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Going underground for seasonal fresh veggies

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Updated: November 6, 2012 9:57AM



Embrace your roots — that’s Diane Morgan’s dirty little secret for those lamenting the seasonal end of farmers markets and fresh-from-the-earth produce.

The former Hyde Park resident and Chicago executive dining room chef is making that embrace easier by authoring the just-published Roots: The Definitive Compendium with More than 225 Recipes (Chronicle Books, $40), hailed as the go-to guide to the bounteous underworld from the familiar — beets, carrots, potatoes, radishes, parsnips and turnips — to the unfamiliar — jicama, burdock, Jerusalem artichokes, lotus root, crosnes and wasabi.

Morgan’s intense attraction to roots began innocently enough following two exchanges at her favorite farmers market in Portland, where she’s lived since 1983.

First, a fellow shopper asked Morgan the identity of the vegetable she was holding. Morgan replied that the creamy-skinned, grapefruit-size gnarly root with dried dirt stuck between its hairy tendrils was celery root, a vegetable she had come to love almost more than potatoes.

Moments later, Morgan — holding aloft a long, brown, hairy, stick-like root — asked the farmer, “What is this?” Burdock root, he replied, explaining how to cook it.

Clearly, the vegetables that grow underground need to be brought up and center, so more of us can get acquainted and learn how to use them.

Inspired, Morgan devoted the next three years to the “fascinating adventure” of developing, researching, creating and testing recipes, and writing Roots, her 17th cookbook.

The 57-year-old admits she tackled the project for selfish reasons, birthed from her own desire to have both a comprehensive reference book (“I didn’t realize there was such a vacuum of knowledge [about roots] until I started researching”) and a cookbook of simple yet creative ways to prepare dozens of local and global root vegetables.

Right now Morgan is pitching Roots on a 30-city tour that included a recent book signing in Lake Forest and lectures in Chicago. The cookbook has made the wife of 34 years and mother of two grown children more passionate than ever about easy-on-the-wallet root vegetables, their history and lore, nutritional content, how to buy and store them, and how to bring out their best flavors.

Stressed when final publication dictated eliminating 25 of the 250 recipes she had created, Morgan is pleased with the versatility of those remaining. She incorporates turmeric in one-bowl Chiang Mai Curry Noodles, roasted red beets in magenta-colored Red Velvet Cupcakes with Orange Buttercream. Rutabagas make an appearance in brunch-perfect Rutabaga Hash with Onions and Crisp Bacon, carrots and sorrel star in gorgeous Carrot Ribbons with Sorrel Pesto and Crumbled Goat Cheese, while sweet potatoes are the centerpiece of traditional Sweet Potato Biscuits, and pickled crosnes graces a martini delightfully titled Dr. Gibson Meet Mr. Crosne. Momentarily reluctant to name her favorite root (“it’s so hard … it’s like being asked your favorite child’), Morgan finally selects the beet.

The blogger (dianemorgancooks.com) quickly defends her choice, citing the beet’s nutrition and versatility: “It can be a golden, candy cane or ruby red variety. It can be a baby beet or bigger one. It can be eaten raw or cooked and it can be turned into savory or sweet dishes.” The award-winning author (Skinny Dips, The Christmas Table, The Thanksgiving Table and Salmon) routinely warms an already-baked sweet potato in the microwave for breakfast.

She says her favorite Roots recipes are Chicken Fricassee with Parsley Roots and Chanterelle Mushrooms; Celery Root, Celery Heart and Celery Leaf Salad; Steamed Mussels with Burdock Root, Shallots and Sun-Dried Tomatoes; Turnips and Leeks in Miso Butter, and Wasabi-Crusted Beef Tenderloin.

Surprisingly, not all roots agree with their strongest advocate.

“I love the taste of Jerusalem artichokes, but I can’t digest them. Because the storage carbohydrate in Jerusalem artichokes is not starch but inulin, which is not digested or absorbed in the stomach, it can cause bloating, stomachaches and flatulence in some people, including me,” she explains in a cautionary tone.

It’s just another dirty secret dished by the Queen of Roots.

Sandy Thorn Clark is a local freelance writer.



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