Overcoming the humble origins of underground vegetables

Many Americans are prejudiced against root vegetables, for several reasons. With the exception of potatoes and perhaps beets and carrots, they were often overcooked in the kitchens of our childhoods and served too frequently.

These underground vegetables, covered with dirt and sometimes with hairy shoots, cannot compare in beauty with tender new lettuce or purple broccoli, with a ripe tomato, a baby squash or a handsome dark purple eggplant.

But although they may be humble in appearance, root vegetables are remarkably versatile, responding well to all methods of cooking except overcooking. And they cost little.

So let us then consider the parsnip, Jerusalem artichoke, rutabaga, celeriac, and the humble turnip.

These vegetables can be boiled or steamed, poached or pureed, grated or julienned, sliced or diced, sauteed or fried, baked or roasted. They can be eaten raw. First and foremost, remember to cook them only until tender - and no more.

Parsnips, if allowed to remain in the frozen ground, become very sweet and delicate. Similar to carrots in shape, the two combine well. In the dish suggested below, the orange and white slices are sauteed with ginger to intensify their sweetness.

Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes, are crisp and juicy in texture like a radish or water chestnut, but pleasantly sweet. They are undoubtedly the most versatile of all vegetables in this group, yet they are somewhat ignored, perhaps because of their misleading name. Try baking them like a potato in the pan next to roast pork or chicken, or peel and slice them to eat raw as in a salad.

Rutabaga, or Swedish turnips, are often confused with turnips, but they have their own character. They take well to sauteeing or braising, or to a simple and elegant puree, as given below.

Celeriac, or celery root, named for its strong celery flavor, has long been favored by Europeans, cut into julienne and marinated in a well-seasoned mayonnaise. The version here uses sour cream in addition to mayonnaise, as well as a beautiful garnish of smoked salmon and capers.

Turnips cut into interesting shapes can be boiled or sauteed quickly. This allows them to keep their natural crispness.

The recipes suggested here will help reacquaint you with these underground vegetables. Sauteed Parsnips and Carrots With Ginger 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger root 2 to 3 medium carrots 2 to 3 medium parsnips 1 scallion, green top included 2 tablespoons sweet butter 1/4 cup orange juice Scrape carrots and parsnips and slice thinly. They should be approximately equal in quantity. Chop scallion.

Melt butter in pan, and saute ginger about half a minute. Add carrots and parsnips; saute about 6 minutes, until they take on color. Halfway through, add scallions. Toss vegetables often so they cook evenly.

When lightly browned but still crisp inside, pour orange juice over vegetables. Stir briskly to dissolve solids on bottom of pan and coat vegetables.

As soon as juice is evaporated, leaving a syrupy glaze, serve. Makes 4 servings. Jerusalem Artichoke and Mushroom Salad 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice, depending on its strength 6 tablespoons olive oil Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 garlic clove, minced (optional) 1 scallion, chopped 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley 3 or 4 small Jerusalem artichokes 6 mushrooms 1 head Boston lettuce or other salad greens

In a bowl, mix together vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Add garlic, scallion, and parsley.

Peel Jerusalem artichoke knobs and cut into thin slices. Combine immediately with vinaigrette dressing and stir to coat with marinade.

Slice mushrooms thinly and add to dressing mixture. Let marinate for an hour , or as long as overnight. Just before serving, toss with lettuce.

A few leftover scallops, or small shrimp, make this into an elegant first course or luncheon salad. Makes 4 servings. Rutabaga and Potato Puree 2 pounds rutabaga, peeled and diced 2 pounds boiling potatoes 4 tablespoons butter, or to taste 1/2 cup hot milk or cream

Salt and pepper

Dash nutmeg or mace

Drop rutabaga and potatoes into pot of boiling water. Return to boil and cook about 10 minutes, depending on size, until just tender.

Drain well and puree by pressing through a fine sieve with back of spoon or in a ricer. Do not use food processor, or they will have a gluey texture.

Stir in hot butter and milk; beat until puree becomes light. Season to taste and serve. Makes 6 servings.

You can change the proportion and use more rutabaga or more potato if you like.

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