The Skinny on… Root Vegetables

These winter workhorses are always in season.
Skinny On Root Vegetables Intro

Here come the carrots, turnips, rutabagas, yucca and potatoes, the sweet potatoes and radishes. Welcome to the original “keeping” vegetables, the parts of the harvest that could be saved so that settlers and farmers could survive the winter months.

Fortunately, we can enjoy this culinary bounty without a root cellar, and root vegetables are in season almost all year round. They come fresh from the ground in the summer — baby turnips can be eaten raw like apples! And they store well, ready to fall into our pots and pans straight from the supermarket.

Even today, when the temperatures are cold, we think about root vegetables — maybe because so many go so well in comforting stews and soups, but maybe also because we remember our heritage, these roots that were once our lifelines in harsher times.

Facts About Root Vegetables
  • These vegetables are actually the energy-storage facilities of the plants.
  • They’re stocked with carbs and sugars to feed the leaves above ground.
  • The exact balance between sugar, starch and water determines how sweet the root is — from mellow carrots to spiky radishes, from potatoes to peppery turnips.
  • Root vegetables are staple crops in tropical climates where cereal grains will not grow.
  • Almost all root vegetables can be kept in your crisper for at least a week, sometimes longer — and some, like rutabagas, can stand up to a months-long storage in a cool, dark place.
  • In general, consider this a rule: the harder the root, the longer it will keep. Potatoes last longer than burdock; celeriac, longer than radishes.
  • If you’re going to use root vegetables within a couple of days of purchase, don’t refrigerate them. Think about it: They’re not refrigerated at your supermarket. And they taste best if their sugars don’t chill too much
Tips for Buying Root Vegetables
  • Avoid any with squishy or mushy bits.
  • If possible, buy root vegetables with their greens attached so you can see how fresh those leaves are.
  • If no greens are attached, look for roots that are heavy in the hand. They should still be stocked with water, not slowly desiccating as they sit on the shelf.
  • Smelling for freshness won’t do you much good because of the protective skin on most roots.
  • Look to see that the color is vibrant across the vegetable.
  • If there are two colors — as in some turnips — there should be a vivid contrast between them.
  • If the vegetable is just one color — as in carrots or sweet potatoes — it should be intense and even.
  • If possible, buy root vegetables outside plastic bags or sealed containers so you can make a good judgment about what you’re getting.

The Two Types of Root Vegetables
True Roots
  • Many of these are simply the large top root of a plant — like carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips and rutabagas.
  • Others are a tuberous swelling of that root — like some sweet potatoes and yucca (or cassava).
The Modified Stem of a Plant
  • Count the true tubers in this group of root veggies — like potatoes and sunchokes.
  • Root tubers are the plant’s main food-storage device.
  • They can overwinter in the ground, storing nutrients so the plant can come back in the spring.
  • Rhizomes like ginger, and corms like water chestnuts, also make up some of these root vegetables that form from the modified stems of plants.

Cooking with roots
Root vegetables have an amazing range in the kitchen — from salads to stews. Many can be eaten raw — like radishes and jicama. Others can be quickly steamed or blanched to enhance other raw vegetables in a salad — potatoes and celeriac work particularly well. And some root vegetables can stand up to long stewing or roasting — think rutabagas and turnips.

In fact, many roots run the full gamut. Carrots go from raw to long-stewed without breaking a sweat!

Because root vegetables are so stocked with sugars, they change flavors dramatically as they cook. Steamed carrots are more savory than raw ones; braised radishes, sweeter than raw.

Not all roots take forever on the stove. Radishes are done in minutes; shredded sweet potatoes can be cooked in minutes. In fact, shredding most of these roots will cause them to cook more quickly as more of the fibers and sugars come in contact quickly with the heat.

Consider this the culinary rule: the longer the braise or stew, the more flavor you need in the root to begin with. Celeriac, parsnips and carrots stand up to a three-hour pot roast. Potatoes, yucca, and sunchokes are milder — and easily overwhelmed in a complex braise. These root vegetables are better mashed on their own, a bed for chili, beef stew and chicken-skillet sautés.

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