Pop quiz! How many of the vegetables below can you identify?
Okay, okay, number 17 is a carrot—but even he doesn't look familiar in the Bugs Bunny sort of way.
It's the time of year when us fair-weather farmers-market-goers rake our cheeks, beat our chests, and whine, "There is nothing—nothing!—at the market." (Or, in Sam Sifton's less dramatic words, "Farmers’ markets are bare in many precincts.")
But on a recent Saturday in New York, I found the market not "bare" but, rather... otherworldly? Unfamiliar? Full of vegetables with... scraggly beards? At the Evolutionary Organics stand, I leaned over every crate of whiskery, lumpen roots and tubers and whispered, "What are you?" And then, "Can I eat you?"
"The answer is yes," the vegetables told me. "You just have to know how."
Here are the answers to the quiz above (you're dying to know, right?), followed by a few generally important principles to cook by and a list of ways to put those gnarly roots—some of the least traditionally "beautiful" at the market—to great use.
Poor, maligned turnip. All too often, writes Deborah Madison in Vegetable Literacy, it's "regarded as a lowly root, fit only for livestock."
But they can be crisp, milky, and mild-tasting, with a pleasant funk. Give them a chance!
The large turnips you'll find at the market this time of year—sold without their greens and banded with purple—are storage turnips, likely harvested in the late fall. They should be peeled and blanched quickly in salted water before being sliced or cut for gratins, stews, or soups. "These are not the turnips you'd proudly serve raw," says Madison bluntly, "but they're not bad to munch on in their uncooked state either." Pride, be damned!
But soon, the young, relatively sweet spring turnips will arrive, with their bright greens. Madison recommends Japanese "salad" turnips (number 5 in the image above), in particular, as "their gleaming [gleaming!] white roots needn't be peeled, and the greens, which are tender and free of prickles, cook quickly."
Golden turnips (3 and 9) are also "fine-grained and sweet," writes Madison, as are scarlet turnips (1, 10, 16). Shave them with a mandolin, then layer them, raw, into salads, or use them as mini scoopers for chicken or potato salad.
Is it a rutabaga, or is it a turnip? Ah, the eternal question. Some know-how, courtesy of NC State, for distinguishing the sometimes-dopplergängers:
The roots of turnips generally have little or no neck and a distinct taproot, while rutabaga roots are often more elongated and have a thick, leafy neck and roots originating from the underside of the edible root as well as from the taproot.
Also known as "swedes," rutabagas (15 in the photograph above) are new kids in the world of vegetables, bred as a cross between a cabbage and a turnip just a few centuries ago. Most people find them sweeter and milder than turnips, though McLagan of Bitter disagrees ("In my taste universe, they are much stronger flavored") and recommends seeking out the smaller specimens—and adding lots of butter (and a bit of sweetness) to keep their bitterness at bay.
What's good for a turnip (see ideas above!) is good for a rutabaga, but rutabagas have drier flesh and need to be cooked for longer. If you're swapping in rutabagas for turnips, you'll need to allow for extra cooking time. And if both are used in the same recipe, Deborah Madison in The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone recommends giving them a head start by boiling them for 10 minutes. (And, in Vegetable Literacy, she declares: "Treated lavishly and respectfully, rutabagas are a fine winter vegetable.")
A "splendid vegetable" according to Deborah Madison, celeriac is a type of celery grown for its developed root rather than its stalks and leaves. Despite the dirty, knobby appearance, the flavor is fresh, though "softer and deeper than that of a head of celery" and less sweet than that of carrots and parsnips, says Madison.
And you might already know what to do with the following vegetables, so consider these next sections refreshers.
Gold star to whoever names this beet's doppelgänger. ⭐️ pic.twitter.com/AWUnsthoG3— Food52 (@Food52) February 21, 2017
What's the gnarliest root or tuber or other creature you've pulled up at the market or supermarket? And what did you do with it? Tell us in the comments!