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Food and Drink

Weirdly but solidly rooted

You don’t need to be a full-blown locavore to grok the need to eat locally.

With California fruits and veggies devastated by an unseasonable frost, prices for much of the produce we normally find on local shelves have shot through the roof. (Don’t cry too hard — lettuce is about five bucks a head in Winnipeg right now.)

Add to that the ever-growing need to cut greenhouse gas emissions (sub-text: don’t buy produce shipped halfway round the world), and to support our farming neighbours, and you can come up with at least one good reason to source locally-grown produce.

So why not do all of the above, plus investigate a few radical, you could say ugly, veggies you’ve never tried before that have been grown right in Pemberton Valley? Bonus: they’re tasty and good for you.

All the root veggies described below are biennials — that means when they’re harvested, the plant is storing up energy to make seeds the following year. You eat the roots, you get the energy.

So take a trip up to North Arm Farm in Pemberton and stock up on what Jordan Sturdy calls weird root vegetables. Here’s a primer:


“B” is for burdock

Yes, burdock supplies those annoying burrs that stick to our socks. But it has also been used medicinally for centuries, as a diuretic, a blood purifier, as an oil to restore hair loss. But burdock root also makes a tasty side dish. Japanese cooking uses it in a number of ways, pickled and often dyed orange, in miso soup with pork, or as kinpira gobo . Now you, too, can cook up one of these amazing roots, which can be up to two feet long. If you like, soak julienned strips in water for 5-10 minutes before cooking, or blanche it. Pan fry it in butter, recommends Jordan, or rub it with oil, salt and pepper and roast it in a 325-degree oven for 20-30 minutes, and enjoy a sweet, smooth veggie high in fibre and calcium, and low in calories.


“C” is for crosnes, crazy carrots and celeriac

They look like bulging Bibendum, the Michelin tire man — without his arms and legs. And although they’re from a member of the mint family, rather than the leaves, you eat the whitish tubers, which dangle from the roots like peanuts. Crosnes, named for the town in France where they were first introduced to Europe, are a native of northern China, ergo their alternative names, Chinese artichoke or the Japanese chorogi . Like almost all root veggies, you can eat them raw — they’re something like a water chestnut or Jerusalem artichoke. Don’t peel them, just scrub them well. Otherwise cook them like a potato (in fact, you can cook just about any root veggie like you would a potato: peel it, or not; bake it, boil it or mash it). Roast crosnes and they turn very sweet; serve them in a mustard vinaigrette, and you’re as trendy as chef Charlie Trotter. Bonus: they contain protein.

Another funky-looking find is celeriac. Above ground it looks much like celery but, Jordan warns, nothing you want to eat. Below ground, however, this slow-grower produces a big bulb, and that’s what you’re after. With its fuzzy skin and multiple rootlets, it looks like something from outer space — a vegetable octopus, it’s been called. But peel and julienne celeriac, and sauté it with butter, white wine, salt and pepper until it’s barely soft, and it’s delicious, like celery, which it’s related to. Add julienned celery and a few celery leaves, if you like, for a striking side dish.

If you’d like something almost conventional, North Arm Farm also has some unusual carrots in stock: purple ones, that are much sweeter than regular carrots, and round ones called Thumbelinas, also with a pleasing taste.


“H” is for hot and hoary horseradish

If you love horseradish, you know it’s hard to find a commercial product worthy of prime rib. So buy a root from Jordan and make your own. This plant, a member of the mustard or cabbage family, has been used since ancient times. The root itself is pretty benign, but once you start grating it, it releases a pungent mustard oil. Vinegar stops it from turning brown. Classic horseradish sauce is made by grating the root and mixing it with bread crumbs soaked in milk. Squeeze the mixture as dry as possible. Add salt and sugar, thick cream and vinegar to taste.


“J” is for Jerusalem artichokes

Also called sunchokes or sun roots, the Jerusalem artichoke has nothing to do with Jerusalem or artichokes — it’s actually a member of the sunflower family. A native of North America, these gnarly tubers have been used for centuries by First Nations people. They resemble a ginger root, and can be eaten raw or cooked. You don’t need to peel them — just give them a good scrub. The cool thing about Jerusalem artichokes is that they are recommended as a potato substitute for diabetics since they help control blood sugar. They also feed the healthy bacteria (lactobacilli) in your intestinal tract, but they can be gassy — Julia Child called them “fartichokes”.


“P.S.”: parsley root and salsify

Parsley root is a parsley sub-species that produces a beige, carrot-like root. It delivers a sweet flavour, variously likened to carrot, celery or parsnip. It’s very good cooked with parsnip, another often overlooked root veggie, and salsify. You can get black salsify at North Arm, a huge root that can grow up to two feet long. While this is not true salsify, or oyster plant, it’s close enough — a Spanish variety also known as serpent root or viper’s herb because it was once used to treat snakebite. Salsify is also good for diabetics, and contains nutritious levels of protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and iron. It’s easier to peel after you boil it. If you peel it before boiling, add a little lemon or vinegar to the water to prevent it from darkening. It’s great with veggie mixtures, or served with a white sauce.

You can try many of these root veggies at Araxi, La Rúa, Bearfoot Bistro, or the restaurants at the Four Seasons and the Westin. But rather cook them yourself? Give North Arm Farm a call at 604-894-5379. You can arrange to stop by and pick up your own weird veggies, or have them delivered for your dining pleasure.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who runs a p.r. agency for neglected root vegetables.