Root vegetables 101: A primer on the most underappreciated produce
Introduce some new flavors to your winter meals with seasonal produce like parsnips, rutabagas and turnips.
Wed, Feb 06 2013 at 3:37 PM
All photos: Kelly Rossiter
Pity the poor root vegetable. Dirty, misshapen, they have none of the tantalizing sexiness of tomatoes, the trendiness of kale, the smooth beauty of eggplants. Nope, root vegetables look odd, and people have no idea what to do with them. On more than one occasion I have been accosted by someone in the grocery store wanting to know what the hairy, bulbous thing in my hand was. Telling them it's celeriac puts them no further ahead, because knowing the name of it doesn't explain what the heck you do with it.
I live in Toronto and I cook locally and seasonally, so I have more than a passing acquaintance with all manner of root vegetables. When I was a child, that is all you could get once the fall squash was gone, until the exciting arrival of asparagus in the spring. Big woody carrots, beets, rutabagas, turnips and, of course, potatoes were our vegetables. To add a little excitement, once in a while we would have frozen peas or canned corn, but all the fresh vegetables were roots.
Here's a little primer on root vegetables to get you started. Forget the green salad with dinner tonight — have a turnip instead! For some truly mouth-watering recipes, I suggest you have a look through a new cookbook entitled “Roots” by Diane Morgan.
Also known as celery root, celeriac has a delicate celery taste. You can grate it and saute it, use it in soups or eat it raw in a remoulade. It's loaded with fiber, vitamin B, vitamin C and vitamin K.
Fun fact: Celery is one of the first vegetables to appear in recorded history.
Neither an artichoke, nor from Jerusalem, these are the tubers of sunflowers and probably derive their name from the Italian for sunflower, girolsole. They have a crisp, nutty flavor, especially when sauteed. I have roasted them, pickled them and made fantastic soups with them. They make a great substitution for potatoes.
Fun fact: Jerusalem artichokes contain the carbohydrate inulin (not insulin!) and the body cannot digest it, which can cause bloating and flatulence. So, not a good menu item on a first date.
Parsnips resemble anaemic carrots and are naturally quite sweet. They can be used in soups and stews and are particularly wonderful roasted. Parsnips have more vitamins than their cousin, the carrot, and they have lots of potassium.
Fun fact: While the roots are fine to touch, handling the shoots and leaves can cause a chemical burn on the skin, so it's best to wear gloves and long sleeves when gardening.
Try it: 5 recipes for parsnips
A staple of my childhood, the rutabaga is originally a cross between a cabbage and a turnip. You can roast them, mash them or add them to soups. Lots of vitamin C here: 100 grams will provide you with about 40 percent of your daily requirement.
Fun fact: If you are in England, you'll have to ask for swedes. If you are in Scotland and ask for tatties and neeps, you will get potatoes and rutabagas or turnips.
People often confuse sweet potatoes with yams, but they are different things altogether. Sweet potatoes are incredibly versatile and you can cook them just about any way you like — roasted, fried, boiled or baked in bread. They have lots of vitamin C and vitamin A, and they have more beta-carotene than any other vegetable.
Fun fact: Sweet potatoes are part of the morning glory family.
Try it: Sweet Potato Salad
Bonus: How to grow sweet potatoes
Turnips are part of the mustard family, as are horseradish, radishes and rutabagas. They can be roasted, used in stews and soups. Interestingly enough, there isn't a lot of nutritional value in the turnip, other than vitamin C. Most of the nutrients reside in the greens of the plant.
Fun fact: Before the pumpkin took over the Halloween duties, turnips were hollowed out and used as lanterns.
Learn more: How to grow turnips
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