauté half an onion and two cloves garlic, chopped finely, with crushed hot pepper flakes if you wish, until the onion becomes translucent. Don't let it brown.

Choose from among your piles of roasted root brunoise. I like a mix of carrot, potato, sweet potato, celeriac, parsnip and beet, either striped, red and/or yellow. Add a mixed cup of roasted root brunoise to the pan and stir it around with the onions and garlic. Follow with a cup of stock, either chicken or veggie, and let it simmer uncovered until the stock almost evaporates. When the stock is almost gone, but before the pan gets at all dry, add another half-cup of stock and stir. Repeat, stirring after each half-cup addition of stock, and then let it simmer until the liquid is almost gone again. Don't let the pan dry out between pours.

After adding 2-3 cups of stock, allow the pan to almost dry. Remove heat before it dries, and give it a final stir.

In the evening, roasted root risotto makes a good main or side dish. In the morning you can fry it for breakfast, like home fries.

I like to chop some bacon into little chunks and fry them until crispy, and then stir in some roasted root risotto. When the risotto heats up, I add stock so the pan steams, and crack an egg or two on top of the sizzling roasted root risotto. I then put a lid on the pan to trap the steam, which cooks the eggs. The trick is to add the right amount of stock so it evaporates away just when the eggs are done to your liking. If you add too much stock, let the egg steam with the lid off so it doesn't overcook.

Getting the hang of roasted root brunoise is an intuitive process. You'll quickly discover your own tricks for turning those colorful root bits into all kinds of earthy, sweet, savory and satisfying wintertime meals.


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