The Fat of the Land

Category: Root

The Sweet Root


As much as I love the thrill of rapid-fire freshness, freshness bound to the delicate disposition of beloved summer fruits that seem, at times, to spoil nearly as soon as we get them home, I must admit that winter roots are refreshingly relaxed.

Yes, they lack the juicy sweet acidity of tomatoes or strawberries, but they are endlessly patient with my busy life and forgetful ways, biding their time in some refrigerator drawer until I chance upon them in an attempt to beg dinner from what’s on hand. Desperation draws out an old bag of parsnips, looking little worse for their wear. Scrubbed and waiting on the cutting board, they sit in humble readiness, a root vegetable’s take on freshness. For that, I thank them.

Parsnips look and smell much like a carrot, albeit one the color of faded lace. Eaten as such, their dry, fibrous flesh, woody core, and pungent aroma would stop you at the first bite. These are not roots for nibbling on. Compared to carrots, parsnips are old growth—sown in cool spring soils and left to sweeten through a few rounds of the following winter’s frost, they spend a good nine months underground. In places where the soil freezes, parsnips may be left in it, developing deep, rounded sugars as they sit under the snow.

In our region, now is the time of peak parsnip flavor. Without lingering cold to stunt them, parsnips sown last spring will soon begin their second growth phase. As a biennial, parsnips develop tender roots and thick foliage crowns in their first year, flower shoots and seed heads in their second. As the plants mature into their flower-wearing reproductive phase, the taproots lignify, developing a woody core that is unpleasant to eat. Harvesting before spring kicks in (and spring, in western Oregon, starts mid-February) neatly straddles this cusp—offering roots that had the chance to sweeten in cold ground but have not quite initiated their woody second-year growth.

At market, look for medium-sized roots (one- to two-inches in diameter). Larger parsnips are more likely to have that lignified core, though it is easy enough to spot and remove once the root is quartered. Thin little parsnip wisps are likely to be tender, but if you plan to peel them (as most recipes suggest), you will find yourself with little bulk for lots of effort. Parsnips bruise easily for their density, betraying rough treatment with rust-colored scars. But don’t fret about a few blemishes. Parsnip bruises are not like tomato bruises; remember (and return) their forgiving nature.

Traditional treatment of parsnips goes one of three ways: pureed, roasted, or mashed. I find that their punchy, aromatic fragrance brings rooty brightness to mashes or mélanges of roasted winter vegetables that would otherwise tend toward the cloyingly sweet or bland. Parsnip flavor is full of nuance—caramel and pepper, pungent grass, even nutmeg (with which they share the flavor compound myristicin). Slow roasting brings out their sultry texture—silk with lean muscle—one that was used in wartime Britain to stand in for bananas. This in mind, treating a parsnip with the same technique as a potato or turnip smacks of missed opportunity.

Parsnip’s backbone of a flavor profile can stand up to sturdier seasonings than most of its root cellar kin. It pairs with complex and warming curry blends as deftly as with the pungent cleanness of Mediterranean herbs like rosemary or thyme. Oven-roasted olive oil and rosemary parsnip “fries” dressed in flaky salt are deceptively delicious for how easy they are to make. An introvert of a carrot puree, spread on the plate below something you slice, can become an extravagant sauce when roasted parsnips, saffron, and a pinch of freshly grated ginger are pureed along with it. Parsnips have a pillowy glue about them that, when properly fluffed, makes for buoyant dumplings or tender gnocchi.

But the dessert course is where parsnip transformation reaches the level of enchantment. Grate them into cakes and sweet breads a la carrots, of course, but also consider wilder translations. I came across my first parsnip epiphany in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, where she includes a recipe for parsnip-cardamom custard. From there, the gates fly open, imagining parsnips balanced by other warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, paired with apples, pears, walnuts, dark chocolate, or dates, sweetened with honey, maple syrup, or molasses. Their silky pulp calls out to pancakes, soufflés, tortes, and streusel-topped coffee cakes, their savory perfume to iced, whipped, or even coconut creams. This spring when the pastry cravings come knocking, consider parsnip your root.


Digging for Flavor


Those who are drawn to the unfamiliar vegetables tucked between baskets of potatoes and onions, frills of kale and glossy collards, may have already plucked a winter radish from the sidelines, brought it home and sliced it, wondered what in the world to make of it. Unlike spring radishes with their apple-crisp flesh and mild bite, winter radishes stump most of us the first (or third or fifth) time we bravely endeavor to turn them into something desirable.

