Mother Earth Living

A Guide to Root Vegetables

Among the most nutritious of all foods, root vegetables make for perfect healthy comfort food all fall and winter.
By Tabitha Alterman
November/December 2012
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Colorful root vegetables such as beets and carrots provide an array of phytonutrients that can add nutritional complexity to winter eating.
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Winter doesn’t have to mean an end to nutritious, fresh produce. While summer is the most bountiful season, nature provides us with excellent sources of nutrients year-round. In winter, it’s time to turn to the many benefits of root vegetables, perfectly suited to grow well in cold temperatures, to be stored for many months and to be enjoyed throughout the coldest season of the year. Versatile roots offer a wide array of flavors in packages that are light on calories.

Eat Your Root Vegetables

Root vegetables transform wonderfully into warm, hearty and healthy comfort food dishes—nearly every root vegetable is delicious mashed or roasted in the oven with butter or olive oil and herbs, but those aren’t the only ways to enjoy them. Expanding your knowledge of root vegetable varieties can help add flavor and nutritional variety to your cold-weather diet. Try raw, grated celery roots or carrots alongside roasted meats or pickled beets in winter salads. Mix rutabaga or parsnip into your basic mashed potatoes, or add sweet potatoes to your favorite stew. Among the root vegetable bounty you may find gems you’ve never before had the pleasure of tasting: gnarly celery root, hairy Hamburg parsley, savory salsify and gourmet scorzonera.

Most root vegetables share some nutritional qualities, including a high amount of fiber. Fiber is an essential way to keep digestive systems running smoothly, remove toxins from our bodies and manage weight, but most Americans don’t get enough fiber in their diets. Researchers are beginning to discover that not all fiber is alike, and believe that many root vegetables have a type of fiber that is particularly good for our digestive tracts and cardiovascular health. Root vegetables also all have high levels of antioxidants, which can help the body prevent diseases such as cancer.

Many root vegetables are also good sources of B-complex vitamins (particularly useful during winter’s long days because of their ability to enhance energy levels and improve immunity) and other nutrients including vitamins C and K, magnesium, manganese and phosphorus. Most root vegetables also offer significant levels of potassium, a vital nutrient for proper functioning of the brain, heart and muscles.

But some root vegetables offer unique nutritional benefits, as well. Beets, for example, are one of few sources of betalains, which provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxification support. And deep orange root vegetables such as carrots and sweet potatoes include large amounts of beta-carotene, which is essential for healthy eyes, bones and immune systems, and thought to be especially important for children. Eating a variety of root vegetables can bring uncommon nutritional elements to your diet. For example, Hamburg or root parsley, grown for its long, skinny white roots, contains histidine, a tumor-fighting amino acid. Scorzonera, an Italian delicacy in the sunflower family, and sweet potatoes both offer high levels of inulin, a type of fiber with benefits including keeping the colon healthy and reducing blood sugar levels. Radishes offer phytochemicals known as indoles that help the body detoxify.  

Storing Root Vegetables

One advantage of a reliance on root vegetables is their ability to store for months on end, allowing you to buy them when prices are best. We offer specific storage information for each type of root on the following pages, but a few general rules almost always apply: Store root vegetables in a cool, dark, moist spot such as your basement or a corner of the garage; select smooth, firm, brightly colored roots without cracks or soft spots; and trim off greens before storing (keep in mind that many root vegetables have edible greens). Finally, eat your smallest storage vegetables first as they’ll go soft the soonest. 

Root Vegetable Medley Two Ways

Roasted root vegetables: Roasting is the best way to bring out root vegetables’ inherent sweetness. You can adjust this recipe based on the veggies you prefer, those that are fetching the best prices at the market, or whichever you happen to have on hand or in your garden. Choose different combinations of vegetables each time to keep fall and winter meals interesting.

• 4 cups root vegetables, trimmed, peeled (if desired) and chopped into uniform pieces
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
• Fresh or dried herbs, to taste
• 2 tablespoons maple syrup or honey (optional glaze)

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Pour vegetables into a baking dish and drizzle with oil, then season with salt, pepper and herbs. Stir to coat vegetables thoroughly.

3. Bake uncovered, stirring
occasionally, for about 20 minutes.

4. Add maple syrup or honey if you wish, and toss to coat. Bake for another 5 to 10 minutes, or until the largest pieces can be pierced easily with a knife. Serves 8 as a side.

Mashed root vegetables: Adjust the proportions of vegetables to suit your tastes. For example, you might enjoy a more subtle or a more pronounced celery root or rutabaga flavor. 

• 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 pound Yukon Gold, German Butterball or other creamy baking potatoes, peeled or unpeeled
• 1 pound celery root, peeled to the nonfibrous white interior
• 1 pound rutabaga, peeled
• 1/2 cup buttermilk or sour cream
• Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
• 1/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into pats, divided
• 2 tablespoons minced chives or green onions, as garnish

1. In a pan over medium heat, sauté garlic in oil until soft. Set aside.

2. Chop roots into uniform 1-inch cubes. Boil or steam for 20 minutes, or until soft. Strain. Add to mixing bowl.

3. Add garlic, buttermilk, salt, pepper and half of the butter. Mash to desired consistency, adding more buttermilk if necessary. Don’t overmash or mixture will become gummy.

4. To serve, top with pats of butter, sprinkled chives and more freshly ground pepper. Serves 8 as a side.

Root Vegetables Primer

Beet: The best beets for fall and winter are those that keep their sugar content through storage and don’t develop a woody center—usually larger sugar beets. Some people prefer the flavor of milder golden beets or striped beets to the stronger dark red ones. Enjoy beets raw (try grating them into salads), steamed, roasted or pickled. Unless they’re very small, beets are best peeled.

