Fall is a time of transition—the temperatures drop, the leaves change color, and Mother Nature seems to prepare us to turn inward for the impending winter. While we may long for the warmth of the summer sun and the taste of juicy tomatoes, fall has her own gifts to offer, and if you dig deep—quite literally—you’ll find them, in the form of root vegetables.
What Are Root Vegetables?
Root vegetables grow underground where they absorb nutrients and minerals from the soil. Root vegetables are, quite literally, the tuberous roots or taproots of plants. They are actually plant roots that are used as vegetables. Most people are familiar with root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams, but other delicious options include parsnips, beets, turnips, celery root, rutabaga, and radishes.
Root vegetables are typically low in fat and calories, but high in complex carbohydrates, fiber, and phytonutrients. They contain essential minerals, such as potassium and magnesium, as well as nutrients such as vitamin C and beta-carotene. They are Mother Nature’s buried treasure—a powerhouse of nutrition and flavor.
Tis the Season
Although we may be able to find root vegetables throughout the year, they’re best when eaten in their proper season—the fall. The lower temperatures of fall help convert the starches in root vegetables to sugar, making them sweeter.
Root vegetables are an integral component to winter nutrition in cold climates when little fresh food is available. They can survive cold storage for long periods, making them a perfect addition to fall and winter menus. Furthermore, they’re the ultimate comfort food—starchy, warming, grounding, nourishing, and delicious.
Root vegetables are easy to prepare—roast, grill, braise, mash, or puree them for a delicious cold-weather burst of sweet garden flavor.
Finding Your Roots
If you’ve never ventured beyond carrots and potatoes, visit your local farmer’s market this fall and discover some new root vegetables that will delight your taste-buds and add a shot of nutrition to your cold-weather meals.
Beets: Disregard any experience you may have had with canned beets; until you’ve experienced fresh beets, you haven’t tasted the true meaning of sweet. Beets have the highest sugar content of any vegetable. These bright, rosy roots get their color from a pigment called betacyanin, a powerful antioxidant that works against free radicals.
Beets are high in vitamin C and folate and offer excellent immune support. They are delicious grated raw over a salad, but roasting them will bring out their natural sweetness. Roasted beets are delicious tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, toasted walnuts, and goat cheese.
Parsnips: Parsnips resemble carrots, but are paler in color, sweeter in taste, and contain more fiber. Parsnips are high in potassium, vitamin C, folate, and vitamin K. Smaller, thinner parsnips usually taste sweeter than their larger counterparts.
Parsnips are best enjoyed cooked, typically roasted or pureed. They are delicious in soups and stews. Creamy mashed parsnips with carmelized garlic can convert any confirmed mashed-potato lover.
Sunchokes: Sunchokes are sometimes referred to as Jerusalem artichokes, although they have no relation to artichokes. The sunchoke is a tuber related to the sunflower. Sunchokes store a soluble fiber called inulin, which makes it a good substitute for diabetics who need to avoid other starchy foods such as potatoes (because inulin breaks down into fructose rather than glucose during digestion). Furthermore, sunchokes are high in iron, which helps boost energy.
Sunchokes look similar to ginger root, with a thin skin that may be light brown, yellow, red, or purple depending on the soil in which it was grown. (They need not be peeled before eating.) The flavor of sunchoke has been described as a cross between an artichoke heart and a sunflower seed or a mix of jicama and water chestnut. Sunchokes are delicious served raw in salads, cooked in gratins, or sautéed and tossed with sunflower seeds. Creative recipes abound for this underappreciated tuber.
Rutabaga: The rutabaga originated as a cross between cabbage and turnips and is sometimes still referred to as a yellow turnip. Rutabagas are high in vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. They are believed to help maintain low blood pressure. They have a delicately sweet flavor.
Peel and slice a raw rutabaga for a snack or consider roasting it or adding it to a stew. Many people like to combine rutabagas and potatoes for a new twist on mashed potatoes.
If you haven’t yet experimented with root vegetables, don’t be intimidated by these underground veggies. Root vegetables are so easy to prepare that it’s nearly impossible to botch them. Your local farmer is probably your best resource for preparation suggestions and recipes. Dig deep and unearth the flavorful possibilities of these nutritional powerhouses. Bon apetit!