Nourishing Roots: Turnips and Parsnips and Beets (Oh My!)

When I first moved from the Sonoran Desert to somewhere with seasons that include a cold, grueling winter, one of the most challenging aspects was not being able to grow food year round, which is something to which I’d grown quite accustomed. In the wonderful book Full Moon Feast, Jessica Prentice breaks down the agrarian year by moon cycle. We are in the heart of Hunger Moon. Prentice points out that very few of us in this country have ever experienced seasonal food shortages, or the cycle of scarcity and abundance. Food is shipped, refrigerated and available year round and grocery stores are stocked to the brim.

Not being able to go to an outdoor farmer’s market each week, though, feels like a sacrifice to me. To me this feels like I am, in fact, experiencing the cold of winter both externally and internally, circumstantially and otherwise. The slow pace and unfamiliarity coupled with the weather and what seem like plateaus in my own crafts of choice do seem like a famine of sorts. But they appear far more meaningful when viewed as a form of purification, a part of a seasonal cycle of hunger and want.

What is needed in these circumstances a deep nourishment. Food that is well-prepared, thoroughly cooked and warming feeds the internal furnace. Deep rest helps us conserve our energy and resources in this inward and sensitive time. Rest and self-reflection leads to replenishment.

Following Prentice’s lead (and recipes), I’ve been cooking with local winter vegetables. The most familiar ones are leeks, carrots, onions, potatoes, winter greens and cabbage, but I’ve been throwing parsnips, beets, turnips, and celeriac into my food as well. I’m also on the lookout for parsley roots, sunchokes and rutabagas.

Although I’d seen rutabaga in Cleveland when I volunteered to cook food for a macrobiotic dinner about a decade ago, I first discovered parsnips as a vegan living in Oxford. I remember blending potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, leeks and parsley with these two strange vegetables for a delicious winter soup. Roasting root vegetables (beets and rutabagas and parsnips and carrots and sunchokes, perhaps potatoes, and turnips or celeriac, too) with some fresh rosemary, olive oil, salt and pepper is also delicious.

I first discovered sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes) when instructed to pull them out of the ground as part of a permaculture internship in the desert. Pull we did and it was the most fun we’d had in a long time. There’s something about eating food you just pulled out of the ground. We boiled the sunchokes, added a little butter and ate them. The texture was potato-esque but the taste was so much earthier.

I managed to grow sweet potatoes in the desert, although I’d heard it was impossible. In fact, I’d all but given up on them but was clearing my community garden plot (as instructed) shortly before leaving town. Sure enough as I dug around I found baby sweet potatoes. These were peeled and boiled and mashed and taken to a Thanksgiving dinner.

I’m still in search of salsify, which I hear is not available in these parts until spring, and it’s become more difficult to source raw milk locally, which I’d love to get my hands on for making whey and cream cheese and using the whey to make sauerkraut (and  beet kvass). Luckily, most kraut can be made with salt instead of whey, or whey can be made out of yogurt, so I may need to compromise. There is no shortage of the roots mentioned above, however, and creamed soups made with them are earthy and warming on a very deep level. I try to save the ones that are exceptionally starchy (with potatoes and winter squash) for a post-workout meal, assuring that the sugars replenish muscle glycogen.

Not only are these winter roots nutritious and appropriate for this time of year, they are also quite affordable… and it is nice to support local farmers. Other winter treats include lacto-fermented goodies which are excellent for digestion. A simple cabbage with some sea salt and whey makes for delicious sauerkraut, good with sausage or served with borscht.  Taking the time to prepare and process food not only saves a pretty penny, but can be rewarding and empowering.

I’ve got some beets in my fridge and am looking forward to making borscht again this year, probably using Prentice’s recipe. I think today of how recipes are a luxury. The first time I ate borscht was when it was cooked for me by some very thankful house guests–two Mormons who I’d met at a poetry reading who were looking for a hostel which was closed down. They had just done missions in Russia and spoke of the scarcity of vegetables. They would go to the grocery store and buy whichever two vegetables were available that day. The borscht I make has not only beets but also onions and carrots, tomatoes and celery… The borscht they made in Russia may have only had beets, procured after standing in a very long line. And there may not even be any left that day. I reflect on the abundance available to me even in what seems like a time of scarcity. All the organic root vegetables in the world. A freezer full of local, grassfed beef. Being able to share it with someone I love. And the promise of spring, right around the corner.

A variation of this post was originally published on last winter.

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