Year after year, the seasons pass, the weather changes, and the plants live their cycles—yet somehow I am perpetually surprised.
When I lived in New York City and was relatively new to growing food, I made big window boxes for the deep sills of my old brick loft building. I’d carefully plant tiny herbs in the spring and would take inordinate pride in their growth, returning many times a day to marvel at them.
After a summer of delightful production, they’d go to seed and then slow deterioration would inevitably follow. The first killing frost would do them in. I would feel sad and guilty. Each time I’d glance at the plants, who had given me so much, I’d feel that I had let them down. It took some introspection to realize that the flip side of the pride I felt in the spring was my feeling of culpability when they died. Once I realized the folly of the god-like responsibility I had assumed, I was able to take myself down a notch (or 10) and understand that plants have their own individual life cycles, and I am merely a helper.
I’ve made my peace with the end of the growing season. Despite the destruction that cold weather brings, there’s still great locally-grown food to eat—it’s protected from freezing by being underground. Even better, most vegetables that grow underground have a very long shelf life and can be savored all winter long, if stored properly. They fall into three categories: roots, tubers, and bulbs.
Of the three, we most often consume bulbs, and almost all of them are part of the Allium or onion family. There’s quite a variety, from sprightly, green scallions, to sweet, complex shallots, tender, buttery leeks, many types of onions, and of course redolent, resonant garlic. Because Alliums are so aromatic, they are most often used as a secondary flavoring ingredient—but leeks and onions of all types are wonderful, and often overlooked, vegetables in their own right. Try roasting them in seasoned oil or cream and see.
Edible roots have great range, too. Carrots now come in yellow, red and purple. If you haven’t tried parsnips, you are in for a treat—they look like a white carrot and I love their fragrant, creamy flesh. Gnarly brown celeriac is the root version of celery. Are all Umbelliferae, named for the form of their flowers, which resemble Queen Anne’s lace (a wild carrot). The Brassica (cabbage) family includes sweet turnips, mellow yellow rutabaga, peppery radishes, and crispy daikon. Then there are one-offs like beets in red, golden or chioggia striped beets, walking stick-sized burdock root (gobo in Japanese, and related to artichokes) and salsify (oyster plant), which looks like a hairy brown carrot and is a wonderful, forgotten root tasting nothing like oysters.
Tubers include one of the most popular vegetables, potatoes, and also the unrelated sweet potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes). In the supermarket you see mostly white, yellow and red potatoes, but if you hit the seed catalogs and farmers markets you’ll find many more varieties, including blue potatoes, delicious small fingerlings, and other surprising and delightful members of the family. There are white, yellow, and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which do indeed contain more sugar than other potatoes. If cooked low and slow, even more sweetness develops. Jerusalem artichokes are easy to grow here and are commonly seen wild—recognizable by their 4-foot tall pretty yellow flowers that betray their relation to sunflowers.
All these underground vegetables have a firm to hard texture, yet, with the exception of starchy potatoes and sweet potatoes, all are delicious eaten raw. When grated or sliced thinly they’re wonderful in mixed salads or served with a complementary dip.
They’re also fantastic cooked (even radishes), and when the weather turns cool, I always think of soup. I used to think that good soup took hours to cook, but I was so wrong. You can make delectable creamy soup out of almost any vegetable in about 20 minutes—add some whole-grain toast and you’ve got a light meal.
Fast & Easy Creamy Vegetable Soup
All amounts are approximate and subject to whim or ingredient availability.
2 cups of chicken or vegetable broth (see recipe below)
1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon fresh green herbs (depending on potency) or dried herbs
1 onion or 3 garlic cloves
1 pound of vegetables
1 cup of any type of milk or dairy or 2 tablespoons of butter or vegetable, olive or nut oil
Salt and pepper
Heat the stock and herbs to a simmer while you prep the veggies. Peel and chop the onion or garlic and toss it in. Peel and chop the root veggies into pieces no bigger than 1/2” thick and add. Cook about 10 minutes until the vegetables are tender.
Take the pot off the heat and add the milk or oil. Puree with an immersion blender, stand blender, or food processor. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add more broth or water to adjust the texture to your desire. Gently reheat if necessary.
Amazing Vegetable Broth Concentrate
This adaptation of a Cook’s Illustrated recipe is fantastic. Instead of cooking pounds of vegetables in water, only to have to tediously mash, strain, and discard them, you can make a kickass uncooked soup base from mostly root vegetables and keep it in your freezer to use any time.
2 leeks, white and light green parts, cleaned and chopped roughly
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1/2 small celeriac root, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup chopped parsley
3 tablespoons dried minced onions
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons soy sauce
Put leeks, carrots, celeriac, parsley, onions and salt in a food processor and create a paste, scraping sides frequently for 3 to 4 minutes. Add tomato paste and process and scrape for 1 minute, add soy sauce and process and scrape one more minute.
Store packed in a wide-mouth jar in the freezer. It doesn’t get hard, so you can use 1 tablespoon per cup of hot water to make any amount of great veggie stock.
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist, and local food activist who lives, works, and eats in Accord, New York. Write to her at email@example.com.