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Turn to your roots — Out-of-favor vegetables are starting to become popular again

They're the wallflowers of the veggie world — turnips, parsnips and rutabagas. Compared to glamorous produce such as asparagus and tomatoes, they seem dull and boring.

Depending on how they're cooked, they can end up with spongy textures, strong odors and harsh flavors, adding further to their image problems.

But before refrigeration and global shipping of food, root vegetables were the mainstay of winter diets. In the fall, farm families would store such items as potatoes, turnips, carrots, parsnips and rutabagas in an underground cellar (hence the term "root cellar"). In a cold, dry environment, these vegetables could keep for several months — until the first greens of spring showed up.

Today, you can run to the grocery store in January and find fresh baby lettuce, artichokes or avocados shipped from warmer climates. Consequently, these old-fashioned vegetables, long associated with hardship, fell out of favor. But with farmers markets and the "eat-local" mantra gathering steam, people may well turn to their roots, so to speak.

"I grew a lot of them a few years ago and couldn't sell them," said John Borski, a Kaysville farmer and regular at the Downtown Farmers Market. "But now people are looking for something different, so some of those unpopular vegetables are starting to become popular. I could probably sell them now. "

Borski and his wife, Heather, recently used some of their home-grown parsnips in a pasta recipe from Cooking Light. "It was light and healthy, with squash and different seasonings like cinnamon and sage," he said.

More root vegetables are also showing up on a few trendy menus. A signature dish at New York City's Union Square Cafe is creamy mashed yellow turnips (they're actually rutabagas) with crispy shallots.

Beets, another root vegetable, came into vogue a few years ago when stylish chefs studded salads with roasted beets in hues from gold to purple. Sweet potatoes have also found new fans, appearing in soups, souffles and even french fries. But it may take more coaxing to start a rutabaga renaissance.

For starters, there's the name. (To paraphrase Shakespeare, would a rutabaga by any other name sound more appealing?) And turnips also have a stigma — consider the saying, "I didn't just fall off a turnip truck."

Parsnips often get passed up because they "look like dirty anemic carrots," the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine wrote in their book, "Perfect Vegetables" (America's Test Kitchen, $29.95).

Parsnips and turnips are more popular in England and Australia, said Peter Hodgson, chef at the University Park Marriott who grew up in Canberra, Australia. "Every Sunday it was a family tradition in most Australian and English homes to have a roast — in our house it was a leg of lamb — and put parsnips, turnips, potatoes and carrots in to roast in the lamb juice. We'd serve it with fresh peas from the garden."

He likes to make a soup with parsnips and salsify, another root vegetable that's little known in the United States. "And parsnips and mashed potatoes are so good together," he added. "You use one-fourth the amount of parsnips as potatoes, and cook and mash them together," he said.

Rutabagas are often called "swedes" because they're so common in Sweden, where they're mashed with butter and milk into "rotmos" (root mash). In Scotland, turnips or rutabagas are boiled and mashed and traditionally served with mashed potatoes as "tatties and neeps" ("tatties" being the Scottish word for potatoes), with the Scottish national dish of haggis.

Several cookbooks and chefs advise roasting root vegetables to bring out their earthy sweetness. Jed Banta, part of Metropolitan restaurant's culinary team, said a selection of roasted root vegetables is one of his top-three favorite side dishes. He peels and dices turnips, parnsips and carrots, and tosses them together with a little olive oil and sea salt. Then he roasts them on a baking sheet at 400 degrees for about a half hour, until they're tender and caramelized.

"It brings out the natural sweetness that a lot of root vegetables have," he said.

Banta has also served a creamy turnip soup at Metropolitan which has proved popular with diners.

Bryan Edwards, chef at the Alta Club, said he cooks these root vegetables along with apples in pork roasts or roasted chicken. "I know a lot of chefs are using root vegetable purees underneath roast chicken and so on, which is a very nice marriage," he added.

"I can tell you that there are bad versions of all these vegetables," said Letty Flatt, pastry chef at Deer Valley Resort, who also does a lot of vegetarian cooking. "The difference between a fresh home-garden parsnip and a store-bought one is vast. I love a good parsnip steamed. The same for turnips. All three would be delicious in a minestrone soup."

Last spring, she tried a turnip risotto cake at a vegetarian restaurant in Chicago called the Green Zebra. "Three small pan-seared cakes, looking like scallops, with micro turnips, the size of the tip of my ring finger," she said.

Researchers for "Perfect Vegetables" tried using parsnips several ways — in mashed potatoes, raw in salads and blanched with a dip, and instead of carrots in cake — and were disappointed in the results.

But when roasted, "Parnsips responded well, becoming soft and sweet on the inside and crisp and caramelized on the outside," they concluded.

They also found that roasting and mashing are the best methods for turnips and rutabagas. "Similar to mashed potatoes, mashed rutabagas are smooth and creamy, with an added edge of tangy, sweet turnip flavor."

