"Why don't we go downtown tonight and do a root vegetable crawl?" I proposed a few weekends ago.
"Root vegetable crawl?" my wife said. She paused for a moment. "None of those words sound appealing."
And that pretty much sums it up when it comes to root vegetables. I've been shanghaied into any number of food crawls during my time in Charleston — softie crawls, holiday crawls, mezcal crawls, fried shrimp crawls. Most were organized (to use the term very loosely) by local gadabouts Angel Postell and Stephanie Barna, and most ended in Waffle House hashbrowns and shame.
Root vegetables, it seems, can't draw the same kind of crowd. And I'm not quite sure why, especially in this age of eat-local passions and farm-to-table trends, when food writers wax poetic about heirloom beans and chefs ink colorful cornucopias of veggies onto their forearms.
Root vegetables are exceptionally versatile. You can mash them or puree them, pickle them or shave them for salads, or fry them up crisp for a fine winter snack. They take particularly well to roasting, especially in a wood-fired oven that imparts a touch of smoke and the char of flame.
And what could more fully embody the concept of "terroir" than the roots of plants, which literally grow down in the earth.
But there's the rub: that dirt. The flavors of root vegetables are not crisp and bright. They're earthy and bitter, and many — like radishes and turnips — have a decidedly spicy bite. Some, like beets and parsnips, have a strong note of sweetness, but even then it's a dark and murky thing, not the sparkle of refined sugar or honey.
Most children loathe root vegetables, and, it must be said, with our culinary tastes infantilized by processed dreck and added sugar, few adults these days are big fans, either. But maybe it's time for us to get back to our roots.
Down in the Ground
There is one exception to America's general resistance to things grown under the ground: the potato. French fries, hash browns, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, cubed and roasted potatoes, potato salad — in the root vegetable hierarchy, potatoes are the undisputed king. But potatoes aren't really root vegetables. They're stem tubers, related not to turnips or beets but to tomatoes and peppers.
Carrots top the board of true root vegetables, for they're reliable utility players. They can be eaten raw, incorporated into salads, or roasted or stewed and eaten as a standalone dish. They're the consummate joiners, too: one of the three elements of the classic mirepoix, essential for all sorts of stews and braises.
Beets have clawed their way to the middle of the pack thanks to their inherent sweetness, which makes them suitable for serving cold in salads. In fact, despite how delicious warm roasted beets are, you'll find that veggie primarily on the salad section on local menus, accompanied by creamy cheeses, a tangy dressing, perhaps a bitter green. We can lump radishes in the same category — their bright, rosy hue appealing to the eye, their raw crunch a toothsome pleasure.
And then you start getting down to the bottom of the bin — to the turnips, the parsnips, the lowly rutabagas, those awkward pudgy teens lurking on one side of the cafeteria at the middle school dance. I would love to talk facts instead of metaphor, but getting production statistics on root vegetables is surprisingly difficult. The USDA stopped maintaining figures on rutabagas in 1964, and there was — as far as I can tell — minimal public outcry.
Here's what we do know: the duo at the top of the root veggie world dwarfs all the rest in terms of production. In 2014, American farms produced 99,293 acres of carrots and — hold onto your hat — over 1.1 million acres of potatoes. All the rest combined were but a drop in the bucket in comparison: 14,000 acres of radishes, 13,000 of beets, and a mere 4,285 of turnips. As for parsnips and rutabaga — who the hell knows? But it certainly can't be a lot.
Here in Charleston, though, it's a good time to discover some of the less popular roots. "It was a very difficult year for beets and carrots due to the flooding in October," says Sara Clow of Grow Food Carolina, a food hub that connects small-scale farmers with buyers at local restaurants and supermarkets. But other local roots, like sunchokes and turnips, have done quite well, and that offers a fine opportunity for us to set aside the salads and beans and dig down into the roots.
A (Short) Root Veggie Crawl
Let's be honest: raw root vegetables have about them the whiff of mortality, the dirt from which they sprang and to which we'll each return one day — perhaps a day that's not quite as far out in the future as we would like it to be.
I think of root vegetables as the food of middle age, when you suddenly look up and realize that the people running things — executives, politicians, doctors, editors — are all your age or younger. You find yourself compelled to exercise not to look good but just to buy yourself a couple of extra years above ground. And suddenly it seems really important to eat a lot of vegetables — and the earthier and plainer the better.
When I go out to restaurants these days, my eye is drawn not to the headliner protein on each plate but rather to the veggies served alongside — or inside or underneath. At the Granary in Mt. Pleasant, the big, smoked pork chop has been a menu regular since day one, but the supporting cast has changed to reflect the seasons. Chef/owner Brannon Florie recently swapped out his fall set, which included red Sea Island peas and collards, in favor of a winter one based on roasted root veggies, and the results are fantastic.
The big mahogany-hued chop is served atop a bed of diced and roasted veggies, including orange and purple carrots and turnips, along with sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and twists of braised kale, all dressed in a bacon gastrique. The veggie chunks still have a bite to them — neither mushy nor crunchy — and great bits of char around the edge. Beneath it all is a thick layer of creamy turnip puree that's smooth, warm, and rich — a foundation of comfort for a dark, rugged dish.
That puree, Florie says, is almost all turnip. "We add a little bit of garlic and shallots and heavy cream," he says, "and let that slowly poach until that turnip is cooked, then puree it in the Vitamix until it's completely silky smooth.
"I love this time of year," Florie adds, "because I love root vegetables." In addition to the pork chop, he's currently serving hanger steak with sunchoke puree, collards with roasted turnips, and flatbread topped with carrot curry puree and turnips.
Asked for his favorite root veggie preparation, Florie says, "I like doing hash. We do a root vegetable hash right now for brunch with our pork chop as well."
