Root vegetables are riches beyond compare. As a group they may appear as an odd bunch. Some are irregularly round or straight and narrow, and others come with many lumps and bumps. Despite their discernible distinctions, these underground jewels of the earth all mask a wealth of vibrant colors, textures and flavors that can be used in a variety of recipes from side dishes to desserts.
Whether its carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips or beets, the real reward lies in their distinctive flavors, natural sweetness and culinary versatility. Now is the time to experience these flavors, especially as the cooler nights of autumn bring out their best with an added touch of sweetness.
Orange may be the common color of this root, but the first cultivated carrots were actually purple. Though orange is the most common color found today—red, purple, yellow and even white varieties are becoming the newest phenomenon. Carrots have a sweet and crunchy texture with a versatility that works well in recipes from sweets to meats.
This ivory-colored root is shaped somewhat like a carrot but lacks its firm and crunchy texture. Before being eclipsed by carrots in the 19th century, parsnips ruled as one of the most widely eaten vegetables. A parsnip’s flavor is likened to a cross between a carrot and potato with nutty, earthy undertones. And as with most root vegetables, a frost will enhance its flavor with a touch of sweetness, turning the starch into sugar. Though parsnips are best cooked, their rank in culinary versatility comes in right behind carrots.
Purple-topped creamy yellow rutabagas offer a prize in disguise. This turnip cousin has sweet golden yellow flesh and a somewhat peppery flavor combination of sweet potato and winter squash that mellows with cooking. A favorite for stews and soups, but also delicious eaten raw, boiled, mashed, roasted or sautéed.
Turnips will surprise you with a bit of a bite, similar to that of a mild radish only sweeter, especially when young. The turnip’s familiarity is largely due to the American Indians who relished this vegetable. Enjoy the roots steamed, boiled, mashed or even raw in salads and slaws. Except for desserts, their versatility comes in just behind carrots.
Related to Swiss chard, beets are indeed colorful jewels of rich, earthy flavor with a taste that’s never truly revealed unless you use fresh beets—not canned. Their looks will tempt you with dazzling colors in shades of red as well as purple, pearly white, glimmering gold, and striped rings of pink and white. The flavor is slightly earthy and mildly sweet with firm flesh. Wonderful roasted, baked, boiled, pickled or grated raw into salads.
Carrot & Rutabaga Fritter Cakes
3 to 4 carrots (about 1 pound), peeled and coarsely shredded
4 small rutabagas (about 1 pound), peeled and coarsely shredded
2 green onions, chopped
1/2 cup flour
4 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons fresh minced rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup cooking oil
In a large bowl, toss carrots, rutabagas and green onions with flour. Add eggs, rosemary and salt and pepper to taste; mix well.
Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Spoon or press together with hands about 1/4 cup vegetable mixture. Place in skillet and flatten with a wide metal spatula.
Cook fritter cakes about 5 minutes, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Remove to a platter lined with a paper towel to drain. Repeat with remaining vegetable mixture. Serve warm. Makes 12 to 20 fritter cakes, depending on their size.
Balsamic-Rosemary Roasted Roots
Beets generally take a few minutes longer to roast to complete tenderness than other root vegetables. Slice into smaller pieces to ensure all vegetables are tender at the same time.
2 carrots, trimmed and peeled
2 large parsnips, trimmed and peeled
3 small beets, trimmed and peeled
1 turnip, trimmed and peeled
1 small rutabaga, trimmed and peeled
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh snipped rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cut carrots into ½-inch thick slices, cutting the larger end in half lengthwise before slicing. Cut the skinniest part of each parsnip into 1-inch lengths. Cut the larger end of each parsnip in quarters lengthwise, and then cut them into ½-inch thick slices. Cut each beet, turnip and rutabaga into quarters, then cut the quarters into ¼-inch thick chips.
Combine all cut vegetables in a large bowl and toss with oil, vinegar and rosemary until well coated. Season to taste with salt and pepper; toss again.
Place a single layer of root vegetables in a shallow baking pan or sheet and roast at 450 degrees for 15 minutes. (It may take two baking pans or sheets to ensure the vegetables are spread out evenly in a single layer.) Stir the vegetables, then roast for another 15 minutes or until they are slightly crisp and golden but tender. Makes six servings.
Beet, Carrot & Fennel Slaw
Vary the look and texture of this slaw by finely shredding or coarsely shredding the root vegetables.
3 large carrots (about 3/4 pound), peeled
3 small beets (about 1 pound), trimmed and peeled
1 small fennel root, trimmed
1 1/2 cups shredded Chinese cabbage (about 1/4 head)
2 1/2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon minced fresh gingerroot
3 teaspoons sesame seeds, divided
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cut beets, carrots and fennel root to fit the feeding tube of a food processor. Use a food processor to coarsely shred each group, or shred them using a V-slicer or mandoline slicer. Transfer to a large bowl. Add shredded cabbage and toss well to combine.
To make dressing, whisk both oils, lemon juice, rice vinegar, soy sauce, gingerroot and 2 teaspoons sesame seeds together in a small bowl until thoroughly blended. Add salt and pepper, to taste.
Pour the dressing over slaw and toss until well coated. Sprinkle the remaining teaspoon of sesame seeds over the slaw and serve. Makes six servings.
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 pound parsnips, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 cup apple juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in a large saucepan. Add honey and cornstarch; stir until lightly browned. Sauté parsnips for 5 minutes. Stir in apple juice, lemon juice, and ginger. Bring to a low boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer for up to 20 minutes or until tender. Season with salt and pepper. Makes four to six servings.
Oregon-based Kris Wetherbee is an internationally published author, food writer and recipe developer. (kriswetherbee.com)