Root vegetables

Root vegetables

Antonio Carluccio
18 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
Laura Edwards

Root vegetables may be most associated with cuisines of the northern hemisphere (there are few parsnip recipes in Mediterranean countries!), but we do like a few of them in Italy. All the familiar root vegetables, which belong to a variety of botanical families, grow underground. Although all are commonly called ‘roots’, many should properly be called tubers, corms, rhizomes or bulbs. For instance, the potato – perhaps the most familiar ‘root’ vegetable – is actually a tuber. The onion is also thought to be a root vegetable, but it is in fact a bulb.

I think root vegetables are the most rewarding for producing food because of their sheer availability. Vegetables that grow above the earth have a limited shelf life, but roots can last for a long time, as they store successfully either underground or in a cold larder or outhouse. Root vegetables have been the mainstay of many civilizations throughout the ages – as they are generally storage organs for the plant, they are rich in carbohydrate, an important dietary constituent. Indeed, many root vegetables have become important staple foods, more important even than cereals, in parts of Africa and the tropical Pacific. They are thought of as peasant food, what we might call in Italy cucina povera.

True roots

True root vegetables grow underground and are formed of the main or tap root of the plant – the very first root that the seed puts out – through which moisture and nutrients are absorbed from the surrounding earth. All these true roots are single plants that form only one vegetable, and they include beetroots/beet, carrots, parsnips, radishes, turnips, swedes, salsify/scorzonera and horseradish. They have leaves that grow above ground, some of which can also be eaten – beetroot, carrot, turnip (like my beloved cime di rapa) and radish leaves, for instance.

Beetroot (barbabietola) is a true root, which forms a rounded rather than long tapering shape. It is a vegetable we associate more with northern countries – particularly with Russia and its famous borscht – but it has found its way into Italian cooking from time to time. Most beetroots are a deep crimson in colour, although some are golden and white, and an Italian variety has red and white stripes! My mother used to buy beetroot ready cooked, and dress slices with oil, lemon and parsley; I love it as a salad with coriander, which is not very Italian, I admit, but tasty. Boil or bake (in foil) in the oven – or, best of all, in the ashes of a bonfire. One of the sweetest of vegetables, it is baked in cream in the Aosta Valley, and in béchamel sauce in Emilia-Romagna; it is layered with vegetables and fish in a Ligurian fast-day speciality called cappon magro. Beetroot is also used for colouring pasta – although I can never detect any beetroot taste – and for a vegetarian lasagna. The leaves, dark green with crimson veins, are sometimes sold in Italian markets on their own, and can be added to soup, cooked like spinach or Swiss chard. As with many similar leaves, beet leaves can be cooked and mixed with ricotta cheese to make a delicious ravioli filling. Thin slices of beetroot can be deep-fried as crisps.

Carrot (carota) is another true root. The first wild carrots were actually white and spindly, and early attempts at cultivation produced roots in red, purple and black (they weren’t popular; I wonder why). It was probably the Dutch who developed the familiar orange colour, as recently as the seventeenth century. Carrots are sweet, flavourful, and packed with goodness, particularly vitamin A, which is good for the eyes. There is an old Italian joke about why horses don’t wear glasses: because they eat lots of carrots!

Carrots are one of the few root vegetables that can be eaten raw: in Italy we halve young ones and use them as a crudité with dips (particularly bagna cauda), or whole in a bollito misto; we grate older carrots for salads, or juice them. They are used as an accompanying vegetable or starter – steamed or sautéed usually, not boiled. But it is as a ‘foundation’ vegetable that carrots are most appreciated. They are an essential ingredient, along with onion and celery, in the Italian battuto and soffritto, which form the basis of many meat sauces, and play a major role in many classic soups, stocks and stews. In Italy we pickle carrots in a delicious mix called giardiniera, and we also have a delicious cake made from carrots…

Parsnip (pastinaca or pastinache), another true root, is not used much in Italy, although I believe it is fed to the appreciative pigs of Parma! I have grown to love it, though, while living in England. It is delicious roasted with beef on a Sunday, I have had an interesting bread made with grated raw parsnip, and it makes a good vegetable purée and soup. Apparently, before the arrival of the potato, it was a primary source of edible starch in the European diet.

