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February 25, 1988|MINNIE BERNARDINO | Times Staff Writer

Edible roots must have been one of the very first foods of man; we can easily imagine prehistoric men, even before they learned to fish or hunt, grubbing up roots from the ground. --from "Food" by Waverley Root (Simon & Schuster)

We're back to our roots, and tubers--those wonderful foods from underground. A prehistoric inheritance, these unsinkable vegetables are reappearing more and more on America's tables as we return to basics and comfort foods. Roots and tubers are energy foods. It's hard to believe that the slaves who built the pyramids in Egypt were fed a steady diet of radishes. When the Germans imprisoned French agronomist Antoine Augustin Parmentier during the Seven Year War, potatoes became his means of subsistence during three years of confinement. "Root vegetables are complex carbohydrates, the energy storage for plants," said Kathryn Boyd R.D., assistant director of clinical nutrition at Saddleback Hospital and Health Center in Laguna Hills. "Although they vary a great deal in nutrient value, they're good sources of fiber, low in fat and relatively low in calories. In general, they have moderately significant amounts of vitamins A and C." Ugly ducklings in the garden, roots, fortunately, grow out of sight. Picture the monstrous celeriac, or celery root, or the freaky-looking horseradish. And the bumpy sunchoke tuber is certainly a far cry from its pretty sunflower offshoot. Anyone would be turned off by dark and dirty-looking gobo (burdock) sticks, the hairy taro, the finger-shaped ginger or the ginseng root, whose shape suggests a strange human form. Lacy when sliced, the lotus root in its fresh form resembles link sausage.

Beneath the fibrous, knobby skins of many starchy root crops is a creamy flesh that when delicately simmered turns into a tender mealy pulp. Others, such as jicama, daikon and red radishes, beets, and carrots, reveal a juicy content with crisp textures and a sweet taste. There's nothing like a glass of carrot juice to start an energy-filled day.

New Varieties Discovered

We're all familiar with the goodness of potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, turnips, rutabagas (the Swedish turnip that is a cross between cabbage and turnips) and parsnips. New varieties, however, can be discovered. If you grow your own, try the golden beet or the white beet varieties that don't bleed like the red ones. Another good variety is the little finger carrot, grown for its extra-sweet gourmet flavor and smooth skin.

Now available in many markets, golden or Finnish yellow potatoes as well as purple and blue varieties can be grown. Both can be boiled and sliced to show off their pretty colors as an accompaniment to an entree.

Root crops are appreciated by vegetable gardeners with limited size plots because they do not require much ground space. Many of them may be grown in double rows and nearly on top of each other.

"There's no question that celery roots, jicama, daikon radishes and uncommon root vegetables are selling well," said Frieda Caplan of Frieda's Finest, a Los Angeles produce company. "We've never seen such phenomenal sales of these . . . it's a movement that's growing more and more."

Upcoming root varieties that are new to the American consumer are really old foods for many ethnic groups. Consider the lotus root, for example.

Underneath the beautiful pink lotus lily, is a woody brown rhizome with lacy flesh. Frequently used in Japanese cooking as a decorative food, slices can be tinted in colorful hues. Cut anyway you want, the mild-tasting sweet lotus root can be added to stews or soups and cooked until tender.

L.A. County Cooperative Extension nutritionist Genevieve Ho describes an unusual preparation of lotus root: "In China my grandmother used to stuff the holes with seasoned cooked rice, sometimes mixed with ground meat, then she would steam the whole root and slice it."

Karen Lee, cooking teacher and author of "Nouvelle Chinese Cooking," said: "Lotus root, like daikon, is supposed to be great for getting rid of mucous, good for winter colds." Another cold-fighter, she added, is ginger, which is becoming more widespread and is being used in many French recipes. "I make a soothing ginger tea. You take a few slices of unpeeled, rinsed ginger and boil them in a pot (do not use aluminum) for five minutes. Strain and add a dash of honey and lemon juice. It's delicious and it keeps me going when I teach four classes in three days."

Another versatile tuber is jicama. "It's great if you can get it fresh when it's sweeter and easier to peel," Lee said; "I like it raw in salads with just lemon juice. You can also use it in place of water chestnuts." Popular in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, jicama is a worldwide treat. In the Philippines, jicama is popularly used, chopped with carrots, as a crunchy extender for ground meats in egg rolls.

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