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Taking Root You don’t need to dig deep for new inspiration with root vegetables

Chef Paul Qui of Qui and East Side King in Austin, Texas, elevates the humble turnip with soy sauce, uni powder and a tamari butter glaze.

Chef Paul Qui of Qui and East Side King in Austin, Texas, elevates the humble turnip with soy sauce, uni powder and a tamari butter glaze.

With produce informing so much of today’s menu inspirations, storage crops like root vegetables have become intriguing. As we plan our menus in early autumn, last spring’s root fatigue has given way to enthusiasm for a new crop of colorful candidates to roast, gratiné, mash and hash, as well as updated techniques to reinvigorate root vegetables. Fortunately we no longer have to dig as deep to find appealing options for sourcing and preparing our favorites—or for making those less-popular roots more alluring.

Just as burdock has moved from nuisance crop to chic, beets have broken out big time. They’re not just for salad anymore. We now find them charred, chipped, confited and candied as the main attraction or as shareable small plates, earthy desserts and house-crafted cocktails.

Like the once-maligned but now super-trendy Brussels sprouts, taproots like rutabagas and turnips are turning up in old and new species, and signature preparations reach well beyond roasting and mashing. With newly adventurous diners and techniques, no longer do we need root veggies to merely get us through the winter—we look to them for innovative, craveable menus throughout the season.

Routes to Roots
There is no rule that root vegetables must always be tossed in oil and salt and set in the oven to sweeten. Inspired chefs are taking old favorites and applying new techniques, or they’re taking lesser-known roots and giving them comforting applications. So whether it is smoked carrot dip, scalloped salsify or malanga fries, the motivation is to try something that may be old, but is new again.

Braising roots is nothing new in a stew, yet many roots have their own structure, so braising them on their own with a complementary braising liquid (such as stock, juice, wine, aromatics) and/or fat or meaty bits allows the individual root to poke through.

  • Fjord trout, butter-braised radishes, almond aillade, potato sauce — Oak & Char, Chicago

Cakes and Pancakes
Drier shredded root vegetables stand in or accompany potatoes in pancakes, latkes or rösti. Or they can be puréed into more traditional risen pancakes that form a terrific base for appetizers and vegetable-based entrées, or even sweet and savory desserts.

  • Crispy Radish Cakes: Radish, wild mushrooms, peanuts, mushroom-soy dipping sauce — Doi Moi, Washington, D.C.

Many roots caramelize themselves when roasted or sautéed by virtue of the Maillard reaction, while others can use some sweet-talking. Regardless, caramelizing root veggies is a surefire way to cajole more sweetness and texture for an unctuous starter or side.

  • Roasted steelhead with caramelized sunchokes in chervil beurre blanc — The Craftsman, Minneapolis

Charred and Blistered
Cooking in or over live fire, on a plancha or under a broiler in a cast iron pan yields sweet, soft roots and lends textural, flavorful contrast—even with more bland varieties. The crispy bits take on the flavors of dressings, herbal blends and cheeses well enough to call these roots center-of-the-plate.

  • Charred carrots, goat cheese, almonds, Essenza Balsamic — Bar Toma, Chicago

Root-veg fries get lots of attention—beyond trending sweet potato and yucca fries. There are oven fries and different formats and a whole host of tots. Chips of big taro or rutabaga roots create great dipping and topping devices, while more diminutive sunchoke, lotus or parsley root chips serve to add crunch and flavor as garnish.

  • Turnip tots with ginger aïoli — Farm Burger, Asheville, N.C.

Fritters and Croquettes
Potato-containing or not, crispy fried or baked fritters of colorful root vegetables like carrots, turnips, yucca or parsnips add a signature touch to small plates or upscale sides with as little as a dipping sauce. They’re also a special treat with shellfish, meat or mushroom fillings.

  • Malanga Fritters: Purple taro root, garlic and cilantro fritters with tamarind ketchup — Cuba Libre, multiple locations

Grilling thinly sliced vegetables focuses flavor and crisps the end bits, while lightly steamed thick “steak” cuts can be slower grilled, imparting light smoke and a bit of meaty char. Better yet, they form a canvas for marinades, topical sauces, dressings and vinaigrettes.

  • Grilled lotus root with wasabi Vegenaise — Yuzu, Honolulu

Juicing is the hipster comeback kid for curative and energizing beverages, but the culinary uses for root juice expand the options. Beautifully hued, aromatic juices make unique dressings like carrot tahini, savory and sweet sauces (think parsley root or parsnip), colorful plate naps, fragrant infusions such as fennel, and deep, rich cocktails and mocktails.

  • “Beet”: Beet-infused tequila, lime, salt, simple syrup — Yukuza, Portland, Ore.