I think turnip (rapa), another true root, is a lovely vegetable. Its tap root actually fattens into a bulb shape underground, and these roots come in two sizes and seasons: early small turnips are white, shaded purple (looking very like a close relative, radish); main-crop turnips arrive in winter, and look more like another relative, swede. Small bulbs can be grated to eat raw, or they can be braised with butter, and baked with cheese. Larger, coarser turnips can be fibrous, and more bitter in flavour, but they too cook well – usually to a purée – after peeling. The leaves of turnips can be eaten, but these are not the true cime di rape.

The swede (rapa svedese) is closely related to the turnip, and it acquired the name ‘swede’ because it was grown, possibly developed, in Sweden in the seventeenth century. (It was transplanted to the USA, where it became known as ‘rutabaga’, Swedish dialect for ‘red bags’!) We don’t cook much with this large, rather coarse root in Italy, but it is a good puréeing vegetable, known mainly as the ‘neeps’ (from napus, turnip) of Scotland, served with haggis on Burns’ Night.

Scorzonera and salsify (scorzonera) are both long and tapering true roots: both have a white flesh, but salsify (also known as oyster plant or vegetable oyster) has a pale skin, while scorzonera has a black skin (the translation of the name from Italian, thus its alternate name of black salsify). We only know scorzonera in Italy, and I find the vegetable quite strange because when peeled it becomes very sticky. The roots may be steamed, boiled, baked or sautéed, or used in soups.

The radish (ravanello) is one of the few true root vegetables that is most commonly eaten raw. Radishes come in different shapes, from bulbous to long, and in different colours, but are all hot in flavour, and very refreshing. I love to use them in salads and antipasto plates.

Horseradish is another true root (known as cren, kreen or rafano), which grows in the wild all over Italy (and much of northern Europe). It is not eaten like other roots, as a vegetable, but is more of a seasoning, as it is incredibly hot and pungent in flavour. In fact, when peeling or grating a root raw (the only way you can utilize it), you must wear glasses or goggles, as the juices will irritate your eyes. Horseradish is much used in the north of Italy, where it accompanies all sort of pork dishes. My all-time favourite is a smoked Eastern European sausage called debreziner, boiled and served with freshly grated horseradish. Grated raw, horseradish is mixed with cream as a condiment in the UK with roast beef, but it is good with smoked fish as well.

Other roots

The ‘root’ vegetables described here all grow underground, as do true roots, but they are not tap roots. They are instead underground stems, and include tubers, corms and rhizomes.

Tubers are enlarged stems of a plant, rather than enlarged roots, and they grow in thickness rather than in length. Each tuber is a storage organ for the plant and, because it has ‘eyes’, it can reproduce underground, making new plants (true roots cannot do this). The potato (patata) is a tuber, and although we think it has been around for ever, it has only been known in the West since the Columbian Exchange of the sixteenth century, when Spanish explorers brought back tomatoes, potatoes, capsicums, turkeys, cocoa, tobacco, etc. from the newly discovered Americas, and introduced in return horses, pigs, etc. to the Americas). It was to become the basic, almost sole, crop in Ireland – where little else would grow successfully – and when potato blight attacked in 1845–6, the country was devastated, and at least a million people died, with another million emigrating.

The potato is an important world food crop, as it contains large amounts of carbohydrate, which provides energy. In Italy, our pasta provides the majority of our needs, but we still like the potato. All the numerous varieties available in Italy are particularly adaptable: with them we can make potato purée, potato cakes, ovenroasted potatoes, fried potatoes, potato gnocchi, potato soups, potato breads, and there is even a salami in Piedmont made with meat and potatoes! You can also find potato fritters, croquettes and frittatas, and potato alcohol (usually vodka) is often used to make the very Italian liqueur limoncello. A variety of sweets and savouries are made with fécule or potato flour. I don’t know of any other vegetable that is so versatile.

