Starchy roots and tubers are nutritional powerhouses

Beetroot carpaccio at Westin Pune

Beetroot carpaccio at Westin Pune   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Root of the matter: Chefs are turning to starchy roots and tubers, not just because they are nutritional powerhouses, but also for their versatility, colour, crunch and earthy flavours

Think parsnip and fennel sauce with roasted pumpkin, or oven-roasted root vegetables with polenta. In the last few years, tubers have acquired a new meaning and an upscale image — and not just potatoes and carrots which have been getting all the attention for a while. Chefs are now experimenting with less popular parsnips, taro, turnips, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, yam, Jerusalem artichoke, celeriac and kohlrabi (also called German turnip).

Kohlrabi, the bulbous vegetable with stiff leaves, has taken the food world by storm. Steamed, sautéed, roasted, stuffed, creamed, in soup or stew, chefs use it in many ways. Rutabagas are being served as tacos. The supple, nutty and sweetish flavour of the Jerusalem artichoke, too, is often seen in kitchens — at ITC Grand Chola in Chennai, it is served as a hearty soup with gorgonzola and dark chocolate.

Yam and sweet potato have also received makeovers. When grilled over an open flame, they develop a crusty exterior, their starches become sweet, and their interiors tender. Chefs are using this to the optimum. Another approach is that of Ajit Bangera, senior executive chef, ITC Grand Chola, Chennai — he prefers a yam edamame keema preparation.

Sweet potato is adaptable and can be mashed, roasted, braised. Sweet potato falafel, lasagne, and baked sweet potato are inventive dishes, yet, Prasad Metrani, executive chef, Fairmont Jaipur, goes a step further and serves sweet potato waffles for breakfast. Chef Amit Dash, executive chef, The Westin Pune Koregaon Park, prefers sweet potato pancakes.

Mix and mash

Roots are not restricted to completely vegetarian dishes. Bangera opines, “Root vegetables can either be used as accompaniments to protein or seafood, or as binding agents. These are perfect for stews and slow-cooked gravies, and add immense value in nutrition and taste.”

Vikram Arora, chef and founder of Tamak, Mumbai, cautions, “Cooking with root vegetables is challenging. Most root vegetables are heavy and have a hard outer layer that makes them difficult to cook. Each type needs to be cooked differently, and they all need to be cooked before being diced or cubed.”

It is their unique texture that makes them exciting to work with. Chef Bangera concurs, “Most root vegetables are high on fibre, naturally sweet and easy to hold together while cooking. Hence, the final look is fabulous, with a good mouth-feel and the natural taste of the vegetable.”

Chef Metrani prefers to step out of the ordinary. “It is fun to use these in more interesting ways, like roasted parsnips with pistachio and lemon, purple potatoes with rosemary, whole baby caramelised onions with balsamic, roasted yam, salt baked beetroot,” he says.

Healthy root vegetable gratin, beet noodles with yoghurt and dill and parmesan garlic parsnip french fries are innovative dishes that Chef Dash serves at The Westin Pune. Yet, it is not as if root vegetables only denote the Western and Continental. They are used extensively in Indian cuisine, with dishes like beetroot poriyal, kebabs, yam ke shammi, sweet potato chaat and more.

Chef Vikram feels their unique textures and flavours, are apt for Indian cuisine. Shalgam gosht, shalgam ka bharta, zimikand anjeer ke kebab, tandoori shakarkandi ki chaat, are some of his creations.

At Royal Vega, ITC Grand Chola, madhura tikiya — crisp, fried patties of clove smoked beetroot stuffed with spiced hung curd, sprinkled with homemade pudina masala, is popular.

Chefs are also using root vegetables to push the culinary boundaries of desserts, experimenting with their natural sweetness and reducing added sugars. Carrot cakes are just the beginning — carrot sorbet served with parsnip cake is also finding space on menus today, as chefs expose diners to unknown facets of the familiar vegetable. Beets are apt for cakes and brownies, especially when paired with chocolate. It provides a vibrant colour, too. Chefs are also substituting pumpkin with sweet potato puree, for pie.

Western desserts apart, beetroot, sweet potato and turnips are perfect for Indian desserts like halwas and barfis, as more and more diners are turning away from cloyingly sweet items.

The health factor

Chef Dash attributes the popularity of root vegetables to healthy lifestyle choices. “These days, people like to eat healthy. Customers focus on plant-based diets, seeking alternatives to traditional proteins to meet their nutritional needs. Roots are some of the most nutrient-dense vegetables.”

Chef Bangera sums it up succinctly, “Root vegetables have always been popular and used traditionally in grandmothers’ kitchens. These have been the essence of good stews and gravies. I guess it’s just like wayfarers coming back into vogue — whether it is called a chukundar tikki at home or ‘slow-cooked organic beet and feta’ at a fancy restaurant.”

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 9:19:33 AM |

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