Deep Winter Dining

Return to Your Roots: Celebrate Underground Eating This Winter with Rugged TubersHearty Root Vegetable Dishes Bring Nutritional Medicine to the Table

If you over-indulged during the festive season, don’t panic. Now is the perfect time to kick off the New Year right by getting back to the basics of good, healthy eating. And what could be better than preparing hot and hearty meals that are easy on the food budget, good for the body and soul, and waistline-friendly to boot.

When I was a girl growing up in the rural woods of Muskoka, my grandparents had a huge backyard garden. The largest plots were devoted to root vegetables because, according to grandpa, they were the best “keepers” for putting in the root cellar to store over winter months when trips to the grocery store in town were few and far between. And in grandma’s words, they were “good for you,” plain and simple! I remember grandma joking, as she’d send me down with a basket to the root cellar to fetch a colourful array of vegetables for the supper table, that “all a body needed to fuel it through the winter was a daily dose of root vegetables.”

Old World Medicine

According to grandma’s old teachings, root vegetables are super healthy because they develop underground and thus have much more growing time than other types of vegetables that grow on top of the ground. So they are able to absorb higher amounts of minerals and other good things from the soil, not to mention they also draw in their fair share of valuable nutrients from the sun through their leaves.

Carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, beets, potatoes, and sweet potatoes or yams are some of the most commonly grown and consumed types of root vegetables in North America. They are a good source of carbohydrates, which the body breaks down into sugar to burn as energy. They also dish up essential minerals derived from the soil like potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, and iron (the latter being more prominent in beets).

In grandma’s old handwritten doctoring journals she has numerous remedies calling for root vegetables as prevention and cure for various types of ailments and common complaints. For instance, carrots are good for the eyes as well as keeping the mind alert, the heart healthy, skin radiant, and “mornings regular.”

Beets, grandma has it noted, build strong blood, teeth, and bones. Parsnips, she recommends, are the number one treatment for ulcers, heartburn, and for keeping the blood flowing freely through the system. Turnips and rutabagas are noted for having the power to flush impurities from the body while warding off colds, flu, heart disease, and cancers, especially those of the stomach and bowel. And grandma advised that those suffering from rheumatism and arthritic pain should increase their potato intake.

Modern-day research backs many of grandma’s old claims. Root vegetables are high in dietary fibre, giving the body roughage it needs to stay healthy and run “regular.” They dish up lots of vitamin C which helps fight off seasonal ailments like colds and flu. Highly colourful root vegetables with their amazing orange, yellow, and red pigments are rich in beta-carotene, which is praised as being a powerful antioxidant that wards off heart disease, stroke, cancers, and other body invaders.

Recent studies have indicated that beta-carotene helps decrease asthma symptoms, especially attacks brought on by exercise. It is also useful nutritional medicine for high blood pressure, AIDS, cataracts, and macular degeneration, which is why, no doubt, grandma promoted carrots as being good for the eyes. Beta-carotene is also reputed as being good for warding off Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, along with depression and epilepsy.

For those who need to bring down their weight for the sake of good health, increasing intake of root vegetables could be the key to success. The high amounts of nutrients and soluble fibre help satisfy hunger and curb appetite, lessening the desire for “filling up” on junk food. The fibre not only helps clean out your digestive system, but also rids sluggishness while increasing energy levels, which keeps you, so grandma would say, “stepping high and mighty.”

There are endless ways to enjoy root vegetables on the table. The healthiest way, it goes without saying, is to eat them raw to obtain the maximum health benefits, which is why they are a popular finger food for raw vegetable platters, delicious with any dip or dunk. Try them chopped or grated in the salad bowl. Run them through the juicer. Make a smoothie. And then get serious with endless creations of soups, stews, casseroles, and other great dishes.

Below are some of grandma’s Old World recipes and a few modern dishes that I’ve developed for putting my garden’s worth of root vegetables to delicious use. Keep in mind, when buying root vegetables at the supermarket look for those that are organically and, whenever possible, locally grown. Since they are good savers you can stock up at your local farmers’ market in the fall during the harvest season when prices are just too good to pass up, and stow your bounty in the root cellar for safe-keeping.

