When Americans consider food, the vegetables fall at the bottom of the heap. And when it comes to vegetables, the root vegetables - onions and potatoes excepted - fall at the bottom of the heap. It's a great shame because root vegetables have the potential to bring to cooking a fairly large collection of flavors that are unique, interesting, and delicious, and nutritious. Years ago I set out to rediscover root vegetables, and I have to say that though I am a root vegetable booster, they still remain underused in my own kitchen. I'm hoping to redeem myself for this grave sin by spreading the word that root vegetables deserve to be eaten much more frequently.
Before we get started; the root vegetables we talk about here are all loosely related: carrot, parsnip and celeriac are all members of the apium family of plants. The family also includes parsley. As we know, related foods frequently combine very naturally.
The carrot finds its way into many American dishes. It is sweet, and it is a great source of beta carotene - a precursor of vitamin A. The carrot is versatile, but it is best if cooked in the oven where slow, dry heat slowly break down the carrot's complex carbohydrates into simple sugars. It may be roasted with meats or braises, cooked in fricassees, or baked into delicious cakes.
A classic way to prepare carrots is to blanch them for 10 minutes or so, shock them in ice water for a minute, and then saute them in butter and perhaps some maple syrup or sauterne. This also produces sweet vegetables. The carrot, cut into match sticks finds its way into all kinds of soups and stocks, and is especially good cooked into stocks for braising mild fish.
The parsnip is a close cousin of the carrot. It shares with carrots a long shape, though the parsnip is a little larger. The parsnip rarely has that soapy flavor found in badly grown carrots, but it is not as sweet; not until it has been well roasted, anyway. But the parsnip has a wonderful and unique flavor. It reminds us of something tropical, perhaps it's coconut or cocoa butter or lime oil. In any case, this flavor is absolutely wonderful anywhere one might think of using it. It's great in stews, soups, purees. It was six years ago that I made a parsnip soup for Thanksgiving and I was reminded of that soup by an in-law just last month. And it did not even contain cream.
Beets, too, are root vegetables but we will not be talking about them; they are in a different family, and I have yet to taste a beet recipe that beats eating any other food. And I find them too much work. Turnips, kohlrabi, and rutabagas are members of the cabbage family and we'll discuss them in another place, another time.
The most off-beat root vegetable that I love is the root of the celery plant, sold as celeriac or celery knob. It's not easy to cook. And I'm not sure it is ever appropriate to eat it by itself, except for the classic 'Celeriac Remoulade.'
One of my favorite recipes uses celeriac in a puree. Carefully peel one celery root. Peel two parsnips and three or four carrots. Cut up the celery root into pieces no more than half an inch thick. Place the celery root in a glass bowl, add the carrots, then the parsnips. Add about two tablespoons of water, cover with microwave plastic wrap, and cook for 12 minutes. Let stand for about 10 more. Check for doneness. Place in a food processor in batches and process until smooth. Add two or three tablespoons of butter and half a tsp salt.
This puree has a crisp, clean vegetal flavor that is especially well suited for heavy holiday meals such as Thanksgiving. The celeriac and parsnip cut through the grease and sugar in much the way cranberry does - if not oversweetened.
This puree is sweeter and more 'golden' in flavor due to the fact that the vegetables are roasted instead of microwaved. The additon of sherry enhances the buttery flavor. This puree works with many kinds of fish, if they are not too oily. In fact, one can cook fish filets in this puree and get a very moist and sweet product. Fish and puree melt in the mouth.
Roast one carrot, two parsnips, three celery stalks at 375 for 30 min. Check doneness, microwave parsnips five more minutes if required. Chop up th celery. Toss into a food processor with 1/4 cup sherry, 3 tbs butter, 2 tbs cup stock or water, and puree until smooth.
These purees are just simple variations on a theme; there are so many possibilities here. Notice that we have steered clear of foods with cheese; this is because the sweetness of properly roasted parsnips and carrots is excessive for use with most strongly flavored cheeses, though one could use cream, sour cream, cream cheese or neufchatel. There is a particular bite to gruyere which might allow it to go with certain parsnip or celeriac dishes if they are steamed, not roasted.
Frizzled leeks can go really well. And so will onions. Parsley tempura would be a novel cripsy complement to puree. Peas go really well with leaks and carrots however cooked. Cream works well with leeks, and carrots. Curries are very nice with root vegetables. And for a novel spice use cardamom. It is worthy of mention that the Indian dessert halewa or halva is made by boiling shredded carrots and cardamom in cream until everything congeals in a dense, pudding-like mass.
Eat well and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.