Return to Your Roots: Celebrate Underground Eating This Winter with Rugged Tubers

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Dig deep and you will find that from beets and burdock to turnips, turmeric and yams, plant roots are some of the most humble and unassuming – and at the same time underrated – foods we can eat. Economical, healthy, and tasty, roots have been important to humans since the dawn of time.

Paleobotanists and anthropologists note that ancient cultures of Asia and Africa were most dependent on roots for food and medicine. In ancient Greece, people who grew and supplied herbs were called rhizotomoki – root gatherers – and the earliest Greek herbal by Diocles in 4 B.C. was called Rhizotomika.

Now cooks and chefs are rediscovering what early peoples and herbalists of all eras have always known: underground roots, tubers and bulbs of many plants are not only nutritious and satisfying as a food, but they often carry concentrated healing components.

By their very nature as producers and storehouses of energy for the entire plant, roots are full of fibre, vitamins, minerals, proteins and other tremendously important nutrients. Potatoes, for example, provide “per land unit, more energy and more protein for the human body in a shorter time than any other crop (five times more than soybeans, corn or wheat).” (From The Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook, Sally and Martin Stone; Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., NY, 1991.)

Herbalists rely on medicinal doses of the active components in roots like burdock and dandelion to cleanse and support the liver, and garlic to treat heart disease and cancer. We can also learn from ancient cultures (which made no distinctions between food and medicine) that healing roots can become tasty ingredients in a healthy diet. It’s time to take root vegetables out of the cellar and the medicine cabinet and get cooking.

The Root of the Matter

Just because a section of plant grows below ground, it may not technically be a ‘root.’ Below are the botanical names for underground plant parts

  • Root – the part of the plant that grows downward underground; anchors the plant, stores nutrients, takes up nutrients and water from the soil; it has no nodes, buds or leaves. Examples: beets, burdock, carrots, celeriac, chicory, dandelion, echinacea, ginseng, horseradish, kudzu, parsnips, parsley root, radishes (daikon), rutabagas, salsify, turnips, wasabi.
  • Rhizome – creeping, usually horizontal underground storage system that bears buds which produce leafy shoots each season. Examples: arrowroot, ginger, lotus root, galangal, turmeric.
  • Tuber – thickened part of an underground stem or root; lasts one year. Examples: astragalus, cassava, groundnut, Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, potato, sweet potato, taro, yam, kohlrabi.
  • Corm – short, underground or underwater, bulb-like base of a stem that lasts one year. Examples: water chestnut, saffron.
  • Bulb – an underground storage organ with fleshy leaves and shortened stem, the whole enclosing next year’s bulb. Examples: chives, garlic, leeks, onions, ramps, scallions, shallots.

Deep Rooted Medicines

Here are some roots commonly used in herbal medicine that could easily become family favourites at the table:

  • Angelica (A. archangelica) – tonic, carminative, stomachic, antispasmodic; used for loss of appetite and flatulence. For cooking: blend dried angelica root with other herbs for soothing teas.
  • Astragalus (A. membranaceus) – immunostimulant, antimicrobial, cardiotonic, diuretic, promotes tissue regeneration; used as a tonic providing powerful stimulation to virtually every phase of immune system activity; effective during conventional cancer treatment, alleviates adverse effects of steroids and chemotherapy. For cooking: add dried astragalus to soups, stocks and stews; grind and combine with other immune-building herbs such as thyme for a powerful seasoning.
  • Burdock (Arctium lappa) – mild laxative, antirheumatic, antibiotic, skin and blood cleanser, tonic, soothes kidneys, lymphatic cleanser; used as a cleansing, eliminative remedy: helps remove toxins that cause skin problems, digestive sluggishness and arthritis pain; supports the liver, lymphatic glands and digestive system. For cooking: combine with other roots such as carrots and/or parsnips, steam then sauté in olive oil.
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – liver tonic, promotes bile flow, is a diuretic, mild laxative, anti-rheumatic; used for liver, gallbladder, kidney and bladder ailments including hepatitis and jaundice. For cooking: combine with other roots such as carrots and/or parsnips, steam then sauté in olive oil.
  • Garlic (Allium sativum) – antimicrobial, antibiotic, cardioprotective, hypotensive, anticancer, anticoagulant, lowers blood cholesterol level, lowers blood sugar level, expectorant, digestive stimulant, diuretic, antihistamine, antiparasitic; inhibits cancer cell formation and proliferation; lowers total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol; reduces blood clotting; antioxidant, stimulates immune system. For cooking: garlic is known as the king of herbs because it is central to many dishes. Use it raw in dips, sauces and spreads for the strongest healing benefit.
  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale) – Anti-nausea, relieves headaches and arthritis, anti-inflammatory, circulatory stimulant, expectorant, antispasmodic, antiseptic, anticoagulant, carminative, antioxidant; calms nausea and morning sickness and prevents vomiting – useful in chemotherapy; increases action of gallbladder. For cooking: use liberally in salad dressings, dips, sauces, soups and cooked casseroles.
  • Turmeric (Curcuma longa) – Anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-coagulant, anti-spasmodic; analgesic, lowers blood cholesterol, reduces post-exercise pain, heals wounds, protects liver cells, increases bile production and flow; appears to inhibit colon and breast cancer; boosts insulin activity and reduces risk of stroke; used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, candida, AIDS, Crohn’s. For cooking: because it is so important to health, aim to use fresh or dried turmeric in cooking daily. A major component of curry spice, it can be added to other seasonings for colour (yellow) and healing benefit.

Editor’s note: Look for organic turmeric in health food stores, since the commercial non-organic type may have been irradiated. For an extra medicinal boost, curcumin – an active ingredient in turmeric – can be found in supplement form.


Makes 4 — 6 servings
Pink and pretty but don’t be fooled, this salad is full of power and punch. For even more heat, try adding 1/4 cup either grated fresh daikon radish or grated fresh horseradish.


  • 3 medium beets, peeled and coarsely grated
  • 2 apples, cored and coarsely chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and grated
  • stalk celery, diced
  • fresh dandelion root (optional), trimmed and grated


  • 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp powdered turmeric
  • 2 tsp finely grated ginger
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

1) Salad: in a large salad bowl, toss grated vegetables.

2) Dressing: in a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, vinegar, turmeric, ginger and sea salt. Add the oil in a thin stream and whisk the dressing until it is combined and emulsified.

Sometimes fresh burdock is available in Asian markets. Tip: Keep the cooking water to use in soup stocks. Substitute parsnips if necessary. Makes 4 to 6 servings


  • 1-1/2 lb fresh burdock (or parsnips)
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • 3 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp brown rice syrup
  • 1/4 cup chopped almonds

1) Scrub, trim, peel and cut fresh burdock into 2” lengths. In large pot, bring water to boil and add lemon juice and burdock pieces. Cover and bring back to the boil, then reduce heat to moderate and cook for 5 minutes, or until just tender. Drain.

2) Meanwhile, in large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Stir in onions, garlic and mushrooms. Cook until onions and mushrooms are soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in soy sauce, vinegar, and brown rice syrup, cook for a minute, and then stir in drained burdock and almonds. Serve immediately.

Turnips are usually found fresh in the spring and fall. If fresh turnips are not available, substitute 1-1/2 cups grated rutabaga. Grating the vegetables cuts down on baking time. Makes 4 to 6 servings


  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • 1/2 lb turnips (about 2 medium), peeled and coarsely grated
  • 1/2 lb carrots (about 2 medium), peeled and coarsely grated
  • 1/2 lb potatoes (about 2 medium), peeled and coarsely grated
  • leek, split, washed and sliced
  • 3 Tbsp flour
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 1/2 cup grated Gruyere or Swiss cheese

1) Preheat oven to 425°F. In a heavy, deep-sided ovenproof skillet or sauté pan, melt butter over low heat. In a medium bowl, toss turnips, carrots potatoes and leeks with flour. Add floured vegetables to skillet; increase heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Stir in stock and garam masala.

2) Place skillet in preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes. Sprinkle with cheese and cook another 10 minutes until cheese is melted.


