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Published: Tuesday, 10/12/2010

Roots aren't square: the earthy beauty of veggies

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

Let's face it. Root vegetables are kind of ugly.

Parsnips are spindly. Jerusalem artichokes look weird. Celery root is just gross.

They're the Rodney Dangerfields of the culinary world, the punch line of a joke about turnip trucks. Kids don't like to eat them, and neither do a lot of their parents.

Kids (and a lot of their parents) don't know what they're missing.

The vegetables may be homely, but they are delicious, with an earthy, woodsy flavor that satisfies and warms you when the temperature turns crisp. Perhaps the problem some people have is that they not only taste earthy, some of them still come with a little bit of earth on them. But that can easily be washed off.

“They come in all shapes and sizes and some home cooks get intimidated by the form in which they are purchased. They take a look at a parsnip or rutabaga and think, ‘What the heck do I do with this? How do I cook this thing?' said Robb White, dean of culinary at the Michigan Culinary Institute.

Mr. White said that as a child, he hated beets. And he resented his mother making him eat them. But that was then.

“As I entered culinary school and my taste changed a bit, I found out that I really love beets, especially when they are roasted. If I would have held on to that childhood memory of hating beets, I never would have tried them as an adult,” he said.

Root vegetables are in season right now, although you can actually get them any time of the year. But now they are particularly plentiful, because they pair so well with fall and winter meals. Root vegetables make a good stew better and add a baseline of depth to heartier soups.

“I feel root vegetables add a layer of earthiness and complexity to just about every dish they are in. They give depth of flavor, color, and richness to the most simple of dishes,” Mr. White said.

Carrots are root vegetables, of course, but we tend to think of them as just carrots. Sweet potatoes are, too, and so are onions and regular potatoes.

But what about the more unusual root veggies? They are just as filling, just as humble, and just as delicious.

Everyone knows beets, even if they know them primarily as pickled and coming out of a jar. A lot of people don't like them, possibly because they think of them as pickled and jarred. Even the president doesn't like them. But they are spectacularly colorful and have a subtle sweetness — though the ones that aren't purple generally are less sweet than the purple ones. They are wonderfully versatile, and can be boiled, roasted, baked, braised, and yes, pickled.

Beets pair particularly well with oranges and are flavorful enough to serve as the base of a soup.

Turnips are a little bit tangy and are not unlike potatoes in texture when cooked, but you don't have too cook them. You can eat them raw, thinly sliced, or when cubed they can be boiled, roasted, stir-fried, or even microwaved. Pliny the Elder, in the first century A.D., wrote that turnips were an important source of food because they grow even in mist and frost.

Like their turnip cousins, rutabagas are members of the cabbage family. Larger and woodier than turnips, they are most often used in this country in stews and casseroles, although other countries mash them together with potatoes or carrots.

Or parsnips, for that matter, because parsnips closely resemble carrots both in appearance and in botanical make-up. Like carrots, they are sweet, but they lack that sharp carrot flavor. When shredded or sliced thin, they can be eaten raw, or they can be steamed, saut ed, boiled, braised, roasted, or even fried like potato chips.

Celery root, which also is known as celeriac, is just about as ugly as a vegetable can get. It looks like a small baseball with little tendrils growing all over it, and is perhaps the only vegetable that can give you nightmares if you look at it too long. As is name implies, it is the root of a celery plant, though not the kind of celery you pick up at Kroger — it's a variety that isn't good for eating, except for the root. And though the root has a definite flavor of celery, it is also earthy and subtly nutty.

It can be grated fresh into salads, pureed with potatoes, baked in a gratin, braised, or, for a bowl of heaven, turned into an astonishingly elegant soup.

All that sophistication from something that looks like one of nature's least funny mistakes.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade or 419-724-6155.

Coriander Sweet Potatoes

6 tan-skinned sweet potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch rounds

5 tablespoons olive oil

21/4 teaspoons ground coriander

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Preheat oven to 350 .

