Clay-Cooked Root Vegetables and Geode Surprises
What if I told you that in order to eat your dinner, you’d have to unwrap it first? And that to unwrap it, you’d have to hit some rocks with a hammer? If you’re like me, you might be a little confused, but excited! This is one of my absolute favorite recipes to share with others - it is simple, delicious, and way too much fun. It was the main course of my event Geode, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the confused faces of my guests turn into child-like smiles of wonder as they began cracking open their parcels to reveal colorful vegetables and delicious earthy and herbal smells!
Preparing this dish is a very simple process. You just wash your vegetables, then wrap them in aromatic herbs and leaves (grape leaves and thimbleberry leaves are my favorite), then coat them in a thin layer of clay and roast for a few hours. The clay locks the moisture in, making soft vegetables infused with the flavors of the herbs. The texture is unlike other ways of preparing roasted root vegetables; they turn out softer and creamier than most other preparations. Then, you crack open the clay casing and peel aside the leaves to reveal those delicious gems of vegetables. The leaves keep the vegetables clean as they serve as a barrier between them while also imparting a delicious flavor.
Since potatoes come from the earth, it seems natural to serve them wrapped in it, highlighting their origins and preserving their flavor. Potatoes and clay is not a new pairing, either. It’s likely that this was a common way of cooking vegetables before the days of metal cook pots. Clay also helps neutralize the toxins in certain varieties of potatoes. According to Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses:
“Some Quechua Indians of Peru subsist largely on potatoes, but because the growing season is so short, they’re often forced to eat only partially ripened ones. Potatoes contain solanine, a bitter toxic alkaloid, but the Quechuas find that if they smear kaolin clay on the potatoes, it masks the bitterness and they don’t get upset stomachs. The kaolin also detoxifies the alkaloids in the potatoes, making them simultaneously tastier and more nutritious.”
This dish is called Arcilla de Chaco in the Andean highlands. The clay itself is high in calcium, iron, zinc, and copper and is believed to also have medicinal properties. Archaelogical evidence suggests that the practice of eating clay may have been common in this region for at least 2,500 years, and humans may have learned to do so by watching parrots at the clay licks in parts of Peru. In this area, clay has also been eaten to soothe the stomach and digestive disorders.
That said, you won't actually be eating the clay in this recipe, but it's important to source clay that doesn't have any heavy metals or other toxins. The best option is pure kaolin, which is actually edible and used by some modern chefs. You can buy it at some garden centers and pottery supply stores. You can also go to a pottery supply store and ask for porcelain, as most porcelain clays are primarily kaolin.
Root vegetables (beets and potatoes work well)
porcelain clay or pure kaolin (available at garden centers or ceramic supply stores)
small oven-safe trinkets, optional
tissue paper, optional
various toppings: flavored salts, sour cream, butter, pesto, and other sauces
Here’s how it works: you gather a variety of lovely root vegetables in assorted colors, then peel the ones with a thick skin (most skins can just be left on.) Slather those with olive oil, then wrap them in fresh herbs and a large leaf of some kind - I recommend grape leaves or thimbleberry leaves but you could also use curly dock or kale. Once your potatoes and beets are all wrapped up in vegetation, coat them in clay. Smoosh the clay over the surface of the leaves to create an even coating all the way around. You want it to be at least 1/4” thick all over, and if it’s closer to 1/2” that’s okay too. Place the clay lumps on a tray to dry as you continue to make them. I usually let them sit somewhere cool and dry overnight, like a root cellar or even your fridge. This lets the outside dry out a little but keeps the root vegetables fresh. This step is optional, though, you can also bake the parcels immediately after coating them.
Fire up your oven to 400F and place the clay lumps in there. You’ll need to roast them for 1 1/2- 2 1/2 hours to make sure they are deliciously soft and fragrant. You can poke into one every now and then to see how soft they’re getting. Once they are soft and smell delicious, carefully remove them from the oven (wear oven mits!) and place in a heat-proof serving vessel. It’s a good idea to let them cool a bit before serving them to your guests - the insides will be HOT and you don’t want to burn anyone. Once they are warm to the touch but not too hot, place them on the table with a selection of hammers and have your guests go crazy! They’ll love unearthing the fragrant root vegetable treats! Serve them simply with some butter and flavored seasoning salts - you can even design your own geode with those ingredients if you’re so inclined.
If you’d like to take the surprise level up a notch, wrap small oven-safe treats in tissue paper and wrap that in clay to look like one of the potatoes for an extra fun layer of surprise. Small ceramic tokens work especially well for this, as metal gets quite hot in the oven.
If you really want to dress this meal up, try rolling colorful goat cheese or cream cheeses into balls, then rolling that in crushed crackers or breading to look like lumpy rocks. These are delicious when melted on top of a baked potato. Think outside the box when choosing condiments for this dish - they are fantastic topped with a variety of sauces or seasonings, not just the traditional baked potato fare! At the event, I served them with blueberry tahini sauce, turmeric sour cream, harissa butter, guacamole, pesto, sprouts, and a variety of sparkling colored salts. Yum!
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