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The Root of the Matter

Fall root vegetables that people love to hate—and why no one should

You can still enjoy fresh fare in fall if you take advantage of all the wonderful autumn root crops.

By Carol O’Meara

As summer’s fresh vegetables become a fond memory, delicious garden fare is still available for fall meals, thanks to the bounty underground that’s ready to harvest.

Root crops take center stage in autumn, and savvy chefs enjoy them in all their forms—plump, slender, sweet or pungent. If you’re stuck in an onion-garlic-potato rut, we’ve put together this guide to other root crops you can find at grocers, farmers’ markets and farm stands. A few you can even plant in early September for harvesting at the end of October.

Turnips, beets and radishes are fast growers, but will still require eight full weeks of warm soil temperatures. You’ll have to buy the others if you didn’t plant them this summer. If you like the way they taste, plant them next year for future fall harvests.

At any rate, it’s worth your time to give all these wonderful root crops a try.

Pick a Parsnip

Parsnips are a must-have root for stew and soup connoisseurs. This pale-colored, carrot-like crop also roasts up sweet and tasty. Toss and roast cut parsnip strips with olive oil, cayenne, fresh garlic and sea salt for a nice alternative to French fries. Or try steaming them in their skins until tender, then slip them out for serving, topped with fresh herbs and spices. Boil or roast parsnips for mashing, blending them with a bit of butter, brown sugar and nutmeg.

If you grow parsnips, don’t harvest them until after frost to allow the root starches to convert to sugar. Then pick your entire crop, because plants left to grow the following spring will be pithy and inedible.


Dish Up Radishes

Radishes have graced tables for thousands of years. Their origins are believed to be in northern China, though their cultivation by people the world over is documented in the histories of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Many forms of this root are enjoyed in cooking today, including the red, purple and white ball types, the long, thin icicle root varieties, and the larger daikon.

Choose firm radishes with blemish-free surfaces and fresh green tops. Wash them in cool water and trim off the tops and root. Thinly slice raw radishes into green salads, or dice them into tuna and potato salads. You can also pickle, stir-fry, roast or grill this versatile root.

Turnip Turn-Ons

Turnips add a nutty, chestnut-like flavor to salads, casseroles and stews. An ancient food related to radishes, turnips have green tops that can be steamed, and roots that can be roasted, boiled, mashed or eaten raw. Turnips are sensitive to heat and drought; in Colorado they’re best planted in late summer or early fall and left to grow as the days cool.

When shopping, avoid big turnips, which get tough skins and an unpleasantly hot flavor as they mature. Look for the sweet, smaller ones with creamy roots and fresh, leafy tops. Purple Top, a variety well-suited to local growing, develops a lavender ring around the upper part of the root. Baby White turnip is an especially sweet early fall variety that’s great raw or sliced into salads and side dishes.

Peel and grate turnips into salads or soups, or dice and toss them with olive oil and herbs for roasting. Their zip adds zing to mashed potatoes; add a boiled, mashed turnip to dress up a side of mashers.

Leeking a Secret

Leeks, the giant, mild cousins of onions and garlic, shine in soups and stews. But that’s not the limit of leeks. They’re outstanding parboiled, then split lengthwise, grilled and topped with a drizzle of vinaigrette.

Lightly sautéed leeks lend themselves well to lasagna, spaghetti sauce, casseroles, soups and just about any dish that calls for onions. Add raw leeks to poaching liquids or grate them into salads.

For tender leeks, think small and buy several, since leeks get fibrous as they grow larger. Prepare them by cutting and discarding the flat, tough, dark-green tops and bottom root plate. Then scrub the remaining leek well, as the overlapping layers pick up soil grit as the plant grows.

The Art of the Choke

Jerusalem artichoke is a North American native used by Native Americans for food. Also called Sunchoke, the potato-looking root is reminiscent of water chestnuts in flavor and texture. But unlike potatoes, the primary component in a Jerusalem artichoke isn’t starch—it’s insulin, which converts to sweet fructose after cold storage or a few weeks in the refrigerator.

When storing, keep the humidity high, as the tubers dry out quickly. Store a damp paper towel with them as they chill.

Use Jerusalem artichokes as you would potatoes, serving them mashed, baked or sautéed. They take on a slight sweetness when roasted, with a flavor hint of artichoke heart. You can also dehydrate and grind this veggie into flour. Add the flour to breads, stews
and roux.

Rutabaga Riddles

Although rutabagas resemble turnips, this beta-carotene-rich veggie is actually a member of the highly praised, antioxidant-rich cruciferous vegetable family. Its delicate sweetness and cabbage-like flavor make it a great addition to dishes, or eat it raw on its own. Peel and slice rutabagas as a snack, grate them into salads, or add them to coleslaw’s, stews and soups. You can also roast, steam, boil or stir-fry them, or mash them with potatoes.

Rutabagas store up to a month in the refrigerator. Purchase them in early fall, when their flavor is at its peak.

What’s Up, Doc?

Carrots are a mainstay of kitchen gardens, beloved by children, cooks and rabbits alike. Rich in beta carotene, carrots also provide vitamins C, D, E, K and B. Think outside the orange box and try the following varieties: Purple Dragon, Golden Yellowstone and White Kuttiger.

When it comes to carrots, size and shape influence taste and growing considerations. Here’s a quick rundown:

Ball carrots were bred for performance in very heavy ground. Fast-growing and petite, these carrots are excellent as garnishes, but shine when roasted whole.

Oxheart carrots, also called Nantes, are short, 6-inch-long carrots ideal in stews, soups and side dishes. They’re best suited for Colorado’s clay soils.

Chantenay, another excellent-growing carrot for Colorado, is a stocky variety that grows 6 to 8 inches long. It’s ideal for planting in containers, then fresh eating or roasting.

True Danvers carrots were developed in Connecticut as a hardy, short-season root crop. They’re great juicing carrots.

Imperators, or Long Orange carrots, need sandy soil to grow long, straight roots and aren’t often grown locally. Use them in relish trays, as snacks, or steamed and served as a side dish.

beetit-2Beet It!

Different civilizations have grown beets for thousands of years. Greeks enjoyed the leaves, while Romans ate the root. Today, beets add an earthy flavor and crunch to salads and side dishes. Roasted, they’re delicate and tender, but many love the tang of pickled beets throughout the winter. A super source of vitamin C, beets are also loaded with folic acid and potassium.

Change up your beets by steaming or baking the many colored varieties—red, yellow, white and striped. Red heirlooms, like Chioggia and Bull’s Blood, are chefs’ favorites for their deep color and sweetness.

There are more root vegetables than the ones listed here, of course. But this guide encourages you get to the root of the matter, where you’ll discover the versatility and preparation ease that make root vegetables a delicious and nutritious addition to fall meals.

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