A walk through the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in December dispels any belief that “there are no fresh vegetables during the winter.” Vendor after vendor offers baskets brimming with ruby red beets, husky carrots and plump turnips. The bounty of spring and summer gives way to a different sort of agricultural plenty: vegetables that will stay fresh for months and see us through many cold and rainy days and nights.
The term “root vegetable” specifically refers to edible plant roots, though it is sometimes used to include anything that grows underground (tubers and enlarged stems, such as potatoes, taro, ginger and sunchokes). Roots store energy for plants in the form of carbohydrates and vary widely in their content of starches and sugars.
Some shoppers resist root vegetables, perhaps associating them with time-intensive preparations such as stews. Others harbor childhood nightmares of poorly prepared root vegetables or mushy canned beets. For them, a well-seasoned root vegetable can be a revelation.
To learn more about root vegetables, and perhaps experience your own root revelation, see our root vegetable guide below, and come to the root festival this Saturday!
Guide to Root Vegetables
You’ll find most of these roots at the farmers’ market now and throughout winter.
Beets (family Chenopodiaceae) – typically red and globe-shaped; also available in white, golden, and Chioggia (candy cane) varieties. Beets have the highest sugar content of any vegetable, but are low in calories. Do not peel or cut before cooking. Red beets can stain your hands and clothing.
Serving suggestions: Add wedges to salad with green beans and goat cheese; toss with herb butter; make into borscht, a hearty Eastern European soup.
Carrots (family Apiaceae) – available in white, purple and gold, in addition to orange. High in beta-carotene, which is converted in the body to Vitamin A. Store carrots away from apples or pears because they release ethylene gas, which can turn carrots bitter. Carrots are commonly used for both savory and sweet dishes.
Serving suggestions: Shred raw carrots and mix with olive oil, lemon juice, and rosemary to make a salad. Add carrots to beef stew, tomato sauce, vegetable soup, or stir-fries. Make carrot cake, carrot torte, or carrot pudding.
Celery root (or celeriac) (family Apiaceae) – softball-sized root with thick, wrinkly brown skin. A special variety of celery cultivated for its root, rather than its stalks. Flavor is like a cross between parsley and mild celery. Keep pieces in acidulated water after peeling so that they don’t brown.
Serving suggestions: Classic French preparation, raw with rémoulade sauce (mayonnaise, capers, gherkins, anchovies, mustard); mash or purée with potatoes; add to beef stew.
Daikon (family Brassicaceae) – long, dense cucumber-shaped roots also known as Oriental radish or mooli; often included in stir-fries, or pickled (as in Korean kimchi).
Serving suggestion: Steam daikon with shredded carrots, then dress with vinaigrette made with rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, and chopped cilantro.
Horseradish (family Brassicaceae) – long, knobby root, used as a condiment. A hot, spicy bite develops when the root is grated or ground. Vinegar is used to stabilize this process. Loses flavor if it’s cooked. Horseradish is one of the “bitter herbs” used in the Jewish Seder supper.
Serving suggestions: Add grated horseradish, salt, and lemon juice or vinegar to sour cream and serve with cold roast beef or asparagus. Make homemade cocktail sauce with ketchup or chili sauce and grated horseradish.
Parsnips (family Apiaceae) – resemble ivory-colored carrots. Pleasantly sweet, with earthy herbal notes. In ancient times, parsnips were used as a sweetener.
Serving suggestions: Boil with potatoes and mash together. Or toss roasted parsnips with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, or allspice and a little brown sugar or maple syrup.
Radishes (family Brassicaceae) – usually round but sometimes elongated; typically red-skinned with white interior; peppery flavor. Watermelon radishes have green skins and red interiors. Radishes are typically eaten raw in salads, as an appetizer, or as a garnish.
Serving suggestions: Says Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food, “Perhaps the most satisfactory way to eat them is to hold what is left of the green stalk between one’s fingers, rub the radish over a piece of butter, dip it in salt, and eat it with bread and butter.”
Rutabagas (family Brassicaceae) – usually yellow- or purple- fleshed and round, larger than turnips. Rutabagas are a cross between a cabbage and a turnip. In Europe, they’re often called “swedes.”
Serving suggestions: Add diced rutabagas to chicken pot pie. Use julienned raw rutabagas on a crudités tray.
Salsify (family Asteraceae) – white carrot-like root sometimes called “oyster plant”; the roots of the less common black salsify are brown on the outside. Delicate roots break easily and are difficult to harvest. Quickly goes from tender to mushy, so cook gently.
Serving suggestions: Braise with chicken, onions, mushrooms and stock. Mash with Parmigiano Reggiano, form into croquettes, and pan-fry.
Sweet potatoes (family Convolvulaceae) – not related to potatoes or to true yams, which grow in tropical climates, though sweet potatoes are commonly called yams in the United States. Sweet potatoes have been cultivated in the Americas for over 2000 years. Dozens of varieties exist, but two are most familiar: orange-fleshed and squash-like (like Garnets) and pale-fleshed and fluffy when cooked (like Jersey Yellows).
Serving suggestions: Cut into sticks and fry like French fries. Mash and combine with crème fraîche and minced chipotles in adobo sauce.
Turnips (family Brassicaceae) – usually white-fleshed and round, with purple-tinged skin. In Japanese and Arab cuisines, turnips are often pickled; in China, they are sun-dried and salted or preserved in soy sauce.
Serving suggestions: Dress shredded raw turnips, cabbage, and carrots with sharp mustard vinaigrette and poppy seeds to make a slaw. Make a gratin of paper-thin turnip slices, cream, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Indian Spiced Carrot Soup from Stephanie Valentine, formerly of Roxanne’s
Carrot Soup with Chile-Peanut Pesto from Bibby Gignilliat of Parties That Cook!
Roasted Beet Salad from Armando Paniagua, formerly of Rose Pistola Restaurant
Baby Beet, Fennel, and Orange Salad from San Francisco chef Jesse Branstetter
Farro with Golden Beets from cookbook author Joyce Goldstein
CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »