Roots, Roots, Roots for the Home Team
A Co-op chef taps the root cellar.
You can’t ‘beet’ a good parsnip … and you can’t ‘turnip’ your nose at local goodness!! But seriously folks, as the leafy greens start going limp, and the wood stove seems to be on around the clock, it is time to tap the root cellar.
We take much for granted in this modern age, but do we appreciate enough? Refrigeration is certainly taken for granted, and like so many modern conveniences, it has not been around for all that long. After a brief incarnation as an ‘ice box’ in the late 19th to the early 20th century, it has been a fixture for fewer than 100 years. But, you say, we have been eating for thousands of years; how did we keep our food edible before the fridge?
One way, popular in many areas of the United States, was the root cellar. It was an area below ground that took advantage of constant, cooler temperatures—what we now call geothermal. It is where the keeper vegetables and fruits went for extended storage: hard apples, potatoes, garlic, and a myriad of root vegetables, hence the term root cellar.
So what makes a root vegetable? What makes them important? Are they grown locally? Is it important to buy local? Is it important to buy organic?
Wow, those are a lot of questions! First, the fleshy enlarged root of certain plants is a root vegetable. Given that they are roots, they spend their lives in the soil. This means they spend their lives absorbing all the nutrients the soil has to offer, making them a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals essential to our health.
It also makes them a direct reflection of the soil. Organic farmers have a mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” This means they prioritize healthy soil, which in turn gives you a healthy plant. Here in the Upper Valley, we have the unique luxury of being close to farms that nurture their soil, so take advantage and buy local and organic when you are able. (You can learn more on the web: www.petesgreens.com, www.blueoxfarm.com/, www.ofrf.org/organic-faqs)
There are many things that you might find underground, but they are not necessarily root vegetables (“Soup from a Stone, oh my!”). That said, the root vegetable casts a pretty wide net.
The true root vegetables are the taproots: carrots, beets, cumin, radish, celeriac. Then you have tuberous roots: yams, sweet potato, ginger. Finally, there are bulbs: garlic, onion, shallot. The potato, although technically a nightshade, is an edible tuber and often lumped into the category (more on this at another time).
Look at this list and you have covered a lot of culinary uses. For straight-up enjoyment of the vegetables, as well as essential deliciousness and flavor, roasting is the best.
The first decision is to peel or not to peel. In a lot of cases it is personal preference. When it come to a rutabaga, however, there is not much of a question. You might want to experiment and push your comfort zone from time to time, but you should always consider your audience and prep accordingly. The second decision is to stir or not to stir. Stirring after a period of cooking will expedite the process. Not stirring will allow for natural browning to occur and develop a nice crust on the pan side of the vegetable, which I love!
Roasted Root Veggies
Prep time: 30 minutes
- 5 to 6 lbs. Assorted Root Vegetables, cut into 1-inch chunks
- ½ cup olive oil
- Rosemary and/or thyme
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Preheat oven to 400ºF.
- Select, wash and peel vegetables as appropriate. Cut into 1-inch chunks.
- In a large mixing bowl, mix with ½ cup olive oil, chopped rosemary and/or thyme, 4 cloves of garlic, chopped; salt and pepper to taste
- Spread onto a large, heavy baking sheet, and do not crowd. If you need two pans, then use two pans; roast for 45 minutes.
- Reduce heat to 350ºF. and cook for another 45 minutes, check for tenderness; the more you cook, the more developed the flavors will be.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
- 5 cups whole milk
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 10 parsnips, peeled and cubed
- ½ tsp. ground black pepper
- 1 tsp. salt
- ¼ cup butter
- Salt, to taste
- Heat milk in a large pot over medium heat until warmed and just under a boil; add parsnips and 1 tsp. salt, cover with a lid, and cook until parsnips are tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Drain parsnips, reserving the warm milk.
- Mash Parsnips, 1 cup reserved warm milk, butter, thyme, and pepper together in the pot using a hand mixer or by blending in a blender. Add more milk, salt, or pepper as desired.
- "I was tricked into trying mashed parsnips (I was told they were mashed potatoes) and felt instantly in love. I haven't made mashed potatoes since. Mashed parsnips are full of much more flavor, slightly sweet, but the same great texture. And they are much healthier!"