Listen up, roots lovers: You’re about to be humbled.
Sure, many of us go out of our way for little baby turnips, and even my dog knows a carrot when she sees one. But can you recognize yuca? What about crosne? There are, it seems, whole bushels of root vegetables that many of us have never heard of — or if we’ve heard of them, we’re clueless about what they look like.
Based here in Portland, Oregon, Diane Morgan is a cookbook author who took it upon herself to teach us all what we’re missing. Over the course of two and a half years, she gathered up a couple of dozen roots, learned all she could about each of them, and created an impressive collection of root-centric recipes (some 225 all together).
While her new book, Roots, skips the alliums — onions, garlic, and the like — it does contain more than 400 pages of facts, photos, and recipes for 28 roots, many of which are grown in Oregon and none of which was difficult for her to source.
The flavor of various roots is, of course, the main reason to dig in and learn more about them. But the nutritional value of roots is also high, and they’re often affordable and plentiful. These are foods to take seriously.
Using Morgan’s book, we’ve created a roots quiz, below. Take it and test your roots mettle, then seek out some of these tubers and try them for yourself.
About burdock, Morgan writes, “The Japanese are responsible for its use as an edible plant and consider it a delicacy, enjoying its pleasant crunchy texture and earthy, meaty flavor.” She says that very young roots and tender leaves are eaten raw, but most often it’s cooked. Its flavor is best when the root is left unpeeled.
As for salsify? “It was first planted in Italy and France and only later in central and northern Europe. It was brought to North America in the late 18th century, and, according to his garden records, Thomas Jefferson planted it at Monticello.” Salsify and the closely related scorzonera (or black salsify) can be used interchangeably in the kitchen — that is, steamed, simmered, boiled, roasted, sautéed, or fried.
So which root is this: burdock or salsify?
“Indigenous to North America, the Jerusalem artichoke, a member of the aster (or sunflower) family, was cultivated by Native Americans,” writes Morgan. Also known as sunchokes, these vegetables are neither from Jerusalem, nor members of the artichoke family. They can be eaten raw or cooked, but watch out: Some people suffer gastric distress from eating them.
A member of the ginger family, galangal is a root common in Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian cooking — but it was also popular in medieval England. “In India, it is used as a breath purifier and as a deodorant, and a paste made from the rhizomes is used to treat skin infections,” writes Morgan. In cooking, it is usually used grated, chopped, sliced, or ground into paste to flavor dishes or marinades.
Which root is this?
“Despite the name, horseradish is not a radish at all,” writes Morgan, “although it does belong to the same big family, Brassicaceae.” H.J. Heinz, she says, is responsible for bringing jars of prepared horseradish to the masses; in 1869, he began peddling the vegetable, which he grew in his own garden.
“Even though wasabi resembles horseradish in flavor and is often called Japanese horseradish,” Morgan writes, “the popular condiment plants are unrelated to each other except for both being members of the sprawling family Brassicaceae.” Like horseradish, wasabi is most often served grated.
Which root is this?
Originally, Morgan says, rutabagas were grown for animal fodder and were consumed by humans only during times of famine; hence the vegetable’s reputation as peasant food. “One of the hardier root vegetables, [rutabagas possess] a starchy, low-moisture flesh that takes well to roasting, boiling, mashing, or braising,” she notes.
And taro, Morgan writes, is quite the tricky tuber: “There is a great deal of confusion and mislabeling when it comes to all kinds of tropical tubers, and taro is no exception.” Taro is a root that must always be cooked, as its oxalic-acid compounds can irritate the throat. But it makes amazing chips; “like yuca, taro chips fry with virtually no splatter.”
Finally, which root is this?
Kim Carlson is Culinate’s editorial director.
Answers: A=burdock; B=galangal; C=horseradish; and D=rutabagas.