Cooks are rediscovering root vegetables

Cellar-dwelling winter vegetables enjoy renewed interest from restaurants and home cooks alike

Milwaukee Journal SentinelNovember 11, 2010 

MILWAUKEE — It's time that root vegetables come out of the cellar and into the spotlight, says Andrea Chesman, who recently devoted an entire cookbook to recipes from the root cellar.

Milwaukee chef John Raymond — whose mother filled a root cellar with canned parsnips and carrots and pickled beets when he was a kid — agrees.

Raymond showcases root vegetables at his Roots Restaurant and Cellar when they're in season. The restaurant features the vegetables he grows at a farm he leases from a friend.

"I plant, harvest, procure the seeds, tend and preserve what's produced," Raymond says. "It's really neat to follow the entire path from seed in the ground to the smile on a customer's face."

Fall is when farmers harvest root vegetables to sell to chefs and farmers market shoppers, and they typically get top billing on restaurant menus throughout winter.

Roots, the restaurant, celebrates them not just because they reflect the establishment's name, but because they're integral in northern cuisine for their storage life and versatility when other seasonal produce is gone for the year, Raymond says.

"Root vegetables cross all cultures and cuisines," he says. "We can travel to Mexico and the Southwest by using jicama and yucca root, (to) Europe with celeriac, parsnip and burdock. And one of Roots' favorites, the sunchoke, is a native to North America."

Beets

They start to appear in farmers markets in mid-summer but have a long season. Be careful when working with maroon beets; they can stain your hands (and any ingredient with which they come into contact) an outlandish pink. A popular golden variety offers the earthy flavor without the staining.

Beets are related to Swiss chard; they originated from the same wild species in the Mediterranean.

Celery root

Also known as celeriac, this root arrives at restaurants and farmers markets in mid-October. It tastes like celery.

It's an excellent source of soluble fiber, which helps to lower blood cholesterol. It's also rich in iron, manganese, potassium, vitamin K and phosphorus and is a good source of vitamin C, folate and magnesium.

Celeriac's tough, furrowed outer surface is usually sliced off because it is too rough to peel. It's often used as a flavoring in soups and stews; it also can be used on its own, usually mashed, or in casseroles, gratins and baked dishes.

Chefs popularized celeriac during the past decade, Raymond says, as the local-food movement broadened the availability of lesser-known, almost forgotten root vegetables. Unlike other root vegetables, which store a large amount of starch, celeriac is only about 5 percent to 6 percent starch by weight.

Parsnips

Like celeriac, parsnips are versatile. They're related to carrots but are paler and have a sweeter flavor.

The parsnip harvest begins after the first frost and continues until the ground freezes over. Parsnips can be eaten raw but are most commonly boiled, roasted or used in soups, stews and casseroles. They also can be fried.

Parsnips will last a month in the refrigerator. Roasting brings out their sweetness. Peel and cut into ¼-inch-thick sticks and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast at 400 degrees, stirring once, until tender, about 45 minutes.

In Roman times, the parsnip was thought to be an aphrodisiac. British colonists introduced it to North America, but the potato replaced the parsnip in popularity in the mid-19th century.

Rutabaga

This root vegetable is a cross between cabbage and turnips. It can be used as a substitute for turnips, and its flavor is simultaneously sweet and slightly bitter.

The rutabaga first appeared in Eastern Europe in the 17th century, and it was one of the few vegetables to last through long Scandinavian winters, Andrea Chesman writes in Recipes From the Root Cellar (Story Publishing, 2010, $18.95). It was the food of the poor, valued as an important source of nutrition, she writes.

Rutabagas got a bad rap in World War I, when they became a food of last resort. In the German Steckrubenwinter (rutabaga winter) of 1916 to 1917, grain and potato crops failed, and large parts of the population were kept alive on a diet of rutabagas and little else, Chesman writes. After the war, most people were so tired of "famine food" that they turned against rutabagas.

Turnips

Fall turnips are usually larger and of higher quality than spring turnips. So the fall crop typically is stored for winter use.

Some say their taste resembles mustard greens. They lend themselves to being mashed with potatoes. Just boil peeled turnips until tender, and mash them with heavy cream, butter, nutmeg, salt and pepper.

A small turnip is interchangeable with a daikon radish and is delicious in Asian-style salads or as an addition to a crudites plate, Chesman says. An older turnip is interchangeable with a rutabaga (although not as sweet), and is best cooked because it has a stronger flavor.