The only straightforward part of a winter radish (also called storage radish) is its challenges: dense, dry flesh, pungent spice, and a flavor profile whose most flattering description could be summed up with the word medicinal. Salt them for softness and they’ll exude characteristic brassica sulfur. Eat them raw and they’ll set fire to your throat. Roast them and their flesh goes watery.

Three varieties of winter radish predominate our local markets: black Spanish, daikon, and watermelon. Daikon, white and cylindrical like a giant, ghostly carrot, is a mainstay in most Asian cuisines, served pickled, raw, or cooked. Daikon takes on a slightly skunky (in a good way) flavor in the pickle jar, tempered by chili pepper heat (as in kimchee), or, in Japanese takuan, by the addition of sugar, kombu seaweed, and persimmon peels.

Watermelon radish, a round daikon type with light green skin and fuchsia center, is the best contender for raw eating. Their appealingly brilliant pigment will dull if cooked or bleed into the brine if pickled. Thinly sliced, their silky flesh is more palatable than the others. Good looks, however, do not tame their spice; try tossing them with shredded cabbage and apples for a zesty slaw or plate them with segmented citrus and a dousing of sweet vinaigrette to lighten up a dark January supper.

Black radishes, least common of the bunch, look downright mysterious huddled together in a market basket. Their russeted skin, thick and coal black, creates the illusion of depth, as if their pigment starts in our world and ends in another. Its contrast with the bright white inner flesh is as appealing, to my aesthetic, as pink-hearted watermelon radish. Given the tag ‘Spanish,’ black radishes are more common in eastern and northern Europe, where they are fermented with sauerkraut or salted and rinsed for fresh salads.

Black radish flavor is undisputedly an acquired taste. So spicy they are referred to in French markets as Parisian horseradish, raw applications can be tricky. As I prefer spice to sulfur, I usually trade salting for knife work. Sliced into matchsticks, their bite is manageable, especially next to something sweet. One of my favorite combinations is a salad of pear slices, Treviso chicory, and slivers of black radish tossed in rice wine vinaigrette, salt, and pepper. Grating helps; try adding a handful to mustard-and-vinegar-dressed potato salad topped with chives and parsley, or submerge them in sugary quick pickle brine and serve (for contrast) alongside fatty meat.

For those who find no charm in penetrating radish heat, cooking is the best option. Though their fibrous flesh gets a bit soggy when roasted whole, you won’t notice if you add it to a root vegetable mash. Quarter-inch slices sautéed in butter until they’re browned are surprisingly sumptuous—their spice subdued, their texture tender and meaty. Toss with sesame or nut oil and steamed chard for a purifying side. Paper-thin slices oiled and salted make delicious oven-roasted chips.

When something is so seemingly difficult to love (or make delicious), allure may not be enough incentive. Why go to such lengths for these musky roots? Called storage radishes because of their ability to linger in the crisper drawer (or root cellar) months after fall harvest, these radishes are a reliable winter vegetable, carried over from a time that pre-dates international food distribution. Perhaps most compelling to our health-oriented present is their astonishing nutritional profile. Particularly high in vitamin C, winter radishes are known to stimulate bile function, improving the digestion of fats and starches. Black radishes are especially powerful as a liver and gall bladder tonic.

As much as summer, in its quick abundance, obliges us to sit outdoors among the neighbors popping tomato slice after easy slice, winter, with its cold days and lingering darkness, forces introspection. Is it any surprise that its vegetables ask the same? Or that, as with many winter tasks, our efforts yield subtle rewards?



As a word, celery is delightful: smooth, translucent, bright, like the ample water its juicy bite unleashes. In today’s kitchens, celery is best known for its fibrous, overgrown stems, sliced into stock or slathered with peanut butter to mellow their robust flavor. In celery’s culinary history, those juicy, blanched stalks are an anomaly. Nearly every other part of the plant was used as medicine and (less commonly) food for thousands of years before the proverbial ants took a seat on the log and we shelved all but an inkling of celery.

