White is the color of winter: white snow, already covering the land in some areas, white ermine and snowshoe hares, white marshmallows melting on hot chocolate. White is also the color of some of the least used and most flavorful and nutritious winter vegetables, such as celeriac, fennel, purple-top turnips and leeks. While all are available in most produce sections, it is the winter-white potato that is most commonly grown and consumed in Maine and the rest of New England. Part of this is economics: you can get a lot more potato than fennel for your dollar, but there are other reasons why we don't consume larger amounts of these vegetables, including memories of nasty bowls of mashed turnips we were forced to sample as children and little knowledge of how to prepare them.

The economic argument, that these are expensive designer vegetables, is easily overcome if you grow your own. All of these vegetables, like the humble potato, grow well in Maine. Turnips, for example, are almost too easy to grow — plantings in mid-August here on the coast will yield softball-sized roots by October if the plants are thinned judiciously; the thinned greens and tiny turnips are delicious when steamed.

Florence fennel, or finochio, although considered an Italian vegetable, enjoys our cool coastal weather. While it can be germinated from seeds sown directly into the garden after the soil has warmed, transplants are helpful to get a head start in spring, as it takes about three months for fennel to produce its bulb. All parts of the plant - bulb, stalk and fronds — can be eaten. Fennel stalks can be used like celery in soups and stews, and the fronds chopped and used as you would other herbs, like dill or parsley. The crisp bulb can be used raw in salads or braised, sauteed, roasted or grilled.

Celeriac also needs a longer growing season, more than three months, and since you probably won't find sets to put out in the spring, you'll have to start the seeds yourself. Fortunately, celeriac is happy to sit in the garden and wait to be harvested until all your summer vegetables are eaten up. Celeriac, or root-celery, as its name indicates, is closely related to common leaf celery. Its knobby underground root is a popular winter-season root vegetable in Northern European countries, where it's pureed, mashed, or put in soups and stews. But more adventurous American chefs use it in new and creative ways, as on celery root pizza, where the thinly sliced root is mixed with chopped onions, olive oil and salt and pepper and baked in a very hot oven.



Leeks are usually started inside in Maine, then set out in early spring when they are the size of a fat chive. While there are some varieties of leek that are ready for harvest in summer, usually a taller, slenderer version of the ones most often seen in the market, it's the fatter versions that store best. At the end of the season, gently lift your leeks and place them in buckets, with additional soil tossed in around their roots. With the addition of a little water now and then, they will last for months. Even if their outer leaves dry out, the inner stalks will remain tender and juicy. Celeriac and turnips will keep well for weeks in plastic bags in the refrigerator; fennel bulbs, for four or five days.

For Thanksgiving, I'm combining all the winter whites in a dish based on one created by vegetarian cooking expert Deborah Madison. It's a subtle and elegant side dish, meant to stand beside, not take the place of, a bowl of gravy-loving mashed spuds.

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2-3 medium leeks, white part only
1 fennel bulb
4 small red potatoes
4 small turnips
1 celeriac
1 clove garlic, crushed
salt and pepper
leaves from 6 branches fresh thyme
1 cup each heavy cream and milk
3 Tbsp. butter
1 cup coarse bread crumbs
Slice leeks into rounds and wash thoroughly. Quarter fennel bulb, trim core, and slice into lengthwise pieces about 14-inch thick. Peel potatoes and turnips and slice into 18-inch rounds. Peel outside of celery root, quarter, and slice thinly. Preheat oven to 375°. Butter bottom and sides of a baking dish, and rub with crushed garlic clove. Layer half of the vegetables in the dish, and season with salt, pepper, and thyme leaves. Make a second layer with the rest of the vegetables, and season them as well. Add milk and cream, and dot the surface with small pieces of butter, using about two tablespoons in all. Lay a piece of foil loosely over the top and bake.

Melt the rest of the butter, and toss it with the bread crumbs. Remove the dish from the oven after 30 minutes, take off the foil, and cover the surface with the bread crumbs. Return to oven and continue baking until the vegetables are tender, about another 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving.