Humble root vegetables are now haute

January 02, 1991|By Lynn Van Matre | Lynn Van Matre,Chicago Tribune

When it comes to members of the vegetable kingdom, there are the glamorous aristocrats -- artichokes and asparagus come to mind -- then there are the humbler types -- parsnips, turnips, beets and rutabagas.

It's hard to get more "down to earth" than roots, bulbs and tubers. While their green, leafy tops can make good eating, their real bounty is hidden below ground, where the fleshy, edible roots grow to maturity surrounded by soil.

Like the earthy potato, sweet potato and onion, root vegetables generally are low in calories and cost, high in flavor and nutritional value and can stand up well to long periods of storage. But -- maybe because they're so common and so durable compared with the vegetable family's more perishable prima donnas -- roots, tubers and bulbs frequently have failed to be appreciated fully. In fact, these delicious, vitamin-packed viands have been perceived throughout much of recorded history as "peasant fodder."

Sure, the below-ground bunch has enjoyed brief moments of glory from time to time, figuring in history and folklore.

The ancient Egyptians considered the onion bulb a symbol of eternity because its layers formed spheres within a sphere; Egyptian officials took the oath of office with their right hand on top of an onion.

During the Middle Ages, onions were so valuable that they were used as rent payments and wedding gifts; centuries later, during the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant dispatched a frantic message to the War Department, stating, "I will not move my army without onions."

A Halloween tradition of the early 1900s sent young women into the garden to "pull a root" and read their fate in the gnarly twists of a turnip, carrot, beet or parsnip.

Folklore has it that raw spuds can cure warts and rheumatism -- or do in an enemy (write the person's name on a small piece of paper, attach it to a potato with sharp pins and wait).

Nevertheless, despite the occasional turn in the spotlight, roots have been relatively slow to scale the trendy heights of haute cuisine or capture the serious attention of cooks at home.

Until now, anyway.

These days, humble roots are going haute at upscale restaurants around the country. Carrots turn up as consomme, and baby beets are bathed in their own piquant juices. Rootsy daikon, a Japanese radish, teams with shiitake mushrooms and snow peas, and celery root pasta serves as a sturdy backdrop for elegant black truffles. Three kinds of root vegetable sorbets -- beet, carrot and turnip -- garnish a salad of wild greens, while whole roasted root vegetables accompany a hearty pot roast or are featured players in a pot au feu.

In Chicago, at the Everest Room, parsley root comes into its own in a savory soup; rutabaga may share a plate with braised lamb; and marinated turnips can turn up alongside foie gras.

And because food trends frequently trickle down from sophisticated white-tablecloth restaurants to home kitchens, chances are that sooner or later root vegetables will be turning up in more imaginative ways on the family dinner table as well.

"As people get back more to the basics, they are looking for natural, earthy flavors," says Stephen Langlois, executive chef at Chicago's Prairie restaurant.

"Root vegetables have become almost a cult thing," says Michael Foley, chef-proprietor of Printer's Row in Chicago. "The trend started about two years ago, when people started wanting more comfort food, things that they were familiar with -- and everyone's familiar with root vegetables.

"I think one problem in the past was that people thought of root vegetables as bland and boring. Now, when you give them a roasted turnip, they're amazed at how much flavor it has."

Root vegetables, Mr. Foley says, long have been a mainstay with cooks outside the United States.

"In a lot of countries they cook them with secondary cuts of meat like brisket, pot roast and shank," Mr. Foley says. "Those cuts of meat need long, low-heat cooking, and root vegetables stand up to that and add flavor, richness and great texture.

"In the United States, cooks now are discovering how versatile these vegetables can be and are handling them in a lot of different ways. You can serve them hot, cold or at room temperature; they offer lots of color; and they are available summer or winter," Mr. Foley says.

"Root vegetables have always been around," says Charlie Trotter, chef-owner of the Chicago restaurant that bears his name, "but maybe now there's a new breed of chefs saying, 'Let's try our hand at this.'

"It's a challenge to demonstrate that you can prepare some really interesting food with humble ingredients. It's a lot harder to get people to 'ooh' and 'aah' over beets and carrots than it is to get them to 'ooh' and 'aah' over artichokes or asparagus, and I enjoy being able to take these humble, 'lowbrow' foodstuffs up a few notches and serve them with great exuberance."

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