Traditional Texas Food
Articles about Texas' most famous foods
by John Raven, Ph.B.
Cooking Root Vegetables
Cooking with root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, rutabegas and beets
Summer is finally winding down. The summer garden harvest is gone, and the fall crop is just beginning to grow. This month we are going to explore some of the underground harvest of the garden, the root crops.
Carrots, beets, parsnips, rutabagas and turnips are on the menu. These are basic vegetables, and they do not require a lot of time and work to be at their best. My favorite recipe follows each brief overview.
CarrotsCarrots come in several shapes and sizes. All can be used in any carrot recipe. When shopping for carrots, look for crisp ones that resist being bent. When carrots get old, they get limp from loss of water and flavor. If you are buying fresh carrots with tops attached, look for bright green tops that are not excessively limp. The most popular carrot these days is the "baby" variety. While I can't confirm it, I suspect these are merely imperfect regular carrots that are machined into acceptable size and shape. Nonetheless, they are very good.
Creamed CarrotsSelect the number of carrots you think you will need, usually about six or eight medium-large ones, or you can use whole baby carrots. If using whole carrots, cut off the tips and tops. Scrape the outer skin off, and rinse under cold water. Cut the carrots into quarter-inch slices, and boil in slightly salted water until fork tender. In the meantime, in a heavy skillet or saucepan, make a roux of equal amounts of bacon drippings and flour, about two tablespoons of each. Stir well while bringing to a light brown color. Then, add two cups cold milk and continue to stir until the mixture thickens to your specifications, add the drained, cooked carrots and stir over low heat until the carrots are heated through. Season to taste with black pepper and salt, heavy on the pepper. A great side dish for any meat roasted or fried. Don't forget the biscuits.
BeetsBeets are the most colorful of the root crop. We are used to seeing them in their dark red version, but they also come in yellow and a striped version. Canning jars full of pickled beets are a thing of beauty. I don't think anyone actually eats pickled beets, but they grace the shelves of most pantries. My mother often canned pickled beets, but she never ate any of them. She said she just liked the way they looked.
Beets can be boiled or roasted. They should be cooked with the skins on to keep the colors from fading. The skin can easily be removed after cooking.
Roasted BeetsSelect medium-size beets. If the tops are attached, look for fresh, crisp greens. Remove the tops leaving about one inch of the stalk attached to the bulb. Scrub them well under cool water. Wrap tightly in foil and bake in a 350-degree oven for about an hour or until tender. Unwrap them and discard the juices. When they are cool enough to handle, slip the skins off and slice them in half. Dot with butter and season with salt and black pepper. Makes a colorful side dish for most any meal.
ParsnipsParsnips are not a common item on Texas tables. I understand that they like to grow in a slightly cooler climate, and are at their best when harvested after the first frost which concentrates the flavor in them. Parsnips are commonly boiled and then mashed and served like mashed potatoes. The can also be roasted in the oven. The skins are removed before cooking.
Mashed ParsnipsPeel the parsnips and wash them thoroughly. Cut into half-inch slices and boil in salted water until very tender. Drain and return to the pot. Mash them with the potato masher, along with a generous amount of butter. Stir them and then add enough milk or cream to get the consistency you desire, and season with salt and black pepper. Serve as you would mashed potatoes.
TurnipsMy favorite of the root crops in the lowly turnip. It's the vegetable that kept Lil Abner and the Yokum family alive through all their adventures. (For those who are too young to remember Lil Abner, he was the hero of a comic strip set in Dog Patch and drawn by the late Al Capp).
Turnips are colored a light purple on the top of the bulb and creamy white lower down. The leaves of the turnip plant are also very popular as "turnip greens". Turnips come in two basic shapes; the slightly flattened ball is the most common shape, while rarely you will see the tapered, parsnip shaped vegetable. In either shape they are delightful. While turnips can grow to huge size, select those that are just smaller than a tennis ball for your table.
Turnips need to be peeled before cooking. Their skin is very thin but tough. Once in a while, you will find a turnip that grew in very dry conditions and is pithy inside. Discard these as they are too tough. Turnips can be cooked any way you would cook a white potato. Sometimes the turnips will be a little bitter, but this can be offset with the addition of just a little sugar.
Creamed TurnipsPeel the turnips and cut them into quarter-inch slices. Cook in lightly salted water until fork tender. In your skillet, make a roux of equal parts of bacon drippings and flour. Add condensed milk until you get the consistency you desire, should be on the thick side. Add the drained turnips and simmer until all are hot. Great side dish for your chicken fried steak.
RutabagasThis first cousin of the turnip is seldom found in Texas -- at least where I shop. Treat the rutabaga just like the turnips.
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