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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Root Awakening

Discovering the earthy pleasure of winter roots

By Marina Wolf

WINTER-MENU malaise. It's that feeling that you get when the produce aisle has gone monochrome. Fortunately, there are several courses of treatment. You can buy frozen veggies, those icy but green ghosts of harvests past. You can drop great wads of cash on produce from other lands. Or you can dig deeper and get into the earthy, undersung root vegetables.

Even the names carry a smell of cold earth and guttering fireplaces: turnip, rutabaga, parsnip. And their knobby, hairy appearance somehow does little to inspire confidence in their culinary properties. But these three roots remain regulars on menus of savvy chefs who recognize the economic and gastronomic merit of choosing seasonal produce.

"Right now, especially in Chicago, there's not much available to us without turning to Argentina, Chile, for stuff that is expensive," says Heather Terhune, chef/owner in Chicago's Atwood Cafe, where the root-vegetable chicken pot-pie is a customer favorite during the winter months. "It makes my life a lot easier, not paying a lot of money to get pencil asparagus and Guatemalan green beans."

Beyond the financial savings, chefs are also beginning to realize the creative potential of these roots, which provide a perfect playing field for flavors from curry to cinnamon, and can be incorporated into soups, into side dishes, and, with very young vegetables, even into raw salads. A database search through Foodwatch, a firm that provides trend research and consulting to the restaurant industry, unearths several pages of dishes using these utilitarian roots. We find parsnip pommes Anna siding with roasted spring pig and rhubarb chutney at Hamersley Bistro in Boston and vanilla-scented carrots and turnips with roasted Maine lobster at Masa's in San Francisco. Brix in Napa Valley presents turnips along with English pea purée, pea vines, and pomelo as an accompaniment to grilled rare ahi tuna, and mashed, puréed, and/or caramelized parsnips are everywhere.

Most often, these underappreciated vegetables simply wind up on the menu under the more poetic heading of winter vegetables. "We say purée of winter vegetables. If we listed it as purée of rutabaga, people would want to switch that out," says Cory Schreiber, chef/owner of Wildwood Restaurant in Portland, Ore. "I feel sorry for the rutabaga commodity commission because they're kind of a hard sell."

Both turnips and rutabagas (the latter a cross between a wild cabbage and a turnip) bear the additional burden of being from the cruciferae family (that's the cabbage and mustard group). As cruciferae, their nutritional value is fairly high, with both turnip roots and greens being significant sources of vitamin C. But they also inherit the family tendency to be bitter unless prepared correctly. Parsnips are actually sweet, much like carrots, and become even sweeter after winter frosts. They were candied and used in cakes by the Greeks and Romans, but lost out in medieval Europe when that other root vegetable, the potato, was imported from America.

MOST CHEFS smooth out the flavors of these vegetables by roasting them. In Terhune's potpie, the vegetables are roasted whole, then diced into the pie filling. Soothing soups in cool-weather flavor combinations, such as parsnip and pear or rutabaga and turnip, are created after the roots have been roasted. "It gives them a nutty sweetness by bringing out natural sugars and caramelizing them," says Terhune. "Then we can add other elements, like butter and bacon. Rutabaga and bacon actually go really well together; the smokiness of the bacon complements the rutabaga well."

Schreiber agrees that whole roasting is, in general, the way to go if you want to emphasize the full flavor of the vegetable (this holds true for other roots such as sweet potato or beets as well). He suggests puréeing rutabaga and turnips with cream, butter, and a potato to thicken them--the roots have some starch in them, but not enough to hold together on their own--and then matching them with meats that are a little on the heartier side of things, such as braised lamb shank or brisket.

When creating more exotic fare, Schreiber finds that any of these roots are a suitable base for stronger flavors. For past menus, he has created an unusual sweet side dish from turnips, in which pieces of turnip are cooked down in a little water and honey. The turnips develop a nice glaze, which is then seasoned with black pepper, cinnamon stick, and juniper berries. "Turnips can absorb some pretty pungent flavors because they're a neutral vegetable," says Schreiber.

Of course, the best way to influence the final flavor of any root vegetable dish is to make sure that you've properly selected and stored the vegetables in the first place. In Roots: The Underground Cookbook, authors Barbara Grunes and Anne Elise Hunt recommend buying firm, small-to-medium roots, no more than three inches in diameter for turnips and rutabagas, and carrot-sized for parsnips (smaller, when you can find them). If you've never cooked or eaten these roots, just buy a few to start. You don't have to rush out and build a root cellar or dirt storage to keep piles of roots through winter. Just store them well in a plastic bag in the refrigerator (parsnips and turnips) or in a cool dry place (rutabagas).

Anyway, you may decide you're more of a Guatemalan-bean person.

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From the February 1-7, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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