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Eat Me

At the Root

Going beyond potatoes for starchy holiday side dishes

Henry Hong

By Henry Hong | Posted 10/28/2009

"Vegetables make me mad." This is how a friend, who, like me, spends way too much time and energy on such things, recently summed up her holiday meal planning progress. And I fully empathized. And, yes, we both realize it's only October. It's a sickness. Specifically she was referring to the disproportionate amount of effort spent on preparing root vegetable dishes, which of course take longer to cook than leafy greens, say, and tend to be overrepresented in holiday meals.

In the past, keeping vegetables on hand to last through the winter was nothing short of a survival skill. Among the strategies was keeping a root cellar, a cool, dry environment that could preserve root vegetables as-is (i.e. without drying or canning) for months. Special occasion? Bust out them rutabagas, son!

What exactly is a root vegetable? As is so often the case with plant-based foods, the semantics can get pretty involved, but the term generally covers actual taproots (carrots, parsnips); vegetables that can include both the root and a swollen nutrient storage organ that's actually part of the stem (beets, turnips); and tubers, which are storage organs that can clone themselves via independent offshoot roots (potatoes).

These underground or ground level parts of the plant act as a structural base, or are designed to survive through winter to fuel new growth in the next season, and can be fibrous and tough. While contributing to their durability, this characteristic also means that root vegetables often require extended cooking times to make them palatable and more digestible. Indeed, it is theorized that early hominids who figured out how to dig up and cook such foods may have had an evolutionary edge. Soft, digestible foods enabled the development of big ass brains and delicate mandibles, so those culinary pioneers may have helped humans to become the smartest, and I daresay hottest, of the primates.

Living in an era of total potato domination, it's not surprising that few people know what many root vegetable staples of yore even look like, let alone how they taste. Carrots are common, but not nearly as versatile, being used most often as an aromatic to enhance the flavor of a dish or raw as a snack food. Radishes come in a vast array of colors and shapes, but here in the United States, the small, red-skinned white-fleshed variety is best known, and is nearly always eaten raw, often in salads. All but forgotten are turnips, parsnips, celery root, and the mysterious rutabaga.

Rutabagas once carried a pretty harsh stigma, stemming from their association with poverty and general hard times. They were an important Depression-era food, and even enjoyed a brief stint of trendiness a few years ago. Nearly a decade into the 21st century, however, it looks like most traces of the rutabaga's bad rep has faded away-it's just that nobody knows what to do with them anymore.

Being Korean, I've eaten more radish than most (in the form of daikon), and a few years ago I started to use celery root and parsnip in my holiday meals simply to mix things up a bit (recipes at citypaper.com/eat) since I would normally include three to four potato-based dishes every year.

I only recently popped my rutabaga cherry, and I must admit to being surprised at how pretty the amber flesh is. The texture is interesting, too, sort of a cross between carrot and potato. I was initially turned off by the distinct odor of fresh cut rutabaga, which smells exactly like dirt. This is a characteristic shared by many root vegetables, and is caused by the same compound that produces that earthy, minerally smell in the air after a sudden rainstorm. It largely dissipates during cooking, and in rutabaga leaves a mildly sweet flavor with pleasantly slight bitter undertones. It's not quite life-changingly amazing, though, and while it may have once been extremely cheap, it's now about triple the price of potatoes per pound in supermarkets, no doubt a result of low demand.

Still, it's always good to be able to recognize as many edible things as possible, so below is a quick and dirty guide to the red-headed stepchildren of the root vegetable diaspora.

Protip: When purchasing, note the price and, if available, the sku number, and save yourself some time at checkout. And apologize to the nice cashier for being such a root vegetable nerd.

Celery root or celeriac: Pale off-white, usually round, knobby, and softball sized, sometimes with thin stalks attached. Don't bother washing these, since the knobbiness requires trimming of its entire outer layer. Deeply aromatic with celery notes and dense, starchy texture. Excellent boiled and mashed with potatoes, or sliced thin and gratineed. Note that it takes about 20 percent longer to cook than potatoes.