Since most folks don’t have an old-fashioned root cellar today like my grandparents did, any cool, dark corner in the basement or garage can be used to keep root vegetables in good condition for as long as several months. The ideal place would be around 34°F (1°C) with good humidity. Don’t sit your root vegetables directly on the cement floor as it may be too cold and damp (causing them to bruise), which prompts decay. Place them on a wooden shelf near the floor. If your chosen area is too cold for comfort, you can place the vegetables in cardboard boxes and cover with cardboard or wrap them in newspaper if you must, to protect them from freezing. However, if they do freeze, don’t fret as they can still be used but it’s best to cook them as roots won’t keep long once they been frozen then thawed.

Adding Beet Power to Your Baking
Did you know that you can sweeten up your baked goods by decreasing or omitting sugar and adding grated beet to the batter! Grated beets are great in spicy carrot cakes, bran, or other dark batter muffins, fruit cakes, chocolate cake, or anything that can benefit from a little sweetness and a shot of deeper colour. My favourite trick – add grated beets to meat and tofu loaves. It gives them rich colour, earthy flavour, and a big boost of extra nutrition while cutting down on your actual meat intake which is good for the budget and the bathroom scale.


This spunky salad is delicious. Of course, if you don’t like it spicy, reduce the amount or omit altogether the chili flakes.
(Makes 4 servings.)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups shredded beets
  • 1 cup diced Spanish or red onion
  • 1 or 2 Japanese or Mandarin oranges separated into segments
  • Dressing:
  • 2 Tbsp virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp orange or lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp honey
  • 2 cloves mashed garlic
  • Pinch of cloves
  • ¼ tsp dried chili flakes

1) Mix beets with onion. Combine oil, juice, honey, garlic, cloves, and chili flakes. Pour dressing over beets and toss. Divvy up into lettuce-lined salad bowls and garnish with orange segments.


This makes a delightful vegetable side-dish just so colourful and tasty! For a complete meal, add a few prawns or some boneless, skinless chicken breasts, lean beef, or pork loin strips to the wok and stir-fry before adding the vegetables.
I have not given any exact amounts for the root vegetables as you can decide for yourself how big of a batch you need to go around to your family. When I am making this for a meal with company, I double the ingredients and stir-fry it in my large wok. But for a family meal with fewer mouths to feed, I cut the amount of vegetables down to size. A little secret: if you cut the vegetable sticks in uniform-sized sticks they will cook nice and evenly.
Another trick I learned from grandma: if using fresh root vegetables they simply need washing, except for beets which should be lightly scraped. However, if you are using older, longer stored roots, you should give them a light scraping.

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil (a little more for larger stir-fry)
  • 2 or 3 cloves sliced garlic
  • 1 or 2 onions cut into stir-fry wedges
  • Carrot sticks
  • Turnip sticks
  • Parsnip sticks
  • Beet sticks
  • Sweet potato or yam sticks
  • Freshly grated black pepper to season
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  • Toasted sesame seeds (optional for garnish)

1) Heat vegetable oil in wok. Add garlic and quickly stir-fry to release the flavour into the oil. Add onion and root vegetables. Stir-fry until vegetables are merely tender, do not overcook them! They are much more desirable on the plate when they are firm and holding their lovely shapes. Sprinkle sesame oil and soy sauce over vegetables and quickly heat through.

2) Transfer to a serving plate and garnish with sesame seeds, if desired. This can be served as is with chopsticks for a quick and easy vegan stir-fry supper.


Grandma made this soup often during the fall when fresh roots were being dug (and also during the winter months) and it always came to the table as the main course, served with homemade rye bread fresh from the woodstove oven! Of course, you can serve it with any bread or crusty rolls you prefer and call it supper. I like to serve this soup surrounded with little bowls of plain yogurt or light sour cream for individual topping as some of my family love the creamy texture added to their bowl, while others prefer the soup without. One more thing: I enjoy cutting the vegetables super chunky for this soup for two reasons:
1) I like spooning up the big chunks; and
2) I often double or triple this recipe for the purpose of having leftovers – and the chunkier the vegetables are cut, the better they hold their shape upon reheating.
(Serves 4)

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large diced onion
  • 5 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 large or 2 medium beets, peeled and cut soup-sized chunks
  • 2 carrots, scraped and cut into rings
  • 2 parsnips, scraped and cut into rings
  • 2 cups peeled, chunky-cut turnip
  • ½ stalk of celery, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped green cabbage
  • 3/4 cup barley
  • 1 cup tomato paste
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • Couple of fresh leaves of minced basil of dried basil to taste
  • Vegetable stock or water
  • Salt (optional)

1) Heat oil in soup pot, sauté onion and garlic until soft. Add vegetables, barley, tomato paste, pepper, and basil. Cover with stock or water. Bring to boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer about 40 to 60 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Season with salt, if desired, and serve.

