Root vegetables are the heart and soul of seasonal winter cooking. Here in California we are lucky to have such a wide variety of year-round crops, but during the colder months when the last of the heirloom tomatoes and peppers have left farmer’s stands, root vegetables are in full swing.
Root vegetables actually thrive in the cold. They grow best in climates with a nightly frost and good soil; a good frost actually makes the vegetables sweeter. Today, root vegetables can be found on the menus at the finest restaurants, but historically, root vegetables were actually survival food for the winter. Since they grow underground, people would go outside and pick vegetables as they needed them, only picking what they were going to eat, and store any extras in their root cellar.
There are many root vegetables at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Markets right now, such as carrots, onions, potatoes, beets, parsnips, and turnips. Beets come in a variety of colors – red, golden, white, and striped Chioggia, or candy cane beets. Roasting beets in a hot oven caramelizes their sugars and makes them especially sweet. Roasted beets are delicious on their own or made into a beet salad.
Parsnips are another sweet winter vegetable, and look like long, fat white carrots. Parsnips especially love a good frost. To make a parsnip puree, boil them with a little garlic and mash them with a bit of water, butter, salt, and pepper. Make sure you mash or puree them very well to ensure they are extra silky.
Turnips are a white vegetable, sometimes with purple shoulders, that look somewhat like a beet. A turnip is similar to a radish and has a similar texture, but is much milder and tastes like a cross between jicama and a radish, but is not at all spicy. To roast baby turnips that are less than one-inch in diameter, cut the stems within one-half inch of the root and roast them whole with olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary in a 400 degree oven for 30-40 minutes until they are soft and tender.
The most unusual root vegetable I’ve seen at the Farmers’ Market is salsify. Salsify looks like an ugly cross between a large carrot and a potato. It is brown with spindly, hairy roots coming out of it with a funny green top. It also tastes like a combination of a carrot and a potato. Peel it before cooking, and slice and roast it or boil it and mash it with butter, garlic, salt, and pepper.
Root vegetables can be found at many farmer’s stands at each of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Markets.