FOOD: Root Vegetables

There can't be any other time of year when root vegetables seem such a necessary addition to any lunch or dinner, their down-to-earth comfort and sustenance, bringing you back to your Sunday dinner roots, enjoying hot stew on a cool autumn night.
When eating root vegetables such as beets, carrots and parsnips, it's not actually the “vegetable” you're enjoying but the root itself. These veggies keep for much longer than other vegetables, making them an important food item for many years across many cultural cuisines. Lucky for us, we grow many of our own root vegetables here in Ontario.

Beets have been grown in the Mediterranean area since pre-historic times, originally grown just for their attractive, edible leaves. When the Roman Empire ruled, some discovered that the roots were also good enough to eat.
Beets, either deep red or white, are plump with thin, shiny skin. Red beets get their colour from betacyanine. The fewer bruises a beet has the more vibrant its juice will be prior to cooking. They also denote a colourful presentation on the plate.
When selecting your fresh beets, look for items without bruises or blemishes and avoid the large beets (they tend to be tough). Cook your beets with the peel on. You may add lemon juice or vinegar to the water to enhance their colour. To ensure they're fully boiled or steamed, run it under cold water. If the skin comes off easily, it's ready to be served. Oven-cooked beets retain their flavour and have an enhanced colour.
As with most vegetables, beets can be eaten raw, cooked or preserved. To serve raw beets, just peel and slice. Cooked beets can be eaten hot or cold, tasting just as delicious either way. Try using the leaves of the beet and eat them just as you would spinach or chard.
Beets are an excellent source of potassium, vitamins A and C, magnesium, riboflavin. They also contain iron, copper, calcium, thiamine, vitamin B6, folic acid, zinc and niacin.
Fresh beets are always sold with a few leaves and some of the root still attached which helps them preserve longer. They can be stored this way in the refrigerator for two to four weeks and can be frozen after they're cooked.

Carrots were first cultivated in Central Asia, dating back thousands of years. The original carrot was a blackish-mauve colour, perhaps not as appetizing as the vibrant orange carrots that grow today, but likely still as delicious.
Carrots are one of the simplest snack foods, eaten raw or delicious roasted, grilled, steamed or stir-fried ““ especially since they loose little of their nutritional value during cooking. If carrots are cooked until slightly tender, the body can better absorb the cartenoids (especially the anti-oxidant, beta-carotene) and also enhance their sweetness. The brighter and more vibrant the carrot's colour, the more beta-carotene it contains.
Carrots are high in complex carbohydrates and cholesterol free. They're an excellent way to get vitamins A, B6, C and K as well as folate, potassium, manganese, magnesium and thiamin into your diet.
Whether from your garden, the market or grocery store, choose carrots that are firm and bright. Avoid carrots that have a greenish tinge closest to the leaves: it indicates exposure to light and will taste bitter. Only peel the carrots just prior to cooking or eating raw, as its vitamin value will diminish when exposed to air. They make an excellent companion to mixed vegetable dishes, in cream sauce, buttered or covered in a port and butter glaze or drizzled with a little maple syrup.
Carrots will last for up to three weeks in the fridge but should be placed in a perforated plastic bag. They'll retain their flavour as long as they're stored in a cold place.

Parsnip was a favourite during Lent in the Middle Ages, because it was nourishing and able to satisfy hunger when supposed to be avoiding meat. Parsnips were introduced to North America by English colonists at the start of the 16th century.
Similar in shape to the carrot, parsnip is yellow with a texture similar to rutabaga and has a nutty taste. If left to develop after the first fall frost, parsnips will take on a sweeter flavour.
Look for parsnips that are firm and medium in length with some good weight to it, scar and blemish-free. Oversized parsnips will be tough and lack flavour. In fact, the taste of this vegetable improves once cooked. They can be eaten raw also. Cut parsnips only just before cooking or serving because the cut flesh will blacken when exposed to air. They can be sprinkled with lemon juice or vinegar. When cooking, parsnips don't need to be peeled ““ just skim over it with a vegetable brush. The skin can easily be removed once it's cooked. If you suddenly realize you have no carrots for your stew, or no rutabaga for your puree, you can easily substitute with parsnips since it prepares the same as a carrot.
Although parsnip has a high caloric content, they're an excellent source of potassium and folic acid, and contains vitamins C and B6, B5, magnesium, copper and phosphorus.
Keep parsnips in the fridge in a perforated plastic bag for up to four weeks. They can also be frozen. Ideally they should be blanched for five minutes whole before freezing.

