In the pre-Whole Foods, bad old days of smelly, dingy “natural food” stores, or “health food” stores (a name that rang with promise but in reality was more like a cross between Communist Poland circa 1984 and the corner store in a desolate city neighborhood, with rainbow stickers and dangling “dream catchers” in the window), root vegetables bore the brunt of many a joke. These gnarled, dirt-crusted tubers were bendy and battered. We bought them because they offered a pesticide-free experience. But they were unappealing. Sanctimonious winter vegetables gave health food a bad name.
I hitchhiked across America with my sister Kate in 1980. In each new city, we sought out the local health food store and the gay bar. Both of these venues, in our minds, delivered a cache of interesting people and ideas. Most health food stores sold herbal tinctures, fresh ginger, crystal deodorant, and bulk nuts. They also had bulletin boards packed with announcements for area political meetings, basement concerts, healers and other fringe activities. We loved the bulletin boards and relied on them to connect with like-minded folks.
Gay bars offered another kind of entertainment. In El Paso, on the final leg of our maiden voyage to the promised land of California, we spent a long evening playing pool with the all-male patrons. It was a dangerous time to be a homosexual in Texas. It took a lot of asking around the town to find this beer-soaked subterfuge. I remember winning a game of pool with a strapping guy, shirtless in a leather vest. He laughed, surprised by his 18-year female old opponent, sporting a crew cut. Kate and I felt we were living on the edge, exactly where we wanted to be.
Back to root vegetables. I have learned to embrace them. To love them, even. I try to eat seasonally and experimenting with root vegetables is a winter pastime. At my local food coop, carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas and the like occupy a prominent position, glistening and firm, inviting and healthful. Natural food stores have come a long way.
Mostly, I make soups with roots, or roast, or mash them for a side dish. Try adding a cup of cubed parsnips or celery root to your next curry or stew. They’ll add another flavor dimension and increase your vitamin intake. Always keep a few root vegetables in the fridge. They keep for weeks and add flavor to stocks (except parsnips, which really are too pungent unless that’s what you’re after).
A few nights ago I cleaned out the fridge and roasted up what I found for a quick vegetable companion to baked bluefish. Crunchy, sweet and salty, this is a winter side dish that makes “health food” downright delicious.
Roasted Winter Vegetables
Quantities are flexible – as are ingredients. Try any combination of the following winter vegetables: beets, carrots, cauliflower, celery root, fennel, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, shallots, squash, sweet potatoes, turnips. The key is #1 cut the veggies in similar sizes to ensure even cooking, and #2 not to overcrowd the baking sheet.
1 pound carrots
½ pound parsnips
½ pound sunchokes
1 pound fingerling potatoes
12 cloves garlic, peeled and trimmed, left whole
1 lemon, trimmed and thinly sliced (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Scrub and trim the vegetables. With organically grown produce, I leave the skins on because nutrients are lost when you discard the peels.
Slice carrots and sunchokes 1/4” thick, parsnips 1/8” thick (to compensate for longer cooking time), and fingerling potatoes in half. Cut vegetables on the diagonal — for what my cooking student Ben calls a “jaunty angle.” This will improve the look of the final dish.
In a large bowl, using your hands, mix the cut vegetables and garlic with olive oil, salt and pepper. Add lemon slices if you want to add punch. Spread in a single layer on two baking sheets. Do not overcrowd the baking sheets or the vegetables won’t get crisp.
Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, toss with a spatula and cook for about 20 more minutes, or until cooked through. Sprinkle with parsley before serving.