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Seacoast chefs dish on the culinary delights of cold weather tubers.

Seasonal devotion to root vegetables by home cooks, chefs, and diners along the Seacoast is grounded in equal parts science, nostalgia, and creativity.

Sandy, well-drained soil with a reasonably high composition of humus (i.e. mature compost) helps all root vegetables grow straight and strong underground. There are many root vegetables classifications. But the ones most prevalent along the Seacoast are taproots (like carrots) that grow vertically downward into the soil; tuberous roots (like sweet potatoes) that grow laterally covered by about eight inches of dirt and function as their own storage units; stem tubers (like potatoes) that have a vertical orientation underground with a few buds on the top end that shoot up through the earth; and, rhizomes (like ginger) that are essentially thick plant stems that grow horizontally just below the surface of the soil. These roots provide many nutrients required for New Englanders to make it through long, harsh winters.

Scientifically speaking, soil traits necessary for prolific root vegetables can be found all over the world, says Frank Wertheim, educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. What generally ties the northeasterly region of the United States to super sweet root vegetables is the weather, specifically its propensity for cold snaps.

Many root vegetables, especially carrots, celeriac, parsnips, salsify, and turnips, actually get sweeter after a couple of good frosts. The cold nights force these vegetables to convert plentiful reserves of starch into sugar. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are the exception to the frost-makes-them-sweeter rule, says farmer Andre Cantelmo, of Heron Pond Farm in South Hampton, New Hampshire. If starch is allowed to metabolize in those tubers, he explains, their taste changes for the worse, and, when cooked, black spots appear where pockets of sugar have accumulated in the flesh. Cantelmo cultivates over 15 varieties of potatoes as his bread-and-butter crop. But he’s not averse to producing sweet roots too. In fact, he grows a rainbow of them, including candy-striped Chioggia beets, purple top rutabagas, and heirloom Gilfeather turnips, which are celadon-tipped, antique storage bulbs. And he only plants pink-fleshed watermelon radishes for the fall harvest because, he says, “they just don’t get as sweet in the summer.” To push root vegetables to their peak of sweetness, Seacoast farmers looking for a fall harvest generally plant them in early to mid-July, expecting the frost to hit late September after the plants reach maturity. Farmers keep them rooted in the ground through a few frosts, then pull them from the not yet frozen earth. During the winter, the roots are stored in root cellars (see “Root Cellaring Returns,” this page) and walk-in coolers, controlled for both temperature and airflow, so they lose neither moisture nor sweetness before they can be eaten.

The endurance and subsequent cold weather availability of these hearty vegetables inspires chefs up and down the Seacoast during the winter months.

Chef Chris Prunier, formerly of Relish in South Berwick, Maine, reminisces about the carrots she grew in the back yard of her parents’ Nashua, New Hampshire, home in the 1960s. “I planted them in the rockiest parts of the lot so they would grow all twisted around the stones and each other,” she says. Prunier couldn’t pull up the exact taste memory for those carrots to gauge whether they were any sweeter than the ones she buys from local farmers today. But she is adamant that any local carrot, or any local root vegetable for that matter, would be far more vibrant in terms of color, consistency and taste than one trucked in from California.

Prunier proves her love for roots is more than skin deep after hesitantly admitting that celeriac, or celery root, is her favorite. This is a vegetable described by Diane Morgan in Roots: The Definitive Compendium (see “Subterranean Lowdown,” page 95) as “roughly round taproots with tough, yellowish white or greyish brown skin” that “look like gnarly, hairy, muddy-bottomed orbs,” which, to the uneducated cook, are better left for dead than purchased for their culinary possibilities.

To select a good celery root from the market, Prunier says to reach for one about the size of a softball that feels heavy for that size. Peeling the layers of gnarl off a smaller one will not yield much usable flesh. If it’s not heavy, that signals the center could be spongy instead of firm.

Prunier lauds celeriac for its versatility. Snowy white pureed celery root adds depth to mashed potatoes. Chopped, it adds an herbaceous flavor to a pan of roasted carrots and turnips. And raw, it stands on its own in the remoulade she serves routinely with vegetable crudité or grilled trout.

Root vegetables, apples, and lobster. Those are the ingredients that come to mind when you think of northern New England coastal fare,” says Chef Chris Kozlowski, who uses all three foods to complement the meats that anchor his menu at the Orchard Street Chop Shop in Dover, New Hampshire.

