A Home Cook’s Guide to Root Vegetables
There’s something so humble and homey about root vegetables. They’re evocative of the dusty yet bountiful root cellar on your great-grandmother’s farm — of a quaint life that, to us city folk, feels almost otherworldly. They’re the most comforting of all the veggies, and we’d eat them ‘til the cows come home.
Suffice it to say, root vegetables are nothing new (many of them have recorded uses going back to antiquity), but even after all these years, we’re still finding fresh, modern ways to use them — while maintaining their comfort-food status, of course. So call your mom and tell her: gone are the days of over-boiled beets and gummy, mashed turnips!
If mom doesn’t believe you, it’ll only take a few clicks on your end to subtly drop this guide into her inbox. In it, we cover some of our favorite root vegetables, as well as some creative and tempting uses for them that just might convince all the root veggie skeptics out there to try a bite or three.
Beets are best known for their garnet red flesh and juices that stain everything from your hands and wooden cutting board to that white t-shirt you probably should’ve taken off before you started cooking. But, there’s also the golden beet, which won’t stain a thing (fingers crossed) and has a brighter, more succulent sweetness than the earthy, subtle sweetness of its ruby-toned sibling. There’s a common misconception that beets taste bitter and dirt-like, but that’s only because of the skin, which we don’t recommend eating.
One of the most obvious, classic uses for beets is borscht, but we also love grating them for a twist on the Swiss potato rösti, tossing them in a bright, shaved root salad, or tucking them into a rustic, autumnal galette with sweet potatoes, yams, and chèvre. For snacks, there are crispy beet chips or creamy beet and ricotta hummus — and kombucha lovers would be remiss if they didn’t try fermented, puckery beet kvass. However you prepare beets, don’t toss the greens: they’re edible, highly nutritious, and taste incredible after a quick sautée with salt, pepper, and butter.
Our tip: peel your beets if you’re eating them raw, but if you’re cooking them, don’t bother — the skin will easily shed once they’re warmed up.
This underdog of a root vegetable seems to be perpetually overshadowed by its cousin, the carrot — but that wasn’t always the case. Parsnips were a common sight on the Roman table and, apparently, Emperor Tiberius loved them so much, he accepted them as tribute from what is now Germany. In the ground, this cream-colored root vegetable starts out super starchy until the winter frosts convert those starches into sugar, giving them a pleasantly sweet flavor. (As a matter of fact, parsnips were the primary source of sugar in Europe before the cultivation of cane sugar and sugar beets!) They’ve also got a subtle nuttiness and a fresh, herby aroma — which is partly due to their relation to parsley.
Much like carrots, parsnips are incredibly versatile. They can be eaten raw or cooked — you can bake, boil, grill, steam, or sauté them. We love tossing them into soups, stews, and casseroles for extra richness, and they make an excellent addition to a Sunday roast (or a colorful, comforting Sunday brunch hash). But our favorite preparation by far is one that’s usually left to the potato: creamy, cheesy parsnip gratin.
There are many types of turnips, but the most popular is the purple-topped white globe turnip. One great thing about this variety is that it keeps really well: wrapped in a moist paper towel and plopped in a mesh bag, it’ll last up to 4 to 5 months in the crisper drawer. Of course, purple-topped turnips taste wonderful too. Small, young ones have a delicate texture and a subtle earthiness; as they age, they develop a softer, coarser texture and a deep, almost woody flavor.
You’re perhaps most familiar with boiled, steamed, or mashed turnips. But they’re also great sautéed or puréed into a thick, creamy, herby soup with celery root and rutabaga. That said, we’re quite fond of raw turnips — we love tossing them in salads or dipping them in our briny Ojai tapenade. (And of course, we always make sure to save the leafy tops for Southern-style turnip greens!)
For most of us, the Platonic ideal of a carrot is a long, slender, orange root with lacy, bright green leaves on top. However, carrots actually come in a whole rainbow of hues — purple, black, maroon, yellow, white. Way back when, the chances of pulling an orange carrot out of the garden were actually much slimmer than pulling up a white one. (We can’t help but wonder if this led to some tense parsnip-carrot mix-ups in Emperor Tiberius’ kitchens!) Whatever color your carrots, they’re sure to have a light, herby sweetness (though not quite as sweet as parsnips) and an ultra satisfying crunch. As Bugs Bunny would sing, carrots are divine!
Carrots, rainbow or not, can be prepared approximately five millions ways to Sunday. You could keep it simple by roasting them and finishing them with a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of their cousin, parsley — or you could spice it up by roasting them with harissa and topping them with radishes. You might whirl them into a creamy soup, perhaps one with curry spices and coconut milk. Us? We’ve been into this rustic, one-pot roasted chicken with caramelized carrots as of late. And preferably, it’s followed by a slice of classic carrot cake.
Who eats radishes for breakfast, you ask? Apparently, the produce vendors at French open-air markets in the late 19th century: they supposedly ate them as a midmorning snack with butter and salt as they sold their fruits and veggies. This heirloom radish has an edible, leafy green top and a root that starts out bright fuschia and fades to a crisp white. Flavor-wise, it’s mild, spicy-sweet, and peppery — and each bite has a delightful, succulent crunch. They’re also more oblong than traditional radishes, which makes them great for dipping.
Turns out, breakfast radishes are fantastic with butter and flake salt, especially sliced thin on a baguette with some fresh herbs. That said, we often use these heirloom radishes like we would any other radish: tossed in salads (like this fresh, crunchy grain salad), pickled and tucked into salmon banh mi sliders, or as a garnish for everything from tacos to veggie bowls and those harissa-roasted carrots we mentioned earlier. As for the greens, you can’t go wrong sautéeing them with butter, but they also make a lovely, peppery salad that doesn’t need much more than a simple vinaigrette.