Atlanta chef Steven Satterfield unearths the treasures of the season
Gnarly, knobby, and drab-complexioned, root vegetables are the wallflowers of the produce world, lurking in the shadows of the vibrant, smooth-skinned beauties screaming for attention in the neighboring bins. But make no mistake: The culinary virtues of these subterranean treasures more than compensate for whatever they may be lacking in the looks department.
“Root vegetables are some of the least explored vegetables, but I find them extremely versatile,” says James Beard award-winner Steven Satterfield of Atlanta’s Miller Union, who sought to change that narrow mindset in penning his 2015 ode to Southern produce, Root to Leaf. “They have a sweetness and starchiness that can be converted into so many different and unexpected forms.”
After most above-ground crops have succumbed to frost, Satterfield delves deep beneath the surface for menu inspiration. Vine-ripened tomatoes and okra give way to celery root and sunchokes. Carrots and parsnips move beyond their traditional roles as utility players in stocks and stews into dishes where they shine on their own. Beets, a perennial favorite on Satterfield’s menus, become vehicles for unconventional cool-weather flavors.
Working with root vegetables requires more imagination and effort than summer produce tender and flavorful enough to eat out of hand. “Most roots have rough outer skins that protect them from the soil, and hide particles of dirt in their nooks and crannies,” Satterfield says. “You have to peel and scrub the hell out of them before you do anything with them.”
Root vegetables adapt well to myriad cooking techniques beyond the predictable boiling and mashing. For some preparations, he’ll first blanch them in heavily salted water to tenderize and season them throughout, while removing some of the starch that rises to the surface. He manipulates their texture by varying the size and shape of the slice or dice. “Other than carrots, you don’t often think of serving root vegetables raw, but if you cut them thin, they can be very palatable,” he says. Shavings of raw, ivory-fleshed celery root become the basis for a refreshingly crisp, autumnal salad that also includes apples and walnuts. To accentuate the nutty sweetness of sunchokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes), Satterfield slices them thinly on a mandoline before baking them in a bath of olive oil—“almost like oven-frying” until tender and crispy-edged. He adds slices of aromatic turmeric, a member of the ginger family heralded for its anti-inflammatory powers, and wheels of lemon to brighten their flavor and golden color. For a more decadent side dish, he cuts blanched parsnips into uniform tiny batons before baking in nutmeg-scented cream with similar-sized pieces of leek.
A staunch advocate of no-waste cooking long before it became trendy, Satterfield often turns to his roots to demonstrate this philosophy. He balances the sweet, smoky flavors of chargrilled carrots by dressing them with an herbaceous sauce made with their verdant tops. He incorporates roughly chopped beet leaves and stems into a dazzling ruby and emerald salad of roasted beets and tropical flavors like lime juice, coconut, and macadamia nuts. “I got the inspiration for this dish while cooking in Tulum, Mexico,” Satterfield says. “It was a fun exercise in playing with a different palate of flavors you don’t often associate with beets.”
Every root is a little different, and worth getting to know for its own merits, he says. Satterfield relishes being an educator in this regard. “It’s a matter of trust,” he says. “We would hope that our customers know us well enough that if it’s on our menu, it’s because we’ve figured out a way to make it taste really good, even if you think it’s something you don’t like.” And if it arouses their curiosity enough to want to give it a try at home, his mission is accomplished.
“Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, because to me, root vegetables are very attractive. I find their odd shapes fascinating to look at, even in their raw, unpeeled state. Rough and knobby can be beautiful too.”