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A Guide to Root Vegetables

Among the most nutritious of all foods, root vegetables make for perfect healthy comfort food all fall and winter.

| November/December 2012

  • Roasting root vegetables brings out their inherent sweetness.
    Photo By iStockphoto
  • Colorful root vegetables such as beets and carrots provide an array of phytonutrients that can add nutritional complexity to winter eating.
    Photo By iStockphoto
  • The best way to enjoy potatoes' many flavors and nutrients is by trying a wide variety.
    Photo By Shutterstock

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. 

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