A few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see a unique vegetable listed on Green Meadow Farm‘s farm share announcement: skirret. This European root vegetable was very popular in Renaissance cookery and is now rarely cultivated.
I’ve been eager to taste skirret since the early days of this project. I’ve read news articles about skirret – the forgotten vegetable that potatoes replaced on the European dinner table. I’ve read John Evelyn’s praise for skirret’s use in salads in Acetaria and accounts of its lust-inducing capabilities in Gerard’s Herbal. Boiled skirret was dressed with oil or melted butter, salt, and pepper and served as a salad or alongside roast or boiled meats. After boiling and peeling, it was often fried and served as a side. In seventeenth-century recipe manuscripts, it most often appears as a side or as an ingredient in pies.
Of all the pieces I’ve read about skirret over the years, Ivan Day’s recreation of a skirret pie has been most helpful to me. He explains the process of boiling and peeling the small, fiddly roots before integrating them into dishes. None of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century texts discuss this as they assume cooks already have this knowledge. Following Day’s instructions, I’ve also planted the tender new roots in my garden and I’m hopeful that it will yield a crop next spring.
I took a small bite of it raw and it tasted like a sweeter parsnip with the slightest anise aftertaste. Cooked, the skirret was wonderfully sweet, like a baby carrot, and pleasantly starchy, somewhere between a parsnip and a potato. Despite the tedium of peeling these roots – perhaps why they fell out of favor as large, round potatoes became more popular – they were absolutely delicious and I’m eager to cook with them again.
Unfortunately, the skirret has arrived in my kitchen at a moment when I’m without a functioning oven and thus unable to prepare a number of intriguing early modern recipes such as skirret pie. The twenty-year-old gas range that was installed in my house by previous owners gave up the ghost when my spouse was preheating the oven to bake a cake and pandemic supply chains have delayed its replacement. I’m hopeful that the rare cooking kitchen will be fully operational again by early May.
Since my options for skirret cookery were limited by my equipment, I tailored my search for a fitting recipe appropriately. Luckily, there are three wonderful skirret recipes in François Pierre de La Varenne’s Cuisinier François (1651) translated into English as The French Cook (1653). I accessed this text via Early English Books Online, which includes two copies of the text: The copy scanned from Harvard University Libraries includes an engraving of a chef and the British Library, which lacks the engraving, is a part of the Thomason collection.
La Varenne’s book, as many scholars note, was part of a paradigm shift in European cookery. As Ken Albala writes in Food in Early Modern Europe, “The essence of this new cuisine lies in the fact that foods are increasingly cooked in a way that accentuated and intensified the flavor of the main ingredient rather than contrast with it as the sugar, spices and vinegar of older cookbooks had” (156). The three skirret recipes that I tested from La Varenne’s cookbook show both older and newer styles of cookery in action. Two of the recipes (as well as the section header) specifically mention Lent and appropriate dishes for meat and fasting days where vegetables played a central role in menus. The final recipe calls for either the addition of milk or verjus to the batter for additional flavor. I recently purchased some verjus from my favorite local French bistro turned specialty shop and was excited to try it here.
BOile them a very little, then peele them for to boile in brown butter after they are fried, serve.
For the flesh days, make a past liquid enough with eggs; a little salt, and a little flowre; for to make it more dainty; mixe with some soft cheese and white (a petits choux) dip your skirrets into it, frie and serve them.
For to frie them in Lent, allay your meale with a little milk or verjuice, and more salt; dip your skirret in this, and frie them in refined butter, for the better; If you will, garnish them with fried parsley, which to frie, when it is very cleanr and drie, you throw it into your frying pan very hot, then take it out forthwith, and set it before the fire, so that it be very green; serve your skirrets with the parsley round about.
To prepare these three recipes from La Varenne, I began by doing two things:
First, I browned a stick of butter (8T, 113g) and set it aside to cool. (Joy the Baker has good instructions for preparing brown butter.)
I also prepared the skirret. I cut the roots away from the plant and washed them carefully. Then I boiled them for about four minutes until they were tender. Then I peeled them using a peeler and my hands. It was easier, if more time consuming, to simply pick off the peel with my fingers that loosened during cooking. After this process, I was left with 4.5 ounces (135 grans) of cooked, peeled skirret. I divided the roots into three smaller batches of roughly equal size to test each of the three frying methods.
Heat brown butter until audibly sizzling. Fry skirret for 1 minute. Serve immediately.
1 1/8 t salt
1 T flour
Heat brown butter until audibly sizzling. Mix the egg, flour, and salt together to make a batter. Dip the skirret roots in the batter. Fry battered skirret for 1 minute. Serve immediately.
1 1/8 t salt
1 T flour
1 t verjus or milk
Heat brown butter until audibly sizzling. Mix the egg, flour, salt, and verjus or milk together to make a batter. Dip the skirret roots in the batter. Fry battered skirret and parsley for 1 minute. Serve immediately.
My spouse and I devoured the skirret in batches as it came out of the frying pan. Each version was delicious: Sweet, crisp, and nutty from the brown butter.
I couldn’t quite taste the verjus in the batter in the third preparation. Next time, I might add more. I did find that sprinkling a little verjus over the fried skirret added a nice tart flavor to cut the taste of the flaky fried coating. It has a similar effect to sprinkling malt vinegar on fish and chips (in the style of the British).
I’m excited to eat skirret again and already gathering recipes for next year – whether it comes from a local farm or the plant in my own garden.