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. Below is a quick and dirty guide to the red-headed stepchildren of the root vegetable diaspora.
Protip: 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. Excellent boiled and mashed with potatoes, or sliced thin and gratinéed.
Parsnips: Look like a white carrot, with similar flavor, but much woodier texture. Not good raw. Very sweet, almost paint-like aroma 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.
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 sautéed.
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.
HENRY HONG writes about food for the Baltimore City Paper.