The Pleasures of Roots

Text and photos by Mark Bittman

The winter CSA at Glynwood (located in New York’s Hudson Valley), in a good week, provides us with more winter vegetables than anyone other than a full-time vegan with the time to cook nonstop could handle. This means two or three types of cabbage, a gorgeous array of winter squash (some of which, like the spectacular fairy squash, are new to me), onions, leeks and other alliums, and, of course, roots: black and watermelon radishes, a variety of turnips, beets, potatoes, parsnips, carrots…what am I missing?

I like eating some of these roots raw—the best turnips taste better to me raw, there’s nothing like thin-sliced kohlrabi with a sprinkle of salt, I don’t have to tell you how good a carrot can be, and I love raw beet salad with vinaigrette. But there is a very practical limit to how much of this you can indulge in, and, as my friend Kerri once said to me when I went on a raw-vegetable binge, it is defined by your stomach’s ability to act as a juicer. When raw, these babies are not that easy to digest.

Thus they make their way into stews and soups and braises, and get cooked—glazed, really—with a little water and butter. As the season progresses, though, I more and more turn to a style of making pan-cooked root vegetables, a tradition I owe half to my grandmother and half to Michael Romano.

My grandmother was not alone in taking a batch of potato pancake (latke) batter and cooking it all at once, turning it into what she (and others in the family) called a potato “nik”; that was one of my favorite childhood dishes. Twenty or 30 years down the road, while I was editing the original Cooks Magazine, Michael—who was then head chef at Union Square Café—gave us a recipe for what he called Beet Roesti, a pan full of shredded beets sprinkled with a little flour for binding and nothing else (well, salt, pepper, and oil). This is a little different from a classic latke recipe, which contains egg, onion, and bread crumbs (or, more traditionally, matzo meal) or flour.

It all works, and it works with any root, once you get a feel for it. Potatoes, with their starch, provide a lot of binder (an old trick is to drain shredded starchy potatoes in a colander over a bowl, pour out the water, and use the accumulated potato starch in the mixture—try it, you’ll see), but an egg and/or some flour or bread crumbs offer security. Beets are kinda great because their high sugar content makes them brown quickly, though the result can almost be too sweet.

The pattern’s pretty simple, and will accommodate whatever root you have on hand: Grate the roots (you can put in some winter squash too, if you like) so that their mass will be an inch or less deep in your chosen pan, mix them with seasonings and/or binders as you like, and cook in oil; a nonstick skillet will make your life easier. The recipe is here, but I encourage you to strike out on your own; this is among the most delicious (and efficient) ways to deal with winter’s bounty.

Posted in Produce


  1. Carmen Samora said...

    Mr. Bittman,
    I looked for an email address for you as I want to ask you a question. I have tried the VB6 for 4 days and I have gained 4 pounds. What am I doing wrong? I normally do not eat many grains, but I have been so hungry on the VB6 that I have eaten oatmeal, bread, and many nuts. I am also off sugar, so I have been scrambling to feel full, but not overeat. This morning’s session with the scale was very disappointing. My normal food is homemade yogurt with fruit for breakfast and a salad with chicken or tuna at lunch. Oatmeal for breakfast and a salad with beans at lunch is putting weight ON. I need help to understand what I am doing wrong. Thank you.

  2. Kerri Conan said...

    Dear Carmen, I’m Kerri Conan, Mark’s longtime editor and follower of VB6. I hope I can provide some suggestions that might help. The main idea with skewing your diet toward plant food is to feel better and minimize our impact on the planet by eating fewer carbon-producing animal products. The trick to feeling satisfied on VB6 AND lose weight (if that is your goal) is to focus more on nutritious vegetables that are high in water so they have a lower calorie density. This concept is described in both VB6 books but in more detail in VB6. So that means hearty greens, broccoli, cauliflower, squashes, eggplant, cabbage, celery and fennel, green beans, and the like. Fewer grains, beans, and nuts. Focus on whole grains, not bread (which is more processed), and at dinner make sure you have at least one vegetable on the plate. You might need to snack more between meals and if so, try whole fruit out of hand along with some nuts. Or a cup of miso soup or warmed frozen berries. It’s an unconventional way to eat to be sure, since you’re turning the idea of center-of-the-plate upside down. If you want to email, try and ask for me. Best wishes, Kerri

  3. These are some great winter treats Mark! Keep up the good work!

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