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Flash in the Pan

Notes from underground

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Roasted roots are to winter what salad is to summer: an edible reflection of the season. It's a dish that's about as easy to make as boxed macaroni and cheese, and puts you in touch with your hunter-gatherer roots.

Our ancestors devised special tools to dig for edible roots. New World root vegetables filled the holds of ships returning to Europe in the 16th century. Until the industrial revolution, roots were a necessary key to survival, storing the calories people needed to make it through the darkest days of winter with enough strength to plant new crops come spring. Roots practically store themselves, waiting patiently as long as they have a cool, dark place to hang out, and in winter, such places are easy to come by. They can also be left in the ground to be dug up as needed, assuming the ground hasn't frozen around them.

Root vegetables come in many categories. Botanists divide them into taproots, storage roots, corms (modified stem roots), tubers, bulbs and rhizomes. But most people have a simpler definition: If it grows underground, it's a root.

I also include winter squash among the roots, even though it doesn't grow underground, because squash behaves like a root in almost every other significant way. Squash can be stored, unprocessed, all winter alongside the true roots. And when you add chunks of squash to a pan full of roasting roots, they fit right in.

Squash is technically a fruit, but I won't be adding any to my fruit salad. In my book it's an honorary root, a root in fruit's clothing—a "froot," as it were.

When I put together a pan of roasted roots, I'm creating a meal, not a Noah's Ark of root representation. Ginger may be a root, but I don't want it in my roasting pan because it will make the whole business taste like ginger. Beets are roots too, but they'll turn the whole thing red. The roots I want in my pan are the roots that keep to themselves. A roasted potato doesn't take on the taste of the carrot next door, and that's the way I like it.

I've dabbled in turnips and experimented with rutabagas, both of which are too spicy for my mellow taste. Ditto for radishes, though that point is academic, since radishes aren't around in winter. Yams and sweet potatoes are a little too sweet for my root roast—the squash adds enough sweetness. Onions turn out either too dry or too moist, depending on how they're cut. I'm on the fence about garlic. Roasted cloves taste good, but given a limited supply I'd rather use garlic as spice than vegetable. If anything, I mince or press fresh garlic and toss it with the finished product, straight out of the oven.

My current favorite line-up for rocking the roasted roots is carrot, potato, parsnip and squash. If I have some, I also include celeriac (celery root) in the mix. All these roots (and froot) can be stored in a root cellar through winter, and carrots and parsnips can also be stored in the ground where they grew—just make sure to cover that ground so it doesn't freeze, otherwise you won't be able to dig them out.

I like to cut my roots crudely and intuitively, kind of like how I imagine Jackson Pollock painted. There's an argument to be made that cutting everything to uniform size ensures uniform cooking, and while that is true, my roasted roots are about contrast, not homogeneity. If the little pieces of carrot are a bit soft and the big pieces are still a bit crunchy, that's okay with me. But roasted roots are a personal thing, and my feelings on what's included, how they should be cut, and how well cooked the carrots should be may not reflect your own. Fortunately, winter is long enough to experiment and figure out what you like best.

I leave the skin on the winter squash (ditto for the other roots) and scoop out the seeds to roast alongside the roots. With the oven at 350 I pile everything but the parsnip chunks into the pan, toss them in safflower oil and then salt, pepper, rosemary, and bake. The roots will let off steam for a while, as they begin to shrivel and shrink from water loss. Meanwhile, the starches start breaking down into sugars. I stir occasionally, prodding the chunks with a finger or fork, and when they start to soften I add the parsnips—withheld so far because they cook so much faster than the rest of the gang.

There's leeway in how long you cook the parsnips and carrots, because both can be eaten raw without difficulty. Potatoes and squash: not so much. When the biggest piece of potato or squash in the pan is done, it's time for dinner.

The same selection of roots can be placed around a bird in the oven, where they'll absorb the yummy juices. Alternatively, roasted roots can be put in a blender with raw garlic and enough olive oil to allow it to blend evenly. The resulting cream, which I call roasted root mayo, works just like real mayo—a dandy spread that doubles as delectable dollops atop whatever else you're eating. One change in the recipe if you're going for roasted root mayo: Use oregano instead of rosemary.

Roasted roots can also be added to soups, wherein they maintain their identities better than they would have unroasted because of the skin that roasting produces. And yet another application for roasted roots can be employed the following morning, when the leftovers can be fried in the breakfast grease of your choice and served with eggs.

The options are plentiful enough that you can probably mess around with roasted roots every winter's day without getting sick of them. And even if you do, by the time autumn shuts down the next growing season, you'll be pining for them again. Eating roots in winter is rooted in our DNA, and won't soon be forgotten.

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