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Wednesday, November 14, 2012
They’re weird-looking, they’re dirty, and for a long time, nobody wanted anything to do with them.
But much like awkward teenagers, root vegetables clean up well and their positive attributes shine through. Over the past few years, they’ve even become popular.
Five to 10 years ago, local produce distributor Tenley Weaver of Good Food-Good People couldn’t unload products such as turnips, parsnips and celeriac in Southwest Virginia. Even customers who had heard of those veggies weren’t sure how to prepare them or whether they would like them.
But thanks to the local food movement and experimental chefs, root vegetables are now en vogue. During the winter, when high-demand crops such as summer squash, tomatoes and green beans are finished in Virginia, we still can find three major categories of produce at farmers markets, in farm-share baskets and at local food restaurants: greens, winter squash and root vegetables.
Celeriac (aka celery root) has been offered by Good Food-Good People for five years, but Weaver said that first year she probably couldn’t sell 100 pounds of it. This year, she contracted with local farmers to grow 2,000 pounds.
“I was a bit nervous that I exceeded public demand,” she said, “but they are really moving.”
It probably helps that diners are tasting delicious preparations of root vegetables at local restaurants or are seeing more sophisticated recipes in print or online. Gone are the days of simply peeling and boiling root veggies and plopping them on a plate (although some folks still enjoy them that way, too).
The spectrum of preparation possibilities includes mashing or pureeing, roasting and braising, as well as making fries, chips, salads and soups. These methods bring out sweetness, temper bitterness and let earthy flavors emerge.
Another change is in the variety of root vegetables available. For example, Weaver’s fall and winter inventory includes carrots of all shapes, colors and sizes; Japanese turnips and watermelon-colored turnips; royal purple sweet potatoes; black Spanish and red daikon radishes.
The more farmers who want to grow for Good Food-Good People, the more unusual root vegetables they can offer.
“If we get a bigger grower pool, we are blessed to have more opportunity to explore the fringes,” Weaver said. “When new growers come in, I say, ‘Why don’t you try a little bit of this, a little bit of that? Let’s push the margins.’ ”
Wider availability allows adventurous home cooks to “push the margins” in their own kitchens, as well.
With that in mind, I present this little tutorial on root vegetables in our part of the state. You can find these at farmers markets or at the grocery store. I also asked some local chefs to share recipes they think will get folks excited about this versatile and nutritious produce group.
First, a note: There are subcategories of root vegetables that include taproots, root tubers, stem tubers and other specific kinds. For our purposes, I consider them all root vegetables.
I also consider them delicious.
Your guide to root vegetables
Many people associate BEETS with their intense magenta color, but this vegetable actually ranges in color from red to white. Beet greens are also edible and are very nutritious.
Tips: Select beets that are firm and smooth-skinned. Look for crisp, fresh tops. When you get home, remove the tops but leave about a 1-inch stem to help preserve nutrients and color. If cooking beets whole, peel them after cooking.
Storage: Beets can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.
A CARROT a day keeps the eye doctor away, or so they say. And that’s because carrots contain a ton of vitamin A.
Tips: Look for carrots that are firm and smooth, not cracked, shriveled or turning white. If you buy carrots with greenery attached, remove the greenery as soon as possible to avoid loss of nutrients and moisture. Discard or compost the tops; they are not edible. It is possible to crisp up limp carrots by giving them a bath in ice water.
Storage: Do not store carrots next to apples because apples emit a gas that can make your carrots bitter.
The CELERY ROOT found on produce tables is not the root of the celery we typically buy. It is a variety cultivated especially for the root, which is a gnarly, bulbous, brown vegetable that tastes of strong celery and parsley.
Tips: Also known as celeriac, it can be as large as a cantaloupe, but select the smallest, firmest ones you can find. Stay away from any celery root with soft spots or an excessive amount of lumps and bumps. To eat (raw or cooked), you should first peel the vegetable and soak it in some water to which a bit of vinegar, lemon or lime juice has been added. This prevents discoloration.
