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Root Vegetables: Growing, Cooking, and Baking Buried Treasures

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Root vegetables are more exciting than you think! Learn fun facts, recipes, and history about these fun veggies.

Root vegetables are more exciting than you think! Learn fun facts, recipes, and history about these fun veggies.

What You Will Find in This Article

  • When Did It All Begin? (Introduction)
  • Turnips
    • How to Grow and Harvest
    • Recipes
      • Buttered Turnip Puree
      • Oven Turnip Fries
  • Carrots
    • How to Grow and Harvest
    • Recipes
      • Savory Carrot-Rice Timbales
      • Carrot Cake—Carb Diva style
  • Parsnips
    • How to Grow and Harvest
    • Recipes
      • Roasted Parsnips
      • Tomato Parsnip Soup
  • Beets
    • How to Grow and Harvest
    • Recipes
      • Hearty Beet Soup
      • Dark Chocolate Beet Brownies
  • Radishes
    • How to Grow and Harvest
    • Recipes
      • Carb Diva’s Roasted Radishes
  • Poll – Which of these root vegetables is your favorite?

All About Root Vegetables

Long before the wooly mammoth was hunted for food, long before organized agriculture, there was the turnip. Yes, it is that old.

Food historians believe that the turnip was cultivated as long as 4,000 or even 5,000 years ago. This member of the cabbage family is easy to grow but was long the foodstuff of the lower class, thus its status as “lowly”—the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables.

However, turnips and actually all root vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods in the world. Because they grow underground, they absorb a vast amount of vitamins and minerals from the soil. So let’s learn how to grow and use these little nutritional powerhouses.

buried-treasures-growing-cooking-and-baking-root-vegetables

Turnips

Before potatoes became a mainstay of mankind’s daily diet, there was the turnip. The Babylonians were perhaps the first to cultivate this hardy vegetable which tolerates poor soils and ripens quickly. Is it any wonder that it soon spread westward, was used in ancient India, was cultivated by the Romans, and became a staple in the diet of medieval Europe?

And then, this happened. One day the Peruvian potato traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and became the new center of attention at the dinner table. Our ugly little purple tuber fell out of favor until, in 1730, Charles Townshend made a discovery—he found that farm animals enjoyed, yea verily, they thrived on turnips. (And turnips were certainly much less costly than baling hay for the winter.)

Turnips—They're Not Just for Cattle Anymore

But that's not the end of the story. Turnips are a fall and winter crop that stores well, so it is available year-round. Extremely versatile—turnips can be baked, boiled, steamed, used in stir-fry, mashed, and even eaten raw. They are sweet and tasty, but unlike other root vegetables, they are not terrifically nutrient-dense. If you want a real nutritional boost from turnips, eat the tops (greens).

At the produce stand, look for firm skin and leafy greens. Remember that when it comes to turnips—bigger isn't always better. Opt for nothing bigger than 3 inches in diameter

How to Grow and Harvest

Turnip (Brassica rapa) is a member of the mustard family (along with radishes, horseradish, and rutabagas)

  • Hardiness Zones: 3 through 9.
  • Light Requirements: Full Sun.
  • Soil: Loamy.
  • Planting Time: Sow seeds as soon as the ground is workable.
  • Spacing: Scatter seed (cover with less than 1/2 inch of soil.
  • Thinning: Once seedlings are 4 inches high, thin “early” types 2 to 4 inches apart, and maincrop types to 6 inches apart. Do not thin if growing for greens only.
  • Moisture Requirements: Water at least one inch per week.
  • Harvest: Early types after about 5 weeks; maincrop types after 6 to 10 weeks. The smaller the turnip, the more sweet and tender it will be.

Buttered Turnip Puree

Are you bored with simple mashed potatoes? Tyler Florence developed the following recipe and posted it on the Food Network website.

Ingredients

  • 3 large turnips, peeled and cut into uniform chunks
  • 1 quart of milk
  • 3 fresh thyme sprigs
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and gently smashed with the side of a knife
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Combine the turnips, milk, thyme, and garlic in a medium saucepan. Set over medium heat and partially cover the pan. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until the turnips are tender—the tip of a paring knife should go through without resistance.
  2. Drain the turnips, reserving the cooking liquid, and transfer them to a food processor (discard the thyme sprigs). Add about 1 cup of the reserved cooking liquid and the butter, season with plenty of salt and pepper, and puree until smooth. Add more of the liquid if necessary. Serve hot.

Oven Turnip Fries

Low-carb is a popular diet choice. Here you substitute turnips for potatoes to make some savory, crunchy "fries."

