When the chill of winter hits, humble root vegetables sustain and inspire us.

When the chill of winter hits, humble root vegetables sustain and inspire us.

With absolute certainty I know that a parsnip did not touch my lips until I was in my late twenties. We were out to dinner and my husband, Dan, ordered a silky parsnip-pear soup. I didn't know what a parsnip tasted like, let alone what it looked like, but its sweet, earthy, anise-like flavor was etched in my mind that night. It was one of my first experiences with root vegetables. Sure, I had my fair share of carrots as a kid. And pickled turnips are standard fare at most of our Lebanese family gatherings. But beets, celeriac, rutabaga and parsnips were not vegetables I ate growing up.

I wasn't the only one unfamiliar with knobby roots, I realized as our staff tasted the recipes I developed in our Test Kitchen. Michelle Edelbaum, one of our associate editors, and Penelope Wall, a Web producer, became quite partial to what they referred to as "the orangy one" (the flesh of rutabaga is slightly golden). When I showed them a rutabaga in its raw form, they couldn't believe such a rich, buttery flavor came from a huge, wax-coated vegetable. Others would rummage through my root pile and ask me to identify the different ones.

How is it that so many of us are unfamiliar with this family of vegetables? "I think root vegetables are underappreciated because cooking them seems to have skipped a generation or two," says Andrea Chesman, all-around vegetable expert and cookbook author, most recently of Serving Up the Harvest (Storey Publishing, 2007).

Today we buy most of our food at large grocery stores stocked with every kind of produce you could desire, regardless of the season. But most of us only have to look back a generation or two to find relatives who ate seasonally from the large gardens they tended themselves and "put up" their bounty in root cellars. My great-grandparents had an acre garden on their farm in Bad Axe, Michigan. They purposely planted root crops later in the season so the vegetables wouldn't be ready to harvest until late fall, providing them with a major source of food for the winter. Great grandpa John would wait as long as he could to pull up the root vegetables and other storage crops, letting them become gradually used to the cool conditions they'd be stored in. (Roots keep best when stored in humid environments at near-freezing temperatures.) And those stored roots kept the family well-nourished through the winter: they are nutritious carbohydrate choices because they're rich in fiber and protective antioxidants, such as vitamin C (rutabagas and turnips) and vitamin A (carrots). And they're all good sources of folate, a water-soluble B vitamin that's needed to form healthy new cells.

These root vegetables may look intimidating if you haven't grown up with them, but they can be found pretty easily in large supermarkets and farmers' markets. I like to stop at a local farmstand to pick up freshly dug roots, like hand-staining beets and knobby celeriac. If you're ready to discover root vegetables, try braising or roasting them. "Slower cooking methods release their sweet, nutty flavors," Chesman says. Roasted roots shine in untold variations. Season them with your favorite herbs and spices or a touch of apple cider and brown sugar and a sprinkling of buttery-cinnamon walnuts. Or braise them in a warming winter stew with flavorful sausage, topped with pillowy herb-flecked dumplings.

While I may never grow most of my own food, I like to think of how my great-grandparents assessed their bountiful harvest at the end of the season and filled the root cellar with parsnips, carrots and turnips. I think they'd be proud that I'm forgoing canned corn and frozen green beans and opting instead for nourishing winter roots.

November/December 2008