Downtown at The Grocery, the walk-in cooler is jammed with root vegetables, too, and they make their way onto almost a dozen different plates. Executive chef and owner Kevin Johnson serves seared golden tilefish beneath a blanket of green Brussels sprout leaves and pine nuts, and the foundation of the plate is a thick, off-white parsnip puree.
"We lightly roast the parsnips first," Johnson says. "We don't want to get too much color on them, but we want to bring out that sweetness." They're slow simmered with vegetable stock and aromatics — onion, garlic, and thyme — then at the end pureed with a little bit of yellow miso.
"It's a nice kind of secret ingredient," Johnson says. "It has a nice funk to it that lends itself well to vegetables."
That puree is splendidly creamy and delicious, with more body and edge than a plain potato puree. Even better are Johnson's roasted Hakurei turnips, their white flesh blistered black around the edges by the big wood-fired oven, piled atop greens that have been braised till sleek and tender. Tiny nibs of bacon impart a dark smokiness, and the whole combination is punched up by the tangy bite of pickled turnips julienned into long matchstick-like strips.
Johnson serves lots of sunchokes, too, and they may well be the gateway drug to root vegetables, perhaps because they have the word "sun" in them. (And, I guess, diners either gloss over the whole "choke" part or perhaps associate them with artichokes and other more familiar things.)
"Sunchokes for sure have had quite a bit of popularity in recent years," Johnson says. "We sell quite a bit of them here."
Florie echoes that. "It's all about the server selling it and explaining it," he says. "Every now and then we'll get someone who prefers potatoes, and they'll get extra potatoes instead of sunchokes. But our clientele is more adventurous than most."
Unfortunately for home cooks, restaurants like The Granary and the Grocery are generally the best option for sampling the full range of locally grown root vegetables.
"Most of the growers who are growing the super-specialty stuff," says Sara Clow of GrowFood Carolina, "are not growing enough to get them to the retailers. They're going to get a higher price point from the chefs."
For those looking to buy local roots, Clow recommends Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, and Earth Fare. "On the retail side we've been sending a lot of radish — cherry bell and Easter egg radish," Clow says. "Maybe a few sunchokes. We haven't really had enough purple tops [turnips] to send to retail."
And, speaking of turnips, that brings us around to the lowliest root vegetable of all.
One Brave Chef Reveals a Shocking Secret About Turnips
"Do you know what this is?" I asked my nine year old as I removed a large, orange-ish sphere and plunked it down on the kitchen counter.
He eyed it suspiciously. "A grapefruit?" he said finally.
"It's a rutabaga," I said.
"Do I have to eat it?" he said.
I probably should have said, "You at least have to try it," but I didn't. I'm not going to force upon my sons the parsnips and rutabagas that I'm roasting for my own peculiar reasons. Let them enjoy the sweet fruits of our now year-round summer — purple grapes in January, red apples in March! When they venture into veggie territory it can be with bright green peas and colorful salads. There will be plenty of time for roots down the road.
Rutabagas seem to have been specifically designed to offend a child's young palate, for they're a cross between cabbage and turnips. That's like breeding a pit bull with a shark, or Sarah Palin endorsing Donald Trump — a crap-ton of ugly rolled together under a thick wax-coated exterior. (I'm talking about rutabagas here; almost all of the ones on the American market are grown in Canada and coated with wax, which preserves them for months on end.)
You might not see the word "rutabaga" printed on local menus, but that doesn't mean you're not eating them, as I learned when I asked Florie the identities of the "root vegetables" served beneath his big pork chop. "The the turnip puree is on the bottom," he said. "Then we have carrots, turnips, sweet potatoes, and I believe rutabaga is in there as well.
"Oh, really?" I said. "Rutabaga?"
"They're actually in our collard dish as well," he said. "It's one of the vegetable dishes on the menu — the braised collards, we've got roasted rutabaga in them."
He suddenly paused, realizing, I can only guess, that he had said too much. "It's turnips on the menu," Florie said, adding quickly, "It's the same thing as a turnip."
As culinary scandals go, this is rather small potatoes. Rutabagas, indeed, are often marketed as yellow turnips. In fact, one chef revealed to me, "When we order turnips, they sometimes bring rutabagas. If we want to ensure turnips we have to say 'white turnips.' (This was not said off the record, but the "one chef revealed" bit sounds much more conspiratorial. OK, it was Florie.)
The real victim here is the poor rutabaga, which doesn't need an inferiority complex. Let's not paper it over with marketing names the way fishmongers have rebranded the dolphinfish "mahi mahi" to keep customers from worrying they were eating Flipper.
There is some promising news on the local front for this neglected root. "We have rutabaga now," says Clow. "The first seeds local farmers put in the ground got flooded out, but with the warm weather in December some were able to get a second crop in."
So perhaps this is the perfect time to rediscover the rutabaga and its under-appreciated cousins. Though root vegetables are available for much of the year in the Lowcountry, we tend to focus on them during the winter months since, at one time, at least, they were the only things available when the more prized items — the tender lettuces, the sweet peas, the corn and tomatoes and squash of summer — were gone.
"They're viewed more as a winter crop," Johnson says, "but here we're going to pretty much see them in one guise or another from September until May. Spring is the time of peas and asparagus and fava beans and those types of thing, but if they're still bringing root vegetables to us we're still going to use them."
And I find that encouraging. There's something poignant and almost beautiful about the unlovely things that sustain us when the days are short and it's cold outside and the buds and blossoms of spring seem far away. A warm platter of roasted turnips and their silky, smoky greens may not by themselves turn one's thoughts away from the darkness and the dirt and the uncertainty of what's to come, but on a cold winter night they do provide, at least, a dose of much needed comfort.