RECIPES: Dig up new ways to bring root vegetables into spotlight

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Root vegetables are superstars in the plant-forward movement and root-to-stem cooking. In season late fall through the winter months, root veggies are perfect for comforting dishes on cold winter nights. Beneath their less than glamorous exterior, they are surprisingly sweet when harvested small and young and are packed with earthy, rich flavors when older. Although versatile, inexpensive, and packed full of healthful benefits, root vegetables often wind up on the plate as a “same-old” side dish. It’s time to dig a little deeper with what they can do.

These underground treasures form the backbone of many favorite winter soups and stews. In high heat, their natural sugars caramelize, resulting in tender sweet nuggets, practically nature’s candy. They can be served hot, warm or cold and respond to a wide variety of culinary techniques. Root vegetables can be braised, roasted, stewed, fried, mashed, grilled and even served raw. While roasted root vegetables are a definite go-to this time of year, there’s so much more that can be done with them.

ExploreRecipes: Get adventurous with winter produce

What we most often think of as a root vegetable comes from the taproot of a plant. A taproot is the primary underground root system of a plant. These vegetables include turnips, radishes, beets, carrots and parsnips.

However, in horticulture, there is no shortage of confusing terms. Specifics like bulb, corm, tuber, tuberous root, rhizome and taproot can be especially confusing, even for green-thumbed experts. Not all vegetables that grow underground are technically roots. Some are bulbs like fennel, onions and garlic. There are also rhizomes like ginger and turmeric, and corms such as celery root and water chestnuts. The underground scene of tubers versus tuberous roots is even more complicated. Tuberous roots and tubers (yes, they are different) include sweet potatoes, yucca, potatoes and yams.

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Culinarily speaking, taproots are what we most think of when we use the term root vegetables — with incorrectly identified potatoes and sweet potatoes tossed into the vegetable bin for good measure.

No matter what you call them, vegetables that grow underground absorb nutrients from the soil to feed the plant in colder months. When we eat the roots, we are consuming the nutrients meant for the plant. Many root vegetables are also high in fiber, and some are members of the brassica family, an amazingly diverse group of vegetables that’s well-known for containing cancer-fighting antioxidant nutrients that help boost the immune system.

That’s not to say that root vegetables don’t have any dietary detractions. Some root vegetables are starchy and high in carbohydrates like potatoes. If you are trying to limit your carbs due to a health condition or trying to limit weight gain, you will need to take that into consideration. However, when you get to the root of the matter, they are not always to blame! We’re more likely to top spuds with bacon and sour cream; bathe carrots with butter and honey; and simmer turnip roots and greens with a hunk of salt pork or fat back. As the saying goes, “all things in moderation.”

ExploreA Japanese stew puts root vegetables to good use

And, if you “eat with the seasons,” you are more likely to benefit from their higher nutritional value and peak flavor. So grab some knobby, gnarly root vegetables and shake up your winter side dish repertoire with these recipes.

Virginia Willis is an Atlanta-based Food Network Kitchen chef, James Beard Award-winning food writer and author of seven cookbooks. Follow her at


Root vegetables are in the spotlight, not on the side, with recipes for Daikon “Crostini” with Shrimp Salad, Turnip Soup with Chive Cream, Carrot and Beet Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette, and Sweet Potato Crisp.

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Daikon “Crostini” with Shrimp Salad

Typically, boiled shrimp are cooked in a seasoned liquid then drained and rinsed under cold running water, effectively washing away some of the flavor. If you have time, a better way is to chill them in a portion of the flavorful cooking liquid, as outlined in this recipe. If time doesn’t permit, simply start with precooked shrimp.

Daikon is the Japanese name of the vegetable (from dai, meaning “large,” and kon, meaning “root”). In Asia, there are many different types of daikon, but we are most familiar with the long, white tubular root. A type of radish, daikon has a crisp texture with a slightly peppery bite. It works well in salads and slaws, and is often made into a quick pickle. Thinly sliced daikon makes for a great gluten-free vehicle for spreads and dips as with this shrimp salad “crostini.”

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Turnip Soup with Chive Cream

White turnip roots are about the size of a baseball or slightly smaller and creamy white in color, often with a swipe of pale purple around the top. Smaller turnips, named Hakurei or Tokyo, are pure white. Once only found at farmers markets, these Japanese turnips are increasingly available at grocery stores. This soup uses old-fashioned white turnips for ease of preparation. The larger roots are easier to peel and chop than the smaller Japanese turnips.

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Carrot and Beet Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

Try to use small beets for this recipe; they will be sweeter and more tender than large beets. You can use a food processor to shred the vegetables, but just make sure you shred the carrots first. To prevent the beets from staining the carrots, dress the beets before combining. The oil in the dressing seals in their red pigments, known as betalains, which don’t dissolve in oil and therefore do not discolor the carrots.

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Sweet Potato Crisp

Most Southern sweet potato side dish recipes contain almost enough butter and sugar to be served as dessert, so I thought I’d take it one step further and make it one!

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