Hearty eating and good in soups and stews, root vegetables are the stars of the fall garden and the winter table. Root vegetables include carrots, potatoes, radishes, beets, turnips, rutabagas (swedes), parsnips, and sweet potatoes.
Potatoes (Solarium tuberosum) are members of the nightshade family and were first cultivated in South America. Today, wild potatoes still grow throughout the Andes. Potatoes are the world’s fourth largest food crop, after rice, wheat, and corn.
Potatoes can be classified by use: baking, boiling, or all‐purpose.
Baking potatoes are high in starch, with a dry, mealy texture and a coarse skin. Boiling, or waxy potatoes, have a thin skin, don’t fall apart when cooked, and are low in starch.
All‐purpose potatoes are good for both baking and boiling. ‘Kennebecs’ and ‘Katadins’ are good all‐purpose varieties, as are ‘Yukon Golds’, a yellow variety with smooth a thin skin and a buttery flavour.
Top‐selling russets, named for their reddish‐brown skin, are good for baking, French fries (chips), or mashed potatoes. Red waxy varieties such as ‘Red Norland’ and ‘Red Pontiac’ are often used in potato salads. Potatoes harvested and sold fresh in the spring or summer are called new potatoes. Contrary to popular belief, not all red potatoes are new potatoes.
Unusual varieties include purple‐skinned potatoes with blue flesh and red‐skinned potatoes with pink flesh.
Carrots (Daucus carota) come in long‐root varieties as well as short‐root ones, which are best for rocky soil or short growing seasons. Varieties include super‐long ‘Japanese Imperial Long’ (10‐24″ or 25‐61 cm), ‘Danvers Half‐Long’ (7‐8″ or 17‐20 cm), ‘Short ‘N Sweet’ (4″ or 10 cm), and tiny, round ‘Thumbelina’ (1/2″ or 1.25 cm).
Radishes (Raphanus sativus) include common red globe radishes, such as ‘Cherry Belle’, longer carrot‐like radishes, such as ‘French Breakfast’, and white or winter radishes, such as ‘White Icicle’. Other varieties include ‘Easter Egg’, a mix of small red, white, rose, and violet radishes, ‘Round Black Spanish’, with a black (or more accurately dark maroon) skin and white flesh, and the turnip‐sized ‘Watermelon’, with a pale green skin and pink to red interior.
Largest is the white carrot‐shaped daikon, a staple of Japanese cuisine, which may grow up to twenty inches long. Daikon radishes are hotter than red radishes, but not as hot as black ones.
Beets (Beta vulgaris) are related to Swiss chard, and beet greens can be used like chard. In addition to red varieties such as ‘Detroit Dark Red’, beets may be bright orange‐yellow, such as ‘Burpee’s Golden’, or have a striking red‐and‐white “bull’s eye” pattern, such as ‘Chioggia’.
Beets are usually boiled or steamed, and then peeled. They may also be pickled.
Turnips (Brassica rapa) were cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Most turnips are purple above ground and white below, such as the ‘Purple Top White Globe’ variety, but they can also be yellow, such as ‘Gold Ball’, or white, such as ‘Snowball’. Turnips are best when less than three inches in diameter. Older turnips should be peeled before cooking. Turnips may be steamed, boiled, mashed, or roasted. Turnip greens can be cooked like any other green. Turnips and rutabagas are closely related, but are different vegetables botanically. Rutabagas are larger and sweeter than turnips.
Rutabagas (Brassica napobrassica), called swedes, turnips or neeps, are a cross between a wild cabbage and a turnip. Rutabagas are yellow or white, usually with purple tops, and measure four to six inches in diameter. Rutabagas are one of the hardiest root crops. At the supermarket, rutabagas are often sold coated in wax for long keeping. Rutabagas, which must be peeled before cooking, can be boiled or steamed like turnips, used in soups and stews, or mashed like potatoes.
Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) are a member of the parsley family. They look like long tan or pale yellow carrots, and are one of the hardest root vegetables to grow. Parsnips can be boiled like carrots, or added to soups or stews.
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) originated in Central America and are members of the morning glory family. The most common sweet potatoes have either bright orange flesh or pale yellow to whitish flesh. Sweet, moist, orange‐fleshed varieties such as ‘Beauregard’ are usually grown in warmer climates such as the southern US, where they are often called yams. Drier, white‐ or yellow‐fleshed varieties are grown in the North. There are also red and even purple varieties.
In the US, the terms “sweet potato” and “yam” are used interchangeably, but they are not the same vegetable. True yams (family Dioscorea) grow up to seven feet long and have a tough, hard‐to‐peel skin.
Rediscover your roots ‐ and add a nourishing, old‐fashioned touch to your winter meals.