Recipe: Sformata with Parsnips and Fontina
Sformata, hard to pronounce, even for a guinea girl like me. SSSSSSFFFFOOOOORRRR. Think of the makeup shop Sephora and you’ll get the idea, except you’ll want to elide the sound, not break it into two syllables. All it really means, in Italian culinary parlance, is something that’s molded, like a flan or a gratin type dish. But the primary issue here, I think, is the parsnip. Not many people eat them. Most people I know, even good cooks, aren’t sure what to do with them.
Parsnips are such a unique tasting vegetable. They look like pale carrots but have a starchier texture and an absolutely mesmerizing floral fragrance and taste. Don’t leave them out of your life. Unlike carrots, they tend to break up a bit if you just try to slice and sauté them. They are good roasted, but if you want to try this, use smaller ones, as the big ones can get tough. To my taste, I think it’s better to mash them and then work them into something like a soufflé or a flan—a sformata, in fact.
Here I’ve added a little potato to give the dish body, but just a little. I didn’t want to dilute any of the beautiful parsnip flavor. Possibly this isn’t a true sformata, which really is more like a flan. Since I do add whipped egg whites, I suppose this is a morph between a flan and a soufflé, but it is molded, so I believe it qualifies as a sformata. I served it on New Year’s Day, along with a nice tender lump of roast beef.
And just in case you were curious, here is what Winter looks like in Sicily:
Sformata with Parsnips and Fontina
(Serves 5 as a side dish)
½ cup grated Fontina Val d’Aosta cheese (use the good stuff)
½ cup grated grana Padano chese
¾ cup homemade dry breadcrumbs, not too finely ground and seasoned with a pinch of salt
3 tablespoons soft butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
About 8 medium parsnips (the really large ones can be tough), peeled and thickly sliced
2 medium baking potatoes, peeled and cut into medium dice
1 shallot, sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
About 10 big scrapings of nutmeg
6 fresh thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
3 egg yolks
6 egg whites
You’ll want an approximately 8-by-12-inch gratin dish (this is not a soufflé; it’s firmer; it will rise a bit while cooking but will fall just as quickly, which is what you want). Coat the inside of the dish with about half of the softened butter.
Mix the Fontina and the grana Padano together in a bowl. Sprinkle the dish with a handful of the cheese mixture and some of the breadcrumbs, and tap it around until the dish is lightly coated.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a large pot, heat the remaining butter with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the parsnips, potato, and shallot. Season with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg, and sauté for about 2 or 3 minutes, just to coat the vegetables with flavor. Add about ½ cup of warm water to the pot, turn the heat down a touch, and cover it. Simmer, stirring everything around a few times, until the vegetables are tender when poked with a knife. If at any time it seems they might start to stick, add a little more warm water. Add the thyme. Now mash everything (I used a whisk) until you have a fairly smooth mush. Avoid the temptation to use a food processor; that might make it gluey. Let the mix cool for a few minutes, and then add the egg yolks, stirring them in well. Add the cheese, leaving about ¼ cup out to sprinkle on the top, and mix it in.
Whisk the egg whites, and gently fold them into the parsnip mixture. Pour everything into the baking dish. Scatter the remaining cheese and enough of the breadcrumbs to lightly cover the top. Drizzle with olive oil and bake, uncovered, until golden and puffy, about 30 minutes. You can serve this right away or let it fall a bit and serve it warm.