Jane Says: There's a Whole World of Root Vegetables Beyond Potatoes

From burdock and celery root to parsnips and sunchokes, winter's subterranean crops hold a wealth of flavor.

The Wide World of Root Vegetables: Winer's Subterranean Crops Hold a Wealth of Flavor

Burdock root. (ORAZ Studio/Flickr)

Jane Lear was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“In the interests of eating local, I’d like to try the rutabagas, turnips, and other unusual (to me, at any rate) root vegetables I see at the farmers market, but they’re kind of intimidating. Can you tell me a little about them—including some cooking tips?”

—Helen Sanders

The term root vegetable is a general one, referring to vegetables from botanical families that store nutrients either in their edible roots or in the underground stems called tubers. They are the unsung heroes of the winter produce world, and once you look beyond the bins of sweet potatoes and true potatoes, you’ll discover a whole new realm of rich flavors and textures, as well as bodacious amounts of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The root vegetables in the list below are at their best this time of year, and, especially if you are buying locally, less expensive than more delicate imported vegetables.

Shopping and storing: In general, look for firm root vegetables that feel heavy for their size, and avoid those that are bruised, shriveled, or softened in spots. Most can be stored in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for a good two weeks or more.

Eight Great Seasonal Root Vegetables

Burdock (aka gobo): This long, cylindrical root grows wild throughout much of the world, but it’s probably native to Asia. In the authoritative Oriental Vegetables: The Complete Guide for the Gardening Cook, Joy Larkcom writes that the Chinese introduced burdock to the Japanese as a medicine about 1,000 years ago, but the Japanese are responsible for its use as a culinary plant. Its earthy flavor ranges from mild to assertive, depending on the age and quality of the roots. Like Jerusalem artichokes and salsify, burdock is a member of the vast Compositae family of plants; it’s high in inulin (see Jerusalem artichoke below) as well as B vitamins and minerals. Try burdock in stir-fries or an Asian-inspired braise such as kinpiraShopping and prep tips: Burdock should be firm, not limp, and ideally no thicker than a slender carrot. Japanese cooking authority Elizabeth Andoh writes in Washoku: Recipes From the Japanese Home Kitchen that burdock's woodsy aroma is concentrated in its outer layers, so heavy scraping should be avoided. "Rinse the burdock root under running cold water, lightly scratching away clinging soil with the back of your knife," she explains. "Most [cooks] will soak sliced burdock briefly in cold water, others will put a few drops of vinegar in the soaking water to further 'bleach' it. Those who engage in macrobiotic practices will not soak burdock at all."

Celery root (aka celeriac): Celery root and regular bunch celery are varieties of the same Mediterranean plant, and they contain similar nutrients, including iron, folate, calcium, vitamin C, and dietary fiber. You’ll find that celery root has a milder, more complex flavor, and raw preparations showcase its earthy sweetness as well as its fine-grained texture. Try it in a classic céleri rémoulade, or simply serve a slice alongside a lunchtime sandwich. Cooked, it doesn’t turn starchy but gives velvety body to soups and purees. It’s also delicious simply cut into pieces, tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted until tender and golden. Shopping & prep tips: Smaller roots are more tender than larger ones. For ease of peeling, choose a celery root with a minimum of knobs and rootlets. Give it a good scrubbing (it can be sandy), then whack off the ends. Use a sharp paring knife to remove the thick skin, working from top to bottom. The creamy flesh discolors quickly, so toss the peeled pieces into a bowl of lemon water.

Jerusalem artichoke (aka Sunchoke): This crisp, knobbly little tuber comes from a type of North American sunflower. The name Sunchoke was trademarked in 1980 by Frieda Caplan, a specialty produce wholesaler in Los Angeles who has always been ahead of the curve. The famously impolite moniker “Jerusalem fartichoke” is due to a high content of the indigestible carbohydrate inulin, which stimulates prebiotic activity (i.e., a healthy balance of microorganisms) in the large intestine. (Because of that and other attributes, including a low glycemic index, inulin has become an increasingly popular supplement and food additive.) Work Jerusalem artichokes gradually into your diet if unsure of your tolerance, and you’ll be rewarded not only with vitamin C, B vitamins, potassium, phosphorous, and magnesium but a whopping amount of iron (3 mg iron per 100 mg, which is comparable to the iron content of meats)—as well as a sweet, nutty flavor with, yep, a subtle yet definite hint of artichoke hearts. The tubers can be roasted whole until tender (don’t overcook, or they’ll turn mushy) or quickly sautéed to retain their snap. As to how the tuber came by the “Jerusalem” part of its name, in The Curious Cook, food scientist Harold McGee does his part to debunk the undying culinary myth that it is a corrupted form of girasole, the Italian word for “sunflower.” It was introduced to England from the Netherlands, specifically the town of Terneusen. Terneusen, Jerusalem, whatever. All I know is that writing this blurb has made me long for “artichoke pickles,” a staple of my Southern childhood. Shopping & prep tips: Avoid tubers that are beginning to soften or have taken on a greenish tinge. Scrub them thoroughly to remove every trace of grit.

