During our March trip to London, Jackie and I had a good post-theater supper at Quo Vadis, a Soho restaurant that has been around since the 1920s and that a while ago was relaunched with a new decor, a new menu and, most important, a new chef. My main course was simply cooked brill served with diced, simply cooked celery root tossed with fresh-tasting bitter Italian greens known as puntarelle.
It was the last touch that took my fancy. It was clever to add flavorful raw greens to hot root vegetables; the heat wilted the leaves just a little but did not strip them of their character. I knew it was something I’d appropriate when we got home. Of course, I can’t find puntarelle at our farmers market in spring, and all the growers are fresh out of last season’s celery root, so it was the idea rather than the actual dish that I adopted. This actually worked out well because my substitutes — forgive me, Quo Vadis — had more flavor and, above all, aroma.
The things I used straddled two growing seasons: rutabaga from last season, and very young, very peppery field-grown arugula that had just arrived at our market, among the grower’s earliest salads not to come out of a greenhouse. But I could have also used more mature arugula — and certainly will use it later in the season.
The simplest thing would have been to peel, cube and steam the rutabaga before tossing it with the arugula. But that could have yielded a flatter-tasting dish compared with the method I used. Once I had peeled the rutabaga and cut it into 1/2 inch-plus chunks, I put the pieces into a heavy saucepan and added salt and pepper, a scant teaspoon of butter and diluted chicken stock to not-quite cover the chunks — vegetable stock would have been fine, too, or even water. It’s similar to the method I recently used to cook the fingerling potatoes that accompanied my lamb cutlets. (Incidentally, the ideal pan is one that will hold the rutabaga in one layer, but this isn’t crucial.)
I covered the pan and set it over medium-low heat. I started checking the rutabaga five minutes after the liquid came to a boil, but it was more like eight minutes before the dense root vegetable began to show the first signs of tenderness; at that point, I removed the lid, raised the heat and reduced the liquid to a light, slightly buttery glaze, stirring occasionally to ensure even cooking. The cubes were now tender but not at all mushy — their edges were still sharp.
With the rutabaga off the heat, I immediately folded in the arugula; when the leaves hit the hot rutabaga, they released the most vivid and enticing aroma you can imagine. It made me remember that one of our favorite pasta dishes (with Gorgonzola) is finished with arugula, too, and the leaves emit that same room-filling aroma.
To my mind, the ideal food to serve with this is crisp-skinned grilled or pan-fried mackerel, with a squeeze of lemon juice, which is what I made. But we’ve had it with chicken, and it would be pretty good with roast lamb, too, or with fish such as sea bass.
The dish will be great later in spring with whole small young turnips; it will be great in six months with peak-season celery root. And right now, if you like, you can eke out the rutabaga with firm-fleshed potatoes. I’ve done this, and it pleasantly softens (but does not erase) the flavors for when you’re serving a “main” ingredient less distinctive than, say, mackerel.
And sure, when puntarelle come to the market I’ll give them a try, but I have a feeling I’ll always return to the more startling flavor of arugula.