Root Vegetables: Hidden Jewels of Harvest

Root Vegetables: Hidden Jewels of Harvest

by Donna Marie Desfor

If there is a season where it could be said we return to the earth, then autumn is it.  We have arrived — or perhaps fallen — back into the bounty that she offers; bounty sown from fertile land.  Good solid staples, no frills; in fact, little beauty to behold.  But still, what we are offered sets us square and safe to endure the shorter days, the colder temperatures, and the endless desire for comfort.

There is little to be said, or that literally has been said, about root vegetables.  One may think that from a purely gastronomic standpoint, there is little to wax poetic about:  In their unearthed state, root vegetables are lackluster and downright, well, dirty.  Clearly not the beauties of the plant world, they are little more than damp and earthy smelling when harvested, and pale and mangled — and usually still dirty — when they arrive to market.  What they are, however, is formidable.  Such is their magic.

Hold them properly in their raw form and you have a food staple on hand for weeks, perhaps even months.  Uncover the flesh and you find starches that have turned to sugars, and a vibrant kaleidoscope of colors.  Expose that flesh to heat, and vibrant colors become jeweled and rich, sugars caramelize, and a symphony of flavor is unleashed.

While the standard litany of root vegetables is common parlance (think beetroot, carrot, celeriac, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, onion, parsnip, salsify, rutabaga, potato and sweet potato, turnip), I had little idea that indeed there are many “roots” that are lost among other groups of ingredients: think ginger, radish, daikon, and fennel.

These ugly little tubers, rhizomes, hypocotyls, corms, and bulbs are (dare I say it?) poetry, at least in gastronomic terms.  While we may do little more than cook them before we purée, mash, blitz, or chop them, what they offer is an endless opportunity for flavor, color, comfort, and texture.  And intrigue.

But again, therein lies the formidable nature of the root; as a food platform, root vegetables provide a flavorful base from which both sweet and savory components can work.  In fact, savory herbs and “warm” spices such as cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg generally work in a pinch with most roots.  In our Turnip & Apple Soup, the sweet, nutty earthiness of the turnips prepared with leeks and shallots (both forms of root vegetables) actually pulls the taste of sweet from the apple to the palate in a delightfully surprising way.  The flavor is complex and long; it reveals itself to the palate slowly.  When enjoyed with the savory breadsticks, the whole taste experience is grounded back into earthiness.

Recipe: Apple & Turnip Soup with Nutmeg Cheddar Breadsticks

Similarly, the use of herbs and the sweet-tart of balsamic vinegar in the Rustic Balsamic-Roasted Root Vegetables balances the meaty starchiness of the roots.  In this recipe, however, we add the undeniable gastronomic element of aroma into the mix.  Caramelizing sugars, deepening rustic flavors, and punctuating herbal elements open up as the roots roast, creating a pre-taste expression of savory earthiness in the mental mouth.  Once again, the taste experience is enhanced by the long expression of sweet, both through the balsamic marinade and the caramelized edges of the roots.

Recipe: Balsamic-Roasted Root Vegetables

There is much that should be written about root vegetables, and perhaps someday someone will embrace the task.  I dare say, however, that most are content to eat and be satisfied.  At the root of it all, if we leave the Harvest table full and satisfied, then our experience — taste or otherwise — will be one that is savored and longed for, once again.

Photo: Kelly Cline

Donna Marie Desfor is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.