The eternal background singer, few recipes feature celery outright, choosing its sturdy, harmonizing nature over the full aromatic experience. Celery, of course, is bitter and much of its breeding since the 1600’s, when European cooks began to recognize its culinary value, has been dedicated to taming that quality. Though in the United States we have sequestered our celery usage to almost exclusively the stalks, French cuisine in particular embraced a whole plant approach early on, using leaves, stalk, and root, a tradition that helped drive the development of different cultivars highlighting the best each of these plant segments have to offer.

Celery’s wild range circled the Mediterranean Sea. Called selinon by the ancient Greeks, it was of great medicinal and cultural importance, described often in literature as an esteemed wild plant. Winners of the Nemean Games (a sporting event held the years before and after the ancient Olympic Games) were presented with a wreath of wild celery. Garlands of selinon were commonly used to decorate the departed and wild celery had a symbolic connection to death; leaves and flowers of the plant were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, suggesting the tradition was adopted from across the Sea.

This wild celery is known today as ‘smallage,’ a corruption of the Old French word for celery: ache (pronounced “ash”). Small ache became smallage, a word that now refers both to wild celery and a group of selected varieties also known as ‘cutting celery.’ Even cultivated smallage is only a sidestep from its wild origins; small plants (1-2 ft high) with narrow, often hollow stalks too fibrous to eat raw, and leaves that range from astringent to strongly aromatic. Not commonly eaten raw, smallage leaves are added to soups (a practice in both European and Asian cuisines), where the broth is used to mellow their bite with slow cooking or give a backbone to the refreshing zest of leaves added raw just before serving.

Perhaps no part of celery’s taxonomy is so revered as its root. Called knob celery, turnip-rooted celery, or, as we know it here, celeriac, the root is celery’s most accessible segment, which is ironic, because if the thought of a celery-flavored root vegetable doesn’t turn a shopper away, its bulbous, knotted appearance almost certainly will. While celeriac is a celery-flavored root, centuries of selection have unearthed a satiny, slightly nutty, mild-mannered, delightfully versatile celery-flavored root.

A French classic, celerie remoulade dresses fine slivers of raw celeriac in mustardy mayonnaise. Steamed and mashed, celeriac makes a creamy puree similar to mashed potatoes, or, when thinned with broth, a rich, elegant soup. Edible raw or cooked, celeriac is an alluring fall salad ingredient—one of the best preparations I’ve had was celeriac slightly steamed and dressed with hazelnut oil on a bed of butter lettuces. Leeks, shallots, and garlic make fine companions, as do herbs like thyme, sage, and smallage, creamy sauces, or nutty oils. Consider a salad of celeries: sliced celeriac, shaved stalks, and aromatic leaves. October is celeriac’s month, when they are pulled fresh from their long tenure in the soil (celeriacs at market now were planted in early spring). Though they will keep a few months in good storage conditions, they are their most refreshing now as our palates shift from sweet summer fruits to earthy autumn roots.

All parts of the celery plant have distinctive mineral coolness and an assertive aroma we tend to label medicinal. To me, their blend of flavors matches this season’s transitional nature: bright sun with a façade of warmth, turning cool in the shadows and cold after sunset. Celery starts with a punch then fades to an afterthought, but it’s the punch that gives the afterthought its flavor.

Radish Revisited


Sprinter of the root vegetables, spring radishes can go from seed packet to salad vegetable in 3-4 weeks. Their bright hues of red, pink and violet are a welcome addition to market displays this time of year, heralding that the season of storage crops is waning. Radishes round the corner first, followed by a pack of tonic vegetables that freshen our palates.

Radishes personify the season. Their juicy crispness, sweet with a hint of spice, seems a direct translation of spring’s temperament: mild coolness, increasing day length, and frequent showers that unleash electric greenness into our hibernating imaginations. Radishes become more bitter and fibrous if their growth is interrupted by heat stress or inconsistent soil moisture, making summer-grown radishes often spicier and pithier. Spring offers nearly effortless conditions for this sumptuous crudité.

The radish has acquired its round shape and vibrant colors only with the help of gardeners. While its early history is largely unknown, the radish likely originated in northern China, from which it spread to India, the Mediterranean, northern Europe and eventually the Americas, where it was one of the first introduced vegetables, hot on the heals of Columbus.

