Holidays and root vegetables go hand in hand: Mountains of buttery mashed potatoes pave the way to a sweet potato pie finale. Foods like these might not represent the healthiest choices to make this month, but that doesn’t mean root vegetables are inherently bad. Rethinking their preparation and scaling back on the added fat and sugar is certainly a step in a much better direction.
“For root vegetables, most people only think about sweet potatoes, beets or onions,” says Yikyung Park, a researcher for Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. “But the list goes on to include less widely known vegetables such as taro and celery root. The peak season for most root vegetables is fall through spring, but they are good all year round.”
Because there are so many root vegetables to choose from, there are also plenty of opportunities to use them in new and unexpected ways. Consider taking a cue from other cooking cultures: Yucca fries are popular in Central and South America. In the southern United States, turnip greens are a central component of collard greens. Turmeric — the ingredient that gives curry powder its vibrant hue and distinctive taste — is not just popular in Indian cooking. It has been famous for hundreds of years for its anti-inflammatory qualities and pops up in everything from soups to sauces to teas.
“Since root vegetables grow underground, they store energy in forms of carbohydrates and absorb a lot of nutrients,” says Dr. Park. And though carbohydrates have gotten a reputation for being unhealthy, they bring great nutritional benefits such as dietary fiber and vitamins A and C. “High-fiber foods aid in a good digestion and keep you feeling full for longer. This helps with weight control, which in turn helps reduce your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes,” Dr. Park says. “High-fiber diets have been shown to reduce colon cancer risk. Vitamins A and C may also help reduce cancer risk, as they reduce inflammation and damaged cells within the body.”
Increasing the amount of garlic and onion in recipes is another easy way to make dishes healthier: Dr. Park says some studies report that a higher intake of these foods was related to a reduced risk of certain digestive system cancers.
When eaten in moderation — and thoughtfully prepared — root vegetables can be nutritional superstars this season, Dr. Park says. “These health-friendly foods have many added benefits for you and your family, plus with such a wide variety to choose from, you can enjoy root vegetables all winter long!”
Your Guide to Root Vegetables
Also known as celeriac, this vegetable is known for its bulb rather than its stems — traditional celery’s main selling point. It’s true that celery root seems difficult to cook with: It’s an imposing, almost alien-looking specimen. But its rough exterior gives way to a surprisingly sweet inside. It’s also incredibly versatile. Celery root mashes as easily as a potato, purées beautifully into soups and can even be served raw in salad. Better still, the bulb is loaded with vitamins C, K and B6.
Ginger is the only food that can claim both sushi and holiday cookies as a common denominator. (“Wasabi-bread houses” just doesn’t have the same ring.) A little of this knobby root goes a long way: Gingerbread recipes usually only call for about a teaspoon of the stuff, and a bite is all that’s needed to cleanse the palate between meal courses. There are plenty of ways to use this piquant root in cooking. Whether it’s ground, crystallized or shaved, ginger in all forms is a treat for the body. It soothes the stomach, reduces pain and boosts the immune system too.
Parsnips are similar in size and shape to their carrot cousins, but they have an earthier, more nuanced taste. In fact, it evolves over the course of winter. Parsnips that are harvested in the late summer or early fall are tender and can be eaten whole, but they are rather starchy. Unlike most plants (and people, for that matter), parsnips are at their prime in the middle of winter when the starch breaks down into sugar. Parsnip purée makes an elegant side dish—and a welcome change of pace from mashed potatoes.
Shallots are the Goldilocks of the genus allium: They are bigger than cloves of garlic, smaller than onions, and impart a sweeter, subtler taste than either one of them. Getting a kick of flavor from low-calorie shallots also means you don’t have to reach for caloric seasonings or salt. Shallots handily outperform onions in nutritional terms, bringing higher levels of potassium, fiber and iron.
The nose-to-tail way of eating (that is, consuming all of the animal rather than just popular cuts of meat) appeals to adventurous, eco-conscious diners. But if you’re not quite ready to go whole hog, we suggest getting creative with the humble turnip. It is best known for its softball-size root that’s packed with vitamin C. After they’re peeled, turnips can be boiled and mashed, or seasoned and roasted. Turnips are related to mustard plants, and that spiciness comes through in their leafy greens. Pairing them with pork or sausage is a great way to mellow out the strong taste — the bigger the root, the more bitter it will be.
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In Good Taste is brought to you in partnership with Siteman Cancer Center. Watch for more healthy, seasonal cooking ideas each month.