Tasty Autumn Roots
By John J. Kochevar
As days shorten and appetites quicken, our thoughts seldom turn to roots and tubers. No wonder. Most people think of roots as heavy, bland, out-of-fashion, and unappetizing. The platonic ideal of the root is a fat, stolid potato. Now, for just a moment, consider a few other examples. Visualize lurid red slices of beet, lovely round root, dotted with fresh goat cheese, or carrot and parsnip wedges roasted with herbs and enough garlic to make your eyelashes flutter. America’s tired love affair with potatoes, fried or mashed, has blinded us to a large class of vegetables that are both attractive and tasty.
Roots are the underground storage organs of plants, just as seeds are the aboveground storage for grasses. Botanists (and bores) distinguish between “true roots,” which include taproots and tuberous roots, and “modified stems”—the tubers, rhizomes, and corms. In their system, the sweet potato is a “true root” while the potato is a tuber, a “modified stem.” There is little joy in this classification and no justice for garlic, “the rose of roots,” which is labeled by taxonomists only as a “bulb.” Ancient hunter-gatherers survived on roots, and it is likely that roots were the first cultivated vegetables, earlier even than grains and fruits. Some scholars believe that the sacred lotus, for example, was cultivated in China and India long before rice.
Potatoes, Potatoes, Potatoes
The potato is America’s most popular vegetable, for better or for worse. Annual per capita consumption has leveled off at about 140 pounds for the last few years, after decades of sustained growth. Unfortunately, more than two-thirds of our potatoes are consumed as french fries, potato chips, extruded snacks, or otherwise highly processed. Fifty years ago, fresh potatoes were mostly consumed at home—boiled, mashed, and baked. Nowadays, as a result of more eating out and ubiquitous fryolators, french fries are a national staple. The taste for a nicely fried potato is probably hardwired, and we help it along by feeding children french fries and Tater Tots twice a day for a decade or two. The result is habituation, overconsumption, and a predictable rise in obesity and overweight.
Keep in mind that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a few french fries or Tater Tots. The problem is that potatoes are mostly available only as fries, mashed, or baked. And 70 percent of the potatoes eaten in America are only one variety, the russet—an oblong dark-brown potato with a rough skin. It is a high-starch potato which fluffs up nicely when baked. But even a good potato, day after day, becomes boring…unless it is dressed up with a lot of fat and salt. The count on 4 ounces of baked potato is about 100 calories. A medium McDonald’s french fries, 4.1 ounces, is 380 calories. Excess fat is the culprit.
There are other potatoes, and they have more flavor than the russet. In fact, with thousands of varieties, the potato is the most genetically diverse of the major food staples. Only now are they beginning to show up in local farmers’ markets. Try the small Russian banana fingerlings steamed and sautéed with garlic and herbs. If russets or white potatoes are all that are available, roast them Italian-style with sweet red peppers, or mash them with fried shallots and fresh spinach.
Potatoes have gotten a bad rap in recent years because nutritionists determined that they spike glucose levels faster than other starches. That is true for plain, peeled, mashed, baked, or fried potatoes. “New potatoes,” the small red or white boilers, do not cause glycemic overload. For ordinary potatoes, leaving the skin on, adding a little oil or butter, and mixing with other vegetables, slows glycemic uptake. Potatoes with their skins are a better-than-average source of vitamin C, B vitamins, iron, potassium, zinc, and fiber.
And they may be better for the environment and global food security. Potatoes are two to four times more productive than rice, wheat, and corn, and they can be grown in harsher climates and on marginal land. While they are somewhat less amenable to mechanized agriculture, they require less capital-intensive farming. For these reasons potato production is increasing at a faster rate in developing countries, directed mostly at satisfying local demand. Potatoes and other roots may soon go to the front lines of the battle to increase global food security.
Other roots may be a harder sell than potatoes. Sweet potatoes are holiday food, traditionally served mashed or baked, drenched in butter and brown sugar. They are a nutritional powerhouse, deserving to be eaten more frequently, but more simply. Try garnet or jewel “yams” (they are really sweet potatoes) peeled, sliced thickly, and quickly roasted with olive oil and sea salt. (You can cook them in your countertop toaster oven, turning once.)
Outdoor Market Shopping List
Fill your basket with carrots, parsnips, and turnips from fall farmers’ markets. Roasting intensifies their flavors and concentrates their nutritional value. Serve them in combination, topped with thyme and parsley or chopped green onion for contrast and variety.
For the intrepid root fancier, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has published a short guide to roots (Buried Treasures: Tasty Tubers of the World) complete with recipes. Try the Jerusalem artichokes (aka sunchokes), the ugly (but tasty) taro, or the crunchy lotus root.
One word of caution, however. Many roots consist of complex starches that are harder to digest than potatoes, and a side ef-fect of eating too much at one time can be flatulence. An old folk song sung by Japanese farmers recalls a woman whose boyfriend was excessively fond of sweet potatoes:
Lover boy choked
On sweet potato tarts
She still recalls him
Whenever she – - – -[passes wind].
Ayurvedic tradition warns about some of these problems, and is careful to balance root vegetables with the right seasonings (almonds, sweet and sour, salt) and vegetables (chopped radish, cucumber, and green onion). Root vegetables are good for balancing vata dosha. In the fall, if you are feeling cold and have chapped, dry hands, it may indicate overactive vata, which can be balanced by eating more root vegetables (except white potatoes and turnips). A little brown rice helps, too. Roots, then, turn out to be nutritionally balanced, economical, and environmentally sound. Forget about boring spuds. When your appetite is piqued by the crisp fall air, visualize tasty roots.
Know Your Root
The rhizome of the lotus is widely available in Asian markets and health food stores. They have a slightly nutty taste and a pleasant crunchy texture. Purchase one “segment” for two people. Simply peel, slice and dress with a vinaigrette made from rice wine vinegar, a little sugar, and a little salt. Alternatively, simmer in a light soy broth and top with toasted sesame seeds and chopped green onion as part of a Japanese- or Chinese-style meal.
Taro is available in most Asian and many Latino markets. They are small bulb-like roots with hairy skins. Pick tubers that are and without blemishes. Peel underwater or wearing rubber gloves; the skin contains an irritant. Cut into bite-sized chunks and simmer in a soy broth until they can be pierced with a fork. Alternatively, simmer with chunks of carrot, daikon, shitake mushrooms, leeks, and fried tofu cake (atsuage). Serve with a little chopped green onion on top.
The orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, called garnet or jewel yams in America, are sweeter and more nutritious than other sweet potatoes. Cut one into half-inch chunks, mix with a little salt and oil and a teaspoon or two of prepared curry powder. Spread on a small pan and roast in toaster oven for about 20 to 25 minutes at about 375 degrees. Take care they do not burn. Mix into a dal or into rice with green peas and sauteed onions and garlic.
John J. Kochevar has contributed many articles on flavorful vegetarian cooking to Yoga International.