But Sandy Peacock of North Ogden prefers to eat turnips in their raw, natural state, the way she learned from her grandmother years ago. "You just slice them and sprinkle them with salt and eat them like you would a carrot. And they're really good."

PARSNIPS: They look like large, tan carrots.

Nutrition: 1 cup steamed, sliced parsnips has 126 calories, 2 grams protein, no fat or cholesterol, 31 grams carbohydrate, 58 mg. calcium, 107 mg. phosphorus, 1 mg. iron, 573 mg. potassium and 5 grams fiber. They don't have beta-carotene like carrots do, but they are good sources of vitamin C, thiamin, phosphorus, fiber and potassium.

Tips: Buy firm parsnips with a base that's no bigger than 1 to 1 1/4 inches in diameter; larger ones have a woody, flavorless core. If you must use large parsnips, cut out this core before cooking. Since they're not as high in starch as potatoes, they can be pureed in a food processor without turning gummy. You can use parsnips in stews or soups, mashed or pureed, or roasted with meats.

RUTABAGAS: They are quite large, often weighing 2 pounds each. They have a tan skin, sometimes streaked with purple. The flesh is pale yellow. They are often confused with turnips, possibly because many markets label them as "yellow turnips."

Nutrition: One cup cooked rutabaga contains 94 calories, 3 grams protein, 1 gram fat, no cholesterol, 21 grams carbohydrate and 4 grams fiber. They are a good source of beta-carotene and contain some vitamin C, calcium, phosphorous, potassium and thiamin.

Tips: They are often waxed to prolong their shelf life. Use a sharp vegetable peeler to take off the wax and skin. A pinch of sugar or a little bit of bacon helps tame their turnipy flavor.

TURNIPS: They range from small (new-potato size) to large (russet-potato size). The most common variety has white skin, tinged with purple at the top, and white flesh. The flavor can be peppery, almost like horseradish.

Nutrition: 1 cup of steamed diced turnips has 28 calories, 1 gram protein, no fat or cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrate, 34 mg. calcium, 30 mg. phosphorus, 210 mg. potassium, 3 grams fiber and 18 mg. vitamin C. They don't have any vitamin A, and their vitamin C and potassium content is less than parsnips or rutabagas.

Tips: Look for smaller turnips (no more than 2 inches in diameter). Larger turnips can be woody or spongy due to their age.

Sources: "The Nutrition Bible," by Jean Anderson and Barbara Deskins (Quill, $17); "Perfect Vegetables," by Cook's Illustrated (America's Test Kitchen, $29.95)

TURNIP SOUP

This creamy soup tames the turnip with cream and a little sweetness.

4 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup diced white onion

1/4 cup diced washed fennel bulb

1/4 cup diced and peeled green apple

1 1/2 cups peeled and roasted turnip (peel and dice turnip, toss in oil and a touch of kosher salt, place on baking sheet and roast at around 400 degrees until tender)

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup whole milk

Salt and pepper to taste

Lemon juice to taste

Chopped parsley for garnish

High quality olive oil

In pan over medium heat, melt butter and add onion, fennel and apple; sweat until fully cooked but not browned. Add roasted turnip, cream and milk. Bring to a slow boil. Once mixture comes to a boil, remove from heat; cover and allow to steep for 30 minutes. Puree the still-warm mixture in a blender. Then press it through a fine-mesh sieve. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste. Serve in warmed bowls, garnished with chopped parsley, fennel or high-quality olive oil.

Option: If you prefer a chunkier soup, simply puree and serve. — Jed Banta, Metropolitan

ROASTED ROOT VEGETABLES

2 parsnips, peeled and cut in 1-inch dice

2 turnips, peeled and cut in 1-inch dice

1 rutabaga, peeled and cut in 1-inch dice

2 carrots, peeled and cut in 1-inch dice

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Toss vegetables together with olive oil. Add salt and pepper. Place veggies on a baking sheet and roast, uncovered, at 400 degrees, for about 30 minutes or until tender. — Jed Banta, Metropolitan.

Option: For Maple Roasted Root Vegetables, take an oven bag (such as Reynolds brand) and shake 1 tablespoon of flour in the bag. Place all the above ingredients inside. Add 1 large diced sweet potato, 1 large diced onion, 1/3 cup maple syrup, 1 teaspoon packed dark brown sugar and 1 teaspoon dried rosemary. Close the bag and turn several times to get all ingredients coated. Place the bag in a roasting pan and bake at 375 for 40-45 minutes. Stir vegetables before serving. — Reynolds Kitchens

POTATO, TURNIP & CARROT GRATIN

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 1/2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cups warmed milk

1 bay leaf

Salt, to taste

White pepper, to taste

Nonstick cooking spray

1/2 pound unpeeled Yukon gold potatoes

1/2 pound turnips

1/2 pound carrots

1 cup minced shallots

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup coarse bread crumbs

1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese

Melt butter in small saucepan over low heat, adding garlic and thyme when it is melted. Whisk in flour until it forms a thick paste. Keep whisking as you drizzle in the warmed milk, until there are no lumps. Add bay leaf; turn the heat down. Cook, stirring frequently for about 5-8 minutes, or until it's a smooth and silky bechamel sauce. Remove from heat and remove bay leaf. Stir in a dash of salt and a few shakes of white pepper. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly spray a 2-quart gratin or casserole dish with nonstick spray. Cut potatoes, turnips and carrots into very thin slices (about 1/8-inch thick). For carrots, do this on the diagonal. Spread cut vegetables (including the shallots) together in the prepared pan to make a single mixed layer. Sprinkle lightly with salt and black pepper. Pour the bechamel sauce over top of vegetables and cover the pan tightly with foil.