Throughout history people have viewed radishes as an appetite stimulant. The Roman poet, Horace claimed radishes were something “to excite the languid stomach.” Contemporary Shakespearean Ben Jonson advised that they be eaten before tasting wine.
The radish was amongst the first vegetables ever cultivated. In addition to being edible, it is also sought after for its medicinal properties including the promotion of digestion and blood circulation.
Several varieties are grown in Ontari Belle Glade, Fuego, Red Cheriette, Champion and Cherry Belle. Jumbo varieties include: Champion, Red Crunchy, Scarlet Globe Special and (white) Snow Belle. Bunched varieties sold are usually Revoso, Saxafire, Red Baron and Galahad. The firm, crunchy flesh of a radish can be either white or red but the skin is red for both types. They taste tart and refreshing, though an acquired taste for some. Radish leaves are also edible.
As with other vegetables, choose firm, smooth radishes without bruises or blemishes and if the leaves are still attached, they should be crisp and bright green. Larger radishes can be on the tough side and quite tart.
They can be enjoyed raw in salads, sandwiches or as appetizers with dips. Radishes are excellent marinated, in soups, ragouts, sautéed or stir-fried Chinese style (particularly the white radish). Radishes are a great source of vitamin C.
Radishes make a great solo compliment to any table and also pair well with yogurt- and sour cream-based dips and guacamole because of their peppery flavour. Radishes are usually served on their own or with other raw vegetables. For the freshest of the bunch, choose radishes that are sold in bunches with their tops attached. They should be firm and brightly coloured. If it's a longer shelf life you're looking for, buy packaged radishes, which can also be less expensive. Before putting fresh radishes in the fridge, remove the leaves and wrap them in plastic. Prepackaged varieties must also be put in the fridge but will only remain fresh for about a week.

Belonging to the cabbage, mustard and radish family, rutabagas are thought to be a turnip-cabbage hybrid from Slovakia, cultivated in the 1600s. Its name comes from the Swedish “rotbagga”. In Scotland, “neeps” are a popular accompaniment to haggis. Most Ontario rutabaga are the Laurentian variety: round and dense with a bright purple and cream exterior and a tart flavour; they can be eaten raw or cooked.
The best choice rutabagas should be firm, medium-sized with a good weight and unblemished.To prepare, peel and cut the rutabaga into pieces, removing the core if it's brown. They're an ideal addition to stews, soups and pot roasts, as well as pureed or mixed with mashed potatoes. Rutabaga is an excellent source of potassium, vitamin C, magnesium, folic acid and phosphorus. They will keep refrigerated in a perforated plastic bag for up to three weeks. Prior to freezing, blanch them for two minutes.

Sweet Potatoes
Ontario potatoes are classified as long, round whites, round reds, or sweet. Sweet potatoes (not yams, which are sub-tropical) have sweet-tasting orange flesh. Beauregard, with reddish skin, and the smaller copper-toned Jewel are the major sweet varieties grown.
Sweet potatoes are native to Central and South America, with hundreds of varieties consumed since prehistoric times. After making their way to Europe on the ships of explorers, they continued on to Spain and Portugal. They're also known as one of the most nutritional vegetables grown in Canada as an excellent source of beta-carotene, potassium, a good source of Vitamin B6, C, fibre and folacin.
Select firm, dry, shapely potatoes that are free from bruises, dark spots, cracks or sprouted eyes. Try not to buy any that have greened from in-store florescent lights. They should be stored out of direct light, otherwise they may turn green and sprout. Loosely cover with burlap or a perforated plastic bag. Keep them dry and handle them carefully, as they can bruise easily. The dense, moist fluffiness of the sweet potato lends itself nicely to baking, deep-frying and mashing.
Perhaps it's time to head to the farmer's markets while they're still open to buy all the proper, classic ingredients for a nice, hearty stew and enjoy it with a fistful of crusty bread.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi in Velvet Vodka Sauce
2 pounds sweet potatoes
1 ¾ cup (430 mL) unbleached all purpose flour
 4 egg yolks
pinch of nutmeg
 salt, pepper
parmesan cheese
Vodka Sauce (recipe below)

Place cleaned potatoes on a baking tray and bake at 450°F until tender. It is important to not overcook the potatoes otherwise they will absorb too much water. When potatoes are tender, remove from rack while still hot. Peel potatoes and pass through vegetable mill into a large bowl. Add a healthy pinch of salt, a pinch of pepper, nutmeg and egg yolks. Add the flour, sprinkle of parmesan cheese and mix with wooden spoon. Knead the dough gently for about five minutes on a lightly floured board. Divide dough into eight portions. Roll each piece into a rope about ¾-inch diameter and six-inches long. Cut into bite size pieces. Cook gnocchi in boiling, salted water until they float to the surface. Fold the gnocchi into the vodka sauce. Add freshly chopped basil and parmesan cheese.Enjoy!

Vodka Sauce
48 oz tomato sauce
8 strips lean bacon, sliced thin
5 pieces shallot, chopped fine
1 cup (250 mL) 35 per cent cream
2 tbsp (30 mL) white wine
¼ cup (60 mL) vodka
4 sprigs fresh basil chopped fine
salt, pepper to taste

Fire roast bacon at high heat till crispy. Remove grease. Add shallots and simmer for two minutes, or until golden brown. Deglaze pan with white wine and vodka. Add cream and reduce to half. Add tomato sauce. Mix well. Add fresh basil and season to taste.
                                                                                                                                ““ courtesy Michael's Back Door