LONDON, Ont. -- Root vegetables are getting a makeover.
While potatoes, carrots and onions are staples in many Canadian homes, other root veggies such as rutabaga, turnips, parsnips, beets, sweet potatoes and celeriac (celery root) are showing up on home and restaurant menus in high-end dishes from appetizers and salads to entrées and desserts.
Until a few generations ago, root vegetables were a mainstay of winter diets because they were all that was available and could be stored for long periods in root cellars. Generally, they would be boiled and mashed as side dishes or added to soups and stews.
But as more imported and culturally diverse products became accessible, Canadian-grown root vegetables took a back seat.
"People were so excited to be able to get asparagus or avocados in February that root vegetables got pushed off to the side because it was 'just a carrot,'" says Andrew Winfield, executive chef at River Cafe and the affiliated Boxwood eatery in Calgary. Then diners started to realize those imports didn't always taste that good.
He believes root vegetables also benefited from the eat-local, eat-seasonal food movements and by the increased availability of heirloom varieties.
It's not so much that home cooks and chefs rediscovered root vegetables as that they started experimenting with new ways to cook and serve them, he says.
"In the past many food professionals maintained that the perfect vegetable was al dente with a crisp texture. But we love putting carrots over coals and slow roasting them until they're almost blackened on the outside. Then we just scrape them off a little bit to reveal the soft, molten, tender, smoky carrot underneath."
Celeriac is one of his favourites because of its creamy texture. He says it adds an "almost tart, tangy, lemony flavour" to soups, but he also likes to use it raw in salads.
In fact, his favourite application for almost all root vegetables is to serve them raw, thinly shaved or julienned as a salad ingredient, as a garnish or accent on almost anything or just as a snack. Eating them raw really "showcases" their crunchy texture and sweet flavours, he says.
For those who prefer these vegetables cooked, boiling is not the only option, says Barb Holland, home economist with Foodland Ontario.
"If you put them in water, you lose not just the nutrients, but you also lose some of the flavour."
Roasting, for example, either around meat or on their own, brings out the sweetness and makes them crispy on the outside.
Holland suggests lightly tossing large (at least 5 centimetre/ 2.5-inch) pieces with oil, seasoning with salt, pepper, chopped herbs or spices (such as garlic, rosemary and thyme) and baking in a roasting pan or on a cookie sheet in a hot oven (190 C/375 F), stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender and browned, 30 to 35 minutes. If carrots are included, it shortens the roasting time if they are boiled first for about four minutes to partially cook them.
The difference between rutabagas and turnips causes some confusion.
Rutabagas, sometimes called yellow turnips or swedes, are larger, yellower and waxed for longer storage. Turnips are the smaller ones, more white with purple tips, and they're not waxed.
One problem for time-challenged cooks is that root vegetables take a while to cook, but cooking ahead and reheating is not a good option for roast veggies, Holland says.
"Often people are reheating them in a microwave and that softens them again, so you're not getting the firm texture.
"But if you mash root vegetables, they store well and you can reheat those -- potatoes and celeriac, rutabaga and turnips."
Also, turnips, sweet potatoes and even small whole rutabagas can be cooked in the microwave, she says. A whole rutabaga takes about 25 minutes, including sitting time, and sweet potatoes four to six minutes. They all should be pierced all over before microwaving.
When buying root vegetables, "look for firmness," Holland says. "They should be heavy for their size, with minimal blemishes."
They should be stored in a cool, dry place and most will keep for two to four weeks.
-- The Canadian Press
Here are some recipes using root vegetables in new ways:
Southwest Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
This healthy, colourful dish is kid-friendly and vegetarian. For a little extra flavour, roast the corn along with the peppers. If you like a little heat, serve with hot sauce.
4 medium sweet potatoes, about 375 g (12 oz) each
250 ml (1 cup) cooked corn kernels (about 2 cobs)
250 ml (1 cup) canned black beans, drained and well rinsed
125 ml (1/2 cup) diced roasted sweet red pepper
3 green onions, sliced
15 ml (1 tbsp) ground cumin
1 ml (1/4 tsp) each salt and pepper
125 ml (1/2 cup) shredded jalapeno havarti, cheddar or mozzarella cheese
Heat oven to 190 C (375 F).
Scrub sweet potatoes and cut in half lengthwise. Brush cut sides with a little oil. Place, cut side down, on parchment paper-lined shallow baking sheet; bake until tender when pierced with a knife, 35 to 45 minutes. Let cool enough to handle.
Scoop out flesh, leaving a 1-cm (1/2-inch) shell.
In a large bowl, mash scooped-out sweet potato until smooth. Fold in corn, beans, red pepper and green onions. Season with cumin, salt and pepper. Spoon filling into shells and return to baking sheet.
Sprinkle each half with 15 ml (1 tbsp) of the cheese. Bake until heated through and cheese melts, 5 to 10 minutes.
Makes 4 servings.
Source: Foodland Ontario
Vegetable Chips with Roasted Pepper Cream Dip
These nutritious and delicious crisps are easy to make. When completely cooled, they can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to two days. Recrisp in a warm oven before serving. The dip also makes a great garnish for soups or salads.
2 each peeled carrots, beets, parsnips and potatoes
45 ml (3 tbsp) vegetable oil
Salt, to taste
250 ml (1 cup) cream cheese, room temperature
125 ml (1/2 cup) sour cream
15 ml (1 tbsp) lemon juice or vinegar
3 roasted red peppers
2 ml (1/2 tsp) grated orange rind
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
30 ml (2 tbsp) chopped chives, plus extra for garnish
1 ml (1/4 tsp) ground cumin
Salt and pepper, to taste
Chili sauce (optional)
Heat oven to 200 C (400 F).
Using a vegetable slicer, cut carrots, beets, parsnips and potatoes into very thin slices.
Keeping beets separate, toss all vegetables with oil to coat thinly.
Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper; arrange vegetable slices in a single layer on sheets. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 120 C (250 F); bake for about 45 minutes longer, turning slices at least once, or until crisped and browned. Sprinkle with salt.
Dip: In a food processor, puree together cream cheese, sour cream, lemon juice, peppers, orange rind and garlic. Stir in chives, cumin, salt and pepper. Top with a swirl of chili sauce, if using, and more chopped chives. (This can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.) Serve with vegetable chips.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Source: Foodland Ontario
Parsnip Bacon Rosti
Parsnips offer a sweet variation to this traditional Swiss dish, which is usually made with grated potatoes. It makes a wonderful appetizer or side dish.
375 g (12 oz) parsnips, peeled and cut into 2 pieces
3 strips lean bacon, cooked and crumbled
175 ml (3/4 cup) shredded old cheddar cheese
30 ml (2 tbsp) all-purpose flour
2 ml (1/2 tsp) each salt and pepper
0.5 ml (1/8 tsp) nutmeg
125 ml (1/2 cup) panko or regular breadcrumbs
50 ml (1/4 cup) vegetable oil
In a steamer, cook parsnips until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool; grate and/or mash.
In a large bowl, combine parsnips, bacon, cheese, egg, flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Use about 15 ml (1 tbsp) of the mixture to form a 4-cm (1 1/2-inch) cake. Coat in panko. Repeat until all the mixture has been used.
In a large skillet, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat; fry rosti until nicely browned, about 2 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towel.
Serve garnished with a dollop of sour cream and finely chopped pickled beets.
Makes 18 to 24 rosti.
Source: Foodland Ontario
-- The Canadian Press