It’s dark in our root cellar in wintertime. 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 the kind of place to hang out in. But grab a bucket or trug 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 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’re 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. Sometimes pink on the outside, sometimes a drab off-white or greenish, it’s 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. Although 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 parsnip 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.
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. Hold the nutmeg. Hold the herbs. There is nothing tastier than this simple, snow-white dish, straight from the dark earth.
Damrosch’s new book, “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook,” will be published in March.
Check retailers and online catalogues for end-of-season sales on spring bulbs. Many offer deep discounts to unload perishable stocks. Daffodils, tulips, crocuses and other bulbs can be planted until the end of the year as long as the ground isn’t frozen. The earlier, though, the better.
— Adrian Higgins