2) Variation: if you like a “meatier” soup, you can add ¼ to ½ pound of lean ground chicken, turkey, beef, or pork to the pot. Sauté the ground meat along with the onion and garlic, then continue with recipe.


SPLIT PEA SOUP

This is a satisfying luncheon soup to warm up with after playing in the snow. It also is handy for using as cold weather “thermos fill” for toting to work or school. (When I was a kid, grandma made this soup and served it puréed as a special “cure” for cold and flu – with extra garlic cloves for more potent soup medicine!)

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 diced onion
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 cup washed split green peas (or yellow split peas but soup will be less colourful)
  • 2 cups chopped carrots
  • 1 large parsnip sliced into rings
  • 2 cups diced turnip
  • 2 diced peeled potatoes (or sweet potatoes or yams which makes a “sweeter” soup)
  • ¼ cup diced celery
  • 1 small diced sweet pepper
  • ¼ tsp ground cumin
  • ¼ tsp ground coriander
  • ¼ tsp black pepper
  • Salt to taste (optional)
  • Water

1) Heat oil in soup pot, sauté onion and garlic until soft. Add remaining ingredients and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 40 to 60 minutes, or until peas are tender at which time the vegetables will be done. Do not overcook this soup as it is much more attractive when the peas are still holding their shape.


A hearty, meatless meal that I still love today as much as I did when I was a kid.
(Serves 4)

Ingredients:

  • 6 medium-sized peeled, thinly sliced potatoes, sweet potatoes or yams or a mix thereof
  • 3 carrots, cut into thin rings
  • 2 parsnips, cut into thin rings
  • 1 cup minced onion
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil (grandma used melted butter)
  • 3 Tbsp flour seasoned with garlic powder and black pepper
  • 3 Tbsp grated Parmesan cheese, plus ¼ cup additional Parmesan for sprinkling over top (grandma used cheddar cheese which works great too)
  • 2 cups scalded milk
  • 1 tsp paprika

1) Grease a casserole dish, about 9 x 12”, with butter or oil. Mix vegetables together. Place a layer of the mixed vegetables in the dish, and top with 1/3 of the minced onions, 1 Tbsp of the seasoned flour, drizzle with 1 Tbsp of the olive oil and sprinkle with 1 Tbsp of the Parmesan. Repeat, making three layers. Pour hot milk over the vegetables, sprinkle with paprika, and the remaining Parmesan cheese. Bake, uncovered, in 375°F oven until vegetables are tender and top is bubbly and golden, about 1 hour.


Purée any cooked root vegetable or a mix of root vegetables along with their cooking water and enough homemade vegetable stock or low-sodium broth to make desired amount of soup. Add low-fat yogurt to achieve creamy texture. Season to taste with garlic granules, dehydrated onion, black pepper, curry powder, herbs of choice, or other seasoning to tickle your own taste buds.


A quick vegetable dish can be had any night of the week simply by putting root vegetables in a baking dish, brushing with olive oil, sprinkling with desired herbs and baking until tender. Mix or match for exciting colour.


Grate 1 pound of peeled potatoes, put in a bowl of cold water and let stand 10 minutes to draw out the excess starch. Drain, mix with 1 cup full of grated parsnips and 1 minced onion. Season with freshly grated black pepper and a pinch of nutmeg, if desired. Add a beaten egg and ¼ cup of flour and mix well. Drop by spoonfuls into hot oil and cook until crispy golden, turning only once. Drain on absorbent paper.


Not your typical chips but kids love them anyhow! Cut parsnips, carrots, turnips and sweet potatoes or yams – or a mixture of roots into traditional “fries.” Place them on a baking sheet and brush with olive oil, sprinkle with black pepper and basil or other herb of choice. Roast in preheated 350°F oven for 35 minutes or until crispy golden.

Linda Gabris is an avid cook who enjoys sharing her grandmother’s old recipes and medicinal preparations as they were recorded in the handwritten journals passed down to her. Linda also enjoys gardening and foraging for edible wild foods. Over the years, she has taught cooking courses in Prince George, B.C., with a focus on healthy eating, food preparation, and International cuisine.

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