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Winter Guide 2005: 17 Reasons for Vegetarians to Dig Winter

November 2, 2005, 12:00 am
By
Or, Root Vegetables: A Love Story.

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Winter means it's time to take out the pots and pans you've been storing in the oven and use it as an appliance, not an extra kitchen cabinet. The kinds of cooking we do when it's cold out-roasting, braising, long simmering-are methods that lend themselves especially well to the root vegetables commonly available in the winter. With a lack of much going on in the garden and Chilean strawberries making you shudder in the supermarket, root vegetables suddenly start to look attractive (they're also really cheap). So as you plan your winter menus or try to decipher the winter menus at your favorite restaurants, this introduction to roots, tubers, bulbs and rhizomes might come in handy.

***image1***BEET
What do beets have in common with Swiss chard? If you've ever seen beets with their leafy tops still attached, sitting next to Swiss chard at the grocery store, then you could probably guess that they're related. The regular old red beets you're familiar with are called garden beets and their tops are perfectly edible, so consider it a two-for-one sale when you find the tops attached. Swiss chard comes from what's known as the spinach or leaf beet and comes in colors just like garden beets. The smallest beets cook fastest and white or golden beets taste the same as red but don't stain everything they touch, so consider that when you're using white cloth napkins for a dinner party. In restaurants you'll find them flavored with oranges, fennel, dill and tarragon, among other things.

***image2***BURDOCK
Burdock is one of those long, brown, tree-root-looking things you find in small baskets at farmers' markets and fancy grocery stores. It looks inedible, but tastes like what you'd expect from many root vegetables: sweet, mild and a little nutty, with a bit of a crunch. Like ginger, its thin skin can be scraped away with the side of a spoon. Once a prized food of Native American tribes, it also is especially popular in Japan. You probably won't find it in restaurants, but if you see it in the market you can slice the root thinly and add it to stir-fries and soups.
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CELERIAC
This bulbous, knobby root looks like an alien brain to anyone with a sense of imagination. But despite its intimidating features, celeriac is one of the most approachable root vegetables. It's deliciously crunchy when raw, and is a great addition to salads, especially ones that involve apples, cheese and tarragon. Cooked, it can be pureed and added to mashed potatoes or roasted along with other roots.

***image4***CHICORY ROOT
Here's something you probably didn't know: chicory is the root of the same plant that gives us escarole, radicchio and Belgian endive, which is grown indoors and away from the sun to keep its leaves as white as possible. Roasted and ground chicory also has been added to coffee to extend it and add body, as it is in New Orleans-style coffee (which is commonly used in Vietnamese restaurants). In Italy, chicory root is sliced and sautéed in olive oil.

***image5***CIPOLLINI ONION
Onions are bulbs of the lily family, as are shallots, garlic and leeks (don't leeks look like iris stems?). But cipollini onions are interesting because they're 1) cute and 2) sweet and tasty, and 3) are the bulbs of the grape hyacinth. They are delicious braised with balsamic vinegar or roasted with other root vegetables.

***image6***KOHLRABI
This ugly green spherical thing is a member of the brassica family, which contains both cabbage and turnips. The name kohlrabi comes from the German for cabbage-turnip as does the Italian name, cavalonappa. Unsurprisingly, it tastes kind of like a combination of cabbage and turnips, which doesn't sound very persuasive but, really, it's good. Try adding kohlrabi to stir-fries or steaming and tossing it with an herbed butter.

***image7***LOTUS ROOT
You can often find lotus root in Asian salads, where it provides a distinctively crunchy texture and sops up strongly flavored dressings. Lotus root is actually the rhizome of a water lily. The long roots come in links like dark brown sausages, but there are air chambers inside that make thin crosswise slices have the lacy appearance of crocheted flowers. You can find them in Asian markets, but be sure to blanch the slices quickly before adding them to your own salads.