Roots can emulate fries, such as these savory barbecue carrots with ranch sauce offered as “contorni” at Lo Spiedo in Philadelphia.

Hearty root vegetables are an age-old center to filled pastas, and although vegetable-based extruded or short-cut pastas may be tricky, the results can be stunning. Gnocchi or dumplings can be made of root vegetable—starchy or not—like lotus, salsify, beets and parsnip. The winner may well be ribbons or strings of root vegetable, which make for a fun and healthy faux pasta for hot sauces and cold salads.

  • Carrot Gnocchi: Roasted mushrooms, candied carrots, asparagus, English peas, spinach, pecorino cheese and carrot-coriander sauce — Root Down, Denver

Quick pickles, preserved horseradish and long-fermented kraut and kimchi are not new, but those health-giving treatments are expanding beyond pickled beets and kohlrabi kraut into other roots for sweet, sour and deeply fermented vegetables that offset all manner of dishes.

  • Pulled, pickled and jerked carrots with peanut mole sauce on carrot waffles — Dirt Candy, New York

Puréed roots are a trustworthy side dish, but how they are used is being expanded beyond the traditional sides and soups. Creative chefs are employing puréed roots to thicken and flavor sauces, take the place of cream or cheese in dairy-free gratins, and serve as a pillow for complementing grills. Smooth and chunky purées of seasoned or smoked roots provide the base for spectacular hot and cold dips.

  • White asparagus with smoked quail egg, ricotta and melted kohlrabi purée — Naha, Chicago

Perhaps jicama slaw and celery root rémoulade led the way for cooks to explore new ways with raw vegetables that were once reserved for wintery preparations, but menu makers are now finding roots all year can add necessary texture and crunch to salads. Roots can highlight a dip or spread, as with the wildly popular heirloom radish and fresh farm butter appetizer.

  • Tropezienne: Shaved, raw celery root, fennel and artichokes atop frisée, with white balsamic vinaigrette — Boulud Sud, New York

Like roasting, salt-roasting root vegetables (such as potatoes, salsify, carrots and parsnips) concentrates their flavors, but the salt keeps them moist, intact and seasoned from the outside in. Salt-roasting works for whole roots, while cut-up versions make perfectly seasoned dips or mashes or top salads.

  • Salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette — The Purple Pig, Chicago

Although we delight in a hearty borscht or a creamy celeriac vichyssoise, not all root vegetables need to be thick purées. An almond milk parsnip chowder, fennel gazpacho, or clarified parsley root consommé can be equally satisfying (hot or cold).

  • Parsley root and carrot bisque with sage, cashew, Madras curry — Sepia, Chicago

Smoke transforms the open structure of root vegetables and infuses them with a light wood or heavy nut flavor that can stand in equally well for a slab of barbecued brisket or bring dimension to a turnip hummus.

  • Smoked beets with horseradish, yogurt and pine nuts — Lo Spiedo, Philadelphia

The nose-to-tail trend has reached the vegetable world, and flavor-seeking chefs are finding unique uses for whole vegetable cooking. We know you can use fennel’s stalk, frond, seed and even pollen, but how about those scratchy radish greens turned into salsa verde or celery root tops for broth?

  • Line-caught halibut, gold carrot gnudi, carrot-top pesto and parsnip chips— Kitchen Table Bistro, Richmond, Vt.

Starchier than their better-known orange cousins, white sweet potatoes make a velvety purée. At Tavern Road in Boston, chef Louis DiBiccari’s White Sweet Potato Purée is accented with smoked maple, walnuts and breadcrumbs.

Hot List of Cool Roots
We link taproots, bulbs, rhizomes and tubers under the “root vegetable” moniker, and while we love our potatoes, carrots, beets and yams, demand for diversity has uncovered a new slew of heritage, heirloom and hybrid varieties. Here are some roots that deserve a modern look:

Celeriac/Celery Root
Though the rustic, gnarly celery root bulb may look humble, it is a sophisticated root with a long European culinary heritage. This varietal of celery trades all the strings and bite for a delicate yet deep flavor. And though high in fiber, it creates a silky-smooth purée for sauces, sides and soups. The peelings create the headiest stocks and braises. Alone or with other roots, it makes a rustic mash, but it can find refinement with seafood and other proteins. This is one of the few root vegetables that is just as wonderful raw as cooked.

