If you participate in a CSA (short for Community Supported Agriculture, also known as a Farm Share) you are almost certainly eating more like your ancestors would have, because you are eating foods that grow locally, and that come to you only when they are in season. Only very recently have human beings been able to enjoy strawberries in December, or romaine lettuce in January, thanks to refrigeration that preserves food, the internal combustion engines that transport it and, in many cases, chemicals that produce an effect of ripeness that mimics what you get if you actually leave a fruit or vegetable in the garden long enough. In the United States, for instance, tomatoes are usually picked green and firm (firmness makes them easy to transport) and then exposed to a gas called ethylene, which makes them turn red. This is why your average supermarket tomato tastes nothing like a tomato you grow yourself, according to my friends who eat tomatoes.
Why don’t I eat tomatoes? Well, in this regard, I am truly a throwback to my medieval forebears: I suffer from an intolerance to tomatoes, one that was probably more common centuries ago. Tomatoes belong to the nightshade family, and indeed some early Europeans labelled them as poisonous (see, for instance, John Gerarde’s Herbal, published in London in 1597). They make me get dizzy and blotchy and have to lie down. A biologist friend once suggested to me that tomato intolerance among Europeans is like lactose intolerance among Asians: something that a few generations of exposure often eliminates– except, apparently, in throwbacks like me who lack the enzymes to digest tomatoes, unless they are cooked.
But this is a digression, because of course there are no tomatoes in my farmshare in January. Instead, I have lots of lovely root vegetables: potatoes, rutabaga, beets and Jerusalem artichokes. Beets and turnips (the rutabaga is really just a giant turnip) are authentic medieval vegetables; along with beans, they kept people alive through the long, Northern European winters. And by the way, if you haven’t already read it, here is a link to Umberto Eco’s marvellous “How the Bean Saved Civilization“. Like cabbage, another winter staple, turnip greens helped fight off scurvy, and you could also feed turnips (assuming you had any left over) to your livestock. When I was a child, in fact, living in Burgundy, my neighbours still fed turnips to their cows in winter. Sometimes, if I was very lucky, I was allowed to watch the turnips being put into a turnip mill and come out as a sort of pulp which was made into cow-cakes. The machine looked a lot like this one, only French, of course.
Your Jerusalem Artichoke, however, is an oddity. To begin with, it’s not an artichoke, but rather the tuber of a kind of sunflower. I’m not sure what kind of confusion produced that part of the name– do they taste like artichokes? I certainly don’t think so. Nor are they from Jerusalem; they are a new world vegetable that reached Europe in the 17th century. A semi-convincing explanation for the Jerusalem moniker is that the word is a corruption of the Italian girasole, or “turn to the sun”, sunflower. The impulse to connect the exotic and the wonderful with Jerusalem, though, that’s really quite Medieval, when you think about it.
There is nothing authentically Medieval about the recipe that follows, except the turnips and brussel sprouts (unlike the Jerusalem Artichoke, they really do come from Belgium, originally). Lamb in the wintertime? You’d be lucky to get a bit of aged mutton or some bacon, but it’s Australia day and my husband is Australian. It’s tasty, though. And if I make the stew I’m meditating for tomorrow, that will be more authentic. I promise.
Rack of Lamb Roasted with Winter Vegetables
There are no measurements, because really, you’re going to cook as much as you think whoever you’re cooking for will eat.
- Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed and halved..
- Rutabaga, cubed.
- Garlic cloves in their skins.
- Rack of lamb (you want 2 chops per person, or maybe 3 if they’re small)
- Brussel sprouts, halved
- Rosemary, salt, pepper.
- Beer (just a splash or so, you get to drink the rest)
Preheat oven to 400F.
All the vegetables should be about the same sized. Toss with a bit of olive oil and spread in a pan in a single layer. Roast for about 20 minutes, or until they’re just starting to soften.
Meanwhile, let your lamb sit out and come to room temperature. Salt it– this helps it crisp up later.
When the vegetables are starting to soften, add the brussel sprouts (because you should never overcook these fellows) and lay the rack of lamb on top of the veggies and sprinkle with rosemary and a grind of pepper.
Roast until the lamb is done to your liking (about 20 minutes for rare). The lamb drippings drip down into the veggies… when the lamb is done, remove it and let it rest under a tinfoil tent for 5 minutes. Give the veggies a stir around and add a splash of dark beer to loosen up the dripping. Let that simmer a bit while the lamb rests.
Carve the lamb, serve with the veggies, drizzled with the sauce.