White Vegetable Gratin and a trip to the Local Food Market Halls

White Vegetable Gratin

I am seeing white everywhere and it isn't just the snow.

White food gets a bad rap these days, and some of it with good reason:  white sugar, white (refined) flour, white rice...

But I was looking through my fridge and cupboards the other day getting ready to make dinner, and I started pulling things out and laying them on the counter:

Onion - white
Fennel - white except for the green fronds poking out of the top
Chinese Cabbage - white except for a bit of green at the ends
Garlic - white
Mozzarella - white
Edam - white
Celery Root - white
Sourdough bread crumbs - nearly white

Edam, Onion, Mozzarella, Celery Root, Chinese Cabbage, Fennel

I decided to challenge myself to make dinner with all of these white vegetables, loving the idea of taking this Winter color and making it into to a savory dish that counteracts the chill of the weather outside.

And as I chopped and simmered and tasted and stirred, I got to thinking about how my views on food and cooking have changed as I have been living overseas and taking more time than ever before to explore new kinds of raw ingredients.  I have made a conscious effort over the last few years to not only increase the variety of the foods we eat at home, but also to eat more seasonally, buy locally whenever possible.  I believe that buying local food is more important than buying organic food - what's the point of buying organic Italian strawberries out of season when, if you wait until June, your Finnish market hall sells nice, sweet, juicy berries as well that come from a nice local farm in Nurmijärvi?

Last week I attended a meeting about what to do with the Vanha Kauppahalli in Helsinki.  The doors are closed now for renovation and many of the sellers moved to Hietalahdenhalli to the new market which opened today.  I listened to the shop owners talk about how important the Vanha Kauppahalli is to them and to Helsinki.  I heard them share concerns about how to get more people to visit; how to increase the variety of food offered there so that those of us who live and work in Helsinki can stop by and pick up all of the food we need to cook dinner for our family and friends.  I heard stories of how they wake up a 3:00 AM to get to warehouse where they buy fresh produce, fish, meat, flowers - how they pick out each piece carefully to ensure that they only give their customers the best.  The talked about the relationship they build with each of their customers - especially the regular ones who give them hugs, tell them they are looking a little tired have the slept?

The conversations they have about food, the advice they give, the energy they bring to this city touched me.  They have such passion for what they do.  They aren't in it for the money - in most cases they don't make much - they are in it because they want to provide the best possible product and service to the customers they serve.

In many ways these vendors, who rise each morning at the same time the Helsingin Sanomat drops into the mailboxes of the rest of the sleeping populations, are the heart of this city just as market vendors the world over are for the cities they serve.  But with large markets on every corner, it's more convenient for most of us to pull our cars into the parking lot, fill a cart, pay, slide the bags in the car, and be on our way.  Or exit the metro, grab the groceries from the store run by one of the giant grocery chains just outside its entrance, and head on home.  Convenience is a major factor in our busy lives, as is price.

Last week I did an experiment:  I bought as much food as possible from small shops and the markets.  Undoubtedly, the quality was much higher - and I smiled each time I handed a small bit of cash over the counter and received by ground beef, my cauliflower, the few, carefully selected red onions.  But it also took me all day to gather what I needed.  Several days, actually - I was on public transportation and couldn't carry everything at once.  I had several other things to do and the shops were in different parts of the city.  There were moments when I thought that I would be done with my shopping already if I'd just gone to the K-Market 700 meters from my front door.  But then I wouldn't have had the conversation with the local vendor about how to prepare fresh turbot caviar (I decided not to this time) and why vendance caviar is superior to salmon caviar, especially for blini.  I wouldn't have come eye to eye with a 5kg lahna (bream) as they fish monger began the process of fileting it, and learned that a fish that size is rare - only once or twice per year does a fisherman get lucky enough to pull a big one out of the sea.  I certainly wouldn't have tasted three different cheeses before settling on one that specifically suited the dish I wanted to make the next day (I would have instead read a few packages and the purchased Edam...again).  And I wouldn't have found the sumac I needed for making Za'atar (the spice shop in Hakaniemi halli sells it, in case you are looking for it).

But my experience reminded me why it's difficult for these market vendors to increase their customer base.  First, you often don't know what they sell until you are in the hall.  Once there, if you don't go frequently, it can feel overwhelming:  which fish vendor?  Which cheese, which fruit, which meat? (ask them - they are delighted to start a conversation and share what they know). Can I touch it? (it depends - best to ask).  Can I taste it?  (Usually, unless it's raw fish/meat).  Do you know what to do with all those special ingredients?  (Maybe not, but the seller does, and they are happy to help you open your eyes to a new world of food).

White Vegetable Gratin
More and more, I try to start with raw, whole ingredients and make as much as possible from scratch.  And more and more I try to fit trips to the local market halls into my weekly shopping.  Along the way, I've been continuously reminded that eating real, good food is more a matter of planning than anything:  if you want roasted beets or barley or to cook dried beans, you need to start early - in the case of dried beans, the night before.  Or in the case of fresh market fish, you need to schedule a trip to the market or tori  and have a chat with the local fish guy.  It takes time, but it's oh so worth it.

As for this White Vegetable Gratin - this is one to cook one evening and eat the next day, or to start early on a Saturday and have it ready for a delicious and filling evening meal.  The flavors need time in the oven to meld together, and the vegetables need time to become nice and tender, so don't rush this dish.

The dish is so complete all by itself, that the only thing I served it with was a glass of sparkling water.

White Vegetable Gratin
Preheat oven to 200°C/400°F

1.  Cook:
In a large frying pan, heat
2 tablespoons olive oil
Add and cook until tender:
1 onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced

Add and cook for 10 minutes:
3 cups/ 6 dl shredded Chinese or Savoy cabbage
2 tablespoons Homemade Bouillon + 3 cups / 6 dl water or 3 cups/ 6dl vegetable broth

1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste 

2:  Prepare:
Meanwhile prepare the following ingredients:
1/2 fennel bulb, sliced thin
1/2 celery root, peeled and cut into thin rounds
1 large mozzarella ball, diced
1 cup shredded Edam

3.  Assembly:
When the cabbage mixture is done cooking, gather all of your ingredients and layer them as follows into a large casserole dish:

1.  Cover the bottom of the casserole dish with celery root rounds.
2.  Arrange 1/2 of the fennel slices over the top.
3.  Sprinkle 1/2 of the mozzarella cubes and 1/3 cup of the Edam cheese over the top.
4.  Spoon 1/2 of the cabbage mixture over the top
5.  Layer 1/2 cup bread crumbs over this.

Repeat one more time to use up the remaining ingredients, except for 1/3 cup Edam.  Pour any remaining juices from the cabbage mixture pan into the casserole dish.  Top with the remaining Edam and the bread crumbs.

Bake in the oven for 60-90 minutes or until the vegetables are very tender when poked with a fork.

Serves 4 as a main dish.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,