With the exception of the pricey chip variety found in foil bags with black backgrounds in the Whole Foods or Trader Joe's snack aisle, taro root, technically taro corm, is a tuber not easily found in L.A. markets. For Hollywood farmers market frequenters, however, these hair- suited, pink-fringed tubers have been a visual delight and curiosity these last few weeks.
While there are thousands of varieties of taro, prized for its health benefits and responsible for feeding 10% of the world's population, it's not commonly used by Americans, especially not for Thanksgiving. Where mashed Yukons, baked Russets and candied sweet potatoes have long traditions, taro is less common than Tofurky. The one exception is the Hawaiian Thanksgiving, where the islands' national dish, poi, surely will put taro front and center. As for other Thanksgiving meals across America, it is doubtful the goopy, gluey mass of boiled taro will find a coveted space next to the national bird of the day on the banquet of traditional dressings and vetted sides.
However, take a detour and locally grown taro may just become a new tradition. Cooked right, the results are sweet, nutty and creamy, beaming with nutrients and complex starches, tasting of familiarity and comfort. The perfect texture is achieved by minimizing the tuber's ability to release and reabsorb its own starch. Boiling the vegetable until it's turns it into a grainy, rubber-cement mess -- avoid this, avoid poi.
Also, skip the peeler -- fibrous hairs, scaly skin and slimy starch will tire both the tool and its cook. Instead, use a paring knife to peel back the shaggy, brown skin to the creamy, white flesh, speckled with tiny, butter-colored ribbons. Cut the vegetable into thin slices, for chips or a gratin, or rustic cubes for roasting. Run the taro through clean water and dry well before cooking.
Crisp and light when fried or baked into chips, structured and caramelized when roasted for a side dish, taro has a nutty richness.
A classic béchamel with a dash of warm nutmeg can turn taro into a holiday staple. Otherwise, go Californian with the following vegan gratin recipe, which utilizes bright, citrus-note aromatics to complement taro's earthiness.
Taro can be found at Yang Farms at the Hollywood farmers market through Thanksgiving. Herbs and aromatics can be found at Yang Farms, Kenter Canyon Farms or the Spice Alley, as well as other vendors, at the Hollywood farmers market.
From: Minh Phan
Makes: One 9" x 13" pan. Half recipe fits 8" square baking dish.
Note: This recipe is dairy-free and vegan.
4 lbs taro, peeled, cut into ¼" slices
½ cup vegetable oil, divided
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 large shallots, minced
2 cups green onions, white and green parts, washed, cut on the bias
1 quart coconut milk
1 quart almond milk
8-10 kaffir lime leaves
2 lemongrass stalks, white parts, cleaned/smashed/bruised, kept whole
3 knobs of fresh ginger, broken into 2" segments, cleaned/smashed/bruised
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
1 teapsoon crushed prickly ash (can substitute with fresh ground black pepper and lime zest)
Salt to taste
1. To blanch the taro, put sliced taro in a 10-quart pot filled with salted boiling water and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes. The taro should still be firm and raw on the inside. Drain and rinse a few times in cold water. Drain really well, put aside.
2. Rinse and use the same 10-quart pot to make béchamel. Heat pot on stove, add 2 tablespoons oil and minced shallots. Sweat shallots until translucent. Add green onions and quickly coat everything with oil. Take off heat and pour all contents into a holding bowl and put aside.
3. Put the same pot, unwashed, back on medium heat to warm the remainder of the oil. Add flour a third at a time and incorporate using a wooden spoon, stirring continuously until roux is smooth. Turn off heat, add a cup of coconut milk into pot, whisk until smooth. Add another cup of coconut milk and do the same.
4. Put the pot back on medium heat, incorporating the remainder of coconut and almond milk, two cups at a time, whisking until smooth each time.
5. Add the kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and ginger and continuing whisking until béchamel is thick and velvety. Strain and season with salt to taste. (Unless you have dietary restrictions, do not underseason. This dish needs a good amount of salt to bring out the taro flavors.)
6. Pre-heat oven to 325°F. In a greased 9" x 13" pan, layer blanched taro and shallot/green onion mix. Whisk the strained béchamel, season one last time, and pour over layered taro. Tap the pan a few times to let the béchamel settle into the nooks and crannies. Cover with parchment paper then aluminum. Bake covered for 40 minutes.
7. As the taro is baking, make the topping. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a sautée pan, then turn off heat. Toss the panko, prickly ash and a pinch of salt in the oil and put aside.
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8. After 40 minutes, carefully, peel back the cover (the steam will be hot). Check the taro for fork-tenderness. If it's not tender, continue baking, uncovered, in 5-minute increments until tender. When it's ready, evenly sprinkle on topping. Turn the oven to 375°F and bake for 5 more minutes.
9. Take out the dish and let cool for 10 minutes. Serve hot or warm.
Minh Phan cooks and heads up Mignardises, currently preparing for its December residency at the Farmers Kitchen in Hollywood. Follow her cooking, eating and L.A. adventures on Instagram and Facebook.Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.