Roasted Roots

Although I enjoy harvesting vegetables from the garden in every season, I think that the winter harvest season is the most magical.  It’s often nearly dark when I head out to the garden in the late afternoon.  Time seems slowed down, perhaps because of the shorter days and colder temperatures. And compared to summer, when the vegetables quickly fill a basket, harvesting in winter requires more steps, especially for the roots: clearing away protective mulch, loosening soil, pulling gently, shaking off clods of earth, hosing off remaining dirt and watching as the vegetable colors emerge—bright orange carrots, ruby beets, creamy white parsnips, dark pink and white rutabaga and green and cream Gilfeather turnips.  Despite the cold, I always stop and admire these lovely roots that have been growing slowly underground since July when I sowed the seeds and now, washed clean, glow brightly in the basket.

Roasted roots aren’t exactly the caponata of winter food, but they are close.  Caponata blends tomatoes, peppers and eggplant into a stew of sweet and spicy flavors and soft textures.  Roasted roots are chunks of rutabagas, turnips, parsnips, carrots, beets tossed in a little olive oil and roasted until they soften and their separate, earthy flavors sweeten and intensify then play off each other.  I look forward to them both.  Caponata is high summer picnic food, something to eat outdoors in the sun, while roasted roots are definitely food for the indoor table, with candles burning and the curtains drawn over the dark windows.

I made the first big batch last week for a holiday potluck.  Because I was preparing a lot of roots, I roasted each separately on its own baking sheet, but for smaller batches I often mix them all together before coating them very lightly with olive oil and sprinkling on a little salt.  They all take about the same amount of time to roast: 30-45 minutes at 400 degrees depending on the size of the chunks.  The beets are the only exception: I peel and cut them, lightly oil them and roast them in their own pan and add them to the rest at the end.  Don’t crowd the roots on the sheets or they will steam instead of roast and check them often after the first 15 minutes, turning them over so all sides will brown and caramelize.  Be careful not to let them burn or they will be bitter.

Served warm or at room temperature, roasted roots are a great side dish with meats but they also make a perfect addition to grains like emmer farro for a main dish.  For a hearty and delicious winter salad, I toss room temperature roasted roots with greens like mache, arugula or escarole, add a few toasted nuts and maybe some goat cheese or grated Pecorino Romano, and dress it all with vinaigrette.  There are all sorts of variations on this winter salad.  Another favorite way to use leftover roasted roots is to mix them with some grated cheese, cheddar or Gruyere, to bind them together, add a little cooked bacon or sausage if you like, and wrap the mixture in pastry for a free-form, open tart. Again, there’s plenty of room for experimenting.

Roots also work well with spices.  The other night, I made Nigel Slater’s root vegetable korma from his wonderful book Tender: A Cook and his Vegetable Patch (2009). Cardamom, coriander, cumin, chili powder, cinnamon filled the kitchen with the fragrance of curry, most welcome after a chilly late afternoon bike ride. The earthy sweetness of the roots was a perfect match for this mild curry. Here’s a link to the recipe: I want to experiment more with roots and these spices.  Winter seems like the perfect time.