Back to Your Roots

Rediscover what these colorful veggies can bring to the table.
By Lisa Turner

All spring and summer,while slender stalks of asparagus and tender, young greens make their flashy debut, the humble root vegetables lie calm and still in the warm earth, waiting patiently for autumn. As soon as the first leaves begin to turn and drop, these unassuming tubers are ready for their starring roles in the produce world. Root vegetables offer a deep, earthy flavor, with a nutty sweetness and a substantial lineup of nutrients. Here’s how to celebrate them in their season of glory.

Carrots. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this universally beloved root veggie is also one of the most nutritious. Carrots are rich in beta-carotene, a cancer-preventive antioxidant that gives them their bright yellow-orange hue. Beta-carotene and other carotenoids may also protect against hyperglycemia and diabetes. As if that’s not enough, researchers now breed carrots with different colors, and the most promising include a red carrot high in lycopene (an antioxidant that helps protect against prostate cancer) and a purple variety that contains anthocyanins (the same cancer-preventive and anti-aging antioxidants found in blueberries). Good news for the reluctant or harried cook: Frozen carrots have the same beta-carotene content as fresh.
TRY IT: Combine shredded carrots with plain yogurt, minced cilantro, and cumin for a great sandwich-topping slaw.

Sweet potatoes. Many of us know the sweet potato only in its miserable holiday incarnation—drowning in syrup, cooked to a mush, and smothered with marshmallows. But baked and unadorned by toppings, these orange tubers reveal a sweet, moist wholesomeness. Like carrots, sweet potatoes contain plenty of beta-carotene, vitamin C, fiber, and proteins called trypsin inhibitors, which show promise as potent antioxidants.
TRY IT: Sauté grated sweet potatoes with diced onion and red pepper, minced garlic, and canned black beans for an updated version of potato hash.

Beets. Too often boiled and pickled, beets have had an unsavory reputation for years. Unsullied by vinegar, however, these ruby-colored roots impart a sweet and rich flavor. Beets provide a good source of minerals, including iron, and they are high in anthocyanins, the same red-purple pigments found in berries and red wine that protect against heart disease.
TRY IT: Roast whole beets in the oven until tender, then slice and toss with sea salt and olive oil, and serve over seared greens.

Turnips. This Thanksgiving staple has a subtle, nutty sweetness and distinctive aroma. Like other crucifers, turnips contain glucosinolates, which are transformed by the body into powerful anticancer compounds. In Newfoundland, cooks traditionally prepare turnips in a savory stew with yellow peas, a method that highlights their flavor.
TRY IT: Cut turnips into strips, toss with olive oil, sea salt, and cayenne, and roast until crispy.

Rutabagas. These roots originated as a cross between the turnip and the cabbage. Like their progenitors, rutabagas are crucifers and contain the same potent anticancer glucosinolates. High in fiber, vitamin C, and calcium, rutabagas are popular in Norway, where they’re cooked and mashed with carrots, potatoes, and onions and then laced with copious amounts of butter and cream to create a lush concoction called rotmos, or “root mash.”
TRY IT: Roast cubes of rutabagas and butternut squash with red onions, rosemary, and garlic.

Radishes. Often strewn on salads or rendered into rosettes for party-plate garnishes, radishes rarely get the attention they deserve. But these crunchy, spicy little roots pack a decent nutritional punch. They rival celery in their low calorie content and provide a good supply of vitamin C. Daikon, a large, white radish essential to Japanese cooking, has a milder, sweeter flavor than its red cousin. Macrobiotic cooks pair daikon with fried or oily foods to counter their fattiness and ease digestion. Daikon is an excellent source of potassium, vitamin C, and folate, and both radishes contain the same anticancer compounds found in other crucifers.
TRY IT: Combine diced radishes with diced mango, minced onion, chopped cilantro, and a squeeze of lime juice for an innovative salsa to serve over grilled fish.

Burdock root. This slender, brownish- black root has a crunchy texture and mildly sweet, earthy flavor. Like daikon, it’s commonly used in Japanese cooking. Macrobiotic chefs consider burdock grounding and strengthening and use it to counter the damaging effects of excessive sugar. Historically considered a blood purifier and diuretic, burdock has modern healing benefits as well: It’s extremely high in potassium and fiber and contains a variety of compounds with anticancer activity, including caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid, and other powerful flavonoid antioxidants.
TRY IT: When steaming brown rice, add slivers of burdock root, diced shiitake mushrooms, and a dash of toasted sesame oil halfway through cooking.

Quick tip! Don’t cube potatoes before boiling them. A new study in the Journal of Food Science found that while that may cut down on cooking time, it also lowers the potassium levels by 50 percent.

Lisa Turner is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colorado.