Parsley root: This type of parsley has been selectively bred for its root (which is high in potassium) since early medieval times. It’s smaller than the more familiar parsnip, and while it lacks that vegetable’s characteristic sweetness, it makes up for it with an herbaceous parsleylike punch and an elusive earthiness reminiscent of celery root. Many gardeners enjoy growing it because they get a twofer: fresh leaves throughout the summer and roots harvested in the fall. Parsley root is integral to many an old-school Jewish chicken soup, and it adds an aromatic depth and complexity to braises, mashes, or a root-vegetable hash. Shopping & prep tips: These roots come with their green tops. Cut those off and store separately. To peel or not is a matter of individual preference.

Parsnip: This sweet, juicy cousin to parsley root, celery root, and carrot may look unprepossessing, but it’s a good source of vitamins (in particular, C and B complex) and minerals such as iron, calcium, copper, potassium, manganese, and phosphorus. Although parsnips have a great affinity for creamy sauces, they are just as delicious when roasted or cooked and mashed with potatoes. Counter the root’s sweetness with dark leafy pot greens such as kale, the smokiness of bacon or ham, or the brininess of capers or anchovies. Or make the most of that sugar content, and replace some of another sweetener with finely shredded parsnip in pancake or muffin batter. Shopping & prep tips: Buy largish roots for a better peel-to-flesh ratio. Inspect the tops for a sprouting seed stalk, which indicates a tough, woody core. Unless the skin is very thin, I like to peel parsnips. To cut even-sized pieces for uniform cooking, cut off the narrow end in one piece, then halve or quarter the squat end lengthwise to make pieces that are about the same thickness.

Rutabaga (aka yellow turnip, swede): This member of the nutritional all-star Brassicaceae (Cruciferae) family is an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of potassium, beta-carotene, and fiber. Peppery and assertively flavored, rutabagas are wonderful raw, as a snack, or diced or shredded in a salad. Cut them into matchsticks and sauté, or if you have more time, cut them into chunks and roast with other root vegetables. They are especially delicious in purees, whether alone or paired with potatoes. Shopping & prep tips: Most rutabagas at the grocery store are coated with wax to prevent moisture loss; you’ll find unwaxed ones at the farmers market. And if you see ones labeled “Gilfeather rutabagas” or “Gilfeather turnips,” pounce; you’ve found an heirloom variety cultivated by Vermont farmer John Gilfeather in the late 19th century. It has a lovely earthy sweetness and a delicate radishy bite.

Salsify (aka white salsify or oyster plant): Salsify, cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans, was a popular kitchen-garden vegetable in 18th- and 19th-century America, when it was valued as a blood purifier. These days, it’s considered a good source of vitamin C, some B vitamins, potassium, and inulin, like its New World relation the Jerusalem artichoke. Depending on what opinionated person you ask, salsify tastes subtly of oysters/artichokes/asparagus. In any event, it makes a fabulous soup, and it is terrific in a gratin or mash too. Dark-brown “black salsify,” which is more correctly known as scorzonera, is in the same plant family (Compositae) but a different genera (as is burdock, with which scorzonera is often confused). Salsify and scorzonera are virtually interchangeable in recipes, although their flavors and textures are a little different. Shopping & prep tips for both: Large roots can be fibrous, and once you peel small roots, there’s not much there there, so choose medium-size ones. Scrub well and peel; the roots will be slightly sticky, but that’s as it should be. Drop the peeled roots in lemon water to prevent discoloration.

Turnip: This root is a brassica, like the rutabaga. It’s very high in vitamin C and sulfuric compounds, particularly glucosinolates, which are thought to have antioxidant properties. The purple-topped turnip, which is common this time of year, has a clean, peppery bite and is a cornerstone of many a soup and stew. Turnips give a great balance to a mixture of roasted root vegetables, and they cut the richness in a potato mash or gratin. They also make a light, fresh-tasting puree. Shopping & prep tips: Choose turnips that are hard and heavy, with almost a pearly sheen. Turnips with their greens attached are the freshest. Cut off the greens (which contain calcium, vitamin K, beta-carotene, and other nutrients) when you get home, and store them separately. Turnip greens give a spicy sharpness and a delicate texture to a blend of heartier pot greens—kale and collards, for instance. Cook them within a day or so, and don’t leave the turnips themselves kicking around for long; they lose moisture quickly. In general, turnips are better peeled; the layer under the skin can be bitter or tough.

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