Back to Our Roots
Most chefs who source local food will tell you that the blessed arrival of spring delivers us from the spare pickin’s of our late winter pantries. For months, out of necessity, resourceful chefs and home cooks have found every way imaginable to prepare the staples of long storage: beets, carrots, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, radishes, sunchokes, kohlrabi, celery root, and cabbage, to name the most common. But as winter skids to a muddy halt and the first lusty green sprigs of hope emerge from the turbid smut, our diets crave chlorophyll and that unmistakable crunch of the first salad green between our teeth.
So, why, at this annual phase when our pupating bodies are crying out for verdure, freshness and new life - should I be preaching about the best roots to eat in the spring? The answer is simple: overwintered roots are their own power-packed food group. They are high-brix concentrates of nutrients, energy, and flavor; a far cry from the rubbery, pithy vestiges of last year’s harvest that we have been eating for months. While those evanescent storage roots have been losing their nutrients and flavor gradually, the alternative overwintered roots (some chefs use the term “spring dug”) are another story altogether.
To understand the merits of these early spring jewels, one must first understand the science behind their resilience.
Roots* are the engine rooms of plants. In addition to being the humble, practical part of the plant that keeps the showy, blithe flowers “down to earth,” the root has the added (and often under-appreciated) responsibility of storing all the energy required to give new life to the plant when the frozen humus begins to thaw. Roots are the miraculous, self-healing, givers of life, the subterranean neural network that can survive even the rapacious maws of both groundhog and till.
Because of its botanical purpose, the root spends the entire winter in hibernation. All the while, it is storing the goodness of the postpartum plant’s love. Hunkered down in its protective shell, building sugar and flavor in nanometric increments, the root endures unfathomable odds. In fact, the roots of spring in many food plants possess a sweetness, density, and crunch unrivaled in their autumnal counterparts.
In recent years, parsnips have taken center stage as an overwintered crop, but the truth is, given the right conditions, there are several others that can withstand the brutal extremes of winter.
I caught up with Becky Sideman, a respected local scientist who has worked closely with several varieties of overwintered roots on the research farms at UNH. I asked her why we see spring-dug parsnips on menus but rarely other roots.
“Parsnips are the most reliable of the root vegetables,” says Sideman. “They have a lot of genetic variability to withstand freezing damage, so they are more reliable than other root crops.”
Sideman explains that when a plant starts to experience very cold temperatures in the late fall, “it increases production of sugars, starches and antifreeze proteins.” Although the first two may be obvious, it is this last item on her list that strikes a chord with me.
“There has been a lot of research, “ says Sideman, “into these anti-freeze proteins. We don’t fully understand the mechanism [that produces these proteins] yet, but we know that they act as a ‘cryoprotectant’.”
There is more to overwintering than a plant’s hardiness, however. Sideman explains that what makes the plant hardy is its ability to acclimate, which is a genetic component, but there is also the environmental factor. She cites a “slow steady decline into cold, followed by keeping the cold around” as the best environment to encourage robust (and tasty) spring roots.
At the risk of upsetting some of my good farmer friends, overwintering may also have potential economic benefits for the farm. Patient and long-sighted farmers can boast an overwintered, early spring crop while most of us are still anticipating the first new growth in our gardens. In this way, overwintered root crops can actually help the farmer’s economic equation by bridging the only season of scarcity on the farm.
Not all root crops overwinter well, and the likelihood of getting to the roots before pests do is a crap-shoot most organic farmers aren’t willing to take. Jordan Pike of Two Toad Farm in Lebanon, Maine and Chuck Cox of Tuckaway Farm in Lee, NH are two bold exceptions.
Last winter, using only a tarp, a shovel, and pitchfork, Pike harvested carrots through February from a small plot at Two Toad Farm. When I marvelled to him about the improbability of his hefty harvest of February carrots, he shrugged and said, “Even just a small amount of winter-dug carrots imparts an amazing flavor like no other. It’s worth the extra effort.”
