They’re kind of amazing, if you think about it.
All you see above ground are stems and greens. Sometimes tasty, sometimes bitter. Sometimes edible, sometimes poisonous.
Who in our hunter-gatherer ancestry first mined the hidden gems that flourish underground? Who was first curious enough to discover that some plants have wiry tendrils for roots, while others stand on concealed, crisp, bulging nuggets of stored nourishment? Who was first brave or hungry or reckless or stupid enough to unearth and eat one of these mysterious fruits from the earth, willing to risk sickness or death for the sake of a strange thing that might–or might not–be food?
It’s easy to scout your garden for the perkiest basil leaves, the fluffiest fennel fronds, the plumpest strawberries, the tenderest figs.
But until you part the earth to release its buried root treasures, you won’t know whether your carrots are pretty and slender like a maiden’s fingers or knobby and hooked like a witch’s claws. You won’t know what shape your potatoes or yams have taken until they’re out of the soil and in your palm.
(You can estimate size, of course–pretty accurately, even–based on when you planted those veggies and what above-ground signals they’ve transmitted. But really, you will never know for sure until you hold those secrets in your hand.)
Here’s the other thing about root vegetables: you’ve got to work for them.
Fresh herbs? Snip a few sprigs as you need them. Fruit and berries? Pluck ‘em from the bush and enjoy. Quick, easy.
But with roots, the magic happens under the soil, and you can’t see it or hold it or taste it until you dig it up, unearth it, get a little grit and grime under your fingernails. Brave the worms and grubs and bugs, brave the mess, brave the unknown.
Carrots and beets? Prepare to get dirty. Prepare to scrub. Prepare for food that doesn’t really look like food at first, not until you’ve shined it up and shown the beauty underneath.
And once you’ve unearthed these treasures, please, do let them shine.
the (mostly) unadorned beauty of roots
Our salad, enjoyed warm, was simple: roasted beets and carrots tossed with crumbled feta and fresh parsley, drizzled with a cumin vinaigrette. The recipe comes from our favorite cookbook, Hugh Acheson’s A New Turn in the South, which I know I’ve written about plenty already. But it’s our favorite, so it’s hard not to cook from it as often as we do.
What’s in it (the cumin vinaigrette):
- 1 teaspoon grainy mustard
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar (another wine vinegar would probably work well)
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin (Hugh toasts and grinds whole seeds, which we didn’t have–I’m sure this would add even more flavor)
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
- salt and pepper to taste
- Whisk together the mustard, lemon juice, vinegar, and cumin.
- Gradually whisk in the olive oil, then the mint.
- Season with salt and pepper to your liking.
This makes about 3/4 cup of dressing, so you will have extra leftover after you make the salad. You won’t mind, though, because it makes a great dressing for other salads or a crisp cabbage slaw (which I’ll tell you more about in another post).
What’s in it (the salad):
- 1/2 pound carrots, left whole or halved if they’re very small, or cut up if they’re larger
- 1/2 pound beets, halved or quartered if they’re very small, or cut up if they’re larger
- a little olive oil, salt, and pepper
- 2-3 ounces crumbled feta
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped
- 2-3 tablespoons cumin vinaigrette
- Get a pot of salted water boiling on the stove.
- Add the carrots, boil for 1 minute, then remove to a bowl to cool.
- Add the beets and boil until they’re just tender, about 20-25 minutes. Drain the beets and allow them to cool for a few minutes.
- Preheat your oven to 450°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Toss the carrots in a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, then spread them out on one side of the baking sheet.
- Do the same to the beets, then spread them out on the other side of the baking sheet.
- Roast for about 15 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and slightly browned.
- Let the vegetables cool for a few minutes.
- In one bowl, toss the carrots with the feta, half of the parsley, and about a tablespoon of the vinaigrette.
- In another bowl, toss the beets with the rest of the parsley and another tablespoon of the vinaigrette.
- Add carrots to your plates first, then top with the beets and a little more of the vinaigrette.
We followed these instructions exactly, but if you don’t mind your beets bleeding a little on the rest of your salad, you could certainly mix them with the carrots on the roasting pan or when you toss the veggies with the vinaigrette at the end. This is probably what we’ll do next time.
The amount of salad this made could easily have been a light lunch for two or sides/starters for four. We were pretty hungry, so we added lentils and couscous to the meal to make it a little heartier, plus a bottle of white wine, because…well, why not?
the whole meal, with Micah waiting patiently in the background
The flavors in our mugs of lentils and couscous paired perfectly with the salad, so I’ll share how I made them, too.
What’s in it:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 cup dry lentils
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 large tomato, diced
- 2 tablespoons orange zest
- 1 tablespoon dehydrated minced onion
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 3 cups vegetable stock
- 1/2 cup dry couscous
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup white wine
- salt and pepper to taste
- Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
- Add the lentils and stir around for a few minutes to coat them with the oil.
- Add the tomato paste, diced tomato, orange zest, minced onion, and spices. Stir to incorporate.
- Add the vegetable stock, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer.
- Cook for about 15-20 minutes or until the lentils are just tender.
- Add the couscous. Bring to a boil again, then reduce the heat to very low and cover the pot. Let stand for about 15 minutes.
- Uncover the pot, stir in the vinegar and white wine, then season with salt and pepper to taste. If you have more liquid then you’d like, you can simmer and reduce for a few minutes.
The orange zest, balsamic vinegar, and white wine brightened up the smoky, earthy flavors of the lentils and paprika, and the Mediterranean-inspired seasonings meshed beautifully with that colorful beet and carrot salad.
Really, the only problem with our lentil and couscous dish was that we made too much. If we’d eaten no salads, or much smaller salads, we would have had plenty of beans and starch for a main course–about 3-1/2 cups. But with our substantial vegetable dish, this was just too much to finish in one meal, so about a third of it went into the refrigerator as leftovers.
I love eating leftovers just as they are, especially if they were good the first time around (as this definitely was). But I also love experimenting with ways to transform old leftovers into something new and different, so of course that’s what I decided to do on Sunday for lunch.
similar flavors, completely different texture and form
What’s in it:
- about 1-1/2 cups leftover couscous and lentils
- 1/3 cup dry breadcrumbs (I used panko because that’s what I had in the pantry)
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1/4 cup Greek yogurt
- 1/4 cup mixed Greek olives, finely chopped (or you could try subbing capers or a ready-made tapenade)
- Use your hands to smoosh together the leftover couscous-lentil mixture, breadcrumbs, and egg (kind of like making a burger).
- Divide the mixture into fourths and form into patties.
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
- Add the patties to your pan and cook for about 4 minutes per side or until they’re nicely browned and firm.
- Top with a dollop of Greek yogurt and a sprinkle of olives.
Wow. These came out better than I could’ve hoped or expected.
Of course I knew they ought to taste pretty good since we had enjoyed the original dish so much, but I worried about the texture. Needlessly, because the outsides of these couscous lentil cakes were nice and crisp, while the insides were moist and flavorful. Combined with the creamy, tangy yogurt and the salty, briny olives, this lunch was even better than the leftovers that inspired it.
So good, in fact, that I know we’ll have to cook up these little cakes again the next time we make a batch of that splendid root vegetable salad.