***image8***PARSNIP
Before potatoes were introduced to Europe from the New World in the 1500s, the parsnip was the starchy vegetable whose cuisine reigned supreme. Although Europeans in turn introduced parsnips to the Americas, they never achieved the popularity of potatoes. This root may look like an albino carrot, but it has a completely different flavor-unmistakable but also almost indescribably spicy, sweet and earthy. They are excellent sliced and roasted, and heavenly when boiled and pureed with butter, cream and a drop of truffle oil.
 
***image13***RUTABAGA AND TURNIP
These humble looking orbs are very closely related, the rutabaga being the ugly and (some would say unwanted) progeny of a cabbage/turnip sex party. Whereas turnips have bright white flesh with a dark purple streak, rutabagas are bigger, rougher, denser and a dirty yellow streaked with purple. In some cultures rutabagas are considered only fit for animal fodder, but that's just plain unfair to the rutabaga, which is actually quite versatile, with a strong, complex flavor. They're maybe too overpowering on their own, but they add much-needed interest when added to mashed potatoes, mixed roasted vegetables, or winter stews. Turnips are more elegant and refined than rutabagas and come in a variety of sizes and shapes (if you can find them). They're very good at absorbing juices, so you'll often find them made into pancakes like latkes or served alongside a roast after having bathed in meaty juices at the bottom of the roasting pan. Baby turnips can even be eaten raw, like radishes.

***image9***SALSIFY
OK, see if you can follow along here, because this is kind of hard to believe. Salsify is also known as mock oyster because it's supposed to taste like raw oysters. Some people think it does; others think those people are on pills they're not sharing. This long, skinny brown root was popular in ye olde colonial times, but it is hard to find in stores these days. It does grow wild in New Mexico and you've probably seen it, you just thought it was a weird kind of dandelion. The two are closely related.

***image10***SHALLOT
The shallot is what separates home cooks from restaurant chefs. If you spend any time at all eating in halfway fancy restaurants, then you've eaten more shallots then you ever imagined. The shallot is a vital ingredient in many classic French recipes and, though it is related to the onion, the strong, biting flavor of onion is a clumsy substitute for shallot. Use them to impart a mild onion-y flavor in delicate sauces and salad dressings, or toss them into the oven with a roasting chicken.

***image11***SUNCHOKE
The sunchoke is the tuber of a big, tall flower in the sunflower family. It is sometimes called Jerusalem artichoke, not because it comes from Jerusalem, but probably because some long-forgotten grocery clerk came back from lunch drunk and slurred the Italian name: girasole articiocco (sunflower artichoke). They're fun to grow because the flowers are so pretty and in the fall you get to dig them up for food. But the tubers, which look like ginger root, are insanely hard to peel and for all your hard work you get something that's pleasantly crunchy, like water chestnuts or jicama, but terribly bland and makes you fart.
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TARO AND YAUTIA
This Asian tuber can be found as a flavoring in bubble tea and is the main ingredient in the Hawaiian dish poi. Its American primo, yautia, was exported to West Africa where it is very popular. You may recognize taro in one of its best incarnations: as a fried chip. Those gourmet bags of root vegetable chips often contain pieces of crispy, sweet taro. If you find them in the market, cook them pretty much as you would potatoes.

***image14***YAM
Yam or sweet potato? If it's two feet long, weighs 87 pounds and was just dug from a field in China then it's probably a yam. If it's eight inches long, weighs 18 ounces and is on sale at Albertson's then it's a sweet potato. Real yams are natives of Asia, grow in tropical areas and are rarely seen in this country. Sweet potatoes are native to the Americas, but it is believed that African slaves brought to this country called them yams because of their similarity.
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YUCA
Yuca has more names than a Mafioso. It is variously called yuca, cassava, manioc and, in Brazil, its homeland, this starchy tuber is called mandioca. But it is never called yucca and it is not that thing you have in your yard that shoots up a giant flower spike. Yuca tubers are poisonous until peeled and cooked. When made into chips or tapioca pearls, yuca is delicious. When boiled and served as a thick paste, as it is in much of the world, it's…well…an acquired taste.

 

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