Once considered the food of peasants, root vegetables have undergone an image overhaul of late that has celebrity chefs singing their praises, restaurateurs increasingly adding them to menus and consumers happily cooking them at home.
Not only are vegetables like sweet potatoes, celery root, carrots, parsnips and rutabagas deeply satisfying to consume, they’re also flavorful and packed with nutrients. Take sweet potatoes, for example: Considered among the world’s healthiest foods, they are rich in such nutrients as beta-carotene, vitamin C and potassium.
But while sweet potatoes, onions and carrots are commonplace root vegetables that consumers purchase regularly, items like celery root, rutabagas and parsnips are relatively new additions to shopping baskets across the country. Fueled by attention from celebrity and restaurant chefs, as well as positive press about the health benefits of these underground gems, root vegetables are clearly poised for growth.
In its “11 Hottest Food and Beverage Trends in Restaurant and Hotel Dining for 2015” (a.k.a. the “Whiteman Report”), the international food and restaurant consultants at Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Baum + Whiteman cite “ugly root vegetables” as a top trend.
“Celery root, parsnips and kohlrabi are grabbing attention in restaurant kitchens … fried, mashed, puréed, gratinéed; flavored with cured pork or smoked honey … [H]umble themselves, they replace humble potatoes with lots more inherent flavor,” the report notes.
British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver agrees that celery root, or celeriac, as it is also known, is a diamond in the rough. “This is the most underrated vegetable in the whole of the United Kingdom,” he writes on www.jamieoliver.com. “It’s available in every single supermarket, we walk past it all the time, and yet we still take no notice of it. It’s an incredible vegetable, it’s really good for you, and you only need to use two or three ingredients to bring it to life and blow people’s socks off.”
Fueled by the tasty results of chef experimentation and a desire to experience new flavors and nutrient-dense foods at home, consumers increasingly are embracing the full spectrum of root vegetables.
“We are seeing a trend in the less conventional root vegetables like rutabaga, turnip and celery root,” observes Karen Caplan, president and CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce, in Los Alamitos, Calif. “With vegetables taking center stage in restaurants, chefs and diners are looking for something beyond carrots and potatoes.”
Caplan notes that celery root is cultivated only for its root. It has a mild aroma and a celery-walnut flavor with a crisp texture when served raw. When cooked, it becomes more starchy and potato-like. It’s available year-round from Frieda’s.
At Melissa’s Produce, in Vernon, Calif., sales of root vegetables are also on the rise. “We have seen growth in the root category like potatoes, beets, ginger, sweet potatoes (yams), parsnips, fennel, celery root and colorful carrots, too,” says Director of Public Relations Robert Schueller. “We attribute the increase to the popular use [of root vegetables] in restaurants, and consumers’ knowledge of usage from television cooking shows and from the media.”
Melissa’s newest root vegetable introduction is a convenient pack of baby parsnips with the firm yet tender texture that only a young root can offer. Schueller further notes that parsnips of any size are a good source of fiber, calcium and vitamin C.
Baby parsnips also offer the added convenience of cooking in less time than a turnip or carrot. They caramelize when roasted, and long strips of shaved baby parsnip curls can add a sweet crunch to any salad, according to Schueller.
To build on the popularity of its Steamed Beets, Melissa’s recently introduced French Country-Style Red Beets in Balsamic Vinaigrette. Delicately flavored with shallots, herbs, oil and vinegar, these beets can be enjoyed right out of the package.
While beets don’t exactly leap to mind as one of the sexier foods on the culinary scene, according to Love Beets, in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., one of the earliest known benefits of the red beet was its use as an aphrodisiac during Roman times.
Beets are certainly powerhouses of nutrition, containing nutrients such as potassium and nitrate that can help lower blood pressure. The root vegetable also contains betaine, which protects the liver and stimulates the function of its cells.
Love Beets, which offers a line of marinated and fresh beets, has recently launched fresh, refrigerated beet juice in Organic, All-Natural and Cherry-Berry varieties, and will soon debut beet bars in three flavors: Beet and Cherry, Beet and Apple, and Beet and Blueberry. The company is also set to premiere Beet Chips.
