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Root Vegetables, Then and Now

November 13, 2013 Think THF

Earlier this year Mother Nature Network posted a story about root vegetables with the headline “the most underappreciated produce.” While root vegetables might not have the glossy, shiny look of other produce finds in the grocery store today, they’re a staple for winter cooking and an important part of our diets for hundreds of years.

What is a root vegetable? Potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, rutabagas, beets, onions, garlic and yams are all root vegetables.

In the 18th century, fellow root vegetables skirrets and Jerusalem artichokes were common in many diets, along with the above offerings. During this time period, Americans’ palates were very explorative and diverse and included many takes on root vegetable preparation.

Take for example radishes. While radishes can often be found in our salads today as a small garnish, centuries ago they were grown to have large roots to consume. On the opposite hand, however, about 20 years before the Civil War, the carrot had primarily been viewed as a field crop; something you’d give to your horse to eat, not something to enjoy as a snack.

Families stored their vegetables in cellars or even in the ground during cold, winter months. From soups to stews and more, having a good supply of vegetables to choose from allowed the cook to experiment with different dishes.

Root vegetables would be cooked and dressed as part of the meal; eating them raw was unheard of, and is actually a relatively new way of enjoying them. Often times the vegetables would be cooked over an open fire with that day’s meat selection on a game roaster. Spices were added to the cooking for additional flavor.

As Americans diets and palates changed after the Civil War, the diversity in what we consumed changed into a less-exciting offering. Gone were the creative uses families a generation early had enjoyed.

At The Henry Ford today, we work hard to show our visitors what life was like for families who relied on what they created themselves; root vegetables are obviously a big part of that. Not only can you visit our homes and learn more about how a family, like the Daggetts, Firestones or Fords, prepared items like root vegetables in their own kitchens, you can taste them for yourself at one one of our restaurants.

If you’re curious to learn more about recipes including root vegetables, try looking at:

  • “The Compleat Housewife” by Eliza Smith
  • “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons
  • “The Frugal Housewife” by Susannah Carter
  • “The Art of Cookery” by Hannah Glasse
  • The next time you’re at the grocery store, take a step out of your comfort zone and try a new-to-you root vegetable. When you try something new, make sure to tell us what you thought of it and how you prepared it. To get you thinking, try these recipes for chicken fricassee with root vegetables and braised rabbit.

    Chicken Fricassee with Root Vegetables
    INGREDIENTS

  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 3 chicken breasts, large dice
  • 1/2 cup onion, diced
  • 2 cups root vegetables, medium dice (parsnips, rutabaga and sweet potato)
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 pinch nutmeg
  • 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • TT salt & pepper
  • 1 Tbsp parsley, chopped
  • METHOD

  • Sauté chicken in butter in a hot large skillet until brown, take out of pan, reserve.
  • Add onions, root vegetables, thyme and bay leaf to pan and cook through.
  • Add white wine and reduce by half then add the cream, chicken and nutmeg and simmer for 6-8 minutes until chicken is cooked thorough and sauce thickens.
  • Season with lemon, salt and pepper, top with parsley.
  • Can be served with buttered noodles or other favorite side.
  • Eagle Tavern's Braised Rabbit
    INGREDIENTS

  • 1 whole rabbit, 2.5-3 pounds
  • As needed all-purpose flour
  • Oil or butter to brown
  • 1 cup Spanish onion, large dice
  • 1/2 cup carrot, large dice
  • 1/2 cup celery, large dice
  • 1/4 cup turnip, large dice
  • 1/4 cup rutabaga, large dice
  • 1 cup red skin potatoes, large dice
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh tarragon, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 6 cups chicken or rabbit stock
  • TT salt and pepper
  • METHOD

  • Remove legs and arms off of rabbit with a sharp knife.
  • With a large knife or cleaver, chop off rib cage and tail portion for stock (if time permits roast these portions until brown and add to simmering chicken stock for bolder flavor).
  • Heat a braising pan or Dutch style oven until warm, season and dust rabbit pieces with flour and add slowly to pan to brown. By adding too quickly you will shock the pan and not allow proper browning and the rabbit may stick to the pan.
  • When rabbit has been nicely browned, take out of pan and reserve on a platter.
  • Add onion, carrots and celery, cook for 3-4 minutes on medium heat then add remaining vegetables, potatoes and herbs, cook for 4-5 minutes more.
  • Add the rabbit back into the pot and then the stock.
  • Cover and place in a 350 degree oven for 1.5 hours or until the leg portions are tender and fall off the bone.
  • When tender add salt and pepper, taste adjust as needed.
  • Divide into four bowls and enjoy.
  • Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.

    Food, vegetables

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