Root vegetables are versatile workhorses which can stand alone, enhance a golden brown turkey or pair with a succulent roast of beef.
Root vegetables, including carrots, beets, turnips and more than a dozen others, start underground and end up on the tabletop. There they add taste, texture and color to fall, winter and especially holiday meals. They are versatile workhorses that enhance a golden brown turkey or a succulent roast of beef. They even pair well with a piece of meaty fish.
Root vegetables aren’t center-of-the-plate stars. But they do play an important supporting role. Michael Elliott, executive chef at Hearth Restaurant in Evanston, IL, believes that “for the most part, people are interested in the proteins. Sides should lift them up and not be too intrusive.”
Root vegetables have been doing that for a long time. Even when chefs give them a contemporary spin, they bring a bit of nostalgia to holiday dinner tables.
Chef Eric Skokan takes root vegetables very seriously. He harvests bushels and bushels of them each year at his Black Cat Farm just outside of Boulder, Colorado. Last year, the crop totaled 4,200 pounds. Much of it supplied the kitchens of his two Boulder restaurants, Black Cat and Bramble and Hare.
Skokan likes root vegetables because they don’t have to be picked all at once. That benefits all chefs, not just those who grow their own vegetables. Beets, for example, can be picked young and served as baby beets. He likes them in a salad with arugula and tahini sauce. He also serves them on the main dish plate or as a stand alone on a small plate. He uses that same sauce with roasted beets and Swiss chard. “It makes a very nice side dish,” he explains.
When the beets grow longer and get larger, menus and recipes can be adjusted to deal with them. Carrots are much the same. Tiny ones have their place on menus, but larger ones serve a purpose as well. Skokan often pulls carrots the size of his forearm. He doesn’t use them to feed his livestock, as some might assume.
Instead they go into his kitchens. Carrots with a Turkish pistachio sauce are on the menus year-round. He especially likes that dish with fish marinated in a chermoula sauce which usually includes garlic, oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, paprika, salt and red pepper flakes. Giant carrots often serve as building blocks for soup.
Turnips are prolific at Black Cat Farm. Mashed with butter and milk they were and still are a staple on many Thanksgiving dinner tables. For a change of pace, Skokan adds candied orange chiles and pistachios to turnips. Vivian Howard, chef and owner of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, and host of the PBS series “A Chef’s Life,” steeps turnips in milk with herbs and garlic for a flavor boost. Another twist on turnips is serving a turnip gratin instead of Thanksgiving dressing and pairing thinly sliced Japanese Hakurei turnips with oranges for a salad. “These turnips are not at all bitter and are very juicy,” she says.
To accompany the honey- and pineapple-glazed pork loin on the Thanksgiving menu at the Hearth, Elliott glazes the Hakurei turnips in vegetable stock, olive oil, garlic, thyme, salt and a little sugar. The process gives them a shiny coat and helps maintain their consistency.
Roasted baby turnips can be found on the menu at Bramble and Hare. Skokan roasts larger ones with black pepper, bay leaves, meat or chicken stock, white wine and pat of butter. Roasted with a simple glaze is Skokan’s favorite way to cook root vegetables during the holidays. Throughout the year, he also smokes them in charcoal and plum woods. While his meats are smoking, he “just throws large root vegetables into the coals.” At Christmas, those smoked root vegetables accompany a crown roast of beef.
Eastern North Carolina grows more sweet potatoes than anywhere else in the world…”
Sweet potatoes, which, like other potatoes, are usually grouped with root vegetables but are technically stem vegetables, often find their way to the table during the holiday season. Vivian Howard knows all about them. “Eastern North Carolina grows more sweet potatoes than anywhere else in the world,” she explains. “I grew up eating them every day.” Instead of serving them in a casserole with marshmallows on top, she likes to slice them about one inch thick and boil them before frying them with bacon, maple syrup, ginger, Chinese five spice and lemon juice.
Kevin Nashan, chef/owner of Sidney Street Café in St. Louis, Missouri, sees sweet potatoes as a Thanksgiving staple. In keeping with his Spanish and Polish heritage, he makes them into perogies like his grandmother did. They are prepared with brown butter and a vinaigrette. “I like the savory aspect of Thanksgiving,” he explains. He expresses that by roasting several different varieties of root vegetables together.
The growing season in Boulder isn’t long enough to produce full-size sweet potatoes. Instead, Skokan cooks fingerling-size ones. He poaches them in olive oil until almost cooked and then finishes them in a cast iron skillet. “That’s an absolutely traditional Thanksgiving dish done in a slightly different way,” he says.
Chef Amy Eubanks is the global culinary development coordinator for Whole Foods Market headquartered in Austin, Texas. With her team, she creates dishes that will be sold separately or as part of a meal in the company’s 479 stores. “People always want sweet potatoes during the holidays,” she says. While she doesn’t like to stray to far from tradition, she does prefer to give vegetables an interesting twist. Sweet potatoes, for example, are mashed with maple syrup, butter and orange ginger spice. For Hanukkah, carrots get a Middle Eastern touch with the addition of cumin. Potato latkes are sauteed crisp and served with applesauce. And, to encourage customers to give parsnips a try, she mixes them half and half with carrots.
“Radishes have an uplifting spiciness that adds spark in terms of color and flavor to winter dishes.”
Skokan prepares parsnips every Thanksgiving, usually simmering them with potatoes and leeks and mashing them with butter. “They are the least healthy things on the table,” he says. “I see them as a way of transporting butter to the table.”
To help people get to know rutabaga, which is often confused with turnips, Howard dices it and bacon into half inch pieces, tosses them with brown sugar, black pepper and salt. Then she roasts them on a sheet tray so the bacon can render its fat and the brown sugar caramelizes. Nashan is another fan of rutabaga. He prepares it with potato purée and horseradish, also a root vegetable, to go with Christmas roast beef. Another option is to spice it with pine nuts and hatch green chiles from New Mexico.
In the past, beets were not on many people’s list of favorite vegetables. Now that beets have come out of the can or jar and are being used fresh, “there has been a complete about face in our culture around beets,” Howard says. “They are very nutritious. Every time I eat them, I feel healthier.” She roasts and boils them and shaves them for salad. They are always on her menu in the fall and spring. She often pairs them with different cheeses like goat, blue, pecorino Romano. “Beets sell well,” Eubanks says. “In our salad section, we pair them with goat cheese. We can’t take them off the menu.” Roasted beets with honey or vinegar also are popular.
Radishes are usually used as a bright red, minor addition to salads. Radishes are not only red, though. They come in a variety of colors from purple to green. Skokan grows a lime green Japanese variety with green meat. It’s beautiful and a cousin to the hot pink variety. Elliott glazes them in stock, sugar, salt and some butter. He also pickles them. Skokan likes them in a salad. He uses them grated with fresh parsley and lemon and to garnish a horseradish sauce. He feels they can lighten up heavy roast beef dishes. “Radishes have an uplifting spiciness that adds spark in terms of color and flavor to winter dishes.”
Sunchokes — some call them Jerusalem artichokes — which arrive after the holiday season, are another root vegetable Howard likes. “They are very hard to clean,” she explains. But they are worth the effort. She takes off the knobby edges and boils them until tender. Then she smashes them and fries them. “They make a killer crouton,” she says. She steams and purées the center. “Sunchokes have an interesting and nutty flavor. They are indigenous to North America and were used by Native Americans,” she explains.
On menus that are seasonally-driven (and many are today), root vegetables are the vegetables of choice in the colder months. “They are key to holiday meals,” Eubanks says.
“They are good with many different proteins,” Nashan adds. “I think I’ve cooked them all. My customers love them.”