Ngoc Minh Ngo
As cooler days approach with their chilly nights and we reach for long-forgotten sweaters, cooking lore tells us that it is now root vegetable season. And that these comforting cold-weather foods will be with us for some time to come. What does that means for our meals? What vegetables are roots? When are they actually in season? And do they keep well?
For the purposes of our discussion we are sticking to true root vegetables: taproots. Let's explore.
Carrots and Parsnips
Carrots are the most familiar root vegetable found in every produce aisle. Like their pale cousin the parsnip, carrots tend to be sweeter the larger and older they are, so don't ignore the naked behemoths in favor of the cute little ones. Big carrots and parsnips are excellent salad-fodder, especially when shaved or grated. For cooking, neither parsnips nor carrots need to be peeled—their skins are very flavorful. Baby carrots and small parsnips tend to be more vegetal (rather than sweet) in flavor, and also appear earlier in the season.
Other taproots are in disguise: Despite their shape, fat beetroots are not bulbs, botanically speaking. In fact, they are modified taproots, and they are also multi-faceted in application. Vividly raw beetroot is an eye-poppingly healthy tonic in crunchy form. It changes character when cooked, becoming milder, less earthy, and very silky in texture.
Turnips and Rutabagas
These two are root vegetable underdogs. The more demure turnip is under-appreciated raw, but the popular white hakurei is converting cooks and eaters:All you need is salt. Perhaps it is the gateway vegetable to loving both. Turnips become sweeter when braised, and the rutabaga's distinctive flavor gives mashed potato (potato is technically a tuber, not a root), a run for its money.
Long and round, rainbow or red, radishes are also taproots. Perhaps never better than when served with a pat of cool butter and dish of salt, they are surprisingly adaptable to braising and roasting, too. Their tops can be roasted right along with them (and make a good, green soup, for the vegan version of nose-to-tail eating).
Also known as celery root, the rough and whiskery curves of this root vegetable can be daunting. But beneath the grumpy-looking skin is a sweet heart, delicious raw in salads or the classic French remoulade: grated celeriac with mayonnaise and mustard) or cooked. It is also excellent relief from potatoes cooked slowly in a gratin, or turned into oven fries.
There are two lesser-known and intriguing taproots worth seeking out, they are often mistaken for one another: The first is Salsify, or Tragopogon porrifolius. It is a parsnip-lookalike, though a little more unshaven in appearance. It is sometimes (mistakenly) called oyster plant. Like most roots, salisfy is harvested in the fall and lasts into winter but the young leaves and bud-stems are a sought-after late spring vegetable, sometimes sold as "goatsbeard." Then there is scorzonera (a corruption of scorza negra—Italian for black-peeled), or Scorzonera hispanica, whose dead straight, dark bundles appear at market in late fall. Also sold as oyster plant, it is sometimes called black salsify (even though the plants are unrelated).
Both roots contain inulin (good for diabetics, but bad for gas—like Jerusalem artichokes, and even parsnip), which gives them sweetness. To reduce the potential for GI-distress, we recommend giving the peeled vegetables an hour-long soak in water before cooking or eating raw.
How to Store and Enjoy Your Root Vegetables
All of these crisp vegetables store indefinitely if well wrapped in the refrigerator (or in the time-honored root cellar, in the cold darkness). And they also switch seamlessly between good-to-eat raw or cooked. Deploy them raw in everything from quick pickles, to thin-sliced platforms for creamy burrata, to batons for dipping, to cobb-salad chopped; and cooked for smooth or hearty soups, mashes, and main courses.
As long as you honor and explore their versatility, and use them creatively and with appetite, winter’s most loyal roots should never become boring.