Its original form, like so many domesticated root vegetables, was likely that of a wild annual with a pale, unremarkable taproot. Its four-petaled flower, like its cousin, arugula’s, tickled the tongue with peppery sweetness, its leaves with pungent bitterness. Radishes of all types have fleshy seedpods known as siliques that are edible when tender, tasting something like a spicy radish soul in the body of a green bean. Perhaps it was these curious pods that first attracted gatherers in search of nutritious forage.

We do not know where a journey will take us when we start. Those early gatherers and gardeners of wild radishes would be shocked to see the range of forms the modern radish takes, from cherry-red to green-shouldered, cylindrical to pointed to marble-shaped, bite-sized to 70-pound giants. Some varieties have been selected specifically for their large, tender pods. Radish diversity has been proliferated by the tastes and preferences of the cultures through which it has traveled.

The radish with which we are most familiar today—that bright red button of a root we slice onto salad greens—comes from the work of Dutch and Italian gardeners of the 16th century who began selecting for small, round roots. Up until that time, most European radish varieties looked more like parsnips or elongated beets. The black radish, a variety we see returning to popularity at local markets as a winter vegetable, more closely resembles these medieval European radishes.

Asian cuisines favored taproot shaped radishes, developing a diverse range of varieties that include daikon, a staple of the pickle jar and wok, and shunkyo, a purple, carrot-shaped radish for eating raw. Last season I grew Shunkyo Long for the first time, a variety I bought from Wild Garden Seed. Its root was surprisingly tender and mildly sweet, its leaves smooth (most radish leaves have the texture of worn Velcro) and succulent with a hint of radish flavor delicious cooked or added to salad mix.

Radishes were a revered vegetable in early America. Seed catalogs listed dozens of varieties for each growing season. The whole plant was eaten: young leaves from thinning the radish patch went into the salad bowl, mature greens into soups, sautés, or even pickle brine. From the breakfast table to the sack lunch to refined dinners, the radish’s noble root peppered American meals until the late 20th century relegated them to the category of garnish.

The association of radishes as a raw food has been hard to shake. Many of the old cultivars are coming back into fashion; seed catalogs again offer varieties that stretch a radish-growers imagination beyond the ubiquitous red globe. Chefs have begun to embrace their versatility. But at home (and at the grocery store), their fate still seems locked to the vegetable platter, forever orbiting a bowl of ranch dressing.

I sautéed a radish for the first time two years ago, tossed them briefly in a pan of hot oil, sprinkled them with salt and was charmed by their turnip-like flavor. Last summer, faced with a bumper crop of the cylindrical-shaped French Breakfast variety, I halved them, tossed them in oil and salt and spread them on the grill alongside carrots and scallions. The smoky heat caramelized their surface, gently softened their center, bringing out the distinct sweetness and subtle flavors of these vegetable platter standards, no ranch required.

Resurrecting the Potato


Digging potatoes by hand can feel like an archeological endeavor. Each glimpse of a potato skin peering from the dirt foretells a shape unknowable as an ancient artifact. Out of their invisible incubator the gardener lifts them, great edible totems, glowing dimly. Goddess figures. Animal talismans. Lewd statuary. What great soil culture imagined these? What elaborate underground mythology do they speak for? Without ceremony, we sort the worst specimens into the compost pile and stow the rest in cool, dark corners for autumn suppers.

The potato is a close relative of the tomato, both members of the nightshade family, which contains other, more sinister characters, such as the nightshade belladonna. Native to the European continent, belladonna is extremely toxic to humans and was historically used as both a poison and a medicine. With hallucinogenic properties to boot, belladonna is purported to have be a component of flying ointment, a botanical salve witches applied to their skin to help initiate flight (or perhaps the illusion thereof).

Potatoes play a huge role in modern agriculture and the contemporary American diet, one that disguises their humble origin as a high-elevation plant with limited range and serious toxicity. Native to twelve thousand feet above sea level in the Andean mountains of present-day Chile and Peru, aboriginal potatoes were bitter, fibrous tubers carrying a host of unsettling alkaloids that required careful exploration. Mountain people that collected the tubers may have taken cues from foraging animals that licked the clay soil before eating them. The tight chemical structure of clay adsorbs the plants’ toxins as they pass through the digestive system, protecting the eater from illness.

Over a period of 8,000 years, these potato cultures drew dazzling genetic diversity from this once-foraged food, selecting for flavor, vigor at different altitudes (and temperatures) and disease-resistance. Like pasta shapes in Italy, Andean villages still maintain their own traditional potato varieties. A list of known varieties compiled by Peru’s International Potato Center totals nearly 5,000. It may go without saying that Andean cultivars still hold the majority of the world’s genetic diversity of potatoes.

