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Use Them in Soups, Salads, Purees and Desserts : The Distinctive Flavors, Down-to-Earth Heartiness of Root Vegetables

March 17, 1988|JUDITH BLAKE | Blake is a Seattle Times staff reporter

Most people come right out in the open about their favorite foods, but there are those who go underground to satisfy their cravings. These are the roots lovers--people who devour things like turnips, rutabagas, parsnips and beets--and there may be more of them than you realize.

Except for radishes and the extra-popular carrots, roots are remembered by some adults as foods they ate during childhood only because they weren't allowed to leave the table until they did. It doesn't take much digging, though, to find others who rave about root vegetables' distinctive flavors and down-to-earth heartiness. They use them in everything from soups and stews to salads, purees and desserts, and if you try some of their favorites you could find yourself joining them.

Now is a good time for getting back to your roots, as fall and winter are the prime season for turnips, rutabagas and parsnips. Parsnips become sweeter, in fact, when they remain in the ground after the first frost, since the cooler weather turns their starch to sugar. Turnips and rutabagas, too, can keep for months in the ground--one of their chief attractions during the centuries before refrigeration.

Nonroot Headliners

While not as hugely popular as lettuce and some other nonroot headliners, rutabagas, turnips and parsnips do have a sizable following, said Ray Bentson, vice president of produce, Food Services of America, a vegetable wholesaler located near Seattle.

Beets, although at their best while young and small in the summer, are available in fall and winter as well, and carrots and radishes are almost evenly plentiful all year long.

It would be hard to find anyone who did not know a beet from a carrot or a red radish (there also are the huge white daikon radish and a smaller white radish, both tapered and mild tasting) but parsnips, turnips and rutabagas may be less familiar--especially if you've been avoiding them for years--so here's a little rundown:

A parsnip looks like a white or yellowish carrot, but tastes sweeter. Turnips are round and most have white flesh and a purple crown; they are mild-flavored when small, stronger-flavored when large. The rutabaga, also roundish but yellow-orange in color, is slightly sweet but less so than the parsnip.

Star Among Roots

Nutritionally, the carrot is the star among roots, with its big load of Vitamin A. The others are less blessed, but some still make a respectable showing. Rutabagas (like most other yellow-orange vegetables) pack a good amount of Vitamin A, although less than the carrot. Parsnips provide carbohydrates and a fair amount of potassium. Beets, too, contain a fair amount of potassium and the greens are high in vitamins A and C. Turnips offer only a moderate amount of vitamins and minerals. Radishes would provide a fair source of minerals if they were eaten in large enough quantities, although they usually are not.

The key to cooking root vegetables is to avoid overcooking, so a little crunch remains. The distaste for roots that often outlasts childhood may stem from the vegetables having been cooked to a pulp, or close to it. Parsnips and turnips, especially, can turn to mush in a short time on the stove.

You can boil, braise, steam or bake roots. The skins slip off easily after boiling or steaming, although an alternative is to peel them first and cut them into chunks for quicker, more even cooking, especially if they are large. Beets, though, should be cooked in their skins, with an inch or two of stem and root end left on, to reduce "bleeding" of their deep red pigment.

Roots lovers often opt for cooking simplicity. Pat Roome, who keeps roots and other vegetables growing year-round in her Bellevue, Wash., garden, prepares them in the simplest possible way: She steams an assortment of them (whatever is available) and serves them entirely on their own--no butter, salt, pepper or other seasoning.

"We appreciate the flavors just as they are," she said.

'Food for the Gods'

Only slightly more involved is a casserole favorite of Bentson and his wife Virginia. They cut turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, carrots and onions (sometimes broccoli, too) into 2-inch chunks and parboil them briefly before placing them in a casserole dish with, perhaps, a little salt. They bake the vegetables, uncovered, in a 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes, then top them with grated cheese and return them to the oven just long enough to melt the cheese.

"It's just food for the gods," raved Ray.

Although Bentson works for a produce distributor, his enthusiasm for root vegetables appears to transcend company loyalty.

Roots also have a champion in Bert Greene, author of the vegetable cookbook "Greene on Greens" (Workman: $12.95, paperback). Greene loves the "wonderful fragrance" of parsnips, writes of his "love affair" with the turnip and the rutabaga and rhapsodizes over a "plateful (of beets) drenched with butter and a lot of lemon."

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