Dig this: root vegetables

This is the first in a series of occasional food-related articles and recipes by chefs in and around Rappahannock County.

By Sebastian Carosi
As a professional chef who grew up on an organic New England farmstead, I’m deeply drawn to vegetables grown underground. I find them mysterious and otherworldly.

Maple Glazed Roots

Ingredients
2 pounds root vegetables (use fingerling potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
salt & fresh ground pepper (to taste)
3 tablespoons maple syrup

Instructions
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place the root vegetables and onion in a roasting pan.
2. Toss the vegetables with the oil and salt and pepper to taste. Do not crowd the vegetables.
3. Roast the mixture for 45 to 50 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes until the vegetables are tender and evenly browned.
4. Before serving, drizzle with the maple syrup and serve.

Like geodes and gemstones, they come from a universe that I know little of. They drink in the nutrients from dark soil and transform them into perfectly imperfect knobs and tubes of exuberant color and uncommon nutrition. They are the heart and soul of plants.

Root vegetables (with the exception of potatoes and carrots) are some of the most overlooked and under-appreciated foodstuffs around. But these nutritional storehouses are hidden treasures worthy of everyone’s notice.

Not only available in winter, when other vegetables are hard to find, root vegetables are also very inexpensive. Experiment with turnips, rutabagas, beets and parsnips, and learn what they have to offer in taste and versatility.

The flavor of all root vegetables will be enhanced by selecting fresh, firm produce (preferably organically grown) and storing it carefully — in a root cellar, if you have one available. Turnips and potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark place out of the refrigerator. The rest of these roots will keep well in the refrigerator for at least a week.

Technically, the term “root vegetables” includes only those that are either tuberous roots or taproots and include beets, cassava, carrots, horseradish, radishes, rutabagas, parsnips, salsify and turnips.

Other categories of underground vegetables include: bulbs (onions, garlic), corms (celeriac, eddo, taro), rhizomes (ginger, galangal, turmeric), and tubers (potatoes and the like). With that said, most people refer to the whole shebang of edible underground plants as root vegetables.

Photo by Sebastian Carosi

Rutabaga (also known as swede) is an accidental vegetable – the result of a chance hybridization of turnips and cabbage. Like carrots, they’re low in sodium and high in vitamin C.

Historically, root vegetables were fare for peasants and the poor. It’s surprising that the nobility and elite didn’t hoard all of that delicious beauty for themselves; the freakish fuchsia of a beet root and the saturated orange of a carrot seem so desirable.

But for people across the globe, many with little means or the right climate for other options, root vegetables have served as an invaluable source of nutrition. As the “storage bin” for a plant’s nutrients, roots are powerhouses of vitamins, phytonutrients and complex carbohydrates. Because of their nature, they can survive cold storage and they are invaluable for winter nutrition in cold climates when little else is growing.

Maple-glazed root vegetables, slightly sweet and a charming accompaniment to wintertime suppers, will satisfy and nourish. In our home we love to combine fresh, crisp and local carrots and parsnips with organic, grade-B maple syrup for a nourishing side.

Well-suited to grass-fed lamb and pastured pork, this side dish is easily prepared and appeals to even picky children who may otherwise avoid fresh vegetables (we parents should learn more about encouraging our children to appreciate fruits and vegetables).

Carrots and parsnips are widely available during winter months, and are rich in micronutrients including many antioxidants. Parsnips are a good source of vitamin C and food folate, while carrots are rich in the antioxidant and vitamin pre-cursor beta carotene.

We serve these vegetables in our home at the supper table, and we prefer Grade B maple syrup to Grade A because its flavor is more richly and complex and it’s considerably less expensive. More flavor for less cost always makes for a winner in our home.

Chef Sebastian Carosi has emigrated from New England to Rappahannock County to open and manage Cafe Indigo, the European-style cafe and restaurant due to open this winter at Rappahannock Central in Sperryville. For more information: 540-987-8770 or rappcentral.com.

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