Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time

If this had worked out, I’d have posted it on The Washington Post’s All We Can Eat blog. But, as you’ll see, it didn’t.

I love turnips: their juiciness; their slight mustardy sharpness combined with sweetness; their crunch if you don’t overcook them, or their yielding texture if you do. I often glaze little ones in a covered pan with butter, a little water and a very little sugar (and salt of course): this cooks them in steam, then slicks them with a sweet, buttery coating, a bit of which penetrates into the flesh, especially if I take the trouble to peel them.

On a seemingly unrelated subject, I’ve developed a crush on Italian red vermouth, specifically Carpano Antica Formula. I was originally attracted – or, more accurately, suckered in – by the beautiful label, but soon came to love this complex wine-based drink, either on its own or in cocktails. Then one day I added some to an orange sauce for duck. It turned out to be a quick way of getting lots of bittersweet herbal, citric flavor into a dish (as long as the sweetness wasn’t an issue, which it wouldn’t have been in an fruit based sauce).

Sweetness, a great set of flavors and, indeed, a lovely color: how about using vermouth to cook turnips? If I were careful not to burn it, it would probably reduce down to a delicious glaze on its own, and if it were a little too intense I could most likely smooth it by finishing the dish with a pat of butter. There were many ways to go about this: two that came to mind were, first, precooking the turnips and then “sautéing” them in vermouth to reheat them; and, second, partially cooking them in my usual way, with butter and a drop of water (but no sugar, because there’s some in the vermouth), then finishing them with a glazing in Carpano Antica Formula.

But then the simplest method of all dawned on me: put the turnips in a small pan into which they’d fit tightly, add vermouth to just about cover, put the lid on and simply simmer them with no other ingredient but salt. When ready to serve, I’d reheat them, reducing the vermouth to a glaze, and finish with a teaspoon more butter.

So that’s what I did, over medium heat, stirring every now and then…...

SCREEEEECH!! (Sound of brakes being applied, or of a stylus scratching across a vinyl record.)

Except that, as Jackie observed when she walked into the kitchen, it smelled like burning rubber. The turnips didn’t taste as bad, presumably, as an automobile tire (even a Michelin one), but they weren’t very good. Guests left some on their plates; Jackie and I left some on ours. Clearly the mistake was to cook the vermouth longer than it likes to be cooked.

In an attempt to avoid this, I went back at the next opportunity to Plan A (2): cook the turnips in the usual way, then finish briefly with vermouth, which I hoped would capture the interesting flavors but not distort them to ugliness. Except it was still no good. This time, the juice itself (like a vermouth-butter emulsion) wasn't half bad, but it tasted lousy with the turnips. Maybe I'll try it as a standalone sauce some day. But not any time soon.

By the way, an old Carpano vermouth factory in Turin, Italy, is the site of the original Eataly gastro-hall, the model for the one in New York.

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