The Jerusalem artichoke (topinambur) is also a tuber, and comes from North America. It has nothing to do with Jerusalem, nor is the plant related to the globe artichoke. It is a member of the sunflower family, and ‘Jerusalem’ is thought to be a corruption of the Italian word for sunflower, ‘girasole’. It can be eaten raw – almost exclusively in Italy to dip into a bagna cauda sauce – but the well-known indigestible effects (due to a substance called inulin) are greater than when it is eaten cooked. I usually use it in soups, for purées, fried in butter or baked in the oven. It can also be cooked to serve as a filling for ravioli or to stuff other vegetables.

Yams and, oddly, peanuts are tubers too, but the former are not used in Italy and the latter are discussed elsewhere.

The sweet potato (patata dolce), strictly speaking, is a tuberous root rather than a tuber, but it grows in much the same way as ordinary potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes. It is not related to the ordinary potato, and cannot grow new vegetables underground, as can potatoes (it is grown by slips or cuttings). It contains good carbohydrate and, because its flesh is dark in colour (usually red/orange), it contains beta-carotene. It is a staple food in many areas of Africa and Asia, and makes an interesting alcohol in Japan. We don’t cook it much in Italy, but it is good roasted, puréed, in soups and even in some desserts. The Americans bake it in brownies and pies, and also serve it as a sweetened vegetable accompaniment to turkey at Thanksgiving.

Celeriac (sedano rapa) is the swollen stem-base or corm of an ancient type of celery. Both this root variety and the shoot variety, celery proper, are descended from an original wild plant called smallage. The tiny roots of smallage were eaten in the sixteenth century in Europe, but by the next century the more familiar large roots had been developed. It is round, like a craggy turnip, has a sweet and intense celery flavour, and its leaves can also be eaten. It is used to make the famous French starter, céléri rémoulade (julienned celeriac bound with a flavoured mayonnaise), insalata capricciosa, to make baked or fried chips, reduced to a very delicate purée together with carrot or potato, or simply baked in the oven with butter and breadcrumbs. It makes a very good soup too, a dish of the Veneto.

A final tuber in this category is the dahlia (dalia), which is best known in Europe for its stunning flowers. However, in the sixteenth century it was imported to the West more as a root vegetable, like its compatriot the potato, rather than for its floral beauty. Domesticated by the Aztecs, the tubers – known as dahlia ‘yams’ – were a staple food almost as important as the potatoes, avocados, tomatoes and corn that were grown alongside them. Related to Jerusalem artichokes, the tubers have a crisp apple-like texture and a flavour (depending on the variety) that varies from mild carrot or celery to asparagus and parsley. It’s good in salads (coleslaw for instance), stir-fried, in stews, etc. I haven’t tasted it yet, but I think I shall be doing a bit of dahlia growing…

The onion family

The genus Allium is not large, but it is quite important and, worldwide, I don’t know any cuisine or culture that doesn’t use some form of onion or related vegetable. The family is the Alliaciae, and thus each onion-type vegetable – onion, leek, shallot, garlic, spring onions, chives – is distantly related to asparagus, lilies and tulips. The bulk of the onion grouping are bulbs, growing underground, which is why they are often called ‘root’ vegetables. The exception is leek, which grows above ground, but it is still an integral part of the ‘family’. At one time, eating ‘pane e cipolle’ was symptomatic of being poor, but not any more – the onion and all its relations are delightful accessories to good food!

The onion (cipolla) is said to have originated in Central Asia, and was taken throughout Europe by the Romans – and introduced to the Americas by Christopher Columbus! My fondest childhood memory involving onions is of my father using a slice of raw onion as a spoon, bringing some pasta e fagioli soup from the plate to his mouth and eating them together, the soup and the spoon! I tried to emulate this a few times, but it wasn’t really to my taste!

There are many varieties of onion – large, small, strong, mild, almost too many to mention – but in general their flavour is indicated by the colour of their skin: golden onions are stronger, and are better for long cooking or where a strong onion taste is required, whereas white and red onions are milder. (The cipolla di Tropea is a Calabrian red onion which is so sweet in taste it can be eaten almost like an apple.) Care must be taken when preparing, as most onions contain sulphur compounds which can affect your tastebuds and your eyes when they are cut. There are many suggested solutions to the problem – often very silly – but I suggest you soak your onions in water for 30 minutes before preparing, then breathe through your mouth rather than your nose when cutting.

