Back to Our Roots Cuisine: Innovative cooks go underground to turn carrots, turnips, potatoes and other particularly ordinary vegetables into unusually flavorful, nutritious fare.

November 13, 1996|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

Once humble cottage fare, root vegetables are suddenly climbing out of the cellar and into haute cuisine.

Onions, garlic, parsnips, turnips, carrots, taro, shallots, sweet potatoes -- those are just some of the "underground" vegetables trendy chefs are using to sauce a fish, create old-fashioned French-style dishes without the butter and cream, and spark favorite foods with extra flavor.

"There was a time, a few years ago, when everybody was doing baby vegetables -- they were so 'cute,' " said Hubert Keller, executive chef at San Francisco's noted Fleur de Lis restaurant and author of the new book "The Cuisine of Hubert Keller" (Ten Speed Press, $35). "It became so trendy. But I felt it was time for a change, I had to do something else. I felt it was time to reintroduce root vegetables. They're not 'fancy,' but they have a lot of flavor, and they're inexpensive."

Root vegetables are the edible rhizomes, corms and tubers of plants whose tops we may also eat. Celery root and celery stalks are both edible, as are beets and beet greens. In some cases, such as horseradish, ginger and water chestnut, we eat the roots only.

Keller uses celery root in a pancake topped with lobster and caviar, and recently did a two-day wine-tasting dinner for 40, serving some dishes with beet sauces. For the diners, he said, "it was a kind of revelation, matching beets with some very old Bordeaux."

Customers, he said, are "thrilled" that something as simple as a beet, or a potato or a parsnip can taste so good.

Besides being plentiful and inexpensive, root vegetables are in season right now. Some, like carrots and potatoes, are available year-round, but there's something about fall that requires the kind of hearty, homey flavors root vegetables can provide.

"To me, root vegetables have a great feeling of seasonality," said Peter Zimmer, partner and executive chef at the Joy America Cafe at the American Visionary Arts Museum. "Just before winter comes in, you get these different vegetables, rutabagas, beets, squash. One of my favorite things to do with root vegetables is to make syrups out of them."

Zimmer juices the vegetables and uses the juice two ways: one as is, the other reduced in a saucepan until it is extremely concentrated (the syrup). Some of his dishes include parsnip syrup over gnocchi (potato pasta) and seared sea scallops, and corn-encrusted salmon on a bed of ginger-carrot essence (the juice), with a garnish of deep-fried leek and sweet potato "tumbleweeds."

Juicing the vegetables produces an intense but almost mysterious flavor, he said. "It would be hard to bite into a raw parsnip, but you can juice it and get this wonderful peppery, horseradish-y flavor."

Root vegetables are a natural food coloring, Zimmer noted. The carrot and ginger sauce comes out a bright orange, he said. "It has a tantalizing flavor that is so bright and brilliant."

But root vegetables are more than pretty colors -- they're also extremely high in vitamins and beta-carotene. "You can make excellent low-calorie, high-nutrient dishes," Zimmer said.

"More and more people are really interested in eating more vegetables, primarily for health reasons," said Georgeanne Brennan, a California food and garden writer whose latest book is "Down to Earth: Great Recipes for Root Vegetables" (Chronicle Books, $16.95). "But they wonder, 'How do I go about it?' " The book is designed to encourage people to think about using root vegetables. It has extensive "Root Notes" at the beginning with tips, techniques and recipe suggestions.

"Root vegetables are great [to experiment with] because they're not perishable, and you can buy carrots and rutabagas just about anytime," Brennan said. "I think what chefs are doing will trickle down" to home cooks.

Brennan, who divides her time between California and France, said, "Roots are something I've always grown in my garden. And in France, all my friends, especially in fall and winter, serve roots."

There are two kinds of recipes in her book, she said: One takes a familiar dish, say, a melon salad, and gives it an unusual twist -- a melon salad with jicama. The other takes a familiar vegetable, say horseradish, and uses it in an untraditional way -- horseradish salmon cakes on wilted greens.

"I tried to encourage people to think of things differently, to do things they might not normally do," she said.

Keller also encourages cooks to experiment with root vegetables. Fleur de Lis features a vegetarian prix-fixe dinner every night, so he does a lot of "playing around" with vegetable flavors. His cookbook has recipes for dishes such as chilled beet and ginger soup; celery root, truffle and walnut salad; and beef, lamb and pork baeckeoffe, a traditional Alsatian stew.

"The thing is to experiment, not to be shy at all," he said. "These are not expensive vegetables -- and if the worst case comes, you can always run it through the blender and turn it into soup."

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