Chuck Cox is perhaps our region’s most stalwart zealot of traditional farming practices. Although I have known and worked with Cox for many years, I will never forget the moment when he appeared in my restaurant on an early spring afternoon clutching in his mudencrusted hand the most gigantic and spectacular gilfeather turnip either of us had ever seen.
“I just pulled this out of the ground this morning,” he announced, his Gandalf-bearded face beaming with pride. He procured a jackknife, cut a sliver out of the turnip, and we ate it right there. It was sweet bliss, a miracle in the mouth, a turning point for a crop that we had both struggled to grow. The gilfeather turnip, considered an endangered variety of cold-hardy turnip once abundant in New England, is--kind of like Cox--a majestic throwback to days when our food wasn’t altered to travel long distances, grow quickly, or look perfect on a supermarket shelf. The shaggy, pale green gilfeather is a work horse. To appreciate it, you have to respect its tenacity.
Since that day when he held the turnip up to me like a trophy, Cox has continued to plant gilfeather turnips in mid-summer for a harvest in the early winter, followed by the most succulent second harvest in the spring. Because there isn’t much of a market for gilfeathers (yet!), Cox offers his spring surplus at a discount to the nearby Oyster River School system.
Cox believes that the goal should be to overwinter as many plants as possible without mulching. “We just have to make sure we keep the deer and mice out, and see how much we can grow without mulching.”
Meanwhile, Pike marvels at the red-cored chantenay carrot, which Sideman agrees is one of the most ideal roots to overwinter “because the fatter and the bigger the carrot, the less winter damage it endures.”
“For the chantenays,” Pike recalls, “August is the time to plant seeds. Then, before the ground freezes, we mulch heavily with leaves, because leaves are great for the soil and have no weed seeds in them. This prevents the carrots from freezing. Then we cover with a tarp to mark the area so we can find it in the snow.” Two Toad Farm’s efforts paid off when the enormous chantenays became the talk of the Seacoast Eat Local Winter Farmers’ Market this year.
Pike sympathizes and admits that, “by the time August and September roll around, farmers are tired and run down and don’t have the energy to plan and plant.” His solution lies with the popular gleaning programs that have emerged around the Seacoast in recent years. “A lot of volunteers in the community want to help with planting in the spring and gleaning in the fall,” he says, “but some of those gleaners might be better off planting in the fall for overwintering.”
Pike echoes Sideman’s warning: “overwintering doesn’t work every year, because if you have warm wet periods when the snow melts and soaks into the ground, there can be freezing damage. Snow is very good for insulating the ground.”
It is easy to imagine our foraging colonial forefathers, having barely escaped the icy jaws of winter, digging up the first roots of spring for survival. Who knows if they appreciated the enhanced sweetness of the food, but they surely appreciated that it was there. Those of us who commit our diets in large part to local food all still feel a sense of deprivation and desperation in the spring.
While you are relishing those first bites of spring greens, remember the turnip. Remember the parsnip. Remember the carrot. Relish that concentrated flavor and supernatural sweetness that only an overwintered root can impart. Who knows, before long, we may complain in the fall that we are tired of fresh green food and can’t wait for root season to begin!
Elsewhere in this issue, foraging expert Jenna Rozelle pays homage to burdock and dandelion, which, along with evening primrose, make for great wild root dishes in the spring.
* For those nit-picky types out there, I want to issue this disclaimer: when I refer to roots throughout this article, I am referring to the collective, generic body of plant parts that reside underground. I am aware that some of these plant parts are technically tubers, rhizomes or corms, but saying this more than once would strike a tone of pedantic excess, so “roots” is the catch-all.
Evan Mallett is the award-winning chef and co-owner, with his wife Denise, of Black Trumpet in Portsmouth and Stock + Spice, a store offering unique culinary provisions, next door to Black Trumpet. As co-founders of Heirloom Harvest Project, the Malletts continue to work for a healthier, more diverse and accessible local food system. Evan also sits on the Boards of Slow Food Seacoast and Chefs Collaborative.