isiting my stepdaughter years ago in South Africa, I was fortunate to spend a few days on a very small safari with a guide named France who loved to cook.
France was amazing — he knew what plants grew where that would heal a wound; he showed us where to look succulents that contained water or moisture should we be foolish enough not to have a bottle with us (at all times!); he showed us how to fray the ends of a twig to create an all day long toothbrush that would clean and whiten and cure toothache at the same time.
I have always wondered what he might have taught me about digging up roots from the African soil to grace his dinner table.
Alas, there was no time.
So when the bright reds and greens of spring and autumn have disappeared from our glorious markets, brown, white, yellow and orange roots take over, and I wish France were here to guide me.
But let’s hear it for carrots, beets, turnips, sweet potatoes, and just about anything you can dig up under soil that’s edible (excluding potato bugs!). Ah, and do not forget the lowly parsnip, preferred over potatoes by James Beard for his Thanksgiving dinners and eaten as a dessert with honey by ancient Romans and Greeks.
But let’s face it, vegetables from the underground are not cuddly — they’re hard, they’re often not handsome, and what do you do with a parsnip anyway, even if it has survived for over 5000 years?
Good question. I skirted around parsnips and turnips and kohlrabi in another life and then discovered how subtle and tasty they are when roasted or mashed with other vegetables.
All root vegetables take kindly to a hot oven, 375F/200C: slice thin, brush with a good olive oil and create crispy vegetable “chips” in about 30-40 minutes. A few slices of garlic and sweet onion can enhance the mix, although neither is actually bulb or root.
Still, they get along well.
Want a fast cold-weather soup? In a large pot, put any or all root vegetables you like, but include onion, sliced very thin. Throw in a plain or sweet potato, too, for body. Cover with chicken or vegetable stock, and simmer until very soft. Whiz up the whole shebang, adding a small carton of yogurt, a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of cayenne and a grate of nutmeg and pepper, and keep winter’s blues at bay.
I am a sucker for purées. Give me your poor root vegetables and your hungry, and I’ll make you a creamy potato/leek/turnip (or parsnip or rutabaga or beet) concoction that is practically a meal in itself, sprinkled with Gruyere or Parmesan. Simply cook the vegetables until soft in salted water, drain, and use an electric beater or a food processor to whip everything into submission. Eat as is or spoon into an oven-proof dish to bake with cheese on top.
A tip: Use only beets and potatoes for Valentines, because the purée will be hot pink!
A cup of any root vegetable, grated and mixed with 2 eggs, salt, pepper, a pinch of baking powder, two pinches of rosemary, chopped fine, and a tablespoon of olive oil makes a savory pancake batter. Stir ingredients until well-mixed, then drop spoons of the batter into a hot skillet brushed with olive oil. Cook on low heat for 5-6 minutes, pressing the pancakes flat.
These are delectable with a little drop of honey on each or sautéed in butter for a richer taste.
France probably had more recipes for these often forgotten vegetables. After all, he knew how to pick the gum tree for his toothbrush!