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Get Back to Your Roots

Don't take these tubers for granted.

by Martha Vining   .   photos by Matt Rose

If the Byrds (and the Bible) are right, every thing has a season. Spring has lettuce and peas, summer has corn and tomatoes, autumn has apples and squash. Winter is the time for root vegetables. Rutabagas, turnips, carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, onions, beets, celery root. They are the Ugly Betties of the vegetable world. But these vegetables are hearty and healthy, equipped to make it through so many cold days underground.

Root vegetables are not usually revered like the first delicate green shoots of spring, or the first ripe summer tomato, but they are certainly comforting. Knobby and thick-skinned, they’re made to be mashed, grated, roasted, stewed, deep-fried or pureed. Carrots, parsnips and rutabagas can be left for weeks or months in the proper storage area, forgotten, stored away, covered with straw or buried in sand before cooking.

If you’re less familiar with the parsnip, think of it as an albino carrot. It’s usually just as sweet as one, with a slightly stronger flavor. Rutabagas, which are of Nordic origin and somewhat exotic to most Americans, are an excellent alternative to potatoes and delicious when cubed, tossed in olive oil and roasted. Rutabagas, pale yellow in color, have the added bonus of being loaded with vitamin C.

The lowly beet seems to be all the rage among foodies lately, showing up in everything from salads and sandwiches to cocktails (even though, according to the New York Times, there are no beets in the White House garden because President Obama doesn’t like them). Whether you’re a fan or not, for drama in the kitchen, nothing beats a beet.

Tucked into a former Huddle House behind a Fairview gas station, the Sugar Beet Cafe has a warm, well-lit diner feel to it (without the grease, thank you). Co-owners Colleah Habif and Ashley Thelen whip up their signature roasted beet salad with red and golden beets, arugula, goat cheese, candied walnuts and a house-made balsamic vinaigrette. They also use other roots to great effect. One of their best-selling dishes is a gratin that calls for potatoes, fennel and seven turnips.

Chef and owner Charlie Widner, with her partner Rebecca Daun-Widner, have grown Asheville’s Tomato Jam Café into a neighborhood eatery where there really isn’t a neighborhood. It’s a doctor’s park next to a hospital complex. Despite that, stepping inside Tomato Jam makes you feel like you’ve stepped into the kitchen of someone who is genuinely happy to see you—and everyone else who stopped by. There seem to be few dishes more comforting than pot pies, and the Tomato Jam’s vegetable pot pie, made mostly of root vegetables and suitable for vegetarians, seems like the perfect combination of Southern comfort and quintessential Asheville fare.

Sugar Beet’s Winter Gratin

7 turnips (peeled)
3 Yukon gold potatoes (peeled)
1 bulb of fennel
1 sweet yellow onion
½ pound butter
½ quart heavy cream
3 cloves diced & lightly sauteed garlic
salt and pepper to taste
1 ½ cups grated parmesan cheese

Thinly slice all vegetables. Sauté onion and fennel with butter until tender. Combine wet ingredients in a heavy sauce pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer until liquid reduces enough to coat the back of a spoon. In a large mixing bowl, toss cream with all vegetables. Layer half of the vegetables into a 9x13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the parmesan. Add a layer of second half of vegetables, then top with remaining parmesan. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake until fork tender and lightly brown (15-20 minutes more). Allow to sit 20 minutes before serving.

Tomato Jam Café’s Roasted Root Vegetable Pot Pie

½  pound turnips (2 medium), peeled
2 carrots, peeled
2 parsnips, peeled
½  pound fingerling potatoes, scrubbed
½  pound sweet potatoes, scrubbed
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large leek, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
32 ounces of mushroom or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons cornstarch
½  package (1 sheet from a 17-ounce box) puff pastry, thawed in refrigerator
1 egg, whisked with 1 teaspoon water
1 ½  cups finely grated parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and set aside. Chop the first five ingredients into one-inch pieces and transfer to a large bowl. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and season with salt, pepper and thyme. Mix to blend and roast on the prepared sheet pan for 30-40 minutes until browned and soft. Set aside and reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium heat. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and the butter. When the butter has melted, add the garlic, shallots and leeks, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft, stirring occasionally, about ten minutes. Add the flour and stir until a brown patina forms on the bottom of the pan, another minute or two.

Begin adding the mushroom-vegetable stock a cup at a time, stirring and allowing the broth to come to a simmer and thicken between additions. When all the broth has been added, whisk the cream and the cornstarch together until smooth, then add to the broth, stirring until the liquid comes back to a simmer. Add the root vegetables, simmer for three minutes and season to taste with salt and pepper. To bake, divide the stew between four large oven-proof bowls arranged on a sheet pan. Brush the puff pastry sheet with the whisked egg-and-water mixture. Cut the puff pastry sheet into eight squares. Place two pastry squares on each bowl, crossed at 45-degree angles, allowing the pastry to hang off the edges of the bowl, and top with parmesan cheese. Bake 25-30 minutes, until the pastry is puffed and golden and the stew is bubbly. Serve warm and enjoy.

Posted on Friday, February 5, 2010 at 02:18PM by Registered CommenterVerve-acious | Comments2 Comments

Reader Comments (2)

This from an authentic foodie, knowlegable food critic and capable cook and baker - Tomato Jam Cafe is on my list of top ten places I most enjoy eating. And top four of places that make one feel absolutely like part of the family!!
Full disclosure, I am Charlie's father-in-law and Rebecca's daddy, but i speak the truth!!
February 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWillow Mae's Papa
Our trips to Asheville would not be complete nor nearly as much fun without a great meal and conversation at the Tomato Jam Cafe!
Jac and George Bryan, Montgomery, Al.
February 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJac Bryan

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