Keeping traditional vegetables alive and well.
by Rebecca Horwitz
The gardening season is over, but hardy root vegetable crops grown in the fall can help keep us full throughout the winter, as you’ll see when visiting one of our local winter farmers’ markets. Root vegetables include carrots, potatoes, radishes, beets, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, and sweet potatoes (also called yams, but aren’t really). Our pioneer ancestors knew how to grow, store, and use these hardy vegetables and were far more familiar with them than most of us are today. I mean, everyone knows what to do with a potato, but when’s the last time you cooked a rutabaga or turnip—and your kids gladly ate it?
To make things more interesting, you can buy seeds for heirloom root vegetables that come in surprising colors. How about “albino beets,” “black Spanish radishes,” or “cosmic purple carrots”? These are just a few of the varieties available in the All-Heirloom Root Vegetable Collection, from the Local Harvest website, www.localharvest.org. Closer to home, the Hudson Valley Seed Library offers many interesting and unusual seed varieties that are all heirloom, such as the new Brilliant Beet Blend, which comes in one of their famous Art Packs. Local artists design the seed packets, resulting in something you want to frame, not throw out. www.seedlibrary.org
But what is an heirloom seed and why do they matter? An heirloom seed produces a plant that was once commonly grown during earlier eras of human history, but which is not used in modern industrial-style agriculture. For this reason, many traditional varieties of fruits and vegetables have all but disappeared from the modern dinner table. We now are familiar with only a few kinds of potatoes, yet there are actually many more heirloom varieties.
Many heirloom vegetables have kept their traits through open pollination. Today, because of groups like Seed Savers and the Hudson Valley Seed Library, it is possible to join the trend of bringing back some of these heritage seeds into our own gardens. We are actually preserving our agricultural heritage, instead of letting agribusiness decide which kind of hybrids we can have. And, rest assured, these seeds are certainly not GMOs! The Hudson Valley Seed Library proudly states on their website: “At the same time as more and more seed sources are gobbled up by these multi-national corporations, we’re busy collecting, preserving, growing, offering, and celebrating seeds in all their diversity.”
Looking to try something a bit more unusual in the root vegetable world? Jicama is a starchy tuber that originates in North America, and is better known in Mexico than the US. It is said that jicama is most popular in China. Crunchy and mild, it can be used as a substitute for water chestnuts or bamboo shoots in a salad or stir-fry. According to another source, it makes “a crisp and delicious low calorie peel-and-eat snack.” Jicama thrives in hot climates, so it’s not always easy to find in our area, but I have seen it in bodegas and some grocery stores.
I will now share with you two of my favorite ways to prepare root vegetables. The first is, very simply, Roasted Root Veggies. Take three or four vegetables—some small potatoes, a turnip, a couple of carrots, and maybe a beet—and wash and peel them. Cut them up into fairly evenly sized pieces and put into a mixing bowl. Clip a few sprigs of rosemary—fresh is much more flavorful—and chop it up a bit, removing the woody stems. Cover the vegetables with the rosemary, salt, pepper, and a few tablespoons of oil, and spread them out on a baking tray. Roast for half an hour or so until a fork easily pierces them. After they are done roasting, and have cooled a bit, you may wish to add feta cheese and some chopped walnuts. They will make a lovely accompaniment to your dinner, or maybe even the main course.
Another favorite root veggie dish is so easy, it doesn’t even require an oven. I call it Black Bean and Radish Salad and it makes a great potluck dish, and also goes well with tacos. To serve 4, mix one 15 oz. can of rinsed black beans, 4 sliced or chopped radishes, and chopped fresh cilantro. To that, add a dressing of 2 Tbsp fresh lime juice, 1 Tbsp good quality olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of cumin, and a good shake of the salt and pepper. Mix well and serve!