Thursday, January 28, 2010

From Prunes to Parsnips, a Palate Awakened

Prunes

When I was growing up, I had a lengthy list of dislikes based primarily on the idea of a food rather than the actual taste. I did not take into consideration the variety of methods for preparing an ingredient, and declared something awful after just one bad experience—and very often, no experience at all.

I had harbored a loathing for green beans since at the age of seven I sampled one at my uncle’s annual pool party. It was brownish green, cold, and rubbery after sitting on a platter under a beach umbrella all day. I gagged, spit it out, and never touched green beans again—until last year. Last Thanksgiving, I decided to try a simple recipe for green beans sautéed with salt, pepper, and garlic. And to my great surprise, green beans weren’t the rubbery bits I had recalled with horror for more than twenty years. They were bright green and had a little crunch to them. What a revelation! It led me to wonder: What other foods have I always “hated” without due cause? What surprises does the grocery store hold for my emerging palate?

Most of my revelations have been about vegetables: carrots are all right after all and broccoli is divine. And there are hitherto unimagined varieties of lettuce. I had always thought salad was resigned to wilted bits of leaf and chunks of bitter tomato. But the leafy varieties! The textures that can be incorporated with walnuts, pears, dried cranberries, seeds, red—or green or yellow—peppers! Even the humble, earthy beet lends a distinctive character to a bowl of what I had previously considered mere roughage.

With my mind newly opened to the wonders of the culinary world, it was time to give prunes another try.

Owing to an embarrassing childhood ailment, I was forced—once a morning for months—to down a full glass of prune juice. My grandmother challenged me to prune juice races, which she always let me win. I still remember the bitter, cloying syrup and its awful aftertaste and I vowed, once I had weathered my ailment, never to let a prune or its foul juice touch my lips again.

I broke my vow last month. I was making a recipe for non-fat gingerbread that called for prune purée in place of butter, so I bought a full tub of prunes. When I opened the lid, the prunes glistened in a moist heap and smelled sickly sweet, just the way I remembered their juice. As I puréed the shining, sticky fruit, I became curious. Would prunes live up to my most distressing gastronomic memory? I unglued one from the mound, and bit into it.

In what was perhaps the most shocking moment in my life, I enjoyed the prune. With finality, that one taste devastated the entire foundation on which I had based my appetites. If I liked prunes, what wouldn’t I like?

Parsnips

I don’t like parsnips. I am pleased to discover this fact because after the prunes, I realized with equal measures pride and dismay that I might just like eating anything and everything. Where once I couldn’t think of a vegetable I liked, now I couldn’t imagine a food I didn’t like. Until Monday, when I made parsnip soup.

I had tried parsnips roasted and crisped and whipped, and they had left me unimpressed. I thought I just hadn’t yet discovered the ideal method for preparing them. Soup seemed like a logical progression in my parsnip experiment, so I found a lovely seasonal soup recipe that paired the parsnips with potato, celery, salt, pepper, and paprika—a combination that sounds creamy, sweet and a little spicy. I made eight servings, so I would have enough soup to keep me warm for nearly two weeks in my chilly cubicle.

I tasted the soup while it simmered on the stove and added more seasoning. And a little more. And more salt. And a dash or two of extra paprika. And a few more pinches of salt, until the soup was as good as it was likely to get. I thought it might improve by resting overnight in the fridge. So with hope and good intentions, I divided the soup into eight Tupperware bowls and put it to sleep.

When I heated my lunch in the office microwave the next day, a pungent, bitter scent filled the kitchen and clung to me as I headed down the hall back to my cube, which immediately filled with the aroma. I hadn’t even removed the lid.

The soup was sickeningly bittersweet. I liberally added Parmesan and crackers. The cheese helped to mask the bitterness and make the soup barely edible. The crackers added texture to the otherwise watery mixture, but they didn’t stay crispy for long, and drowned in the mess. I nearly cried when I emptied seven Tupperware bowls into the sink that night.

I say never again to parsnip soup.

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