By Barbara Kobsar | Illustrations by Charmaine Koehler-Lodge
Among winter’s host of warm, hearty, nutritious, and satisfying recipes are many that rely on seven favorite root vegetables. A broad term for parts of plants that grow underground, “roots” can mean true roots like beets and carrots, bulbs (onions and garlic), and rhizomes (ginger and wasabi). The term can also refer to potatoes (my go-to roots for side dishes or even whole meals), which are actually tubers.
These days, markets offer a rainbow of thin-skinned waxy potatoes like Peruvian purple, Red Rose, and Yukon Gold plus fingerlings like Russian Banana and Rose Finn Apple. New potatoes—the first harvest of any variety that comes quickly to market directly from the field—are favored for their low starch, high moisture, thin skins, and firm texture, but when I want fluffy mashed potatoes or crisp fries, I rely on the dry and mealy russet types like Idaho.
California farmers grow many types of sweet potatoes, from mildly sweet, firm-textured varieties like Jersey and Hannah to sweeter, moister ones like Beauregard and Garnet, prized for their deep-orange flesh. The latter are often mistakenly called yams, but for a true yam, look to the vivid-purple ube, beloved in Filipino cooking traditions. I’ve been enjoying its earthy sweet flavor in breads and pastries like those offered by such makers as East Bay Bakery at the Walnut Creek Sunday market and La Kalidad at the Saturday San Ramon market.
Celery root (celeriac) brings a distinctive celery-parsley flavor to soups and stews. It’s the bulb of a celery plant but a different variety than the one that produces the better-known long, crisp stalks. Choose a firm celery root and remove the knobby skin using a sharp stainless-steel knife.
The carrots that fill my market basket each week are likely to make their way into all sorts of pot pies, stews, carrot cakes, and salads. Bunches with green tops attached assure freshness, but it’s better to remove the greens before storing so they do not draw moisture from the roots. Save the carrot greens to make pesto!
The cabbage family brings us turnips and rutabagas. These frost-hardy, globe-shaped root vegetables can be a hard sell as some feel they have too strong a taste. But nothing compares to their flavors in roasted vegetable medleys or as additions to potato purées. For a unique hummus that will impress your guests, whiz chunks of roasted turnip and rutabaga in your blender along with a can of drained chickpeas, fresh garlic, a few tablespoons of lemon juice, a tablespoon each of sesame and olive oil, and salt to taste.
Parsnips are related to both carrots and parsley, and the evidence is there in their carrot-like shape and parsley-like leaves. Home gardeners often leave parsnips in the ground all winter to harvest as needed, and it makes sense since this root vegetable actually acquires a pleasing sweet and nutty flavor after a touch of frost. Particularly popular back in the days of the root cellar, parsnips store well and are nutritious but relatively inexpensive. ´
Veteran journalist and cookbook author Barbara Kobsar focuses on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. Find her at the Walnut Creek, Orinda, and San Ramon farmers’ markets selling her Cottage Kitchen jams and jellies.
Artist Charmaine Koehler-Lodge grows most of her family’s food in their rural Pennsylvania garden.
Root Vegetable Soup
Serves 4 to 6
- 1 sweet potato
- 2 carrots
- 1 small celery root
- 1 small rutabaga
- 1 small parsnip
- 1 medium turnip with greens
- 2 Yukon Gold or red potatoes, scrubbed
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 sweet onion, diced
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme or several sprigs fresh
- 1/2 cup half-and-half (optional)
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Peel sweet potato, carrots, celery root, rutabaga, and parsnip. Cut all roots into 1/2-inch pieces, and place in a large bowl. Cut greens from turnip. Wash greens (discard thick stems), chop, and set aside. Cut turnip and potatoes into 1/2-inch pieces and add to bowl with the other roots. Toss the cut-up vegetables with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and spread on a large baking sheet. Roast for 35–45 minutes or until the vegetables are easily pierced with a fork, stirring every 15 minutes.
Melt butter in a large Dutch oven or pot. Sauté diced onion for about 5 minutes or until translucent. Add vegetable broth and thyme and bring to a simmer. Carefully add roasted vegetables and chopped turnip greens. Simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the half-and-half and simmer for an additional 2 minutes before serving.
Optional: Puree the soup with an immersion blender, if preferred, before serving.