At the root

‘Vegetables make me mad." This is how a friend who, like me, spends way too much time and energy on such things recently summed up her holiday meal-planning progress. And I fully empathized. (It's a sickness.) Specifically, she was referring to the disproportionate amount of effort spent on preparing root vegetable dishes, which of course take longer to cook than leafy greens, say, and tend to be overrepresented in holiday meals.

In the past, keeping vegetables on hand to last through the winter was nothing short of a survival skill. Among the strategies was keeping a root cellar, a cool, dry environment that could preserve root vegetables as-is (i.e. without drying or canning) for months. Special occasion? Bust out them rutabagas, son!

What exactly is a root vegetable? As is so often the case with plant-based foods, the semantics can get pretty involved, but the term generally covers actual taproots (carrots, parsnips); vegetables that can include both the root and a swollen nutrient storage organ that's actually part of the stem (beets, turnips); and tubers, which are storage organs that can clone themselves via independent offshoot roots (potatoes). These underground or ground-level parts of the plant act as a structural base, or are designed to survive through winter to fuel new growth in the next season, and can be fibrous and tough. While contributing to their durability, this characteristic also means that root vegetables often require extended cooking times to make them palatable and more digestible. Indeed, it is theorized that early hominids who figured out how to dig up and cook such foods may have had an evolutionary edge. Soft, digestible foods enabled the development of big-ass brains and delicate mandibles, so those culinary pioneers may have helped humans to become the smartest, and I daresay hottest, of the primates.

Living in an era of total potato domination, it's not surprising that few people know what many root vegetable staples of yore even look like, let alone how they taste. Carrots are common, but not nearly as versatile, being used most often as an aromatic to enhance the flavor of a dish or as a raw snack food. Radishes come in a vast array of colors and shapes, but here in the United States, the small, red-skinned, white-fleshed variety is best known, and they're nearly always eaten raw, often in salads. All but forgotten are turnips, parsnips, celery root and the mysterious rutabaga.

Rutabagas once carried a pretty harsh stigma, stemming from their association with poverty and general hard times. They were an important Depression-era food and even enjoyed a brief stint of trendiness a few years ago. Nearly a decade into the 21st century, however, it looks like most traces of the rutabaga's bad rep has faded away — it's just that nobody knows what to do with them anymore.

I only recently popped my rutabaga cherry, and I must admit to being surprised at how pretty the amber flesh is. The texture is interesting, too, sort of a cross between carrot and potato. I was initially turned off by the distinct odor of freshly cut rutabaga, which smells exactly like dirt. This is a characteristic shared by many root vegetables, caused by the same compound that produces that earthy, minerally smell in the air after a sudden rainstorm. It largely dissipates during cooking, and in rutabaga it leaves a mildly sweet flavor with slight pleasantly bitter undertones. It's not quite life-changingly amazing, though, and while they may have once been extremely cheap, now rutabagas can run about triple the price of potatoes per pound in supermarkets, no doubt a result of low demand.

Still, it's always good to be able to recognize as many edible things as possible, so I've included a quick and dirty guide to the red-headed stepchildren of the root vegetable diaspora. And visit the Food & Drink section of for four fantastic root-veggie recipes.

section of for four fantastic root-veggie recipes.

Pro tip: When purchasing, note the price and, if available, the SKU number, and save yourself some time at checkout. And apologize to the nice cashier for being such a root-vegetable nerd.

Celery root or celeriac: Pale off-white, usually round, knobby and softball-sized, sometimes with thin stalks attached. Don't bother washing these, since the knobbiness requires trimming of its entire outer layer. Deeply aromatic with celery notes and dense, starchy texture. Excellent boiled and mashed with potatoes, or sliced thin and gratinéed. Note that it takes about 20 percent longer to cook than potatoes.

Parsnips: Looks like a large beige carrot, with similar flavor but much woodier texture. Not good raw. Cooked parsnips have a sweet corn scent and flavor. Best used as an aromatic, or boiled and mashed, and sometimes formed into cakes and fried.

and fried.

Rutabaga: Sometimes called "swedes," because, um, apparently Swedish people eat them a lot. Range in size from softball to duckpin bowling ball, smooth yellowish rind fades into purplish red on top, often coated in wax. Easily peeled with a vegetable peeler, but flesh is very dense and hard to cut. Good roasted, boiled and mashed (benefits greatly from some cream), or diced and sauteed.

Turnips: Usually about the size of a large orange, white with a little root on the bottom, fading to reddish purple on top. Crisp with sometimes sharp astringency when raw; mild and slightly sweet when cooked. Very little starch content, so texture remains very moist.

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