Ingredients

  • 3 pounds turnips
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  3. Peel the turnips, and cut them into sticks, about ¼ inch thick by 4 inches long.
  4. Place the turnip strips into a large bowl, and toss with the vegetable oil to coat.
  5. Place the Parmesan cheese, garlic salt, paprika, and onion powder in a re-sealable plastic bag, and shake to mix.
  6. Place the oiled turnips into the bag, and shake until evenly coated with the spices.
  7. Spread out onto the prepared baking sheet.
  8. Bake in preheated oven until the outside is crispy and the inside is tender about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.
buried-treasures-growing-cooking-and-baking-root-vegetables

Carrots

The carrot is a native of what is present-day Afghanistan, Turkestan, and the Hindo Kush region of central Asia. (It is there that red and purple carrots still grow wild.)

Food historians believe that by the 10th century, purple carrots were growing in Iran and northern Arabia; from there, they spread to northern Africa and into Spain. The orange variety of carrots first appeared in artwork of the 16th century.

In today's commercial marketplace, China currently produces about one-third of all carrots bought and sold worldwide (a staggering 16 million tons!) Russia is the second largest carrot producer, with the United States following a close third.

Like the turnip, carrots are available year-round; they can be used in soups, salads, main dishes, and desserts, and, of course, they can be eaten fresh. 75 percent of the carrots consumed in the United States are eaten fresh—they make a tasty snack, are a popular favorite for children's lunchboxes, and (along with apple slices) are replacing french fries at some fast-food establishments.

At the produce stand, look for firm, thin carrots. Large-diameter carrots are acceptable in long-simmered soups and stews but tend to have a tough central core. If you want to purchase carrots to eat fresh or use in a quick stir-fry, choose the more slender ones.

How to Grow and Harvest

Carrot (Daucus carota) is botanically related to parsley, dill, fennel, and celery.

  • Hardiness Zones: 4 through 10.
  • Light Requirements: Full Sun.
  • Soil: Loose and sandy (not clay).
  • Planting Time: Sow seeds 3 to 5 weeks before the last spring frost date.
  • Spacing: Plant 3-4 inches apart in rows. Rows should be at least a foot apart.
  • Thinning: Once plants are an inch tall and thin, they stand 3 inches apart. Snip them with scissors instead of pulling them out to prevent damage to the roots of the remaining plants.
  • Moisture Requirements: Water at least one inch per week.
  • Harvest: Carrots are mature at about 2 ½ months and when ½ inch in diameter.

Savory Carrot-Rice Timbales

These timbales are flavorful and easy to whip up.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup grated zucchini
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion
  • 4 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • ½ cup firmly packed grated carrot
  • 1 cup lightly packed chopped spinach leaves
  • 2 cups cooked white rice, cooled
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • ¼ cup grated Cheddar cheese

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Grease 6 muffin cups or 4-ounce ramekins.
  3. Squeeze excess moisture from the zucchini and set aside.
  4. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook for two minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not allow it to brown. Add carrot and cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add zucchini, spinach, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine and cook for one additional minute.
  5. Remove from heat and transfer the vegetable mixture to a large bowl. Stir in rice; allow the mixture to cool.
  6. Stir eggs and cheese into the rice mixture. Fill the muffin cups or ramekins; press the mixture down to compact (if you omit this step, the timbales will not hold together).
  7. Top each with the grated Cheddar cheese.
  8. Bake in preheated oven for 25-30 minutes or until lightly browned. Serve hot.
buried-treasures-growing-cooking-and-baking-root-vegetables

Parsnips

Parsnips look like carrots in need of a tanning booth. Botanically they are cousins but are a bit sweeter, higher in vitamins, and are a potassium powerhouse.

Where did they originate? Some think the eastern Mediterranean or Asia. We do know that they were popular with ancient Greeks and Romans, the latter of who often ate them with honey for dessert. Like the turnip, parsnips were a common element of the European table until potatoes arrived on the scene.

A word of caution—if you grow your own parsnips, be aware that while the root of the parsnip is edible, handling the shoots and leaves of the plant requires caution as the sap is toxic. It is best to use gloves when handling them.

At the produce stand, keep in mind the same guidelines as for carrots—fat parsnips have a woody central core. Choose the slender, more tender parsnips instead.

How to Grow and Harvest

Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is closely related to the carrot and parsley

  • Hardiness Zones: 2 through 9.
  • Light Requirements: Full Sun.
  • Soil: Loose and sandy (not clay).
  • Planting Time: Parsnips need a long growing season, so sow as soon as the soil is workable.
  • Spacing: Sow 2 seeds per inch ½ an inch deep.
  • Thinning: Thin the seedlings to stand 3-6 inches apart.
  • Moisture Requirements: Water at least one inch per week.
  • Harvest: Parsnips mature in about 16 weeks. Leave in the ground for a few touches of frost but harvest before the ground freezes.

Roasted Parsnips

These garlicky, golden parsnips make a lovely side dish.