To counter the beet’s rather staid image in modern times, Love Beets recently underwent a complete rebranding with a specific goal in mind. “We wanted to be the opposite of what people think of when they think of beets,” asserts Natasha Shapiro, Love Beets’ marketing manager.
The rebranding, which rolled out last September, included a packaging, logo and website redesign. “We wanted to create something fun, upbeat and whimsical, but at the same time be taken seriously as a brand while keeping our brand DNA,” Shapiro says of the redesign.
Love Beets offers five varieties of marinated baby beets in 6.5-ounce packages: Sweetfire Beets with a spicy chili kick, Honey and Ginger Beets, Mild Vinegar, White Wine and Balsamic, and Organic Mild Vinegar. All are sold in the newly redesigned packaging, which will soon feature a Non-GMO label.
“Cooking using fresh whole ingredients, such as root vegetables, has become this whole movement,” observes Shapiro. “Fruits and vegetables that 10 years ago would have seemed obscure or earthy/crunchy are now mainstream. We saw it with kale. It was almost like kale was the face of this new food movement, and now we see other foods stepping into the limelight — like beets — that are stealing kale’s thunder.”
This is especially the case with the company’s beet juices, notes Shapiro. “They really appeal to fitness enthusiasts and athletes. In that community, people have been juicing beets for a long time. It’s amazing how many of them already know about the benefits of beets.” For example, beets help to increase blood flow and reduce the oxygen needed by muscles, enabling them to work more efficiently.
Always A-peeling Onions
While scores of produce companies have joined the Eat Brighter! movement, a collaboration between Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association, the majority of suppliers thus far have come from the fruit side of the business, which is what makes Peri & Sons Farms’ entry into the program all the more bold and unique.
The Yerington, Nev.-based grower will offer a “Sesame Street”-branded package of premium onions beginning this month. “There are many fruits and vegetable that kids are immediately drawn to; we thought it would be interesting to see how they react to the familiar ‘Sesame Street’ characters when it comes to a vegetable outside their comfort zone,” says Teri Gibson, director of marketing and customer relations.
Peri & Sons will offer its white, yellow and red onions in 2-, 3- and 5-pound packs, printed with large, colorful images of Big Bird and Ernie, to its customers throughout the United States.
Whether kids embrace onions, their parents’ desire for year-round availability of sweet onions is insatiable. “Consumers all over the U.S. seem to want sweet onions all year long,” affirms Gibson. “Our season for a tested sweet onion, our proprietary Sweetie Sweet, begins in mid-July with onions grown on our farms in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Once September rolls around, we begin packing our Nevada Sweetie through December.
“Seed companies are working with growers to produce varieties grown for the storage months that have true sweet flavor characteristics,” she continues. “The challenge is to provide a domestically grown sweet onion during the months of January through March, because the longer an onion is stored, it [more it] loses its sweetness.”
But while demand for onions in general, and sweet onions in particular, is on the rise, Gibson is sees this less as a trend than as a way of life.
“Being such a versatile, year-round product that is also ethnically diverse, onions transcend most veggie trends,” she asserts. “Every season presents opportunities to incorporate white, red, sweet or yellow onions into whatever’s on the menu. Onions add favor, fiber and health-promoting phytochemicals, as well as nutrients, to popular food movements such as paleo, Mediterranean, gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan.”
“We are seeing a trend in the less conventional root vegetables like rutabaga, turnip and celery root.”
—Karen Caplan, Frieda’s Specialty Produce
“Cooking using fresh whole ingredients, such as root vegetables, has become this whole movement.”
—Natasha Shapiro, Love Beets
“There are many fruits and vegetable that kids are immediately drawn to; we thought it would be interesting to see how they react to the familiar ‘Sesame Street’ characters when it comes to a vegetable outside their comfort zone.”
—Teri Gibson, Peri & Sons Farms