For example, you are not likely to buy a cookbook on just onions, because they’re simply too common; you can find an onion family member hiding in the background of most savory dishes. For the opposite reason, you are not likely to find a cookbook on reindeer meat. But some categories are just broad enough and just coherent enough that it’s worthwhile to have a whole book devoted to them. Root vegetables are one such category.
And a new cookbook on roots by veteran cookbook author and teacher Diane Morgan makes the most of the starchy, wintry, subterranean pleasures of these vegetables. It’s a thorough book and a knowledgeable one (did you know by “root vegetables” we really mean “taproots, tubers, rhizomes, and corms”?), perfect if you can get your hands on arrowhead, scorzonera, and crosnes. But a sampling of some of Morgan’s recipes using more commonplace roots proves rewarding as well.
Tiny parsnip dice are just right for twinning with pancetta and peas in a creamy spaghetti carbonara. If you’ve got nice fingerlings on hand, it’s worth roasting them as Morgan prescribes (cut sides down and oiled in a hot oven), with a rustic, hearty, ancho-tinged romesco sauce. I prefer romesco with sherry vinegar rather than red wine, but it’s hard to go wrong here.
Farro salad with roasted rutabaga, goat cheese, and hazelnuts hits all the right notes, the sweetness of the rutabaga drawn out with maple and a blast of roasting, the hazelnuts mingling their autumnal fragrance with the cool goat cheese. Sweet potato biscuits are straightforward biscuits, and after all, who does not love a biscuit? But these are a little earthier and a little sweeter, and unbeatable with a bit of butter.
Morgan surprised me with her recipes for the unexpectedly versatile turnip. On my own, I would never have come up with turnips and leeks in miso butter, which fuses East and West — mirin and sesame with the buttery leek and the tart turnip — yet it’s lick-the-pan good. On a completely different side of the flavor spectrum, turnips turn out to be just as happily paired with anchovies and garlic and their own tender greens tossed in farfalle pasta.
A number of recipes offer merely a slight twist on classic combinations, like lamb and carrot curry. Carrots always make a good vehicle for flavors, but here, they could have carried more freight than the intriguing camphoraceous aroma of black cardamom. Cream of celery root soup is simple and straightfoward enough to skip the recipe if you know how to make a cream soup (leeks and other aromatics, vegetable, broth, cream), and satisfying, though nothing new. A ginger vinaigrette with cilantro and green onion delivers the standard Asian-flavor profile of lime, rice vinegar, ginger, sesame, but it’s a very useful dressing you can turn to for much more than greens.
Only one dish really falls flat: a pot of steamed mussels with burdock root, shallots, and sun-dried tomatoes. Despite lots of time in the pot, the burdock never really softens up, and its flavor seems dirt-like and uncompromising, unwilling to make friends with the sun-dried tomatoes and shallots. Maybe it was a rogue specimen of burdock. I’m not in a position to say. But in any case, one flop in a portfolio of good ideas is hardly something to cry about.
Root vegetables don’t call out to everyone’s soul in the way that bacon, say, or chocolate does. They have a quieter magnetism, the promise of stored energy, secret sweetness, and full stomachs on frosty nights. You might not need or love every recipe found here.
But given the book’s generous trove of information and multicultural way of experimenting with some undersung vegetables, it’s an awfully good value.T. Susan Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.