  • 1 cup dried chopped dandelion root
  • 2/3 cup dried chopped burdock root
  • 1/2 cup dried chopped chicory root
  • 1/4 cup dried chopped licorice root or powdered carob
  • 2 Tbsp ground star anise
  • 1 Tbsp ground dried ginseng root
  • 2” piece cinnamon stick, crushed

1) In a large bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well. Store in a clean, dry jar with a lid.

2) To make one cup: In a coffee grinder, grind a small amount of the root coffee. Use 1 Tbsp for every cup of water. Make root coffee in a coffee maker the same way as regular coffee.

In this easy and nourishing winter salad, it is not necessary to have all of the vegetables at hand. Simply use more carrot or beet if you do not have kohlrabi or rutabaga. To cut vegetables into matchsticks, cut ¼- to ½-inch thick slices of the vegetable. Peel and cut into ¼-inch strips and cut the strips crosswise into 1- or 2-inch lengths. To toast almonds in a skillet, spread almonds out in one layer. Heat over medium-high heat, stirring constantly for 1 or 2 minutes or until lightly brown. (Makes 4 to 6 servings.)


  • 2 cups thinly sliced Napa or Savoy cabbage
  • 2 cups thinly sliced red cabbage
  • 2 ½-inch slices kohlrabi, cut into matchsticks or shredded
  • 2 ½-inch slices rutabaga, cut into matchsticks or shredded
  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced crosswise on an angle
  • 1 large beet, shredded
  • 1 large carrot, shredded
  • Winter Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
  • ¼ cup toasted slivered almonds

1) In a large bowl, combine green cabbage, red cabbage, kohlrabi, rutabaga, onions, beet and carrot.

2) Toss to mix well.

3) Drizzle Winter Vinaigrette over and toss again to mix well.

4) Garnish with toasted almonds.

This Asian-inspired dressing may be warmed before tossing over the vegetables. (Makes 1 cup.)


  • ¾ cup macadamia or hazelnut or grape seed oil
  • ¼ cup rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp toasted sesame oil
  • 1 Tbsp brown rice syrup or maple syrup

1) In a jar with tight-fitting lid, combine macadamia oil, vinegar, soy sauce sesame oil and rice syrup. Place cap on the jar and shake well. Drizzle over salad.

2) To heat vinaigrette: in a saucepan, combine macadamia oil, vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice syrup. Heat over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes, or until heated through. Do not let vinaigrette boil. Remove from heat, whisk and drizzle over salad.

You can use any root vegetable – onions, rutabaga, garlic, beets, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, celeriac, daikon, even radishes and sweet potatoes are delicious when roasted. (Makes 4 servings.)


  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 1/4 cup avocado or olive oil
  • 2 medium potatoes, quartered
  • 2 carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 parsnips, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 1/2 celeriac, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1/4 rutabaga, cut into 1-inch chunks

1) Finely chop garlic and rosemary.

2) In a large bowl, combine garlic and rosemary with oil.

3) Add potatoes, onion, carrots, parsnips, celeriac and rutabaga and mix well.

4) Spread evenly in one layer on a rimmed baking sheet.

5) Bake in preheated 375° F oven for 40 to 60 minutes or until tender, stirring once.

Recipe Books by Pat Crocker:


For Pat Crocker, root vegetables are a pantry staple in winter. Pat is a culinary herbalist and the author of 10 cookbooks and three herb booklets. Her latest books include Everyday Flexitarian (Whitecap Books), Preserving (HarperCollins) and 150 Best Tagine Recipes (Robert Rose). All Pat’s books are available at bookstores or go to to see her latest books. To read her blog, go to

Pat Crocker's mission in life is to write with insight and experience, cook with playful abandon, and eat whole food with gusto. As a professional Home Economist (BAA, Ryerson U., Toronto) and Culinary Herbalist, Pat’s passion for healthy food is fused with her knowledge and love of herbs. Her wellness practice transitioned over more than four decades of growing, photographing, and writing about what she calls, the helping plants. In fact, Crocker infuses the medicinal benefits of herbs in every original recipe she develops. An award-winning author, Pat has written 23 herb/healthy cookbooks, including The Healing Herbs Cookbook,The Juicing Bible, and her latest books, Cooking with Cannabis and The Herbalist’s Kitchen.

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