Storage: Refrigerate for up to 1 month or keep in cold, moist conditions for 4 to 6 months.

Suggested Beet Varieties: Chioggia, Egyptian Flat, Touchstone Gold

Carrot: Available in a range of colors, sizes and levels of sweetness, there’s a carrot out there to please everyone. If you’ve only eaten carrots raw or steamed, try them roasted or grilled.

Storage: Refrigerate for up to 1 month or keep in cold, moist conditions for 4 to 6 months.

Suggested Carrot Varieties: Küttiger Rüebli, Purple Haze, Red Samurai, Violet

Celery Root/Celeriac: This parsley relative’s gnarly exterior belies its buttery, mild flavor, a subtle cross between celery and parsley. Though it’s somewhat difficult to peel, the white flesh is delicious roasted or simmered in soups and braises; boiled and mashed; or grated raw into a creamy salad.

Storage: Store in cold, moist conditions for 3 to 5 months.

Suggested Celery Root Varieties: Giant Prague, Mars, Prinz

Hamburg Parsley/Root Parsley: Though its greens are tasty, this variety of parsley is grown for its long, skinny white roots, which taste mild, sweet and nutty. It’s popular in Europe, but you’ll probably have to grow it yourself if you want to eat this hardy, easy-to-grow root stateside. Root parsley is excellent simmered in soups and braises, but it can also be steamed, roasted or mashed.

Storage: Refrigerate for 1 week or store in cold, moist conditions for a few weeks.

Suggested Root Parsley Variety: Arat

Parsnip: Beware: Many grocery stores stock inferior parsnips that have not had the chance to sweeten by going through a winter freeze. A winter community-supported agriculture program (CSA) or farmers’ market is a better bet if you don’t grow these yourself. Roast smaller parsnips; save large ones for soups and stews. When cooking, remove the woody core.

Storage: Store in cold, moist conditions for 4 to 6 months.

Suggested Parsnip Varieties: Half Long Guernsey, Harris Model, Hollow Crown

Potato: The best way to enjoy potatoes’ many flavors and nutrients is by trying a wide array. Nutritious and flavorful varieties such as Yukon Gold and French Fingerlings are widely available and delicious enough to eat without being fried or served with lots of fatty toppings.

Storage: Store in cold, moist, dark conditions for 4 to 6 months.

Suggested Potato Varieties: Adirondack Blue or Red, All-Red, Arran Victory, Beauty of Hebron, German Butterball, Kennebec, La Ratte, Lumper, Négresse, Norkotah, Ozette, Peach Blow, Roseval, Russian Banana, Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold

Rutabaga: Largely interchangeable with turnips, but with a sweeter flavor, these roots should never be overcooked or they’ll develop an off-putting flavor. Toss pieces into soup near the end of cooking and serve as soon as they are soft. Roasting and steaming work well, too.

Storage: Store in cold, moist conditions for 4 to 6 months. Discard especially fibrous rutabagas.

Suggested Rutabaga Varieties: Champion A Collet Rouge, Collet Vert, Helenor, Laurentian

Salsify/Oyster Plant: These hairy roots are a bit of a chore to peel and prepare, but are tasty almost any way you cook them: steamed, sautéed, roasted or mashed. They’re similar to, but not as sweet as, carrots and parsnips.

Storage: Refrigerate straight, heavy roots for 1 week, or store in sand in cold, moist conditions for 3 to 5 months.

Suggested Oyster Plant Variety: Mammoth Sandwich Island

Scorzonera: This member of the sunflower family has a rich flavor that’s similar to artichokes. If you want to enjoy this hard-to-find delicacy outside of Italy, you’ll probably have to grow it yourself. Be careful not to overcook; avoid boiling. Roasting brings out its flavor.

Storage: Store like salsify (above).

Suggested Scorzonera Variety: Belstar Super

Sweet Potato: As good with brown sugar as with salt, the sweet orange, red, white or purple flesh of these tubers pairs perfectly with other root vegetables and winter greens with strong, bitter flavors.

Storage: Unlike most roots, this tropical should be stored in warm, dry conditions; it will keep for 2 to 3 months if cured properly before storing.

Suggested Sweet Potato Varieties: Beauregard, Georgia Jet, Pumpkin Yam, Red Brazil, Toka Toka Gold

Turnip: Turnips are delicious pickled, steamed, sautéed and roasted with butter or olive oil. They make a nice bed under a roasting bird. Small turnips, known as salad turnips, are also crisp, sweet and snackable raw.

Storage: Store small-to-medium roots in cold, moist conditions for 4 to 5 months.

Suggested Turnip Varieties: Boule D’or, Golden Globe, Hakurei, Hidabeni, Milan, Purple Top White Globe, Red Round, Teltow, White Egg

Winter Radish: Popular in Asian and Eastern European cooking, the winter radish family comprises daikon and black radishes. Daikon is usually served grated raw (as with sushi) or pickled. Black radishes have a peppery flavor that mellows somewhat in storage. Grated black radishes mixed into tangy sour cream is a common Russian appetizer.

Storage: Winter radishes keep for many weeks in the refrigerator or a few months in cold, moist conditions.

Suggested Winter Radish Varieties: Chinese Green Luobo, Japanese Minowase, Long Black Spanish, Miyashige, Nero Tondo, Round Black Spanish

Read Up

Recipes From the Root Cellar by Andrea Chesman

Winter Harvest Cookbook by Lane Morgan

The Complete Root Cellar Book by Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie


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