It’s dark in our root cellar in wintertime. Ideally, it’s a bit clammy down there too, as the temperature hovers around 33 degrees with a humidity of 90 percent. It smells earthy and maybe a little cabbagey — not a fun place to hang out. But grab a bucket and something from every bin, bring them up into the light, and let’s have a look.
Compared with the frilly petticoats of lettuce or the dribble-down-the-chin juiciness of watermelons and tomatoes, there is nothing very sexy about the lumpy tubers we wrest from the soil. But when you hose them off, they become more appealing, and you can see why they are the current Cinderellas of the produce world, beloved of garden-inspired chefs.
Some of the newly popular ones, such as golden beet, win fans because of their bright colors. A golden beet is red-orange on the outside and yellow within, gorgeous on the plate. Andean potatoes that are purple both inside and out are the underground counterparts of those “black” tomatoes everyone talks about.
And how about that Red Meat? I’m not talking about the beef course, I’m talking about a variety of Chinese radish also called Beauty Heart or Watermelon that we sometimes grow. It’s usually a drab pink or off-white on the outside, but a fireworks display when cut, suffused with magenta in a starburst pattern.
Even the common beet, with its brilliant redness, would seem like a miracle to us if it were not so common.
But look, it’s flavor that counts, right? Oven-roast a medley of these together in a pan with olive oil and garlic and their natural sweetness will intensify as the fibers soften and the stored sugars caramelize.
There’s not much to roasting roots, aside from giving them an occasional stir to coat them with the oil and make sure they don’t stick to the pan.
Lately, I’ve been having even more fun with mashes and purees. A pureed root vegetable will be very smooth and silky, unless it’s a potato, which will turn to glue. Mashed potatoes are hand-mashed for a reason. Truthfully, any of them are best mashed. While you are free to use a food processor, immersion blender or even a simple hand-crank food mill, an old fashioned potato masher does a perfectly good job.
Mashing two roots together can yield great results. The flavor of parsnips, for instance, is too strong for some tastes, but a half-and-half mix of parnsip and carrot tastes just right, and is a pleasing pale orange. Combine kohlrabi with turnip, or with parsley root and some finely chopped parsley foliage for color. Steam Beauty Heart radish briefly and gently to retain its color, marry it with golden beet, and see what kind of sunset you can paint with that.
For years I’ve mashed potatoes and celery root together, and yummy they are. But lately I’ve just been mashing celery root alone, simmered until very tender, with nothing added but hot cream and maybe a knob of butter. Hold the nutmeg. Hold the herbs. There is nothing tastier than this simple, snow-white dish, straight from the dark earth.