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Rooting For Us All - January 2017


Rooting For Us All - January 2017

by Ron Skaar

Root vegetables, nourishing and hardy, have been an important food source for thousands of years. When nomadic people began to settle down to domesticate animals, agriculture moved along fast. Like wheat, edible roots could be sheltered in fields to grow in size and quality.

Parsnips have provided a good source of starch for four thousand years. Cultivated during the Hellenistic and Roman times, they were enjoyed as a dessert with honey or fruit and in little cakes. Emperor Tiberius received parsnips as part of a tribute to Rome by Germany. They were used throughout Europe as a source of sugar before cane and beet sugar became available.

Parsnips and carrots probably evolved from the slender white root of the wild flower Queen Anne’s lace. They are relatives of parsley, dill, fennel and celery. Early varieties of carrots came in white, purple, red, yellow and green. They were cultivated in the Mediterranean area during the later part of the Stone Age for medicinal benefit rather than as food.

Carrots moved from medicinal use into desirable food by the 1st century A.D. Our elongated orange carrot was developed in the Netherlands during the 17th century. When early European settles came to Virginia, they brought along carrot seeds. 

Turnips were domesticated before the 15 century B.C. in India and a well established root in Greek and Roman cuisine. They have been a staple in Europe since the Middle Ages.

Turnips were brought to America by French and English colonists and flourished in the south.

Rutabagas look and taste similar to a turnip yet are relatively new, evolving from a turnip and a wild cabbage. They were first recognized in the 17th century in Sweden, which is why rutabaga are sometimes called “Swedes”. The English refer to them as “turnip-rooted cabbage” and actually used the larger roots as economical cannon balls in the 1800’s. That is, until they realized that their enemies where dinning on them!

Roots are some of the most nutritionally dense vegetables in the world. Each root contains it own set of health benefits but they share many of the same traits. Packed with a high concentration of antioxidants plus vitamin C, B and A, they are filled with slow burning carbs and lots of fiber. 

Root vegetables are extremely versatile in cooking and there peak season is in winter. 

Parsnips convert starch into sugar when exposed to cold temperature and pair well with sour cream, nutmeg or thyme. Carrots are the perfectly sweet eaten raw or the culinary star in many savory and sweet recipes. 

The turnips versatile and subtle flavor is great for roasting, sautéed or pickling. Rutabaga has an earthy taste, and are great pureed, roasted or added to stews, like in the accompanying recipe. 

Classic Pot-au-Feu

½ large onion cut in half

3 large leeks, white and pale green parts only, cut into 2-inch lengths

6 celery ribs, halved crosswise

3 medium carrots, peeled and halved crosswise

2 meaty beef shanks, 1 ½ inches thick

1 ½ -pound beef bottom round, tied

4 parsley sprigs and 4 thyme sprigs

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns, salt

4 quarts water

3 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch lengths

3 medium turnips, peeled and quartered

½ pound rutabagas, peeled and cut into eighths

8-12 unpeeled new potatoes

Horseradish and whole-grain mustard, for serving


Combine the onion and half of the leeks, celery and carrots in a large pot. Set the beef shanks and bottom round on top of vegetables. Add the herb sprigs and bay leaf and cover with the water. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, cook for 2 hours.

Transfer the beef shanks and roast to a low oven and cover. Strain the broth, return to pot and reduce over high heat to half. Add the remaining leeks, celery, carrot, parsnips, turnips, and rutabaga. Cover and simmer over low heat until vegetables are al dent and add potatoes. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender. 

Untie the rump roast and slice into 4-6 pieces. Cut shank meat into 2-inch chunks. Season meats with salt and pepper. Ladle the broth into shallow bowls. Add the meats and vegetables and serve, passing condiments at table. Serves 4.


Photo by Jon Russo