WORDS AND PHOTOS BY DAVID COHLMEYER
White roots, left to right: chicory, parsnip, parsley, white carrot, salsify
There really is no need to suffer with a limited variety of vegetables during the winter months because there could be a much wider selection of root vegetables available. If your favourite market or farmer is not prepared to provide the vegetables discussed here, they would be great to grow in your own artisanal garden.
Throughout my years of growing vegetables for our country’s most acclaimed chefs, I experimented with many roots that have been celebrated through the years. Some of them were successful; others failed in our extreme climate. It took a while to figure out the most unusual procedure demanded by tuberous chervil, but its aromatic roots with enchanting chervil notes made it popular. Another success was crosnes, a type of mint grown for its fascinating roots. The still-wild nature of skirret and rampion, popular during Medieval times, made these delicacies too unreliable for our hot summers and well-drained soils. Heritage roots that can succeed in ordinary gardens include the following.
This is not the root of ordinary curly or flat-leaf parsley; it is a variety of parsley bred specifically for its exceptionally flavourful pure white root. At first glance it looks like a parsnip, but it is less bulbous at the top, has a whiter skin, and horizontal striations down the root confirm it to be parsley root. It can be used as a less cloyingly sweet parsnip.
Introduced to the world by Hamburg breeders in the mid-sixteenth century, this is a relatively new member of the cultivated vegetable family. Its rich parsley/celeriac/carrot flavour can be enjoyed as a substitute for any of these more common ingredients. Raw dices are a great addition to salads. It is wonderful when puréed in soups or sauces. Shredded, it can become a fine vegetarian patty with all the flavour of European cuisines’ foremost herb. Larger roots can be thinly sliced and deep fried for luscious chips. I like to use it as a clear flavouring when preparing stock. Parsley root remains a staple in German, Polish, Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Brazilian cuisines.
Growing parsley root is as easy as growing carrots. The original Hamburg variety is still readily available and is the best choice. Since they germinate and mature slowly, they should be direct-seeded in late May. Seed into loosened soil ¼-inch deep in rows 12 to 15 inches apart, with seeds about one inch apart. Since parsley root is notoriously slow to germinate, gently mist the rows every evening until sprouts appear (about ten to fifteen days). Thin the plants to 3 to 4 inches apart. Keep fast-growing weeds away from these slow-growing plants. Throughout the summer you may steal some of the leaves to use like fresh parsley. Harvest in November and then store them near freezing in an open plastic bag until the following spring.
The Romans loved this luscious white root vegetable and so should we. It is actually a form of lettuce selected for its roots. With the nickname of “oyster plant,” the British credit it with having the flavour of oysters; to me this is quite a reach. I would describe the flavour as something between asparagus and globe artichokes. Proper salsify – Tragopogam porrifolius, “goats beard with seeds that fly in the air” (like dandelion seeds) – has white skin in a conical shape. Scorzonera – Scorzonera hispanica, “Spanish snake grass” – has black skin on a long cylindrical root. These two completely different plants are often misidentified with each other. Nevertheless, both are grown and used in the same way.
Mammoth Sandwich Island salsify was released in the 1860s and remains readily available to this day. Scorzonera was first reported in 1575 in an Aleppo, Syria market. The first commercial variety, Giant Russian, was also released in the 1860s. In classic European cooking, both of these vegetables are peeled, cut into julienned sticks, and then quickly drizzled with white wine vinegar or lemon juice to prevent them from browning. Then these are gently poached in lightly salted water, milk, or white wine. They are then honoured by serving as a separate side dish with a grind of black pepper. Modern chefs have discovered that raw scorzonera has a lovely coconutty flavour and the tender black skins provide for attractive presentations.
Both of these preferred varieties have long cylindrical seeds that should be planted into deeply loosened soil ½-inch deep in rows 12 to 15 inches apart, with seeds about 2 inches apart. For larger-sized roots start in mid-May and thin to 4 to 5 inches apart in early June. Neither attracts any pests but they prefer minimal weed competition. Harvest in November and you can store them near freezing in an open plastic bag until the following spring. Salsify is easy to pull up, but long and brittle scorzonera must be carefully loosened before pulling.
