It’s easy to root for root vegetables. They are the underdogs of the culinary world, the downtrodden and forgotten in a world of shining stars. They will never be fashionable, never hip. They will not achieve the fleeting popularity of quinoa, farro, pork bellies or even kale. They are, and will always be, just root vegetables.
They do not know the joy of growing in the sunshine; they burrow instead into the dirt. They can be a little hard to cook and a little hard to eat. And if truth be told, they tend to be kind of ugly.
And yet they taste so, so good.
My favorite root vegetable is probably the homeliest of the lot. Celeriac is the root of a plant in the celery family; it is often called celery root. It tastes like celery, too, only a milder version and smoother. It’s sort of like Celery Lite.
Which happens to make it perfect for Cream of Celeriac Soup. Celery is a little too assertive for soup, though plenty of people use it, but celeriac makes a soup that sparkles with sophistication.
As with many things, the secret is to begin with a cream base. Frankly, if you began with a cream base, you could make gravel taste good. To make it, sauté onions and shallots in oil; then add white wine and stock, and reduce each one until it is nearly dry. Once those flavors have concentrated, only then do you add the cream. Magnificent.
To make the soup, just simmer celeriac in the cream base and a little more stock until it is tender. Then purée.
For my next root vegetable, I chose parsnips — because I can use them to make parsnip chips. Actually, you can use many root vegetables to make chips (after all, potatoes are also root vegetables), but I like parsnips because of their inherent sweetness.
It’s not an overpowering sweetness, it’s just enough to be a foil to the root’s earthiness.
Parsnips are also easy to slice thin, which helps to make delicately crispy chips. You can use a mandoline if you have one, but if you don’t you can find just as much success with an ordinary vegetable peeler.
Parsnip chips are simple to make and delicious, but perhaps their greatest benefit comes when you serve them to others. Your guests will look at you in amazement and say, “What are these? They’re wonderful.”
“Oh,” you can say. “Just some root vegetable.”
Turnips are usually thought of as that thing you forget to add to soups, but they have many wonderful uses of their own. I used them to make a main course, Braised Turnips With Thyme.
This is a hearty dish, a vegetable stew with a spectacular twist. You simmer together turnips, rutabagas, onion, garlic and a carrot, plus thyme for flavor, salt for seasoning and a bit of flour to thicken the sauce.
So far, so good. A bit of parsley, a bit of pepper and you have a typical vegetable ragout — or at least typical for a ragout that uses root vegetables as its primary ingredients.
And then there’s that twist: You add Dijon mustard and cream. Not much of either, but just enough to change the flavor completely and lift the dish into the stratosphere.
Finally, I made a Rutabaga Purée With Leeks, which at its heart is an improvement on mashed potatoes. It’s mashed potatoes with a lot more flavor.
You actually begin with a potato. But then you add rutabagas, with their intriguingly earthy taste, and leeks, with a subtle dose of onion. A single clove of garlic adds a hint of more flavor, and thyme contributes its fair share as well. Cream (or something less fattening) and butter finish the dish.
You may never look at a mashed potato again. When you’re eating something as sublime as rutabaga purée, it’s hard to believe that some people actually look down on root vegetables.
1. Peel parsnips. Use mandoline or vegetable peeler to cut thin slices of parsnip — lengthwise slices will create interesting shapes.
2. Pour oil at least 4 inches deep into a medium or large pot and heat to 350 to 375 degrees. Add a few parsnip slices, without crowding the pot. Fry until the edges (and a little more) are brown, about 1 minute. Immediately remove with a spider or slotted spoon and transfer to a plate with paper towels. Liberally sprinkle with salt, and continue in this manner until you have made the number of parsnip chips you want.
Braised Turnips With Thyme
1 pound turnips, preferably small
2 rutabagas, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1 to 2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely diced
3 small cloves garlic, halved
1 carrot, cut into medium dice
4 sprigs of thyme, or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons flour
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup cream or crème fraiche
1. Cut turnips into sixths and parboil in salted water for 1 minute. Parboil the rutabagas for 3 minutes.
2. Melt the butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, rutabagas, carrot and thyme. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, then add turnips. Season with the salt and sprinkle with the flour.
3. Cover and cook over low heat for 4 minutes, then stir in 1 1/2 cups water and the parsley. Simmer, covered, until the turnips are tender, about 15 minutes. Taste for salt (add more if the turnips taste bitter), season with pepper, add the mustard and cream, and simmer for 2 minutes more. Serve with buttered toast or make into little pot pies covered with pie crust or puff pastry.
Per serving: 205 calories; 9 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 28 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 29 g carbohydrate; 15 g sugar; 7 g fiber; 279 mg sodium; 141 mg calcium.
Makes: 4 servings
Recipe from “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” by Deborah Madison
Rutabaga Puree With Leeks
1 small russet potato, peeled
2 pounds rutabagas, peeled
2 medium leeks, white parts only, chopped
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons or more cream, buttermilk, milk or reserved broth
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1. Chop the potato and then chop the rutabagas into pieces about half the size of the potato pieces. Put the potato, rutabagas, leeks and garlic in a large pot with just enough water to cover. Add the salt and simmer, partially covered, until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid.
2. Mash the vegetables with a potato masher or fork for a rustic texture, or use a food mill for a dish that is more refined. Add the cream or reserved broth to thin the purée. Stir in the butter and thyme, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving (based on 6): 135 calories; 6 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 16 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 20 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 218 mg sodium; 81 mg calcium.
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Cream of Celeriac Soup
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
4 shallots, sliced
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken stock, divided
3 cups heavy cream
1 large or 2 small celeriac roots
Salt and white pepper, to taste
1. Put oil in a large pot over medium-high heat and sauté onion and shallots until clear, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add white wine and reduce until almost dry. Add 2 cups of the chicken stock and reduce until almost dry. Add the cream and simmer slowly until reduced by about 1/5, approximately 10 minutes. Strain and reserve the liquid.
2. Thoroughly peel the celeriac roots, cutting off any fibrous parts you can’t get with the peeler. Cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Add the cubes and the remaining 2 cups of chicken stock to the reserved cream base and simmer until the celeriac is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
3. In batches, pour into a blender and puree. Taste for salt and add white pepper, if needed.
Per serving: 428 calories; 36 g fat; 21 g saturated fat; 105 mg cholesterol; 7 g protein; 16 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 256 mg sodium; 98 mg calcium.
Makes: 8 servings