  • Celery root soup with grilled lobster, preserved lemon, celery and marigold — Blackbird, Chicago

Hard to say whether chefs use finocchio or fennel more for flavor or structure in their menus. Fresh fennel is an equal opportunity root; it refreshes summer salads and drinks and it warms roasts and braises—which significantly soften its anise flavor and bring out its sweet character. Fennel can add aroma to a bowl of mussels, brighten a frito misto, and become indulgent in a cheesy gratin. Chefs and pastry chefs like the off-sweet flavor in candied and sweet preparations (the stalks yield a great syrup). Fennel classically accompanies fish, apples, squash, dairy and is a critical flavor in many spirits, easily migrating to cocktails.

  • Diver scallops with creamed leeks and candied fennel — Cuisine, Detroit

This spaceship-like cole crop (translated to “cabbage turnip”) is kind of a half root vegetable. Farmers love it for its fast-growing heartiness, and it’s a gem in alternative veg-centric restaurants, but kohlrabi is only recently getting as much love from mainstream chefs. Eaten raw it gives a refreshing radish-like crunch that soaks up flavor perfectly in slaws, salads and dips, while stir-frying, steaming, roasting or braising expels the turnip-y depth.

  • White asparagus and melted kohlrabi purée with ricotta and smoked quail egg — Naha, Chicago

The carrot-sunflower seed froth in this balsamic-glazed salmon dish is one way chef Joe Magnanelli uses common root vegetables in unexpected applications at Cucina Urbana in San Diego.

Parsley Root
Literally the taproot of parsley, this carrot family newbie is a close cousin to parsnip in genus and flavor, yet with the more aggressive herbaceousness of its top fronds. Roasted or hashed, puréed or mashed alone or with other roots, it will enhance potatoes, yucca or taro, or tone the sweetness of carrots, parsnips and beets. Shaved or grated, it makes great salads and it refreshes meats, seafood, soups or anywhere you might use parsley. Parsley root has a special affinity for cream, alliums and nuts or nutty flavors like chestnuts, and is beloved by some chefs for sweet preparations.

  • Suffolk Lamb, parsley root-shallot purée, roasted pineapple, coffee and lemon — The View, New York

Parsnips are kissing cousins to parsley, carrot, celeriac, dill and fennel. Their redolence is clear, but they carry unique texture, aroma and honey-sweet flavor, which are further enhanced by cooking. Chef Heston Blumenthal once served parsnips made into breakfast cereal (in one of those little individual cereal boxes) with sweet parsnip milk. More classic recipes like roasts, purées, chips, fries and pies bring out the inherent sweet or savory parsnip essence. In more creative preps, chefs smoke, caramelize, foam and candy them.

  • Parsnip vichyssoise with poached Cotuit oysters — Post 390, Boston

Raised from their modest underground status to center-of-the-plate star, radishes are adopted for their refreshingly spicy complexity. They range from pastel Easter eggs, stark white icicles and big blacks to charming French breakfast, crunchy Asian daikon and ever-trendy watermelon varietals. Classically raw radishes add crunchy contrast to fatty, meaty, soft creations like tacos or buttery bread. Chefs are also showcasing heirloom varietals roasted, sautéed, grilled and braised with high impact.

  • Black radish spaghetti with radish ravioli, radish greens pesto and horseradish — Dirt Candy, New York

Also called Scorzonera or oyster plant, salsify comes in black or white and originates from the ancient Mediterranean. Their ugly grayish or black appearance belies the delicate flavor in classic Continental cuisine, and they fell out of favor in North America until recently. With a vegetal flavor reminiscent of oysters, both black and white salsify make ideal companions to seafood, add silky texture to bisque, soup or sauce, and are satisfying scalloped. With a lower moisture content, they fry up nicely.

  • Pork Cheeks & Scallop, candied pancetta-braised salsify, organic squash purée, petite herb salad — The Heathman, Portland, Ore.

North American native sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes are related neither to Jerusalem or to artichokes, but to the sunflower. This crunchy tuber, reminiscent of Brazil nuts in flavor, is a cultish choice for creating vegetarian entrées as well as roasts, mashes, purées, soups and braises alone or in combination with other root vegetables. Shaved chokes are the darling of raw salads, but once roasted or caramelized, Jerusalem artichokes are favored for mellifluously creamy soups and sauces.

  • Sunchoke ravioli with burrata, walnut butter and crispy sage — Superba Snack Bar, Venice, Calif.

About The Author

Robin Schempp

Robin Schempp has always had a proclivity for exploring and enjoying the many expressions of the table, bench and tablet. For 20 years, she has shared her discoveries as president and principal of Right Stuff Enterprises, based in Waterbury, Vt., specializing in creative culinary concept and in product, menu and market development for food and beverage solutions. Robin regularly writes, speaks and teaches about food and culinary R&D. She is chair of the Slow Food Ark of Taste, vice chair of Chefs Collaborative, president emeritus of the Vermont Fresh Network and an active member of Research Chefs Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.