Prior to the introduction of hops in beer, burdock was a popular European vegetable and beverage-bittering agent. It remains a staple ingredient in traditional Japanese, Korean, and Chinese cuisines. Around the world it is once again being recognized for its many health-promoting properties and culinary possibilities. This root not only tastes like globe artichokes; it is directly related to these most appealing orbs.
Use burdock like carrots – raw or cooked. Grow them just like scorzonera. Due to the long and brittle roots of both of these vegetables, I have developed a growing method that greatly simplifies harvesting. Obtain some large plastic storage containers at least 12 to 18 inches deep. Drill a few drainage holes in the bottom. Prepare a soil mix of 3-parts good topsoil and one-part coarse peat moss. In your sunny garden, fill the containers, pack down the mix, and fill more. Plant the seeds and surround the containers with planted oat or wheat seeds to shade them and prevent the soil from overheating. At harvest time in November, simply tip over the containers and gently lift out the shortened roots.
Scorzonera (left) and burdock
The name chicory is said to come directly from Ctchorium, the ancient Egyptian word for this vegetable. The Egyptians selected a root version both for eating and roasting to infuse a coffee-like beverage. During the 1600s, this form of chicory was commercially perfected near Chiavari, Italy. Though coffee was being introduced into Europe at this time, many consumers preferred a caffeine-reduced blend of chicory and coffee. This tradition continues today, especially in France, Italy, India, and New Orleans.
There is renewed interest in root chicory as the following is being learned about these roots: they are the highest source of inulin and soluble fibre for feeding gut probiotics; they are antioxidants for healthier blood and liver; and they are anti-inflammatory substances against diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and heart disease.
Refined versions are already starting to appear on ingredient lists of branded yogurts and fibre bars. Since I find natural root chicory to be no more bitter than tonic water, it is actually a perfectly delicious vegetable on its own.
Be sure to ingest root chicory in moderation at first, because a sudden loading of soluble fibre can lead to the same bloating and gas effects as eating too many beans. After becoming accustomed to it with regular consumption, the problem disappears. Root chicory can be barbecued or simmered with its tender skin on until softened. Serve plain with a little sea salt, pepper, and lemon juice, or toss in some tomato sauce to mask any bitterness.
Until root chicory starts appearing in stores and markets, you will have to grow your own. Even the seeds have not yet made it to the expected sources. But by searching for Chiavari root chicory, you will find many mail-order sources for this “new” vegetable. In mid-July, seed ¼-inch deep in rows 12 to 15-inches apart, with seeds about one inch apart. Once growing, thin the plants to 3 to 4 inches apart. You may steal some of the more tender, inner blanched leaves to include in summer salads. Harvest the roots in November and then store the roots near freezing in an open plastic bag until the following spring.
Root Vegetable Patties
Makes 8 patties
These quick and easy golden patties can serve as a vegetarian main course. Accompany them with an assortment of other root vegetables. They can also be served as an appetizer or side dish to any meal.
2 large eggs
1/2 cup flour (any type)
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups coarsely shredded root vegetable(s)
1/4 cup cooking oil
Beat the eggs until quadrupled in volume. Fold in the flour, salt and vegetable(s). In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Using a serving spoon, add four spoonfuls of the vegetable mixture evenly into the pan. Press down on each patty to nearly fill the frying pan. Fry until both sides of the patties are browned. Transfer the patties to a towel-lined plate. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and repeat with the remaining vegetable mixture. Serve with sour cream and/or your favourite salsa.
David Cohlmeyer is a consultant for sustainably minded farmers and food service providers, and works on planning for urban food initiatives. In recognition of his many years of insight and leadership, David was honoured in 2010 with the Governor General's Award for Stewardship and Sustainability. Visit David's website at www.davidcohlmeyer.ca