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Totally Tuber

Out with the Potato, In with Roots & Tubers

Melissa Matarese

With the shift of seasons, chefs honor seasonality by showcasing early-winter vegetables. Whether it be farming a restaurant garden, or shopping the local farmers’ market, as the weather gets cooler, root vegetables are as valuable as a peach or ripe tomato is during the summer months. Although simple preparations are favored, chefs highlight the level of finesse and effort in executing vegetables as works of art.

Chef John Touzle of the girl & the fig points to the fact that as ingredients become more commonplace, the more amenable they are to home preparation. “Root vegetables are different; Jerusalem artichokes, rutabaga or parsnips are ingredients to which the public has not had much access. If they have, it has likely not been a positive experience. It is important to take what is pedestrian, but not necessarily exotic, and prepare them properly and in season.” Whether slicing a Jerusalem
artichoke for texture, julienning a parsnip for a salad,
or utilizing the color and sweetness of a parsnip for vinaigrette, these preparations are a far cry from
French fries.

Chef Jordan Mackey of Cuvée in Napa Valley also loves the seasonality, but emphasizes the cost effective ness of these ingredients. “I can fly asparagus from South America for $40 a case or get 140 pounds of parsnips.” His objective as a chef is to build trust from his clientele. “It is fun to expose our clients to vegetables they do not see on a daily basis.” He surprises them with exotic roots such as salsify but gravitates towards
familiar, well received flavors such as maple honey, spices, roasted apples, brandy and chestnuts.

Sweet success with wood-firepreparations

Root vegetables love a wood-fire oven; this preparation is the most familiar to the average diner. Carrots, turnips and parsnips can all be roasted whole and finished to order, a perfect preparation for fall and winter weather. At the girl & the fig, wood-fire roasted roots are topped with chestnuts, honey, and ricotta salata – a balance of sweet and salty. “People go crazy over it as a side-dish or even as an entree.” 

While a side-dish of smashed rutabaga might pop off the menu for some, it might be intimidating to many. When these lesser-known roots are gently paired with familiar, sweet flavor profiles, they can sell well. Nutty, earthy vegetables are always palatable when sweet. Since many diners expect sweet potatoes to be doused with sugar, root vegetables can capitalize on their inherent sweetness and be accented with sugared

Focus of the plate: the centerpiece

The vegetarian movement in this country has started to highlight vegetables as a primary ingredient, no longer limiting them to sides. “There is a change in evolutionary balance occurring for menus and menu writing. Vegetables are becoming predominant focal points over proteins,” states Chef Russell Jackson of Lafitte in San Francisco. Chef Russell, while “known for being a meat guy”, has

always been an “equal opportunity guy” by creating a balanced plate. “If you are doing a roasted vegetable dish, an accent might be fish or meat or poultry.”

According to Chef John, “root vegetables are rarely meant to shine. Preparing dishes with a focus on the vegetable is a challenge. It is easy to take sexy ingredients and make them a star.” This is certainly a challenge he welcomes with his napoleon rendition, showcasing root vegetables in his late-autumn vegetable napoleon creatively featuring panisse cake, celery root, delicate squash, Swiss chard, rutabaga, and sunshine squash puree.

Chef Michael Stern at Michael’s in Santa Monica prepares his interpretation of “ants on a log” via celery root soup with foie gras, garnished with toasted peanuts and bourbon maple syrup. “It is a perfect combination of sweet, crunch and savory.” The best seller a

Michael’s is the beet salad with house-made fresh ricotta, Fuji apples, pickled red onions and a mache salad. “The way we look at flavors and how we use them is people think of tubers and root vegetables as starchy, but in season they are sweet and fragrant. They can be used where a potato had been or an avenue to introduce a sweet component into a  savory dish.” 

With Jerusalem artichoke soup, it is important to Chef Russell of Lafitte to “make them stand out, yet add subtle notes.” Vegetable stock base is prepared fresh daily and is fortified with washed choke skins, yellow onions, shallots, fennel, olive oil and Gallo vermouth. Thyme, bay, black and white peppercorn are added and pureed to achieve a velvety texture. Constantly innovating, Chef Russell amends the preparation to be finished with homemade Greek cheese, turmeric oil, or garlic chive oil.

This idea of showcasing vegetables of course applies to salads as well. Chef Tom McNaughton of flour+water has created a seasonal salad that blends mixed chicory and shaved, whole sunchoke paired with bagna cauda – a warm dipping sauce served in a fondue pot. “Sunchoke and bitter chicory are classic pairing for it, rooted in tradition,” says McNaughton.

A central side as inspiration

When creating a dish, some are inspired by the season building a dish around the vegetable. Chef Mackey believes that some dishes, like lamb, consistently maintain their flavor. No matter the time of year, Chef Mackey believes that lamb “tastes like lamb, whether it be spring, summer, winter or fall.” At Cuvée, the pinot noir braised beef short rib with parsnip puree, smoked bacon, caramelized Brussels, horseradish apple salad, and wild flower honey was inspired by chef’s inclination to highlight the sweet parsnip while in season.

 Chef McNaughton prepares both vegetarian and meat dishes that feature tubers. “What is seasonal about a dish are the vegetables. A protein can be found year round.” With a daily changing menu, Chef McNaughton is constantly inventing around seasonality. To highlight the essence of fall, parsnip agnolotti can be found on the menu. The traditional Italian pasta is filled with pureed, cooked parsnips, which exhibit a concentrated flavor. The predominately white colored dish is then accented with truffle and butter emulsion, a visual play on black and white.

As for meat dishes, Chef McNaughton’s crispy trotter is brined for two days, braised and seasoned with sherry vinegar and parmesan. Breaded and fried, the trotter is served with Umbrian lentils, a parsley salad of diced parsley root and fried leaf, elegantly topped with a quail egg. For the chicken lovers, there is the roasted chicken breast with a wood-fire roasted composite of brown butter, fried Brussels sprout leaves, roasted turnips, chestnuts and sage.

At Michael’s, Superior Farms Colorado rack of lamb is paired with creamy mascarpone and parmesan polenta, roasted baby root vegetables such as carrots, radishes and parsnips, and garnished with horseradish crème fraiche. The menu also boasts a Snake River Kurobuta Pork Chop with Cassava Root, pork belly hash, arugula, and kumquat mostarda. “Root vegetables not only add beautiful color to the plate, but also impart a distinct flavor profile,” says Chef Stern.

Executive Chef Claude Le-Tohic at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas takes a gourmet approach with roots, accenting shellfish with light, flavorful vegetables. King crab is placed between two thinly sliced turnip discs and lightly tossed in mayonnaise. The dish exhibits floral characteristics and is seasoned with rosemary and nutmeg. At Robuchon, Chef Le-Tohic uses Japanese influence, placing spiny lobster in sake broth and garnishing with turnip, shiso sprouts and daikon.

Tubers – the new potato

“To Americans, potatoes are a food group,” exclaims Chef Touzle. What better a substitute or creative ground than tubers and roots? They are a wonderful starch replacement. He believes that “people appreciate it as we get away from protein based diets and people move towards healthy food.” He encourages chefs to think creatively. “Don’t think of them just as side dish. Don’t be afraid to make them your star dish. Don’t be afraid to cook them in ways you normally would not. People are ready to consider these ingredients as stars.”

Fall Vegetable Napoleon with Panisse Cake
Inspiration for Executive Chefs