Root Awakenings

05 January 2006
Root Awakenings

Root vegetables build menu appeal with familiarity, versatility, good value and great taste.

This article first appeared in the 1 October 2005 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website

By Sherry Van Der Elst, Special to R&I

Root vegetables, once the lowly peons of the larder, are finding new prominence in foodservice. No longer considered culinary has-beens, parsnips, radishes, turnips, rutabagas and beets are experiencing a renaissance on the nation's menus as chefs discover the old-fashioned goodness and cost-saving advantages of these earthly delights.

Health-conscious diners and food-focused chefs helped move the trend to the fore. With keen interest in "honest" and "authentic" foods, both groups are happy to overlook the less glamorous aspects of root vegetables and instead focus on all they offer.

"Where once we wanted uniform, perfect-looking produce, now we want it to look knobby and dirty," says Edward Lee, chef-owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky. "It shows that the vegetables were produced on a farm, not in a factory."

Lee's Root Vegetable Napoleon, featuring a medley of roasted yellow and red beets, celery root, sweet potatoes and radishes grown on his six-acre farm, is a popular menu item. "The flavor of all the vegetables together is so incredibly complex that it makes a meal by itself," he says. Poached lamb crusted with pistachios and served with celery-root purée, and deep-fried parsnips also feature on his menu.

With a Little Coaxing

For cooking root vegetables, high-temperature roasting is favored by many chefs because it brings out nutty, sweet flavors and envelopes them in a crisp coat of caramelized sugar.

"They're not just something you chop up and throw into soup anymore," Lee explains. "You can roast, grill, caramelize, deep-fry and really coax the flavor out of root vegetables."

Celery root and turnips, along with yams and pumpkins, are incorporated into flower arrangements and add a rustic touch to the restaurant's décor. But they also reflect Lee's philosophy about educating patrons, who rarely connect the food on their plates with the farms that produce it.

"We tell them that these are the actual vegetables we grew on our farm and that are going to appear in their dish," Lee says. "And people ask, ‘How can this ugly, dirty, knobby thing taste so sweet and delicate?'"

Getting past the unfamiliarity is one of the biggest challenges. With names that invoke images of musty cellars and dank earth, it's no wonder these roots often wind up on the menu under the more palatable moniker of "winter vegetables."

"People are learning to appreciate them again, but I think they still associate roots with the food their grandparents ate," says Hans-Trevor Gossmann, chef-partner of the San Diego Wine & Culinary Center. "You have to be creative."

In his fricassee of duck, parsnips and turnips are sautéed in duck fat to bring out their full flavors.

There for You

All root vegetables share the common traits of long storage capability and the ability to hold up under heat. In the kitchen, they can be a chef's best friend, says Gossmann.

"They're kind of my support system," he explains. "In an emergency, I throw them on a sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil and roast. It's amazing how sweet they become-almost like candy."

Root vegetables pair well with just about anything-red meat, game and even fish, Gossmann adds. "I love marinating lean fish with yellow beets," he says. "I slice the beets paper thin, add a little sugar and salt and cure them for a while. Then I immerse the beets in olive oil with a touch of lemon juice and vinegar. They make a nice design as a bed for fish, and the yellow beet has a nice crunch and delicate flavor that doesn't overpower."

The natural thickening ability of puréed root vegetables lends itself to creating rich, creamy soups without dairy products-perfect for health-conscious patrons and budget-conscious chefs. Trimmings that normally would go to waste on other vegetables can be added to fillings, tossed into stews and used for soups. "I even roll them into dumplings or ravioli," Gossmann says.

Still, coaxing patrons to eat them can be a challenge. "Roots look and sound so strange that I think people are intimidated by them," says Heather Terhune, executive chef at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants' Atwood Cafe in Chicago, where her root-vegetable chicken pot pie is the top seller. "You have to make them look and sound more palatable on the menu."

Pairing roots with familiar produce helps. "If you add parsnips to mashed potatoes or make a soup of roasted parsnips and pears, it sounds friendly because it has an ingredient customers are familiar with," Terhune explains.

Pistachio-crusted roast beef with roasted beets-a customer favorite-and goat cheese with roasted beets and champagne vinegar reveal Terhune's partiality to the ruby-colored root.

"I love red beets because you can use them in summer and winter," she says. "We roast red and gold beets in their skins; it concentrates the natural sugars. They usually aren't a hard sell here."

And root vegetables, Terhune says, make great budgeting tools. "They're very inexpensive if you buy them in season, and pairing them with more-expensive cuts of meat helps me balance plate cost. Root vegetables make sense for so many reasons."

Fresh or Frozen?

Fresh vegetables are always best. Right?

Sometimes yes and sometimes no.

While frozen vegetables often are thought to be inferior in quality and nutritional value to fresh, they're actually just as good for you.

"You get just as many vitamins and minerals from frozen vegetables," says Patricia Vasconcellos, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

In fact, frozen broccoli and spinach are more nutritious than fresh because their nutrients are locked in just hours after being picked, while fresh broccoli and spinach may take hours or days before reaching the market, losing vitamins and minerals along the way.

On the flip side, frozen broccoli often contains higher levels of sodium than fresh and to some, does not taste the same as fresh.

"You're probably not going to get the exact same fresh flavor, but you can come close," Vasconcellos says. "Many people simply prefer the taste, texture and look of fresh produce."

Frozen vegetables have a particular advantage for restaurant chefs when certain types of produce are out of season or simply out of their budget range.

"You can buy in bigger quantities, freeze it and take out only what you need, which eliminates waste," Vasconcellos explains. "And you can have seasonal vegetables on hand year-round."

Still, she adds, "It's better to focus on getting more vegetables onto your diners' plates."

Sherry Van Der Elst is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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