As winter winds down — root vegetables on our minds

While there are still a few weeks till it’s wise to start seeds inside, this is a good time to use up the root vegetables so prolific in the produce stalls at this time of year. Those of us who enjoy eating locally grown vegetables will find quite an array still available.

I’m thinking of beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips, celeriac, potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes. Each offers great nutrition, as well as opportunities to eat local.

Photo by Deborah J. Benoit Leafy green lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach and even radishes and baby carrots are ideal choices for growing in containers indoors in winter.
Leafy green lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach and even radishes and baby carrots are ideal choices for growing in containers indoors in winter. Photo by Deborah J. Benoit.

It’s also a good time to plan on which you might like to add to your own vegetable rows. These happen to be the very items that can take the cool of spring and be planted earliest.

As soon as the snow has gone and the soil can be worked, the above veggies can be planted (excepting sweet potatoes). The soil should not be too wet and have warmed a bit to start.  Root vegetables particularly need a loose, friable soil to grow well.

Did you know each beet seed is actually a cluster of seeds?

So, when you plant them, you will have to do some editing, but the tops and baby roots are edible as early spring salad material. A couple of my favorite beet varieties are Detroit dark red, chioggia and bull’s blood. These, along with carrots, can withstand cool weather.

One help is to plant radishes in the same row, as they emerge in a few days, whereas carrots and beets can take a few weeks to show. The radishes will mark the row and, as you harvest, loosen the soil.

White potatoes (and the many other colors) prefer to begin life in a trench, with soil pulled up past the plants as they grow, to keep the tubers well covered. Light must be kept out. Seed potatoes can be bought locally or ordered from certified growers.

If you plan to store some potatoes for next winter’s meals, you should choose good storage potatoes such as russets. Red-skinned and Yukon gold types are better for immediate uses. Fingerlings, which are delicious just steamed or mashed (with skins), should also be used up first. You might want to cook with skins intact, as they are difficult to peel.

Celeriac does not win beauty contests but is useful in soups or pureed alone or mixed with mashed potatoes. Julienned celeriac with a creamy mayonnaise dressing makes a refreshing salad. The taste is celery-like. A sharp paring knife is needed to trim the knobs and tougher skin, but worth the effort.

Onions and all alliums can be started inside from seeds. They can also be bought in bundles already started or dried as sets from garden centers or hardware stores. I find the sets require the least attention, but your choices are better with seeds.

One of my favorite varieties is cipolline, a flat but plump variety. Very good roasted or caramelized. Of course, basic yellow or red are pantry necessities. Onions depend on day length to do best. We have long days but for a short time in the north. That is why Vidalias are grown in southern climes. Their growing season is much longer, and they can take advantage of all daylight hours. Plant as soon as soil is workable.

Sweet potatoes are root vegetables but require heat to grow at their best. So, hold off planting until soil is warm to the touch.

Here I offer a few recipes with root vegetables that might interest you.

Creme du Barry Soup
1 head cauliflower
1 fennel bulb
1 small celeriac root
2 large garlic cloves, minced
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups water or chicken broth
Herbs of choice, if desired—thyme, rosemary, savory possibly.

Trim cauliflower and break into florets. Peel and cube celeriac. Trim top off fennel and slice bulb into chunks. Save fronds for garnish.

Melt butter in saucepan and add vegetables to soften. When translucent. add broth or water, if vegetarian. Simmer till all is softened. With immersible blender or processor, puree soup adding any fresh herbs you might like. Season with salt and white pepper. Dried herbs should be added earlier in the process. No thickener is needed. Snip fennel fronds for garnish when serving.

Sweet Potato Bisque
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons orange zest
1 teaspoon dried sage or 1 tablespoon chopped, fresh.
Water or chicken stock to cover.

Melt butter in saucepan and sauté shallot till translucent. Add sweet potatoes and cover with liquid. Cook till soft, and at end of cooking add sage and orange zest. Season with salt to your liking. Puree with immersible or processor. Serve hot with a dollop of creme fraiche or sour cream.

Beet Salad
1 bunch fresh beets, about 6 small
1/4 cup Vermont maple syrup
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup walnuts, loosely chopped
Small block of feta cheese or chèvre

Trim beets, removing stems and tails. Wrap each in foil adding a pinch of the garlic, a tiny bit of salt and a few drops of olive oil. Wrap tightly and roast for 45 mins. at 375º. Check for doneness with knife point.

When tender, remove from packets, after cooling. Rub beets to remove skins and cut into chunks or slices. Add maple syrup while beets are warm, along with any liquid in roasting pan/foil. Toasted walnuts are added next. Cool to room temperature. Lastly, add cheese in pieces for serving. A delicious combination.

Cipolline Glazed Onions
16 oz. whole Cipolline onions, peeled
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup white wine
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon sugar

Melt butter in skillet, add whole onions. Sauté five minutes. Add garlic and sugar, cook a few minutes to glaze onions. Add wine, put all in casserole dish. Cover and bake 30 mins. at 350º, shaking pan often. Uncover and bake another 15 to 20 minutes. Serves six. Note: Peeling can be done by dropping onions into boiling water for a few minutes. Drain and cool. After trimming root end, slip off skins.

I tend to be a flexible cook, so I encourage you to be, also. Feel free to add or subtract or improve on my recipes. As the younger set says these days, “You do you!”