Bake in center of oven for 1 hour, or until vegetables are fork-tender. Remove the dish from oven and remove foil. Heat broiler. Sprinkle bread crumbs and then the grated cheese on top of the vegetables. Broil until cheese is melted and beginning to form a crust. Serve hot. — "Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without," by Mollie Katzen (Hyperion, $22.95)

BUTTERNUT SQUASH & PARSNIP BAKED PASTA

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup finely chopped onion

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups ( 1/2-inch) cubed peeled butternut squash

1 cup chopped parsnip

1 tablespoon chopped fresh or 1 teaspoon dried sage

1 tablespoon chopped fresh or 1 teaspoon dried parsley

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, divided

2 cups uncooked penne pasta

1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated fresh Parmesan cheese, divided

Cooking spray

1 1/2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup 1-percent low-fat milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, red pepper and garlic; saute 3 minutes. Add squash and parsnip; saute 10 minutes. Stir in sage, parsley, nutmeg, allspice, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper; remove from heat.

Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Drain in a colander over a bowl, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid. Combine squash mixture, pasta and 1/4 cup cheese in an 11-by-7-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray, tossing gently.

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add flour; cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly with a whisk. Add milk; cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly with a whisk. Gradually add reserved cooking liquid; cook 2 minutes or until thick, stirring constantly with a whisk. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Pour milk mixture over pasta mixture; sprinkle with 1/4 cup cheese. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or until lightly browned.

Makes 4 2-cup servings.

Nutrition: 437 calories, 13.4 grams fat, 16.5 grams protein, 25 mg. cholesterol, 297 mg. calcium, 607 mg. sodium, 5.3 grams fiber, 3.1 mg. iron, and 63.6 grams carbohydrate. — Cooking Light, November 2002

RUTABAGA GRATIN

1 whole rutabaga

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 cup coarsely grated Emmentaler, Gruyere or Swiss cheese

3 tablespoons butter, divided

1/2 cup fine bread crumbs

Trim off the root end and any cut ends. Using a vegetable peeler, peel off the outside until you get down to the creamy flesh. Cut into thick slices, then cut each slice into large dice, about 1 1/2 inches square. Place in a saucepan with enough water to cover, and add sugar and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook about 20 minutes, until just fork-tender. Drain.

Place in an 8-inch square baking dish with cream and cheese, stirring to mix. Cut 1 tablespoon butter into bits and dot over the top. Melt remaining butter and toss with crumbs. Spread over rutabagas. Bake at 350 degrees 20-25 minutes, until topping is lightly browned and casserole is bubbling. — Charlotte Observer, North Carolina

MASHED POTATOES AND ROOT VEGETABLES

1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, quartered lengthwise, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

8 ounces either carrots, parsnips, turnips or celery root, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch dice

1/3 cup low-sodium chicken broth

Table salt

1/4 cup half-and-half, warmed

3 tablespoons minced fresh chives

Ground black pepper

Rinse potato slices well, using 3 or 4 changes of cold water to eliminate some of the starch; drain well. Melt butter in large saucepan. Add root vegetables; cook, stirring occasionally, until butter is browned and vegetables are brown and caramelized, 10-12 minutes. Add potatoes, broth and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Cook, covered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until potatoes fall apart easily when poked with a fork, 25-30 minutes.

Remove pan from heat; remove lid and allow steam to escape for 2 minutes. Gently mash vegetables in saucepan with potato masher. Gently fold in warm half-and-half and chives. Season with salt and pepper to taste; serve immediately. — Cook's Illustrated, December 2007

BABY TURNIPS WITH THEIR GREENS

6 or so small turnips, scrubbed, greens trimmed and washed

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil

1 teaspoon thyme leaves, or chopped oregano or tarragon

If they are tender and small, it is not necessary to peel the turnips. Bring 1 1/2 quarts of water to a boil for the greens. Add about 3/4 teaspoon of salt, add the greens and cook until they are tender, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, set a steamer basket over salted water for the turnips, and steam them until they are tender-firm, 10-12 minutes. Drain the greens, and press out excess moisture with the back of a spoon. Toss them with half of the butter and season them with salt and pepper. Arrange on a plate. Toss the turnips with the remaining butter, a bit of salt, pepper and the thyme. Pile the turnips on the greens and serve them together. Makes about 2 servings. — "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone," by Deborah Madison (Broadway, $40)


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com