The turnip dates to the prehistoric development of agriculture, probably because it's easy to grow and store, Chesman writes. It was brought to the Americas in 1541, first planted in Canada. It was planted in Virginia by the colonists in 1609.

RECIPES

Parsnip latkes

Parsnips replace potatoes in this recipe from Roots Restaurant and Cellar. 1 pound parsnips, peeled and grated

2 tablespoons salt

½ cup minced leek (white part only)

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme

Freshly cracked black pepper

½ cup olive oil

Crème fraiche for serving Season parsnips with salt, cover with a damp towel and set aside in colander for 30 minutes. This will leach out some moisture. Rinse thoroughly under cold water, drain, place on clean dry linen and wring out extra water. In stainless bowl, combine parsnips, leeks, eggs, thyme and black pepper. Heat a non-stick sauté pan to medium-high heat, and add olive oil. Drop two to three tablespoons of latke mixture into hot oil, spread out mix, and brown on both sides. Serve with a dollop of crème fraiche for a refreshing alternative to the common latke.

Makes about 15 to 18 (3-inch) latkes.

Celery root and aged gouda gratin

Celeriac, a less-familiar root vegetable for the average home cook, is featured in this recipe from Roots Restaurant and Cellar.

6 egg yolks

2 cups whipping cream

1 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary

Salt and freshly cracked pepper

Pinch red pepper flakes

4 medium celery root, peeled

2 medium russet potatoes, peeled

6 ounces aged gouda

½ bunch green onions, chopped (green tops only)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Prepare custard base in a large stainless steel bowl: Beat egg yolks, then add whipping cream, rosemary, salt, pepper and pepper flakes.

Thinly slice celery root and potatoes using a mandoline or sharp knife, and place in custard mix. Grate gouda.

Coat an 8-by-12 inch casserole dish with olive oil spray.

Stir custard mixture to ensure that all root and potato pieces are coated. Begin by laying down one layer of roots and potatoes, chopped green onion and gouda; continue until all ingredients are used.

Pour any remaining custard over the top just to cover the vegetables.

Bake, uncovered, 1 hour in preheated oven. Pierce with a knife; there should be no resistance from vegetables, and no raw custard should be visible. Let rest briefly and serve.

Makes about 6 servings.

Café Manna's root-vegetable stir-fry

This recipe from Café Manna in Brookfield, Wis., is a versatile stir-fry. Substitute your favorite seasonal vegetables other times of the year.

1 tablespoon diced ginger

1 green onion

¼ bunch cilantro

Juice of ½ orange

1 to 2 tablespoons parsley

½ teaspoon garlic

1½ tablespoons sesame oil

¼ cup mirin wine (available in Asian section of supermarket)

1 tablespoon olive oil

¾ cup julienned carrots

¾ cup julienned parsnips

¾ cup julienned daikon radish

¾ cup julienned yellow beet

¾ cup julienned celery root

¾ cup julienned turnip

Hot cooked jasmine or basmati rice To prepare sauce, place ginger, green onion, cilantro, orange juice, parsley, garlic, sesame oil and mirin in blender and purée until smooth.

Heat oil in sauté pan over high heat. Add carrots, parsnips, Daikon radish, yellow beet, celery root and turnip, and quickly sauté a minute or two, keeping vegetables moving so they don't burn. Add sauce, toss a couple times, and cook 2 more minutes, keeping vegetables moving, until vegetables are crisp-tender. Serve with rice.

Makes 4 servings.

Lamb stew with root vegetables

Serve this lamb stew, from Andrea Chesman's Recipes From the Root Cellar, with a pinot noir and a crusty loaf of French bread.

4 pounds lamb stew meat with bones (from neck and shoulder)

2⁄3 cup flour

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, divided

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup sunflower or canola oil, divided

1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced

3 cups chicken broth or beef broth

1 cup red wine

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound carrots and/or parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 pound celery root, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 pound rutabagas and/or turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes Pat lamb dry. Combine flour and 1 tablespoon thyme in a shallow bowl. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add lamb, and toss to coat.

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Lift lamb pieces out of flour, shaking off excess, and add in a single layer to pan. Do not crowd pan; you might have to cook in batches.

Brown meat on all sides, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove meat as it browns and set aside. Continue to brown remaining meat.

Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil and onion to pan; sauté until soft, about 3 minutes. Add broth, wine, garlic and 1 tablespoon thyme, scraping up any browned bits from pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a slow simmer.

Return meat to pan. Partially cover pan and let simmer until meat is tender, about 2 hours.

Add carrots, celery root and rutabagas; simmer until vegetables are tender, about 1 hour. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Serve hot.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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