Chef Brendan Vesey of The Joinery, a farm-to-table eatery in Newmarket, New Hampshire, that presents a southern take on its locally sourced food, has cooked professionally both in his native Virginia and throughout coastal New Hampshire. “Sure there are sweet potatoes and carrots in the south. But root vegetables, in general, get a lot more love up here,” he says.

And that love gives birth to creative dishes that show them off in all their glory.

Vesey is partial to parsnips, with their pale-fleshed, carrot-like physique and hints of vanilla. He admits he’s got to work with what he’s given. “Sometimes local parsnips come into the kitchen all gnarly, obviously bred for flavor and not uniformity,” says Vesey. He’ll scrub and maybe scrape clean those roots (peeling them would sacrifice too much flesh), cooking them very slowly at a low temperature while completely submerged in herbs and olive oil, or if he’s feeling bold, beef tallow or pork fat rendered from local animals—a parsnip confit.

Once cooked until tender, the parsnips are stored in the cooking oil. At meals, they are pulled from the oil, roasted until crispy, and plated as an accompaniment to seasonal entrees. The herb-infused oil gets a second career in The Joinery’s house-made vinaigrettes.

Salsify and sunchokes and are two woefully underappreciated New England roots, argues Greg Sessler, chef at Cava Tapas and Wine Bar in Portsmouth. He cooks, serves, and eats both, but when forced to pick just one as his top rated root, he turns to the former. Salsify, a taproot that comes in both black and white varietals and tastes of oysters, was a common ingredient listed in early American cookbooks, according to Morgan’s Roots. After a hundred year disappearance from gardens and marketson this coast, salsify is making a comeback when it’s in season between October and March.

Sessler scrubs the dirt off the long, slender root and peels the brown-flecked skin to get to the vibrant white flesh. He blanches prepped salsify to prevent it from oxidizing in the air and then either sautes, fries, or roasts the root. As a visually beautiful (and tasty) treat for customers tucking into a good steak at Cava, Sessler poaches salsify in red wine to ride on the plate with the meat.

At the Orchard Street Chop Shop, Kozlowski is happy to champion sunchokes, also called Jerusalem artichokes, even though, historically, there are no ties to either the Middle East or artichokes. In fact, they are native to North America and were cultivated by Native Americans before Europeans arrived. They’re in the sunflower family, with a flavor reminiscent of artichokes, hence the name. Once planted, as Kozlowski did in the raised beds behind his home, “sunchokes are really tough to kill even if you ignore them,” he says.

Not that he’d want to kill them. And he certainly doesn’t ignore them. He thinks they have the earthy taste of mushrooms and uses them regularly roasted and pureed in both vegetable and starch roles at his restaurant. That said, sunchokes don’t technically contain starch, but have as their storage carbohydrate inulin, which is not easily digested and can cause gaseous issues for some bellies.

At Brine in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Executive Chef Justin Shoults certainly gives a nod to the sweet side of root vegetables in dishes like a Russian-style beet cured salmon, where these shredded red orbs add both color and a sweet counter to the salty cure.

But he’s also careful to point out the benefits of the spicier side of roots that work well with the seafood on the menu, like his Skate Wing with Turnips and Fresh Horseradish. Shoults is drawn to the mustardy quality of turnips in general, and the sweet but peppery quality of Tokyo turnips, more specifically. Sometimes called baby turnips, these are small, white, tender spheres that are sold with their greens attached. He cooks them in a saucepan with butter, sugar, and water. The water cooks the turnips as it boils off, and they are left tender and subtly glazed by the other ingredients. But sometimes you’ve just got to go for the more serious punch of local root flavor. Take horseradish, for example. This truly ugly specimen of a vegetable was brought to New England by the English and the French who both have a long history of using it as a pungent condiment.

“Some local horseradish will tear your nose right off. It’s just that potent,” says Shoults. At the oyster bar at Brine, where copious amounts of horseradish are served, he opts for more predictable commercial varieties for year-round consumption. But because the local stuff has both a stronger flavor and a higher moisture content which makes it easier to grate using a micro plane, Shoults shaves it onto seasonal dishes that require a bit of a more memorable sting added to the flavor profile.

As diners continue to sample dishes from Seacoast menus, they will find that local chefs are certainly not at a loss to use both uncommonly good familiar root vegetables and more adventurous obscure varieties as they see fit. Through this exposure, chefs prove the point that just because root vegetables are ubiquitous cold weather fare in this region, it doesn’t mean that eating them has to be a boring affair.