By Kurt Michael Friese
When researching the history and lore of a particular food, something I do with perhaps more frequency than the average person, one of my favorite resources to turn to is the late Waverly Root, an American journalist assigned to Paris for most of his career, and his indispensable Food: An Authoritative Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World. And, honestly, how could I not turn to Root when writing about three often overlooked winter vegetables: turnips, parsnips and rutabagas? Despite the fact that in our modern day they play second fiddle to carrots, these three are wonderful, hearty winter fare, delicious in a mash with other root vegetables, in soups and stews, or roasted in the oven until crisp and savory. They are also well appreciated in the lean months because of their long shelf life and low cost.
Turnips. In his tome, Root describes the “lowly” turnip as having been both maligned and revered throughout history; albeit mostly maligned. According to Root, in the Middle Ages “It became popular to pelt unpopular persons with turnips (tomatoes being not yet available), which would seem to indicate scant esteem for the turnip, though it was perhaps more respected than its target.” Would have hurt more than tomatoes, too. Don’t let their unpopularity deter you though; when young, turnips (which are white-skinned with a stripe of scarlet-purple) are tender and sweet. Sautéed in a knob of butter with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, they’re divine.
Rutabagas. Of the three underdog root vegetables, the rutabaga my be the most maligned of them all; indeed Mr. Root tells us that they were “more popular a century ago than now.” But they are tasty in soups and stews. Rutabagas are firmer and sweeter and similar to turnips in appearance, the main difference being a sort of muted hue of both white and purple. When I was a child, my mother used to make a favorite dish called Rötmös, which was simply a half-and-half mix of mashed potatoes and mashed rutabaga served with a sweet pea cream sauce. Good for growing boys.
Parsnips. Parsnips seem to get a bit more respect, perhaps because they look like pale, cream-colored carrots. Europeans have been cultivating them for millennia, and brought them to the Americas in the 17th century. When fresh and young (you’ll want to avoid overly large ones as they’ll have a fibrous core), they’re sweet with an earthy, herbal undertone that pairs beautifully with flavors like garlic and rosemary.
In a season where it can be tough to find “seasonal” vegetables, these three hardy choices will stand you in good stead until the peas and asparagus arrive. And I’m reasonably sure Mr. Root would agree.
Kurt Michael Friese is the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, serves on the Slow Food USA National Board of Directors, and is editor and publisher of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He’s also Chef and co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, a freelance food writer and photographer, and author of A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland.