LET US all trace our roots. With heraldic high glee let us go in pursuit of the roots we all share, our common and uncommon roots, the well-bred root vegetables. Recognition is long overdue. Tracing vegetable roots is just as confusing as tracing those of Homo sapiens. For example, the Jerusalem artichoke is not from Jerusalem, is not an artichoke, looks like a potato but is starchless (its form of carbohydrate converts to levulose); and if the truth be known, the Jerusalem artichoke is really a sunflower. So much for ancestral accuracy. Jerusalem in this case is a corruption of the French girasol, meaning sunflower. Artichoke in this case may have come from the slight similarity in taste between this root and the true artichoke.
The beet is an upstart in vegetable hierachy. Its background? It began as Swiss chard in the Middle Ages and didn't round out as beet root until the 15th century. Such a newcomer should be firmly reminded that it is still a component of some cattle feed, even though it now has access to the most elegant tables.
Pygmalion is nothing compared with the carrot. It started out as the wild and beautiful Queen Anne's lace, and, under the tutelage of a Frenchman, Vilmorin-Andrieux, ended up as the beautiful but tame carrot. We all know this crisp, orange and nutritious aristocrat, with its feathery, delicate top.
Since every family history needs its fiery character, consider horseradish. The Germans had it first, even though we think of it as English, with roast beef. It was among the first settlers in America. Who knows? It may have had a forebear on the Mayflower. Grated in vinegar and sauces, it is an excellent condiment with meats and seafood. Used in sufficient quantity, it can be inflammatory and unforgettable.
Then there's the estimable and ancient onion family. Onions have been around so long nobody really knows where they came from. A cook's best friend, the onion has been used and loved by every civilization. Onions have a lot of kissing cousins: leeks, garlic and shallots, for example. Leeks are highly favored by the Welsh, who, in ancient times, stuck them on their hats when going into battle. On St. Swithen's Day, even today, any Welshman worth his leeks sticks one on his cap in honor of the patron saint. Garlic is a root thought to be good for everything from curing a cold to ensuring a happy love life. In truth, it is indispensable in a wide culinary spectrum, notably but not exclusively, Italian. Shallots are expensive little debutantes of the onion family. They have a delicate but distinctive flavor, and are frequently called for in French dishes. They are also easy to grow, so it is possible to beat their queenly price tag.
Surely one of the most popular roots -- using the term loosely enough to invite the tuber into its realm -- is the potato. Cultivated extensively by the Irish, we give it their name. The Irish potato can trace its roots to South America, where the Spanish explorers found it and took it to Europe. Sometime later it emigrated to America, where it has found an unchallenged place in American society.
The sweet potato is something else entirely. It loves a hot climate, understandable by its origin in the West Indies. At least that's where Columbus found it. In any case, the sweet potato is plentiful in southern states, and speaks to us with a southern drawl. However, the sweet potato is not a potato at all: It's a member of the morning-glory tribe. It's a southern belle with many talents.
Not to be sniffed at are the turnips. Among the oldest root vegetables, turnips were said to be grown by the Celts, and we know members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony enjoyed "a mess of greens and turnips." The rutabaga is really just a super-fat turnip with a couple of differences. The greens are cabbage-like but inedible, and it takes longer to mature than the ordinary turnip. It needs time to grow plump. It is nutritious and economical, the flavor is interesting and it should not be overlooked.
There are plenty of other roots to trace. These are only a few of a distinguished family of vegetables. Now here are root vegetable recipes we all can share: JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES (2 to 4 servings) 1 pound Jerusalem artichokes Salt, pepper and butter to taste
Wash and scrape or peel artichokes. Put in a pot and cover with salted water. (A small piece of salt pork may be substituted for salt.) Bring to a boil and cook about 20 minutes, or until artichokes are tender. Drain, add pepper and butter to taste. DELTA BAKED POTATOES (6 servings) 6 Irish potatoes (medium to large) Bacon fat Butter to taste 1/2 cup shallots, minced Salt and white pepper to taste Paprika
Wash and dry whole potatoes. Rub with bacon fat and bake at 350 degrees until done -- about 40 minutes. When potatoes are done, cut a slice from the top and save to recap after stuffing. Scoop out insides and mash with butter to taste; add shallots, salt and pepper to taste. Refill potato skins with potato mixture. Sprinkle with paprika and recap. Reheat in 400-degree oven about 10 minutes before serving. AZTEC SAUCE (Makes about 1 cup) 4 tablespoons butter 1 cup red and green peppers, minced 1 clove garlic, minced 1 cup shallots, minced 1/2 cup celery, chopped Salt and pepper to taste
Saute all ingredients in butter. Simmer 10 minutes. Serve over meat or poultry. SPUNKY AND GOOD POTATO SALAD (6 to 8 servings) 5 pounds Irish potatoes 1 cup celery, chopped 1 green pepper, chopped 1 large onion, grated 1 clove garlic, grated 1 tablespoon basil leaves (dried or fresh) 4 hard-boiled eggs, diced 1 tablespoon celery seed 4 to 5 tablespoons mayonnaise (enough to bind the mixture lightly)
Boil potatoes until tender; peel and dice. Mix all ingredients well. LEEKS WITH RICE (4 servings) 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1/2 cup onion, chopped 3 heaping tablespoons rice, uncooked 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon flour 4 leeks 1 1/2 cups chicken broth Thinly sliced lemon for garnish
Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat and cook onion until limp. Add rice and stir to coat well. Sprinkle with salt and flour and cook 1 or 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Slice leeks, including some of the green part, and wash thoroughly, being sure to clean out all sand. Add leeks to rice and onion. Pour in broth, cover tightly and simmer about 30 minutes, or until rice is thoroughly cooked. Garnish with thinly sliced lemon. ORANGE-GLAZED BEETS (4 servings) 1 1/2 pounds fresh beets or 1-pound can small-whole beets, drained 3 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup orange marmalade 1 tablespoon orange juice Orange slices for garnish
Trim leaves from fresh beets, leaving 1 inch of stems attached to the roots.
Set aside leaves for another use. Do not peel roots. Cook roots, covered, in boiling salted water about 35 minutes. Drain and peel. Melt butter in skillet, stir in marmalade and orange juice. Add cooked or drained canned beets. Cook and stir until beets are heated through and glazed, 6 to 8 minutes. Garnish with orange slices. AMBER ONIONS (6 to 8 servings) 9 medium white onions, peeled and cut in half, crosswise 2 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon paprika 1/4 cup tomato juice 3 tablespoons honey
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Arrange onions, cut side down, in shallow, buttered baking dish large enough to accommodate them in a single layer. In a small saucepan, melt butter and add salt, paprika, tomato juice and honey. Bring to a boil and pour over onions. Bake 1 hour, uncovered. QUICK DILL POTATOES (4 servings) 1/3 cup water 1 teaspoon salt 2 1/2 cups peeled, cubed Irish potatoes 2 tablespoons onion, finely chopped 1/2 cup light cream Chopped fresh dill or dried dill to taste Pepper to taste
Bring water and salt to boiling in heavy saucepan. Add potatoes and onions, cover and cook about 10 minutes, until potatoes are almost done and most of the water is absorbed. Add cream; simmer 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour into serving dish and sprinkle with dill and a dash of pepper. COOK'S TURNIP SOUP (8 to 10 servings) 4 cups rutabagas or a combination of rutabagas and white turnips, peeled and sliced 1/4 cup chopped onion 10 cups water 1/2 pound stew beef, or a beef soup bone 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves Salt and pepper to taste
Put all ingredients in a kettle and boil slowly about 3 hours. Remove from heat. Reserving liquid, remove meat and turnips. Cut meat into small pieces and return to broth. Mash turnips through a sieve and return to broth. Season soup with salt and pepper to taste. Boil for 5 minutes before serving. For thinner soup, add more water and seasoning. This soup is good served with hot biscuits or cornbread. CARROTS NUTMEG (4 servings) 1 pound carrots 4 tablespoons butter Ground nutmeg
Wash and scrape carrots and cut into shoestrings. Soak a few minutes in ice water. Drain and dry. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in skillet, and fry carrots in butter about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with ground nutmeg to taste. Cover and let steep a few minutes.
Note: This easy carrot dish may be seasoned at other times with curry powder or cinnamon. SWEET POTATO PIE (Makes 1 9-inch pie) 2 cups sugar 1 cup butter 4 eggs 2 cups mashed, cooked sweet potatoes 4 ounces whiskey Juice and rind of 1 lemon 1/4 teaspoon mace Powdered sugar for garnish
Cream sugar and butter. Add eggs, potatoes, whiskey, lemon juice and rind, and mace. Mix together well. Pour mixture into unbaked 9-inch pie shell and bake at 350 degrees unti filling is firm, about 40 minutes. When cool, sprinkle with powdered sugar.