The onion is more of a ‘foundation’ vegetable than one eaten for itself. Onion forms part of a battuto or soffritto, the initial stage of most Italian dishes, soups, sauces, risottos or stews. Onion combines with almost anything and, depending on how you use it, will give a particular taste. If you sauté chopped onion gently and carefully, the natural sugars in the onion caramelize and brown, giving wonderful flavour; if burned, these sugars impart a bitter flavour. If chopped onion is sweated until transparent, without being browned, the sugars intensify, and the flavour actually becomes sweet.

Some of the traditional Italian dishes that make the best use of onion include sardine in saor (sweet and sour sardines) and fegato alla veneziana (liver with onions), both examples of Venetian cooking. The pizzalandrea of Genoa and the pissaladière of nearby Provence are both delightful pizzas covered with copious fried onions and anchovy fillets. We have an onion soup in Italy which is very similar to the famous French one. My favourite onion dish, however, is an onion sauce for pasta called alla Genovese (Genoa style), which came originally from northern Italy, but is now indelibly part of Neapolitan cuisine. One famous onion dish comes from Puglia: pizza di cipolle looks like a pie, and is stuffed with egg, Pecorino cheese and loads of fried onion. Large onions can be partly excavated in the middle, then stuffed and baked in the oven as a proper vegetable or main course. They can be sliced in rings, coated with batter or egg and breadcrumbs, and deep-fried. Smaller onions – known variously as pickling, pearl, silverskin or cocktail onions (cipollini) – are mostly pickled in balsamic vinegar and used in antipasti. These are maincrop onions picked when the bulb is immature. The borettane onion is a unique Italian pearl onion with a flat, saucer-like shape; it is very mild and sweet in taste, and can be found pickled in jars.

Spring, green or salad onions (cipollotti and cipollini) are also maincrop onions, but picked even earlier than pickling onions, before the bulb has formed properly; the Tropea onion mentioned on page 99 is treated similarly. They are often planted closely together, to stunt growth. These very juvenile onions are the ones to use raw, as flavourings for salads, risottos, frittatas, sandwiches. Dip them into the Tuscan pinzimonio, and the Piedmontese bagna cauda. The smallest member of the onion family is chives (erba cipollina), which is used more as a herb.

The shallot (scalogno) is another member of the onion genus. It grows differently, though: instead of forming a single bulb, it divides into a cluster of small bulbs or ‘cloves’ (rather like, but bigger than, garlic). Shallots are very French, I think, and are only used occasionally in Italy. They have a strong taste of onion, without the aggressive bite; they can be fiddly if small, so try to find ‘banana’ shallots, which are larger and longer. You can find very finely chopped shallots in the vinegar accompanying raw oysters, but I prefer them simply with a few drops of lemon juice. In France shallots are essential in many classic sauces such as beurre blanc, béarnaise and the marinière sauce base for mussels.

Garlic, glorious garlic or aglio, is very much my favourite, and is very much part of Italian cuisine, especially in the south. It is almost impossible to imagine Italian food without garlic (or tomato, but that is another story). Garlic has been known and used in cooking for thousands of years – and in medicine, for many of its natural compounds are beneficial to health. They say the Egyptian slaves who built the pyramids were given a garlic clove per day, and in Roman times garlic was used as a disinfectant for wounds, so great was its therapeutic fame.

There are basically three types of garlic, with differing coloured skins – white, pinky-red and purple. My favourite is the pink one. The bulbs vary in size, often according to the country of origin. Elephant garlic is the largest of them all. Dried garlic – the bulbs with the white papery skin – is available all year round, and fresh bulbs – which are milder in flavour, with green stalks – are found in season.

