By Anastassia Skarlinski
Root vegetables rarely win beauty contests – often bumpy and misshapen, covered in a dusting of dirt, or in the case of rutabagas, wax! These are the vegetables that people often relegate to one dish, if they think of them at all. There are a number of different kinds of root vegetables including bulbs, corms, tubers, tap roots, and tuberous roots. These are the parts of plants that grow below the ground, absorbing nutrients for the green part above the ground.
What these plants may lose in beauty points, they more than make up for in taste and nutrition. Beneath the dirt many are bright yellow and orange vegetables, like carrots and rutabagas, and rich in carotenoids. Carotenoids are found in red, yellow, and orange pigments of plants. The carotenoids that have gotten the most attention from the press are beta carotene, lutein, and lycopene. These, and other carotenoids, are converted into vitamin A by your body. Vitamin A is essential for vision, and may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Root vegetables are also great sources of fiber, folate, manganese, and more.
When shopping for root vegetables look for vegetables with a firm flesh and skin, try to avoid wilted or shriveled items. The vegetable should be relatively heavy for its size. Most root vegetables are pretty happy in the produce drawer of your fridge for up to 2 weeks. Rutabagas and jicama, which are typically covered in wax, should last a little longer. If there are still greens attached to the vegetables, typically with beets or radishes, cut them off to store separately. These make an excellent dish to cook along with your root vegetables
Most people think of carrots as being orange; however, they also can come in shades of purple, yellow, and white. Many people say that orange carrots were bred in order to honor the House of Orange in the Dutch low countries of Spain. This story is mostly untrue – the orange carrots simply thrived in the Netherlands better than other colors. Regardless of color, carrots are still one of the most popular root vegetables, used in soups, salads, and stews, roasted or even in a cake. They are an excellent source of fiber, beta carotene, and other anti-oxidants.
Parsnips look like the ghostly cousin of a carrot, and in fact they are. These biennial plants (they live for 2 years) have a sweet nutty flavor, sweeter if left in the ground until after the first frost. Parsnips are delicious roasted, glazed, or simmered and mashed. They are an excellent source of vitamins C, K, and E as well as folate.
There are many different types of beets. However, in US grocery stores you will most often see red and sometimes yellow (golden) beets. Slightly sweet and earthy, these vegetables are amazing roasted, pickled, or thrown in a stew or the air fryer. They are a good source of fiber, folate, iron, copper, and manganese. Red beets may stain your hands – washing your hands with a little toothpaste will usually eliminate the stain. They might also tint your urine and feces, so don’t be alarmed. But if the unusual coloring persists, of course see a doctor.
Radishes are members of the brassica family. This is the family of cabbages and mustards. Radishes, much like beets, are delicious from greens to root. These peppery roots are most often enjoyed raw in salads. However, they are also delicious roasted or used in a stew. When cooked, they have a texture similar to new potatoes.
Turnips are another brassica family cousin. Often sold in stores without their greens, they are small white and purple bulbs. Most often these vegetables are roasted or stewed, but they can also be a spicy addition grated into a coleslaw. They are a good source of vitamin C and fiber, and research is underway to better understand their anti-inflammatory properties.
Large, round, and covered in wax, these large roots may be the most intimidating looking roots on this list. However, there is no reason to fear! Once peeled, these vegetables can be used like almost any other root vegetable, roasted, boiled and mashed, or simmered in a soup. They are an excellent source of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, and calcium.
These tuberous roots are native to Mexico. They are often eaten raw. The flesh is crunchy and sweet with a flavor similar to a water chestnut or an under ripe pear. They are high in fiber, vitamin C, and folate. Try them sliced and used as chips with guacamole.
Here are a couple of recipes to help you get excited about root veggies!
Beet and Orange Salad
Excellent as a green salad topper or as a refreshing side for grilled meats:
- 3 beets, peeled and grated
- 2 large carrots, peeled and grated
- 2 oranges, peeled and diced
- ½ bunch mint leaves
- ½ cup crumbled feta
- 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Mix all ingredients in a large bowl
(Note: If you do not have a food processor to grate the beets, use a box grater to grate them in a bowl in the sink – the juice of the beets tends to spray.)
After all of that talk of roasted vegetables, I should leave you with a bare bones recipe for roasted root vegetables! You can adapt this recipe however you like best:
Quick Roasted Root Veggies
- 2 pounds of root vegetables of your choice, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Dried herbs of choice: oregano, parsley, rosemary, or thyme are all good
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper (or more to taste)
- Toss all ingredients together. Roast on a rimmed baking sheet at 425F for 20-30 minutes
- If desired, toss with 2 Tbsp of honey or lemon juice before serving