Finding Your Roots (and Roasting Them)

When it comes to eating in season in the winter, root vegetables are your reliable friends. Since their role in the life of the plant is to store energy, cold-weather-tolerant roots are packed full of nutrition: vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. The nutritional profile of each root vegetables varies, and intensely colored ones like beets and carrots have a higher concentration of phytonutrients.

So, what is a root vegetable? While botanists differentiate between true roots and non-roots, the general population is likely to refer to all of them as root vegetables (as we have so far in this blog). But for the sake of knowledge, let us dig a little deeper. True roots are taproots and tuberous roots. A taproot is the largest, central, dominant root from which other roots sprout. Taproots include beet, rutabaga, turnip, burdock, carrot, celeriac, daikon, dandelion, maca, jicama, parsnip, and radish. A tuberous root or root tuber is a root or portion of a root that enlarges to serve as a storage organ for the plant. Tuberous roots include sweet potato, cassava, and yacón.

The non-roots refer to vegetables that are actually modified plant stems (usually submerged below ground like a root) but are not the true root system in the plant. The non-roots are broken down into four categories: rhizomes, tubers, bulbs, and corms. Simply put, rhizomes are underground plant stems that can send out roots and shoots. Common rhizomes include ginger, turmeric, ginseng, arrowroot, galangal, and lotus root. Tubers, or stem tubers, develop from big, thick rhizomes or stolons. Stolons are similar to rhizomes, but they tend to grow above the soil after branching off of the main stem whereas rhizomes are the main stem and tend to grow below the soil. The underside of a tuber will send down roots, while the top side will send up shoots. Tubers include potatoes, yams, and sunchokes. Bulbs are plants with short stems and fleshy leaves or leaf bases. Onions, garlic, shallots, and fennel are all bulbs. And last but not least are corms. Corms look very similar to bulbs, but instead of layers like an onion, the flesh is solid. Corms include taro and Chinese water chestnuts.

Now that this new knowledge is starting to take root (couldn't help myself), it is time to start cooking! Test some tubers in this Parmesan Herb-Crusted Potato recipe or break out the beets for a delicious Baby Green and Beet Salad. My favorite way to prepare root vegetables is to roast them. Dice potatoes, yams, beets, turnips, garlic, onion, or your favorite combination and toss lightly in oil. Bake in the oven at 425°F for 30-45 minutes depending on the size of your veggies and stir occasionally for even cooking. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper or your favorite spice blend and they are ready to eat. Now find your favorite roots in our colorful produce department and get roasting!