As cold weather takes hold in most areas of the country, look to the full flavors of fall-harvested root vegetables. Parsnips, turnips, celeriac, and rutabagas—root vegetables you might be less likely to choose—have a long tradition of adding substance and flavor to all kinds of slow-cooking, hearty dishes. Widely versatile, roots give depth to stews, soups, and casseroles. And they taste great solo, too, whether baked in a gratin, puréed, braised, or roasted.
Most root crops thrive in the short summers of the North and Northeast, where they can finish their growing season in very cool weather. In fact, parsnips and turnips actually taste best after a light frost, which helps turn their starches to sugar.
All root vegetables should feel firm, dense, and quite heavy for their size. Avoid any that are soft or flabby or that show brown, moist spots, which are signs of rot. The best roots have a good, sweet, earthy smell.
Rutabagas are often dipped in paraffin wax before being shipped and loaded into supermarket display bins to keep them from dehydrating. Before cooking, scrub off any dirt with a brush. Peel off the skins, along with a thin outer layer of flesh, as well as the tops and bottoms.
Plan to cook roots shortly after cleaning and slicing, because their cut surfaces can discolor and develop
Parsnips can reach almost a foot long. At the market, they should be firm and crisp, never rubbery. Peel their thin skins as you would a carrot’s, but only eat parsnips cooked, which turns the flesh moist, sweet, and nutty. Roast, fry, steam, or braise parsnips. I like to braise them in full-flavored chicken broth and then finish them with a sweet-sour balsamic vinegar sauce, or slow-roast them alongside carrots and potatoes with roasted pork, goose, or duck.
Turnips’ crunchy flesh really sweetens up in frosty weather, so it’s best to buy them only in winter. Look for turnips that feel firm, with crisp flesh. Peel off the skin and on larger turnips, the outer layer of flesh. Mash or purée turnips with potatoes, add them to stews, pickle them, or drizzle them with olive oil and very slowly roast them, which brings out natural sugars, in addition to toning down and evening out any turnipy pungency.
Rutabagas, also known as Swedes or Swedish turnips, are best at about 4-inches in diameter or smaller. Before cooking, peel off their tough waxed skin and outer layer of flesh, and then cut them into chunks. A rutabaga tastes a bit like a turnip but stronger, with a denser texture and a good deal of sweetness. Rutabagas are good in lamb stew with potatoes, onions, and garlic, or steamed and puréed to serve with game like venison.
Celeriac may not be the beauty queen of the produce aisle, but this knobby root tastes deliciously like sweet celery with a texture somewhat like a potato. Celeriac (or celery root) should be firm with no soft spots. Peel off the thick, tough skin with a knife and drop the white-fleshed slices in water with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. For a fine winter salad, grate raw celeriac and toss it with homemade mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. Add slices to split-pea, bean, or lentil soup for a wonderful soft, sweet celery flavor. Layer slices with Yukon Gold potatoes, cream, and Gruyère for a gratin, or boil with potatoes and mash into a purée.