LONDON, Ont. - Root vegetables are getting a makeover.
While potatoes, carrots and onions are staples in many Canadian homes, other root veggies such as rutabaga, turnips, parsnips, beets, sweet potatoes and celeriac (celery root) are showing up on home and restaurant menus in high-end dishes from appetizers and salads to entrees and desserts.
Until a few generations ago, root vegetables were a mainstay of winter diets because they were all that was available and could be stored for long periods in root cellars. Generally, they would be boiled and mashed as side dishes or added to soups and stews.
But as more imported and culturally diverse products became accessible, Canadian-grown root vegetables took a back seat.
"People were so excited to be able to get asparagus or avocados in February that root vegetables got pushed off to the side because it was 'just a carrot,'" says Andrew Winfield, executive chef at River Cafe and the affiliated Boxwood eatery in Calgary. Then diners started to realize those imports didn't always taste that good.
He believes root vegetables also benefited from the eat-local, eat-seasonal food movements and by the increased availability of heirloom varieties.
It's not so much that home cooks and chefs rediscovered root vegetables as that they started experimenting with new ways to cook and serve them, he says.
"In the past many food professionals maintained that the perfect vegetable was al dente with a crisp texture. But we love putting carrots over coals and slow roasting them until they're almost blackened on the outside. Then we just scrape them off a little bit to reveal the soft, molten, tender, smoky carrot underneath."
Celeriac is one of his favourites because of its creamy texture. He says it adds an "almost tart, tangy, lemony flavour" to soups, but he also likes to use it raw in salads.
In fact, his favourite application for almost all root vegetables is to serve them raw, thinly shaved or julienned as a salad ingredient, as a garnish or accent on almost anything or just as a snack. Eating them raw really "showcases" their crunchy texture and sweet flavours, he says.
For those who prefer these vegetables cooked, boiling is not the only option, says Barb Holland, home economist with Foodland Ontario.
"If you put them in water, you lose not just the nutrients, but you also lose some of the flavour."
Roasting, for example, either around meat or on their own, brings out the sweetness and makes them crispy on the outside.
Holland suggests lightly tossing large (at least five-centimetre/two-inch) pieces with oil, seasoning with salt, pepper, chopped herbs or spices (such as garlic, rosemary and thyme) and baking in a roasting pan or on a cookie sheet in a hot oven (190 C/375 F), stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender and browned, 30 to 35 minutes. If carrots are included, it shortens the roasting time if they are boiled first for about four minutes to partially cook them.
These vegetables also can be braised in a heavy-bottomed pot with a little oil, seasonings and 125 to 250 millilitres (1/2 to one cup) of broth. Cover, reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook until vegetables are tender and starting to brown. Add fresh herbs — rosemary, thyme and parsley, for example — at the end.
With both options, vegetables can be cooked individually or, better yet, in a medley. Similarly, combinations of mashed root vegetables, such as celeriac or parsnips with potatoes, elevate a common dish above the ordinary.
The difference between rutabagas and turnips causes some confusion.
Rutabagas, sometimes called yellow turnips or swedes, are larger, yellower and waxed for longer storage. Turnips are the smaller ones, more white with purple tips, and they're not waxed.
One problem for time-challenged cooks is that root vegetables take a while to cook, but cooking ahead and reheating is not a good option for roast veggies, Holland says.
"Often people are reheating them in a microwave and that softens them again, so you're not getting the firm texture.
"But if you mash root vegetables, they store well and you can reheat those — potatoes and celeriac, rutabaga and turnips."
Also, turnips, sweet potatoes and even small whole rutabagas can be cooked in the microwave, she says. A whole rutabaga takes about 25 minutes, including sitting time, and sweet potatoes four to six minutes. They all should be pierced all over before microwaving.
Beets require special handling because of their intense colour. To avoid "bleeding," when boiling or steaming in a pressure cooker, cook with the skin, root and a little bit of stem intact. As soon as they're tender, plunge in cold water, which will help the skins come off fairly easily. Use paper towels on your hands when handling the beets to avoid staining.
When buying root vegetables, "look for firmness," Holland says. "They should be heavy for their size, with minimal blemishes."
They should be stored in a cool, dry place and most will keep for two to four weeks.
To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.