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Getting back to your roots

Roots come in a variety of shapes and flavors. (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

There are many delicious root veggies at our winter farmers’ market. In addition to the ubiquitous potatoes, onions, carrots and sweet potatoes, there are long white parsnips, rough-skinned celeriac (celery root), smooth and shiny kohlrabi, turnips, leeks, several types of beets and four kinds of radishes.

Often viewed as humble fare, these subterranean delights have a rough, dirty, gnarled and knotty exterior. Inside, they contain a wealth of flavor, bright color and rich nutrients. Root vegetables flavor everything from soups to salads, side dishes, appetizers, casseroles, Asian stir-fry suppers, Indian curries, even Sunday roast. Mix and match them to create varied flavors and textures.

Our local farmers harvest roots in the fall and store them through the winter. Roots have been stored in this way for centuries before refrigerators and freezers were available. With the right storage conditions, they have a long shelf life. Before refrigeration, most houses had root cellars that remained cool, moist yet frost-free. The dampness in root cellars kept vegetables from drying out and shriveling up (as they do in the modern refrigerator). That is why they became a traditional winter staple, offering winter sustenance for many.

Roots store energy in the form of carbohydrates; they vary in the amounts of sugars and starches they contain, with beets being the highest in sugar, while potatoes are highest in complex carbohydrates. They also store minerals like potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese, because they act as a conduit to transport these from the soil into the growing plant. They’re excellent sources of fiber and vitamins, including important antioxidants. Yellow roots like carrots and sweet potatoes are high in vitamin A, while others supply folic acid and vitamin C. Beets and potatoes are particularly high in potassium, a mineral important to regulating the cardiovascular system. The allium vegetables, like leeks and onions, are known to prevent colorectal cancers and are good for heart health. Betacyanin, the dye responsible for the bright crimson color of red beets, is also a powerful cancer preventative.

There are many ways to use roots in the kitchen. Roots are great roasted, either on their own or alongside meat roast. Roasting concentrates their flavor and brings out their natural sweetness –without adding any sugar. Slow-roasting vegetables in your oven on a cold winter day will warm your house and fill your home with delicious aromas.

Soups and stews are another way to use roots. When I lived in Yugoslavia, an American friend asked a local woman, “Why do you put all those roots in your soup?” Valeria answered simply: “Because that’s what makes the soup good!”

Throughout Europe, packets of “soup vegetables” are commonly sold at greengrocers. These usually include parsnip, carrot, turnip, and leek, though they vary slightly depending on which country you’re in.

Roots are great added to salads and slaws. Carrots go well in almost any salad or with cabbage in coleslaw. I love radishes in a spinach salad with a little feta and hard-cooked egg. Kohlrabi and carrots, dressed with a light vinaigrette, combine for a delicious salad. Leeks are wonderful with apples, dressed with Greek yogurt or sour cream and a little salt.

Roots make wonderful stir-fry suppers. Fresh, tender-crisp vegetables, chunks of lean meat, fish or tofu, and easy, zesty sauces combine for great flavor. Stir-frying is a quick, easy way to incorporate all those tasty, healthy roots into your dinner menu. Vary the veggies and protein for an assortment of different meals.

Roasted Root

Vegetables

Ingredients:

1 medium parsnip, peeled and sliced 1/2-inch thick

1 or 2 medium carrots, scrubbed and sliced 1/2-inch thick

1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks

1 medium potato, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks

2 turnips, scrubbed and cut in 1-inch chunks

1 onion, peeled and cut into eights

Salt and pepper (about 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper)

2 – 4 Tablespoons infused olive oil (such as garlic)

1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/4 – 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley, for garnish

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Choose a shallow baking pan or lasagna pan large enough to hold all the vegetables in a single layer. Oil to coat lightly.

Arrange vegetables in pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle lightly with oil.

Place in preheated oven and bake, stirring occasionally, 30 – 45 minutes or until all vegetables are desired tenderness.

Place in serving dish; toss with balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with parsley to garnish.

Option: For a heartier dish, combine 1 1/2 cups shredded Gruyere cheese and 1 cup soft bread crumbs. Bake until cheese melts and bread browns, about 10 minutes.

Option: Roast alongside roast chicken or pork roast.

Serves 4 – 6.

Root vegetable

slaw

Ingredients:

1/2 lemon

2 kohlrabi (or 2 celery roots, or one of each)

1 apple

2 carrots

2 Tablespoons fresh minced parsley

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 clove garlic

1 teaspoon olive oil

Directions:

Squeeze lemon into bowl; remove seeds. Peel and grate the kohlrabi and / or celery root in food processor or with a large hand grater, and coat immediately with lemon to prevent it from browning. Core and dice the apple, and add, again coating with lemon. Wash or peel the carrots, grate, and add. Sprinkle with salt and toss to combine.

Grate garlic with microplane or crush in a mortar or garlic press. In small bowl, combine garlic, olive oil, juice of 1/2 lemon (or a tablespoon cider or balsamic vinegar). Stir into the shredded veggies and toss to combine.

Chop the parsley fine, and fold in.

Make this salad first, as it needs to stand for at least 30 minutes while you make the rest of dinner to blend flavors.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.

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