In the fall, when summer vegetables have withered in the garden and vanished from local farmstands and markets, I eagerly turn my attention to the bins of roots that start to appear at market. Knobby, gnarly, bulbous, shaggy—root vegetables may not be the beauty queens of the produce aisle, but they sure do reign supreme in the kitchen. Their flavors range from sweet and mellow to peppery and sharp to nutty and earthy. And their dense, dry flesh is the ultimate for cooking up soulful, satisfying cold-weather vegetable dishes, such as purées, gratins, soups, and roasted medleys.
Winter root vegetables are great keepers
Unlike most aboveground vegetables, winter roots store really well. When they grow to full maturity, root vegetables develop tough protective skins that keep them from spoiling during storage. This makes it easy to keep a stash on hand—something I find especially convenient when short days and cold winds make a trip to the market much less appealing.
Buying and storing. When buying winter roots, look for them to be firm and heavy with no signs of sprouting or shriveling. If they’re light for their size, chances are they’ve been stored improperly or for too long and they may be spongy or dried out. Look for fairly evenly shaped specimens—overly twisted or irregularly shaped roots may be excessively tough, fibrous, and even bitter. Avoid roots that are split or gashed as well as those with soft or damp spots. Early root vegetables (especially beets and carrots, and sometimes turnips) are routinely sold with their greens attached. The leaves are a good sign of freshness in general, but look specifically for the brightest and greenest bunch. For root vegetables without their greens, the stem end (where the greens once were) is the first place to show signs of spoilage, so check closely.
Store root vegetables loosely in a bag in your refrigerator’s produce drawer. The idea is to keep them dry, cool, and in the dark. If there are greens attached, trim them off before storing; save any beet greens or turnip greens to cook separately. Don’t wash root vegetables before storing, as any moisture can promote spoilage. Expect them to last eight to twelve days before they begin to show any signs of deterioration. Rutabagas are often waxed and so will last closer to two weeks.
Choosing and handling root vegetables
Winter turnips will be larger than their spring and summer counterparts. Be sure the skin is taut and the vegetable feels plump.
Look for smooth skins and tails that aren’t too shaggy. Red beets will stain your hands, cutting board, and dishtowels.
Avoid those tinged with green—they can be bitter.
Look for medium-size parsnips. Avoid any very slender, small ones, because they make for a lot of peeling and not a lot of parsnip.
Note: Cut very large carrots and parsnips in half lengthwise and look at the core. If it looks dramatically distinct from the rest of the carrot or parsnip, pry it out with the tip of a sturdy paring knife. A woody core is fibrous and unpleasant.
These bulbous beauties that look and taste like giant turnips are typically coated with a thick layer of wax. The wax extends the shelf life, and you’ll peel it off with the skin before cooking.
Also called celery root. Choose those about the size of a baseball; larger ones can be woody or spongy inside. If you’re peeling and cutting celeriac more than 15 minutes before you plan to cook it, drop it into a bowl of water with a squeeze of lemon to keep it from turning brown.
Soups, mashes, gratins, and roasts
The pleasure of cooking root vegetables comes in coaxing their dense texture into creamy tenderness and bringing out their inherent sweetness and depth of flavor in different ways.
For mashed or puréed root vegetables, simmer until tender. Possibly the simplest way to transform the dense, starchy character of root vegetables into a toothsome dish is to simmer them until tender and then purée them until smooth.
While single-vegetable soups and mashes are often just the thing, I’ve also found that combining them works well. Carrots and parsnips have a natural affinity to each other; rutabagas and turnips can pair up wonderfully. And one of the best partners for puréed roots is their underground cousin, the potato. Because of their super-high starch content, potatoes help add body and thickness to purées. Use russet or Yukon Gold potatoes (rather than lowstarch waxy varieties, such as Red Bliss or fingerlings) and keep the proportion of potatoes equal to or less than the weight of roots to let the true flavor of the root vegetable come through.
For hearty root vegetable gratins, slice, layer, and bake. The roots most suited to this technique are the starchier ones—celeriac, rutabagas, parsnips, large turnips—because their starch mingles with the cooking liquid to create a thickened, creamy gratin. (In fact, the starch is so integral to this technique that most cooks layer in a potato or two for good measure, as I’ve done in the Potato & Rutabaga Gratin.)
While a mandoline makes quick work of slicing, a sharp knife is a perfectly fine alternative. The thinner you slice the vegetable (1/8 inch and less), the more the gratin will meld during baking into something altogether uniform and creamy. The thicker the slices (closer to 1/4 inch), the more the slices will remain separate even after baking.
For the richest and creamiest gratin, go for light or heavy cream. I live in New England, where cooks favor milk—the gratin won’t be as thick or unctuous, but it will be tasty. And finally, for a still leaner alternative, try chicken broth. No matter which liquid you choose, it should be hot when you pour it over the vegetables, and you can enhance the flavor by first simmering it with a few sprigs of herbs or garlic cloves or both.
The strong, dry heat of roasting brings out the natural sweetness in root vegetables like no other method. Roast a single variety or a medley. To achieve a roasty brown color and flavor, use a rimmed baking sheet, a jellyroll pan, or a low-sided roasting pan. High-sided roasting pans shield the vegetables from the direct oven heat and won’t give you much browning.
Ideas for roasted roots
• Roasted rutabaga tossed with brown butter and chives.
• Antipasto salad of roasted carrots and shallots with prosciutto, fresh mint, and balsamic vinegar.
• Roasted celeriac tossed with crème fraîche, topped with breadcrumbs and Gruyère cheese, and gratinéed.
• A fritatta of roasted potatoes, goat cheese, and basil.
• Fettuccine tossed with roasted turnips, arugula, toasted walnuts, and your best olive oil.
• Roasted beets on a spinach salad with a crumbled bacon and caraway seed dressing.