Storage: Refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to 10 days.
I think we all know the value of the omnipresent ONION , which is an important ingredient in so many cuisines. Locally, you may still be able to find yellow onions, but onion harvest is nearing an end.
Storage: They store well under dark, dry, cool conditions, especially if placed in a mesh hanging bag. Don’t store onions with potatoes because the latter emits a gas that causes onions to decay faster.
PARSNIPS are available year-round in many locations, but it is the first frost that makes this root vegetable a cold-weather favorite, because that’s what turns the starch to sugar and makes parsnips sweet.
Tips: Select parsnips much as you would carrots, looking for firm, unmarred examples instead of limp or shriveled ones.
Storage: Parsnips stay good in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
POTATOES and onions would be neck-in-neck in the race for the most popular root vegetable, but I’ll bet potatoes would win. Hundreds of kinds of potatoes are grown around the world, and one or another is in season all year round.
Tips: New potatoes are simply baby potatoes, but they maintain their shape better after cooking than mature potatoes. The green tint on aging potatoes is toxic, but you can peel it away and eat the rest of the vegetable.
Storage: Refrigerating potatoes makes them sweeter, but also darker when cooked.
Most folks probably think of RADISHES as small, round, bright red vegetables, but the earthy, peppery veggies come in all shapes, sizes and colors and are enjoyed around the world.
Tips: Radishes are members of the mustard family, and they should be very firm and crisp, not soft and pithy. A soak in ice water improves the texture. Radishes are usually eaten raw, but can be cooked.
Storage: Remove tops immediately and store in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to 5 days.
RUTABAGAS are a member of the cabbage family, but they look like big turnips and are sometimes called Swedish turnips.
Tips: Their skin should be smooth, and the flesh should be firm and heavy in your hands. They have a slightly sweet, earthy flavor and are good prepared in the same way you might prepare turnips.
Storage: They will last in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.
There are two common SWEET POTATO varieties. One is pale yellow, dry when cooked and not very sweet; the other is deep orange and is much sweeter and moister than its cousin. YAMS actually come from a different plant, contain more sugar and moisture but not as much vitamin A or C as sweet potatoes.
Tips: Select sweet potatoes that are small to medium with no visible bruises.
Storage: Winter is peak season for sweet potatoes, which should be stored in a dry, dark place that stays around 55 degrees. They can be stored for up to a month, but are best when used within a week.
Ah, the humble TURNIP . Although popular in England and parts of Europe, turnips are a hard sell in America. But they are growing in popularity.
Tips: Look for small turnips, because they are generally sweeter and more tender than the big boys. Turnips should be peeled before they are cooked. Beginners can boil equal parts peeled, cubed turnips and potatoes, then serve them with butter or mash them up. That’s how my mom got us to eat turnips.
Storage: Turnips are easy to grow and store well in the cellar. Their tops are edible and delicious, but only buy them if they look fresh.
SALSIFY is otherwise known as “oyster root” because some say it has flavors of oyster and artichoke.
Tips: It should be firm and heavy for its size, and it is usually peeled before it is cooked. It can be eaten on its own, but it’s also good in soups and stews.
Storage: Refrigerate, wrapped in plastic, for up to 2 weeks.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES , or sunchokes, are not artichokes and have nothing to do with Jerusalem (that comes from girasole, the Italian word for sunflower). Sunchokes are the root of a type of sunflower plant.
Tips: Fresh, firm sunchokes are nutty, crunchy and sweet. They can be added raw to salads or cooked in savory dishes. No need to peel them if you don’t want; a good washing will do just fine.
Storage: After a week in the refrigerator, sunchokes may begin to dry out and wither.
Source: “Food Lover’s Companion” by Herbst and Herbst; “Nature’s Pharmacy” by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians; Tenley Weaver, Good Food-Good People.
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