Garlic, like onion, is used more as a ‘foundation’ vegetable than as a vegetable in its own right, playing a part in the battuto and soffritto, the primary stages of many a sauce or stew. Its main culinary value is as a seasoning which, used judiciously, can enhance other flavours. It is wonderful in the famous garlic and anchovy dip of Piedmont, bagna cauda. It is also used in the Piedmontese soma d’ail, bread rubbed with raw garlic and doused with olive oil: the same dish is fettunta in Tuscany and bruschetta in the south. Garlic is a primary ingredient in the Ligurian pesto.

But, like onion, garlic contains sulphur compounds, and these produce the famously persistent and anti-social breath odour (actually excreted in perspiration and from the lungs). There are various ways to deal with this. First, you should be aware of garlic’s characteristics: the more you cut it, the more the clove’s essential oils are released, and the stronger the flavour. So whole roast cloves, for instance, are mild in flavour, while finely chopped raw garlic is very pungent. Sometimes, if you need just a hint of garlic flavour, you can rub a peeled clove round the sides of the pan you are going to cook the dish in, or even around the inside of your salad bowl. You could gently fry slices of garlic in oil, and then discard the garlic: the oil will retain enough of the flavour. And if you are worried about garlicky breath, chew some raw parsley or mint, or some cardamom, anise or fennel seeds (the paan mixture offered after an Indian meal contains some of these seeds to freshen your breath).

I live in an area, in the south of England, where from March to May entire roadsides are covered with wild garlic (aglio selvatico or Allium ursinum, ‘bear garlic’ or ramsons). Its leaves are large (like those of lily of the valley), and when young, taste very like garlic. But it is the garlic smell, though, which is the strongest, and can alert you to the plant’s presence!

You use the pretty leaves and white flowers of wild garlic, but not the bulb, which is almost non-existent. I collect the leaves in season and process them with olive oil almost like pesto, and freeze in ice cubes to use later in soups and sauces. I think I am responsible for introducing the catering industry to the joys of cooking with wild garlic. Very early on, at the Neal Street Restaurant and later at Carluccio’s deli, I made great use of wild foods such as wild garlic, rocket and mushrooms, many of them brought to me by my friend and fellow wild-food enthusiast, Gennaro Contaldo. The only fear is that by introducing the joys of these wild foods to the general public, the wild stocks might be threatened with over-cropping. However, wild garlic can easily be cultivated: I transplanted a few plants into my London garden, and it has grown well. And rocket spreads like a weed!

My latest use of wild garlic was at Easter in 2015. With wild garlic, nettles, dandelion, wild sorrel, some rape tops, a potato and a carrot, I made a fine soup that was delicious and very seasonal.

The leek (porro) is the mildest in flavour of the onion genus, and in shape it is like an elongated onion – up to 70cm in length, and with layers of white at the non-globular base, and a fan of green leaves at the top. Similar to asparagus and chicory, leeks are blanched during their growth, banked up with earth to protect the bases from the light and keep them white. They need careful cleaning before use because of this.

The leek is served more as a vegetable in its own right than any other member of the onion family. Sometimes known as ‘the asparagus of the poor’, small leeks go well with many asparagus accompaniments such as butter, vinaigrette, cheese, eggs, ham and cream. Whole, they can be boiled, steamed, braised and grilled, and the tiniest baby leeks are delicious stir-fried. Larger specimens can be sliced and used in stocks or soups – most famously in the French leek and potato soup, vichyssoise, and the Scottish leek and chicken soup, cock-a-leekie. Small is best, though. In Italy, we like them with fried eggs and Parmesan in porri alla milanese, or braised with olive oil and tomatoes. They are used for soups, frittate and pasta sauces. I like them boiled and served whole as part of a winter antipasto. Very young leeks can be eaten raw, perhaps in the Tuscan pinzimonio, or with the Piedmontese bagna cauda.

The final bulb I want to talk about is that of the tassel hyacinth, Muscari comosum (lampascioni), which is cultivated and eaten in Puglia and Basilicata. These were once a poor man’s food, but now they are becoming increasingly popular. Also known as cipolline selvatiche (wild baby onions), they are crunchier than pickled onions, with a pungent and peppery, slightly bitter, taste. They are always cooked, sometimes pickled, never eaten raw.

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