Ingredients

  • 1 12 pounds parsnips, peeled and cut into thin strips
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 14 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  2. Layer parsnips on a baking sheet in a single layer.
  3. Sprinkle with olive oil, paprika, and salt; toss well to ensure that all pieces are coated with oil.
  4. Roast 15 minutes on bottom rack of oven, stirring twice.
  5. Add the garlic and roast until well browned, about 15 minutes longer.
  6. Let cool slightly and then serve.

Tomato Parsnip Soup

In their book New England Soup Factory, Marjorie Druker and Clara Silverstein present 100 soups from their restaurant of the same name. The recipes are well arranged, easy enough for even novice cooks to follow, and beautifully photographed. If you enjoy homemade soups, you must buy this book. And if you are interested in trying a parsnip soup, you must try this entry from page 27 of Marjorie and Clara's book.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 whole cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 large Spanish onion, peeled and diced
  • 2 ribs celery
  • 12 to 15 parsnips, peeled and sliced
  • 6 cups whole peeled tomatoes (canned or fresh)
  • 2 cups tomato juice
  • 4 cups vegetable stock or water
  • 2 cups light cream
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Heat a heavy, lined stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, garlic, onion, celery, and parsnips. Sauté for 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato juice, and vegetable stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the parsnips are soft and tender 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the heat.
  2. Puree the soup in the pot using a hand blender or working in batches with a regular blender until smooth. Return the soup to the pot and add the cream, dill, salt, and pepper.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

buried-treasures-growing-cooking-and-baking-root-vegetables

Beets

The earliest written record of the beet is an 8th-century B.C. cuneiform tablet from Babylon, but food historians believe that they might have been cultivated as early as 1,000 B.C. A native of the Mediterranean, the leafy greens were used by the ancient Greeks for flavoring and as a medicant.

Although the ruby red beet is the most common, we can now find these beauties in yellow, gold, and candy cane (red and white) stripes. Yellow and gold beets are a bit less sweet than their red counterparts, but they also have a less earthy taste.

When shopping for beets, choose small to medium beets with smooth skin and crisp, vibrant dark green leaves.

How to Grow and Harvest

Beets (Beta vulgaris) shares their family roots (pun intended) with Swiss chard.

  • Hardiness Zones: 2 through 10.
  • Light Requirements: Full Sun.
  • Soil: Loose and sandy (not clay). Beets have a high tolerance for salt and so, unlike most other vegetables, can grow on land reclaimed from the sea.
  • Planting Time: Wait until the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees F. before planting. In areas with low moisture and rainfall, soak the seeds for 24 hours before planting.
  • Spacing: Plant seeds ½ inch deep and 1-2 inches apart.
  • Thinning: Thin when they reach about 2 inches high by pinching them off. Pulling them out of the ground may disturb the close surrounding roots of nearby seedlings. Established plants should be thinned to 3–4 inches between plants.
  • Moisture Requirements: Mulch and water well. Beets need to maintain plenty of moisture.
  • Harvest: 50 to 70 days for most varieties, but you may harvest at any time.
buried-treasures-growing-cooking-and-baking-root-vegetables

Dr. Zhivago Borscht

Is it possible to think of beets and not envision a steaming bowl of borscht? This recipe from Food52 is the best of all recipes for this hearty beet soup.

Beets. Chocolate. Both dark and earthy—a marriage made in Heaven? This recipe will convince you that beets and dark chocolate are a perfect union indeed.

Radishes

Radishes are a member of the Brassicaceae family. They're nutrient-dense and packed with flavor.

buried-treasures-growing-cooking-and-baking-root-vegetables

How to Grow and Harvest

Radish (Raphanus sativus) is a member of the mustard family.

  • Hardiness Zones: 2 through 10.
  • Light Requirements: Full Sun.
  • Soil: Any type.
  • Planting Time: Plant 4-6 weeks before the average date of the last frost.
  • Spacing: Direct sow seeds ½ inch to an inch deep and one inch apart in rows 12 inches apart.
  • Thinning: Thin radishes to about an inch apart when the plants are a week old (crowded plants will not grow well). Snip them with scissors instead of pulling them out to prevent damage to the roots of the remaining plants.
  • Moisture Requirements: Radishes require well-drained soil with consistent moisture.
  • Harvest: Radishes will be ready to harvest quite rapidly, as soon as three weeks after planting some varieties.

Carb Diva's Roasted Radishes

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch (about 1 pound) of assorted small radishes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter, melted
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Wash the radishes. Cut off the root ends and the tops, leaving about 1/2 inch of the stem. Dry and then place in a shallow baking dish. Drizzle oil and melted butter on top, and then sprinkle with sea salt and a few grinds of pepper.
  3. Bake in preheated oven 10-15 minutes.

© 2016 Linda Lum