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February 24, 2014

The Institute just had its mid-winter party this past weekend. It’s a great idea to have a party in the winter doldrums and bring some cheer into the bleak and seemingly endless season.

Still, the holidays that mark the beginning of the end of winter are just around the corner. Fat Tuesday is March 4. St. Patrick’s Day in all of its greenery is March 17. Purim, which gets people out of the house visiting friends (and also drinking), starts the evening of March 15.

But even after spring has sprung, it takes weeks and months for fresh local produce to arrive at the farmers markets. There will be ramps and garlic scapes. There will be fiddlehead ferns.

Now, we’ve got the last of the storage vegetables. For some people, these last few months are proof that eating locally and seasonally in the northeast is sheer folly. I say hogwash. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to offer a love letter of sorts to root vegetables.

Root vegetables are easily dismissed given the ubiquity of carrots and potatoes in our lives. What could possibly be special about a carrot?

Carrots are so much more than those hard, tasteless, industrially processed orbs that are unceremoniously shoved into a plastic bag and doled out in lunch sacks across the country. Carrots come in a range of colors from stark white to a nearly black shade of dark purple. And when they are roasted at high heat, their sugars caramelize and these sweet vibrant roots become transformed into something to celebrate.

Potatoes too are so much more than russets. They fit in as well at a greasy spoon as at a white linen palace of fine dining. With so many cultivars, if you could find them all it would be possible to have a different potato every day of the year. You say the potato is boring? I say you haven’t scratched the surface of the wide world of potatoes.

Beets are one of my favorite things. In the spring and fall when they are still being harvested from the ground, I love using the leaves and stems in addition to the roots. But oh, those roots. In a cold borscht spiked with tart sour cream or oven braised until they are sweet and tender, dressed simply with good olive oil and salt. These are so far from tasting like dirt that even the kids gobble them up.

Turnips can be an acquired taste. But the small ones are more delicate. Braising them with homemade chicken stock and glazing them with sugar make them hard to resist.

But these just scratch the surface of root vegetables. Technically, when we talk about root vegetables the category extends past true roots and includes root-like stems, modified plant stems, and bulbs.

To demonstrate just how wide and varied root vegetables are, here’s one for every letter of the alphabet. Most of them I’ve eaten, and they are delicious. But some I just discovered in researching this post. Now I have something to look forward to trying.

Eleocharis dulcis (aka Chinese water chestnut)
Ipomoea batatas (aka sweet potato)
Korean yam (aka Dioscorea opposita)
Lotus Root
New Zealand yam (aka Oxalis tuberosa)
Vigna lanceolata (aka bush potato)
Zamia pumila (aka Florida arrowroot)

Do not disparage the root vegetables. They are a deeply sustaining source of joy and inspiration. Their range of colors, flavors and textures is as impressive as summer’s bounty. Yet far too often this amazing produce gets relegated to a second tier status.

Maybe it has something to do with seasonal affective disorder. Perhaps everyone’s dour mood at the end of winter has poisoned the well against these great foods.

That stops right here. That stops right now. Grab yourself some roots. And if you need help turning them into something delicious, just let me know. I’m at your service.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. enough already! permalink
    February 24, 2014 3:21 pm

    Don’t forget the best of all – rutabaga!

  2. Rosemarie permalink
    February 24, 2014 8:10 pm

    Japanese turnips(I don’t know the other name for them) have a mild sweet delicious flavor and compliment a beef stew. their leafy stalks are said to nourish the skeletal system when juiced with parsley and dandelion greens.

  3. Rosemarie permalink
    February 24, 2014 9:55 pm

    Correction to my previous post: Turnip greens juiced with dandelion greens and carrots nourish the entire skeletal system. Turnip juice is very potent (very high in calcium): a little goes a long way.

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