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Rooting for winter vegetables

Celery root Zealous 419 W. Superior. (Rich Hein/Sun-Times)

Celery root at Zealous, 419 W. Superior. (Rich Hein/Sun-Times)

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Root vegetables are running rampant on dessert menus around town.

Cindy Schuman, pastry chef at Sepia, 123 N. Jefferson, fashions sweet potato spice cake bread pudding, serving it with caramel-thyme ice cream and apple-fig chutney, while Stephanie Izard plates parsnip custard with pistachio cake and blood orange sorbet at Girl & the Goat, 809 W. Randolph.

At Zealous, 419 W. Superior, Michael Taus prepares Valrhona chocolate cake infused with roasted beets. The vegetable “lends the same texture as applesauce, keeping it moist and rich,” he says.

Taus also uses beets to make savory panna cotta, a finale that’s shocked with color.

“The thing to keep in mind when using root vegetables in a dessert — or anything — is you need to bring out their flavors,” says Izard. While home cooks know to use salt, there’s a component — acidity — that often gets overlooked.

“Without something like citrus, the flavor falls flat,” she says.

When devising root veg desserts, Schuman considers her spectrum of options. This leads her to the less obvious: apple-rutabaga or pear-rutabaga pie, in which she may use herbs such as rosemary.

“That way, you get multiple textures and flavors, and you’re pushing the envelope just enough without it being a total departure,” Schuman says.

Jennifer Olvera

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Updated: April 19, 2011 5:34AM

In these dreary months, root vegetables are more than mere consolation.

They comfort and sustain, but when prepared just so, they also deliver panache.

Tradition holds that these healthy tubers and taproots have an affinity for herbs and benefit from roasting or a slow, purposeful braise. Many are great mashed, and some can serve as a stand-in for the common potato chip.

More surprising: They’re making their into desserts, being hit up with vinegar and mingling with fruits for an atypical, enlightened fusion of flavors.

“Root vegetables are the number one produce option this time of year for an obvious reason: They’re what’s most available,” says Andrew Zimmerman, chef at Sepia, 123 N. Jefferson. “But it also has something to do with the fact that people are more interested in and knowledgeable about seasonality and local food.”

Chef Michael Taus of Zealous, 419 W. Superior, notes the resurgence of heirloom varieties such as purple and white carrots that offer “not just amazing flavors” but also gorgeous hues.

“Some people don’t naturally love root vegetables — they’re somewhat underused and underappreciated,” admits Dan Tucker, chef de cuisine at SushiSamba rio, 504 N. Wells. “But I think it’s possible to bring them out in a new light by using different techniques.”

Unlike most produce, hardy root vegetables flourish from the harsher elements, and that bodes well in these parts.

“We don’t get super-serious about pulling them from the fields until we have a few good frosts,” says Vicki Westerhoff, owner of Genesis Growers, a small year-round farm in north-central Illinois.

“The natural makeup of root vegetables changes when they’re frosted,” Westerhoff adds. “The starch is converted to sugar. As a result, they’re much sweeter.”

Given their inherent sweetness and earthiness, high-temperature roasting is a preferred method for concentrating the flavor of root vegetables. Boiling is an option, too, but Zimmerman suggests steaming instead to avoid “diluting the flavor.”

“I like to use a sous-vide technique,” adds Tucker, referring to the “under vacuum” method of slowly simmering in an airtight bag. “It gives you a beautiful texture, and you don’t lose the flavor in a pot of water.”

Granted, few home cooks have access to such chef-y equipment. Tucker recommends using an affordable, FoodSaver-type sealer to achieve a similar effect.

This approach works with everything from sunchokes to parsnips and turnips. Simply peel and cut them into 1-inch cubes, add a pinch of salt and nub of butter, seal and cook in a low-heat water bath for 45 minutes to an hour.

When they’re tender, season, add more butter for richness if desired and give them a whirl in the food processor or blender until creamy.

“Root vegetables go so well with hearty proteins like short ribs or duck confit,” Tucker says.

The key, says Taus, is to not overcook them. Taus often tosses root vegetables in a reduction of chicken stock, honey, butter and thyme or uses a root vegetable puree as an alternative to butter for finishing risotto.

Jennifer Olvera is a Brookfield free-lance writer.

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