Mix potatoes and oil in large bowl. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Arrange potatoes in single layer on large rimmed baking sheet. Roast until tender and brown, turning after 35 minutes, about 45 minutes total. Transfer to large bowl. Toss with cilantro and serve.

Yield: 6 servings

Source: The Bon App tit Cookbook

Twice-Cooked Beets in Chianti Glaze

8 21/2-inch-diameter beets, unpeeled, trimmed, scrubbed

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), trimmed, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise

2 cups Chianti or other dry red wine

2 tablespoons butter (1/4 stick)

Preheat oven to 450 .

Toss beets with 2 tablespoons oil in a 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish to coat. Roast beets uncovered until tender, about 1 hour. Cool beets slightly, then peel. Cut beets into quarters.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium-low heat. Add leeks and saut until transucent and soft, about 12 minutes. Add beets to skillet; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Saut 5 minutes. Raise heat to high, add Chianti, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until wine is reduced to glaze and coats beets, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Add butter and stir until melted. Season beets to taste with salt and pepper. Transer for bowl and serve.

Yield: 6 servings

Source: The Bon App tit Cookbook

Cream of Celery Root Soup

1 large onion, diced

4 shallots, diced

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 cup dry white wine

6 cups chicken stock, divided

3 cups heavy cream

2 large celery roots

Sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

In a saucepan over medium heat, cook onion and shallots in olive oil until translucent. Raise heat, add white wine and reduce until almost dry. Add 2 cups chicken stock and reduce until amost dry. Lower heat, add cream and reduce slowly, about 20 percent, for around 10 minutes. Remove from heat. This is your cream base.

With a sharp knife, peel celery roots. Cut into 1-11/2 inch cubes.

In a large saucepan, heat celery root in 21/4 cups chicken stock until the celery root is soft. Puree and return to pan. Add 11/2 cups of the cream base, and stir to blend. If required, add more chicken stock until you reach the desired consistency. Season with sea salt and pepper.

You can reserve and refrigerate the remaining cream base and chicken stock for future use.

Yield: 6 servings

Source: Adapted from a recipe by Jimmy Sneed

Parsnip Chips

Parsnips

Vegetable oil with a high smoke point (peanut, safflower, grapeseed — not olive)

Put about 4 inches of oil in a pot and heat to 375 (a drop of water will immediately sizzle in it). Peel parsnips. Discard peels, but continue to use vegetable peeler to cut thin, lengthwise slices of parsnips. Drop parsnips in hot oil, a few at a time, and fry until golden, turning once, about 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon or spider (the kitchen utensil, not the arachnid). Sprinkle with salt, and drain on paper towels.

Glazed Turnips

2 pounds turnips

2 ounces butter (1/2 stick)

3 ounces maple syrup

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt, to taste

1/2 teaspoon pepper, to taste

1 teaspoon parsley, chopped

Cut turnips into thick matchsticks, 1/4 inch by 1/4 inch by 21/2 inches. Boil turnips in salted water until tender, 3-5 minutes. When turnips are done, drain.

Melt butter in saut pan and add maple syrup, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, and pepper.

Add turnips and toss until they are hot and coated with glaze. Garnish with chopped celery.

Yield: 10 servings

Source: The New Professional Chef

Sweet Potatoes Baked in Cider with Currants and Cinnamon

21/4 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced thin

2 ounces butter (1/2 stick)

1 shallot, minced

1 cup real, fresh apple cider

2 ounces currants

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt, to taste

1/4 teaspoon pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 325

Shingle the sweet potato slices in a well-buttered casserole or grain dish. Sprinkle them with the shallots. Add the cider; there should be enough to thoroughly moisten the potatoes.

Add the currants and cinnamon. Cover the dish loosely with aluminum foil and bake until the sweet potatoes are very tender. Season with salt and pepper; serve immediately.

Note: For a sweeter version, uncover the dish in the last few minutes and sprinkle the top with brown sugar.

Yield: 10 servings

Source: The New Professional Chef



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