Sunday, February 26, 2012

Neeps and Tatties (or, Scottish Root Vegetable Extravaganza)

A snow day in Edinburgh - Arthur's Seat seen from the Castle
I hate the cold. I really do. But even in the dead of winter, even this far north, there's a silver lining to be found. Namely, an excuse to revel in root vegetables.

Scots of centuries past knew what they had to work with: tubers. Haggis, Scotland's national dish, is also the result of the use-what-you've-got mentality: oats mixed with sheep entrails, onion, and spices, all packaged in a stomach. Luckily, there's plenty of interesting and tasty veggie haggis around here, too. But it's the "neeps and tatties" that usually accompany haggis that keep me coming back for seconds. Neeps and tatties are mashed swede (or rutabaga, to US readers) and mashed potato, seasoned simply and both rich and fresh-tasting. I've not yet had any here that were too heavily buttered or seasoned, probably because they're often served with a wonderfully flavorful brown gravy. 

Veggie haggis, neeps and tatties at The Conan Doyle in Edinburgh

The first time I cooked with swede was while my friend Kelly was visiting me here in Edinburgh. She had been traveling around Europe for the last 8 months, picking olives for oil in Italy, working with horses in Ireland, and generally being very glamorous (or so it seems to me, but I get to have more than one pair of pants and sleep in a real bed every night). She had picked up a recipe for swede while staying in Skibereen, in Cork, with a host named Aoife who used them in her Sunday roasts. Paired with potatoes and onions, carrots, parsnips, and whatever else is lying around, this is wonderfully simple and delicious way to tackle swede for the first time.

Roasted Neeps and Tatties 

Neeps and tatties - swede and potatoes, in my kitchen window

One large swede
About an equal amount of potatoes
Salt and black pepper

I keep making it with just swede and potato because there's something so perfect about that simple pairing, but you can certainly add any number of other vegetables, particularly onion, carrot, or parsnip. You can also experiment quite a bit with seasonings, but keep in mind that both swede and potatoes (and indeed most root vegetables) are naturally sweet.

Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.

Begin by washing and peeling the swede; their skin is tough, so I do it with a knife rather than a vegetable peeler due to my tendency to accidentally peel my knuckles. Personally, I like to cut the swede in half, set it on my cutting board, and peel down the sides with my chef's knife. I never have gotten comfortable with those little peeling knives.

Dice the swede into small chunks. It is more dense than the potato, so plan to make your swede pieces smaller than your potato pieces so that they cook evenly.

Carefully wash the potatoes and dice them in to chunks slightly larger than the swede. I almost never peel potatoes, because the peel is so good for you and can be really tasty, but that's a personal preference. If you want to peel your potatoes, go for it.

In a mixing bowl, thoroughly combine the swede and potato, then drizzle generously with oil. Add salt, pepper, and thyme to taste, and toss well. It always seems to me like I'm adding too much seasoning, so I eat a piece of the raw potato to check, because it sucks to get to the end and sit down to eat and realized you've under-seasoned, and then you're seasoning at the table to compensate, and that's just not as good.

Also, I hear, it can cause you to eat more salt, because you get more flavor from salt that's incorporated into a dish during the cooking process than from sprinkling it on after, when the grains are intact (or something like that). Salt is my great vice, so I'm trying to think about these things... now that I'm getting older...

For this recipe, I like to use Summer Harvest's rapeseed oil, which is produced here and has a great clean flavor. Somehow olive oil isn't quite right here (though it will work just fine, of course).

Back to the recipe. Once you have appropriately seasoned your mix, spread them in a single layer on a large pan and bake for about 40 minutes. You can adapt this part a bit to a variety of uses - I bake mine uncovered for a little bit of crispiness and extra flavor, but you could cover it if you want it softer and more moist, or bake covered for the first part and uncover later.

And, done! Enjoy.

Forget about a main dish, I'll take a big bowl of this for dinner, thank you.