Root Vegetables, Lessons Learned
Over the last eight months or so I’ve deliberately planted root vegetables instead of more common garden items. Sweet potatoes through the summer and then I got a late start on my fall garden, planting it too close to the cold season (such as it is in Central Florida) so I deliberately planted veggies that would grow underground so that they would survive any cold. With many of them now grown and eaten, I thought I’d talk about the lessons learned.
Root vegetables are, generally speaking, biennials. They grow their first year, and devote much of their energy to creating moist, starchy roots that they use in their second year for the energy they will then need to survive, go to seed, and spread.
Humans, of course, learned to interrupt that two-year process after year one and eat the roots. That said, root vegetables seem to be less popular with more recent generations, mostly in the name of convenience. However, if you just roast them you’ll find that they are actually great tasting. Just clean them off, cut them up into equal-sized pieces, toss in some oil, (cut some chives, parsley, thyme or other herbs overtop if you like) and roast them at, say, 350F for 35 minutes or so (depending on the size you cut them and your oven) and they are great, nutritious, inexpensive and filling. If you have a broiler pan or some kind of rack so that the oil can drip down into a pan below, even better, since some, like turnips and beets, will get mushy sitting in the oil that long and are great if they’re not.
“Root cellars” were popular in northern basements in the past because at moderate temperatures most root vegetables will store for a long time, providing nutrition during the cold winters. In Florida, though, they’ll still hold a good month or so, and often you can just leave the ones you’re not eating in the ground until you want them, which isn’t always an option up north.
The fact that they’re filling, I’ve discovered during the last year, is a great thing. You can plant cucumbers or cauliflower, and they’re tasty, but use the same space to grow turnips or potatoes and you have a good amount of vegetables that will fill the belly for a long time. I expect to devote half my garden to root vegetables from now on, having learned this. It’s just a great use of space, and they are far more economical when a $1.25 pack of turnip seeds can produce a good 35-45 of them (compare that to the grocery store where they seem to be about a dollar a piece if you do the math).
A few thoughts on some particular root vegetables:
Quickest: Radishes, of course. I was never a fan of radishes until I figured out to roast them. They can grow within a month and make a nice side. Their sometimes harsh taste when raw mellows out into something quite nice when roasted.
Most Useful: Sweet potatoes. Where my garden usually sat empty and grew weeds through the Florida summer, I finally found sweet potatoes. They grow merrily underground all summer and then you get an abundance of filling tubers at summer’s end. Weed anyhow or they end up a bit twisted (though still edible). To eat, rinse, poke them with a fork a few times, wrap them in a paper towel, and just nuke these puppies, then add some butter or lo-cal sour cream and chives.
Most Roastable: Turnips. Turnips are easy to grow through the cooler months, are highly productive and are are a tasty blast from the past. Cut up and roasted with some onions, they are a star. Steamed they are not so tasty, sautéed would probably be fine. Nowadays, turnips sit sad and forgotten in small batches for too much money at the grocery store. Throw down some seeds and rediscover these guys. Seriously.
Most Convenient: Onions. I just buy a pack or two of the thin, pencil-sized seedlings of granex onions (white, yellow or red) and plant them all over. Onions can be eaten at any stage, as green onions then, of course, as regular onions after they bulb. I put them around the edges of the gardens and always have them growing (well, not through the summer). They roast fine with the others, or can be sautéed or of course raw in salads (duh).
Most Foolproof: Carrots. Another great roasting vegetable, and pretty filling. There are a hundred kinds and colors if you grow from seed, and they have so much more taste when you grow them yourself. The tops are highly edible carrot greens (which I’ve put into my chimichurris) and the carrots themselves are good any way you want to eat them, but of course roast up nicely.
Most Nutritious. Beets, hands down. Just check out any list of the most healthy foods and beets will always be near the top. For some reason people do a lot of prep with them, which deters you from making them. Just cut them up and roast them like anything else on this list, though. No I don’t peel beets or anything else here. A lot of the nutrients are in the skin of vegetables. Also, like turnips, the greens are good too.
Old Schooliest: Salsify. This is the ancient root vegetable that looks a bit like white carrots but supposedly tastes like oysters and/or artichoke (not sure how it could taste like both of those). These are not done growing, so they are a post of their own for another day.
Honorable Mentions: Parsnips and rutabagas didn’t make it into the garden, glaring omissions in the root vegetable category. Both projects for another day. At Christmas I made a wicked rutabaga mash from store-bought ones, which was excellent. Also, underground vegetable-wise, I’m growing chufa, the edible part of which grows underground like a peanut. I’m not certain if it fits into this category or not. Also, of course, peanuts, a summer crop I may look at in late May.
Glaringly Absent: “New” or “Irish” Potatoes, which is to say, Potatoes. I tried to grow them once and they got some kind of blight. Apparently, you may need to start with a “seed potato” from a feed store that hasn’t been sprayed so it won’t produce eyes and be vulnerable to this sort of stuff. Once you have a few seed potatoes, though, you’re golden as they grow happily and are, of course, filling. However, they are a higher glycemic load food, so I thought I’d try out some less common ones with the space I have.