A lowly root is America’s favorite vegetable, but most of its cousins are unappreciated Cinderellas.
Yes, Americans love potatoes: fried, mashed, baked, boiled, roasted, scalloped, steamed, hash-browned, even made into pancakes. Many people also like sweet potatoes (often labeled as “yams”), which aren’t potatoes at all, and carrots, too, though mostly raw.
But what about beets, turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, sunchokes and even exotic roots like yucca, real yams and eddoes?
The good news is that all are tasty, and most can be prepared in the same ways you’d cook potatoes or sweet potatoes for a little variety in your diet.
Most roots contain sugar, and the proper cooking technique can emphasize that sweetness. This appeals to people who might be otherwise intimidated.
Each of the “Cinderella roots” has its strengths, however, and we’ll examine some of them here.
A few words on individual roots:
• Beets come in all sorts and even stripes (Chioggia beets) and are quite sweet, especially roasted. They’re related to chard and their tops are quite tasty. Some people eat very thinly sliced small beets raw. Be my guest if you want to, but I prefer them cooked. They’re popular in salads with toasted nuts and goat cheese in local restaurants.
• You can eat the tops of turnips and rutabagas, too, but they’re usually clipped off before they hit the store so you can’t tell how old they are. As with all roots, smaller specimens are more tender and tasty. You don’t need to peel the small Tokyo turnips and can steam them with their greens attached.
• Carrots and parsnips make great complements, and they, like potatoes and turnips, are excellent in stews like lamb. You can cut them into “coins,” which kids seem to especially like, or sticks, but parsnips taper very fast, so it takes a bit of work to cut them into equal-sized pieces.
• Sunchoke is the marketing name for Jerusalem artichokes. They’re not artichokes and have nothing to do with Jerusalem; the name was probably derived from “girasole,” the Italian name for sunflower, since they’re the root of a type of sunflower.
The plant does taste a bit like an artichoke, but sunchokes — almost uniquely among foods we eat — contain starch in the form of inulin, a long-chain sugar that is not easily digested by everyone. It tastes sweet, but is indigestible unless cooked a very long time, which converts it to soluble sugar. You can eat slices raw in salads, too.
And though it has nothing to do with roots, a starchy plantain can be cooked the same way as these roots.
For the best-tasting root vegetables, don’t boil them. They all absorb water when they’re boiled, with various unwanted results ranging from diluted flavors to mushy texture.
I believe the best way to treat them is by roasting or baking, for this brings out their sweetness and concentrates their flavor. Large specimens can take a long time to cook, however. Don’t be surprised if it takes an hour or even more for big, tough beets or rutabagas — a good reason to choose smaller examples.
If you wrap the roots in aluminum foil, you steam-bake them, which is ideal to keep them moist. Leave off the aluminum and they get sweeter as their sugars caramelize.
There’s no need to peel root vegetables first. After they’re fully cooked, you can generally rub off the skin with a towel as soon as they’re cool enough to handle.
If, however, you take off the skin first, they’re more likely to caramelize on the outside, particularly if you roast them. Some people eat the skins, but I find many bitter or unpalatable.
I usually peel all but beets before cooking. You can scrape carrots or parsnips if you prefer. Even Jacques Pépin uses a modern swivel peeler, but a paring knife works as well.
The second-best way to cook root vegetables (or the best, some others would say) is steaming. This can be done in a dedicated electric
steamer (many rice cookers can do this), a traditional metal steamer, a Chinese basket or over one of those collapsing gadgets that fit inside a conventional pot. Just make sure to keep the container covered or the steam will heat your kitchen instead of the roots.
It’s convenient to cut them into the desired shape before steaming, and they also cook faster this way.
Once baked or steamed, you can simply serve slices or chunks with a bit of butter, salt and pepper.
Another approach is to layer slices, cover with a bit of butter and cheese or cheese sauce and bread crumbs, and bake them for a lovely gratin. This is especially good with the exotic tropical roots like yuca (cassava or manioc), generally labeled “yucca” in stores, or true yams. Mix with potatoes for variety.
You can also mash the cooked roots or even purée them as an alternative to potatoes, but their starch can turn to paste in a food processor. A ricer, food mill, mixer or old-fashioned masher is best. A chunk of butter on top improves any of them.
While you can serve any root alone, one or more added to conventional mashed potatoes can produce subtle variations that are especially tasty. I’d skip the beets — whatever color — and use turnips, rutabagas (a yellow turnip sometimes called a “Swede”), carrots or parsnips.
Any root can also be fried — either directly like a white potato, or in a batter such as tempura. Turnips are tricky, for they seem to go from uncooked to mushy quickly. They are best battered.
Sweet potatoes — which are a cousin of the morning glory vine, not true potatoes — make great fries. “Yams” in our stores are just bright-orange sweet potatoes. The true yam (native to Africa and Asia) is huge, sometimes more than 10 pounds.
Cut any root very thin and deep-fry for a delicious, and possibly healthier, alternative to potato chips.
Roasted Root Mélange
Serves 4 as a side dish.
3 lbs. assorted root vegetables,
peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
Toss vegetables in olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread out on baking sheet and place in oven. Mix and turn vegetables every 15 minutes. They should be done in 45 minutes to an hour, but check occasionally.
Couscous with Root Vegetables
1 1/2 cups quick couscous (can also be made with large Israeli or pearl couscous; follow directions on box)
1 tsp. salt
2 cups water
1 tsp. olive oil
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced (or more, to taste)
1 tsp. harissa powder, plus more to finish (available at Whole Spice in the Oxbow Public Market)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 pinch ground allspice
1 pinch ground clove
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 can plum tomatoes, crushed with your hand, plus juice
1 turnip, cut into 1-inch dice
1 rutabaga, 1-inch dice
2 Yukon gold potatoes (or other less starchy potato), 1-inch dice
1 large carrot, 1-inch dice
1 parsnip, 1-inch dice
1 cup butternut or other winter squash, cubed
1/4 head white cabbage, cut into narrow wedges
One 16-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1-2 cups water (to cover)
Sauté onion in olive oil until translucent, add garlic and cook 1 minute. Add spices and cook 1 minute, then add tomatoes. Stir and bring to a boil, then add vegetables and water. Bring to a boil, stir, then turn down heat to simmer and cover. Cook about 20 minutes until vegetables are tender but not mushy.
While vegetables are cooking, prepare couscous. Follow package directions, if provided; or bring water, salt and olive oil to a boil, turn off, add couscous, stir and cover for 12 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving. I find my family prefers the larger couscous, though both are pastas.
To serve, pour the vegetables over couscous on plates. Optional: Finish with harissa powder mixed with oil or water for those who want a bit more heat.
Simple Vegetarian Borscht
Most borscht is made with beef broth (or even pieces of beef), but you can make it vegetarian.
4 cups vegetable broth or water
1 tsp. salt (if using water or unsalted stock)
3 large beets, peeled and chopped into small pieces
3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped into small pieces
1 large russet potato, peeled and chopped into small pieces
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 cup plain yogurt
Bring stock or water to a boil and add salt (if using) and vegetables. Cook until quite soft, 20 minutes or more. Purée with an immersion blender. Add vinegar and dill.
Serve with a dollop of yogurt on each bowl.