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Back to the earth with root vegetables

If you think that the onset of winter means the end of vegetables fresh from the garden, you are not taking advantage of all Southern Oregon has to offer. It's not hard to grow your own winter vegetables and enjoy them fresh throughout the cold months. But then, you might be one of those folks who haven't yet discovered what the sweet mineral taste of rutabagas and their earthy kin-root vegetables like turnips, parsnips and beets-can do to improve a long, rainy winter.

In Southern Oregon, all root vegetables except potatoes can be left in the ground and pulled up as needed throughout the winter because our ground doesn't freeze, explains Pam Rouhier, garden specialist at Medford Grange Co-op. The only other problem affecting them in the ground is rot from poor drainage, which experienced gardeners address by growing in raised beds. (See our article on cold frames in this issue.)

Root vegetables are inexpensive, rich in flavor, loaded with fiber and nutritious additions to soups and stews. Turnips, parsnips, and rutabagas have tough exterior skins and are usually peeled before using. These dense vegetables roast, bake, steam, microwave and puree well individually or together. Garlic, rosemary and dill seasonings are delicious on turnips or parsnips, while rutabagas do well seasoned like a sweet potato, with nutmeg and cinnamon. When you bake these less common foods, don't forget to include old standbys - carrots, onions and even red or yellow potatoes in the recipe.

A basic roasting recipe for all winter root vegetables is to medium-dice them, toss with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, fresh herbs or the favorite of Market of Choice chef Gena Eller's, herbes de Provence, a traditional French herb mixture, and balsamic vinegar that has been reduced by three-quarters to a syrupy texture. Reduce the vinegar by boiling in a pan until an inserted spoon comes out with the underside coated with the sweet vinegar. After tossing to coat with olive oil, herbs and vinegar, roast in a 400- degree oven until tender, about 30 minutes, and serve.

If rutabagas are new to your family, another way to introduce them is to include one (peeled) rutabaga when you make your next batch of mashed potatoes. Prepare the mash as you usually do. The rutabaga adds a warm background taste, amps up the vitamin and mineral content and when you serve them roasted for the family you won't be fibbing when you say, "You've eaten this before."

While you are fixing to enjoy the fleshy roots, don't forget the above-ground parts, the "greens" that are often sold with them. Turnip, carrot and beet greens are also nutritious and delicious sautéed in bacon fat, mustard and onions with salt and pepper. When nearly done, splash with a little white wine, which de-glazes the pan and incorporates all the flavorful bits sticking to its surface, and serve, says Eller.

Eller shared two favorite recipes for root vegetables with Homelife readers.

beet salad

2 pounds peeled and quartered beets. Toss with a stick (1/4 pound) melted butter and a tablespoon of herbes de Provence, salt and pepper. Roast at 400 degrees until tender, about 30 to 45 minutes. Cool beets and toss with your favorite wine vinaigrette. Crumble in ¼ pound Shropshire cheese and ¼ cup chopped chives. Serve cold or at room temperature.

parsnip and rutabaga puree

Peel, dice and boil together 2 ½ pounds each of parsnips and rutabagas until tender. Drain water; add 2 cups heavy cream, ¼ pound butter, 2 roasted shallots (minced), salt, pepper, and 1 teaspoon white truffle oil. Mash like potatoes or puree in food processor for a perfect side dish for meat.

"These are very earthy vegetables and they need to be served with a strong meat, such as beef, that can hold its own," says Eller.

So when cold weather and winter doldrums strike, warm up with a recipe made with nutritious and tasty vegetables pulled straight from the earth.

Back to the earth with root vegetables