Returning to our roots

When it comes to roots, there is much to learn from cooks of Ashkenazi heritage due to the long winters in northern and central Europe.

Barley soup (photo credit: Jim Barcus/MCT)
Barley soup
(photo credit: Jim Barcus/MCT)
Like most people growing up in the US, my familiarity with roots was limited to potatoes, onions, carrots and an occasional beet. In Israel I became acquainted with parsley root, kohlrabi and leeks, and in France with celery root and turnips. In exploring ethnic markets, I learned to appreciate other roots, such as Mexican jicamas and yuccas, Korean radishes, Japanese burdock and tropical taro root.
“Because so many root vegetables keep well, we think of them as winter foods,” wrote Deborah Madison, author of Local Flavors. However, roots have qualities that should make them welcome any time. Many are naturally sweet, and most are more filling than other vegetables. Whenever I come across sweet turnips, kohlrabi or beets, I buy plenty of them because they provide pleasing variety to our menus. “More dense and long lasting than their counterparts under the sky, roots and tubers are characterized by those satisfying textures that make them so good for hearty braises,” wrote Madison.
When it comes to roots, there is much to learn from cooks of Ashkenazi heritage. During the long winters in northern and central Europe, cooks have developed a variety of ways to use their kohlrabi, celery root, beets, turnips, parsnips and parsley roots, as well as the common onions, leeks, carrots and potatoes.
One popular technique for making dishes from roots is to cook several of them together. They might be served in a sauce or mashed like potatoes. A Swedish favorite is rotmos, a vegetable puree usually made with rutabagas or yellow turnips but also good when made with white turnips. Simple versions call for cooking the vegetables in water, then mashing and seasoning them with salt, pepper, allspice and perhaps a pinch of sugar.
Richer renditions are cooked in broth and finished with milk, thick cream and butter.
In addition to boiling, steaming and stewing, roasting is a good way to treat roots. In the case of sweet ones, their natural sugars become slightly caramelized, giving the vegetables a delicious flavor. Judith Pierce Rosenberg, author of A Swedish Kitchen, roasts mustard-coated meat on a bed of chopped roots – celery root, carrots, onion, potatoes and parsnips – which cook along with the meat and gain flavor from the gravy, as well as contributing to it.
Cooks in Germany have developed numerous root recipes, some of which are based on the age of the vegetables.
When root vegetables are young, wrote Mimi Sheraton, author of The German Cookbook, they are stewed in pieces with a little sauteed onion, fresh herbs like dill or savory and very little liquid. The same vegetables are cooked in water to cover if they are large or old and afterward are combined with sauteed onions.
In both cases, the cooking liquid is thickened with flour and might be enriched with milk, sweet or sour cream or butter. Kohlrabi, one of Germany’s most popular vegetables, is often cooked this way with carrots. To make the popular Leipzig mixed vegetables, the sauced pair is combined with peas, cauliflower and mushrooms; or the mixture is baked with whipped eggs to make Berlin vegetable pudding.
Most of all, root vegetables star in German soups.
When making her soup broths, whether meat, chicken or vegetable, Sheraton adds pot vegetables called Wurzelwerk, which means root works – carrot, celery root, celery rib, parsnip, parsley root and sprigs, leek, onion and often turnip. The formula is very different from the basic broths I learned to prepare in chefs’ cooking school in France, which are more delicate because they do not have celery root, parsnip, parsley root or turnips.
To make barley and giblet soup, Sheraton cooks chicken giblets with the pot vegetables, barley and dried mushrooms. For potato soup, she sautes diced potatoes and pot vegetables in butter, then adds flour, water and marjoram, purees the soup and sprinkles it with parsley and dill.
Hungarians also make extensive use of roots in soups.
Edward Weiss, author of The Paprikas Weiss Hungarian Cookbook, prepares Aunt Nellie’s soup, a substantial chicken, turkey and beef soup with kohlrabi, parsley roots, carrots, leeks, onions, garlic, dill, green pepper and soup noodles.
Root vegetables are prominent in the luxurious soups that appear in Paul Kovi’s Transylvanian Cuisine. A mixture of four roots – carrots, parsnips, celery root and onions – flavors his unique Sabbatarian cabbage soup with smoked goose, created by the Szekely Sabbatarians or “Jew-imitators” and made with sauerkraut, sauerkraut juice and sour cream. The four basic roots also enter his unusual lentil soup, cooked with partridge in veal broth and enhanced with mushrooms, rice and egg yolks. The sumptuous Szekely soup for a Transylvanian wedding, a chicken soup with turnips, celery root, kohlrabi, mushrooms and egg noodles seasoned with ginger and saffron, is a shining example of how the Hungarians elevated humble roots to special-occasion status.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.
Some make this puree without milk, cream or butter; it makes a good accompaniment for lamb, beef or chicken. The puree is also good with a vegetarian main course, such as beans in tomato sauce.
550 gr. turnips 450 gr. potatoes 225 gr. carrots 1 cup milk (optional) 1⁄4 cup heavy cream (optional) 1 Tbsp. butter (optional) 1⁄2 tsp. sugar (optional) 1⁄4 tsp. ground allspice, or more to taste Salt and freshly ground pepper
Peel turnips and potatoes and dice them. Put them in a large saucepan, add water to cover and a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add carrots and cook for 10 more minutes or until vegetables are very soft. Remove vegetables from liquid, reserving liquid.
Mash vegetables with a potato masher or in a food mill. If you use a food processor, pulse often and add 1⁄4 cup of the liquid so the potatoes will not become gluey. Return puree to pan and heat it. Gradually stir in 1⁄4 cup of the vegetables’ cooking liquid over low heat. Gradually stir in milk or additional vegetable cooking liquid over low heat, adding enough so the puree is of the consistency you like. Stir in cream and heat through. Add butter, sugar and allspice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot.
This substantial soup owes its fine flavor to its variety of vegetables – carrots, onions, turnip, potatoes, kohlrabi, celery and mushrooms. Hearty and colorful, it makes a satisfying vegetarian entree; you can also serve it in smaller amounts as a first course. Using already cooked beans or canned ones, reduces the soup’s simmering time.
6 cups water 4 or 5 cups vegetable broth 2 large onions, diced 2 bay leaves 4 fresh thyme sprigs or 1 tsp. dried 2 celery stalks, sliced, leafy tops reserved 1⁄2 cup pearl barley, rinsed and drained 1 medium turnip, peeled and diced 2 large potatoes, diced
Salt and freshly ground pepper 1 medium kohlrabi, peeled and diced 3 large carrots, sliced 6 large garlic cloves, chopped 170 to 225 gr. mushrooms, cut in thick slices Two 400-gr. cans white beans, drained, or 3 cups cooked white beans (see Note below)
Bring water, 4 cups broth, onions, bay leaves, thyme sprigs and celery tops to a simmer in a large saucepan. Add barley. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add turnip, potatoes and a pinch of salt and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add kohlrabi, celery slices, carrots and garlic to soup. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add mushrooms and beans. Add more broth if soup is too thick. Simmer for 10 minutes or until all vegetables and barley are tender. Discard bay leaves, thyme sprigs and celery tops. Season soup to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot.
Note: To cook dried white beans: Sort and rinse 2 cups beans. Put beans in a large saucepan and add 7 cups water. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 1⁄2 hours or until beans are tender but not falling apart. You can use the bean liquid instead of part of the water in the soup.