In simplest botanical terms, a root is the part of a plant that stores food, and also anchors or attaches the plant to the soil. Culinarily, though, we can think of some roots as the vegetables that come from under the ground. We dine on the swollen stem tips of potatoes, the tightly packed leaves of onions, the tubers of water chestnuts, the rhizomes of ginger, the tuberous roots of yams, and the true roots of turnips, parsnips, and carrots.
Beyond these common choices, underground vegetables offer a wide range of flavors. Celery root and parsley root are intense, pungent versions of the more familiar celery stalks and parsley leaves. Onions, garlic, shallots, and leeks -- all alliums -- are not only high in sugar but also in allyl sulfide, the compound that delivers their eye-watering bite. The fierce sting of horseradish, the nutty overtones of Jerusalem artichokes, the haunting oysterlike taste of salsify, and the peppery flair of radishes are also the flavors of lowly roots.
Shopping at farmers' markets and gardening at home encourage adventurous cooking. Recipes start in the garden, not in the books. You can use roots in so many combinations that it's difficult to overlook their versatility. Few dining pleasures compare to the taste of a freshly dug potato with the scent of the earth still in it, or a pulled carrot still cool from the soil, except perhaps the added thrill that you grew it yourself. Additionally, most root vegetables can be grown in gardens throughout the United States, and stored for weeks or months as well.
These two recipes play up the assets of root vegetables. In the first one, nine underground vegetables are roasted with herbs and olive oil. The result is even better than the sum of its parts. The second is a surprise: parsnips in an aromatic spice cake.
Roasted Roots Platter
6 large carrots (about 1 1/2 lb. total)
6 medium-sized parsnips (about 1 1/2 lb. total)
6 large leeks
6 green onions
12 small young turnips (about 1 lb. total)
12 small new potatoes (about 1 lb. total)
6 red onions (about 2 1/2 lb. total)
20 cloves garlic (about 2 heads)
3/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
8 thyme sprigs, each 6 inches long
8 rosemary sprigs, each 6 inches long
8 winter savory sprigs, each 6 inches long
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Peel carrots and parsnips. Cut carrots into 2-inch lengths. Cut parsnips in half crosswise, separating the tapering root end from the thick upper portion; cut the upper portion in half lengthwise. Cut off all but 1/2 inch of the green part from the leeks (discard the greens, or save them to make soup or broth). Cut the remaining white portion of each leek crosswise into 2 pieces. Cut off and discard all but 2 inches of the green part of the green onions. Cut away any leaves from the turnips, leaving a 1/2-inch stub. Trim off any imperfections on the potatoes, but do not peel. Peel the shallots, but do not cut off the root ends (they help the shallots retain their shape during cooking). Peel the red onions, leaving root ends intact; quarter onions lengthwise. Peel the garlic cloves, but leave them whole.
Put the olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, rosemary, and winter savory sprigs in a large bowl or shallow baking dish. Add the vegetables, and toss them until well coated with oil and seasonings. With a slotted spoon or tongs, remove all of the vegetables except green onions, and arrange in a single layer on 2 rimmed baking sheets or in a large, shallow roasting pan. (The vegetables will caramelize more on the baking sheets.) Reserve the oil mixture.
Roast vegetables for 30 minutes. Turn them and baste with some of the reserved olive oil mixture, then add the green onions. Continue roasting, turning once or twice and basting with more olive oil if desired, until all of the vegetables are easily pierced with a fork, 30 to 45 minutes longer.
Remove roots from the oven and arrange them on a platter. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 6 to 8.
Parsnip Dark Spice Cake
The parsnips, like carrots in carrot cake, add moisture and texture. If you grind stick cinnamon and whole cloves in a blender or spice grinder, the freshly ground spices will intensify the cake's flavor and aroma. This recipe was adapted from one that has been in my husband's family through several generations.
1 medium-sized parsnip
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
7 tablespoons butter or margarine
1/3 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup water
Preheat the oven to 325° F. Oil a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Peel the parsnip. Finely grate enough of it to measure 1/2 cup. Set aside. Combine flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a large bowl; set aside. Put the parsnip, sugar, butter or margarine, raisins, salt, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and water in a saucepan. Place over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Cook until butter or margarine has melted and raisins are plumped, 1 to 2 minutes. Let cool to lukewarm, then pour into the flour mixture. Stir just enough to moisten the dry ingredients; do not over mix. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan.
Bake until the edges of the cake start to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Makes 12 servings.
Adapted from Down to Earth: Great Recipes for Root Vegetables, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1996; $17.
Photography by Sabin Gratz