Parsnips: Look like a white carrot, with similar flavor, but much woodier texture. Not good raw. Very sweet, almost paint-like aroma raw. Cooked parsnips have a sweet corn scent and flavor. Best used as an aromatic, or boiled and mashed, and sometimes formed into cakes and fried.

Rutabaga: Sometimes called "swedes", because, um, apparently Swedish people eat them a lot. Range in size from softball to duckpin bowling ball, smooth yellowish rind fades into purplish red on top, often coated in wax. Easily peeled with a vegetable peeler, but flesh is very dense and hard to cut. Good roasted, boiled and mashed (benefits greatly from some cream), or diced and sauteed.

Turnips: Usually about the size of a large orange, white with a little root on the bottom, fading to reddish purple on top. Crisp with sometimes sharp astringency when raw, mild and slightly sweet when cooked. Very little starch content, so texture remains very moist.

Parsnip Cakes

Ingredients:

1 pound parsnips
1 egg
1 tablespoon softened butter
1 tablespoon chopped scallions
1 tablespoon chopped cooked bacon
Salt
Pepper
flour or breadcrumbs

Directions:

Trim ends of parsnip, cut in half, keeping skinny half intact and cutting fat end in half lengthwise.
Boil in salted water until soft: 10-15 minutes. Drain and allow to cool.
Peel should slip off easily after cooling, also remove tough woody core if present.
Mash thoroughly with butter, but do not puree in a food processor (mixture will be too loose to form proper cakes).
Combine parsnips and remaining ingredients, mixing thoroughly.
Refrigerate for about an hour for easier handling of the mixture (optional).
Form into small cakes, perhaps the size of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, dredge in flour or breadcrumbs, shake off excess and set aside.
Heat some oil or butter in a pan to medium hot, and fry cakes until brown on both sides.
Really good served with sour cream or some other rich condiment like mayonnaise or even hollandaise or béarnaise.

Root Vegetable Gratin

Ingredients:

1 pound sliced potato
1/2 pound sliced rutabaga
1/2 pound sliced celery root
1 pound sliced sweet potato
1 pound shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons roasted garlic, or 1 tbsp. chopped fresh garlic
Salt
Pepper
grated nutmeg

Note: Vegetable slices should be thin, about 1/8".

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Boil some salted water and blanch sliced rutabaga and celery root for about 5 minutes. Drain, cool, and reserve.
In a large saucepan, heat butter over low heat. Add flour, mix and cook flour for about a minute.
Add garlic, then carefully add a little milk, whisking until incorporated. Continue until all milk is incorporated.
Add all but 1/4 cup of cheese, stirring until smooth. Add spices, adjusting to taste.
In a buttered 9-x-14-inch baking dish, layer bottom with sliced potatoes, followed by sweet potato, followed by rutabaga, then celery root, adding a little salt and pepper between each layer. Layers should be a couple slices thick.
Pour about 1/3 of the cheese sauce over vegetables.
Resume layering with another layer of sweet potato, followed by a layer of potato. Pour remaining sauce over vegetables, cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove foil, sprinkle reserved cheese on top, and bake uncovered for an additional 5 minutes. Allow to cool before serving.

Rutabaga Soufflé

Ingredients:

1 medium rutabaga, maybe 2-3 pounds
2 well-beaten eggs
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
salt
pepper
sugar

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Peel and carefully chop rutabaga into 1-2 inch chunks.
Boil in salted water until soft, about 15-20 minutes.
Drain, cool, and mash well.
Combine all ingredients thoroughly, and place in a buttered 2 quart casserole dish. Sprinkle sugar on top.
Bake for 30 minutes.
Serve hot.

Celery Root Mashed Potatoes

Simply replace about 1/3 of potatoes in your favorite recipe with celery root.

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