Of the European explorers who charged through South America, Spaniards were the first to encounter potatoes, and who eventually sent them back to the homeland as a crop with great potential to help feed Europe’s growing population. Knowing only poisonous nightshades, Europeans accepted them with trepidation, and it took centuries for the potato to gain a foothold in European cuisines. When it did, however the potato was unmatched in its ability to provide an economical food source.

As potatoes are cultivated from cuttings of last year’s tubers, potato plantings are essentially clonal monocultures. Spaniards propagated their potato campaign from a small sampling of Andean tubers, thus most of the potatoes in Europe shared nearly identical genetics. Thus when the first European potato field was struck with blight, the rest soon followed, unleashing one of the continent’s longest and most severe famines. Even in contemporary agricultural systems, potato farmers must constantly battle potato blight and their most damaging pest, the potato beetle, with an ever-changing host of chemical arsenals, making conventional potatoes one of the most pesticide-laden foods.

Contemporary dietary lore would have us believe that the potato is a nearly useless vegetable, more at home alongside pies, gravy and other guilt-ridden foods than as a component of a nutritious meal. Potatoes do contain a lot of starch, which is converted by our digestive system into sugar that can wreak havoc if consumed regularly. But all potatoes are not created equally. New potatoes contain up to half the starch of mature potatoes, and have a skin that is thinner and more palatable, meaning we are more likely to consume it. Potatoes eaten with their skins are good sources of vitamin C, potassium, and vitamin B6. Pigmented varieties, especially blue potatoes, also contain phytonutrients that are being explored as possible cancer inhibitors and hypertension regulators.

Even the starch component of potatoes, once a reliever of famine, now a contributor to obesity, can be tamed to our advantage. Potato starch comes in two forms, one that is easily converted to sugar in the time it takes to pass through our digestive system, and one that resists the digestive process, providing some of the same benefits as fiber. Freshly cooked potatoes contain the highest levels of digestible starch; cooling potatoes after cooking converts some of the digestible starch into resistant starch. Reheating cooled potatoes does not convert the resistant starch back to its digestible form, so the simple trick of pre-cooking a baked potato for reheating the next day dramatically reduces its glycemic index.

As the holidays approach and potatoes inevitably make the shopping list, consider focusing your culinary whims on their more positive attributes: an array of colors signaling powerful phytonutrients, nourishing skins that add texture and flavor to even the most classic potato preparations, and convertible starch, whose technique demands potatoes be half-prepared well in advance—a requirement we can happily succumb to during the busy holiday season.

Sugar and Earth


There is something about a beet that lingers—certainly the stains from their pigment, and even more so their less tangible elements: the earthy aroma, the syrupy sweetness of the flesh, a base note as deep and dark as midnight. One bad experience can end it all, so burned is the beet’s brand on our psyche. We polarize around them, beet lovers and haters, touting their virtues and shortcomings, finding common ground only by conceding that beets make a powerful impression.

Old souls of the vegetable aisle, their visage stirs deep remembrances of the hearth, of large pots on the boil, musky root cellars. We associate them with traditional recipes and an era of vegetables arriving to the table via cans and pickle brine. Little about a beet seems novel or fresh, but beets as we know them—bulbous roots with tender red flesh—are, botanically speaking, quite new.

Ancestor of the wild sea beet, a Mediterranean native whose range now extends to coastlands as far as Northern Europe, Britain and the Near East, beets have not always possessed their distinctive edible roots. Sea beets were likely an early nutrient source for humans in the Mediterranean region, as they grow prolifically nearly year-round. Their leaves are a choice edible when tender and young, and make a nutritious potherb once they mature.

The Romans touted the virtues of sea beets, transferring them from their rugged coastal perch into gardens, selecting those with the best tasting leaves, distinguishing between white- and black-rooted varieties for medicinal broths. In Roman times, beetroots were skinny, fibrous things boiled with honey and wine, then discarded.

Sea beet flowers are wind-pollinated; their genetics shift and transfer with the abandon of coastal breezes, resulting in slight variation from plant to plant, some exhibiting red leaf splotches or pink veins. It was the gardener that unlocked sea beets’ genetic treasury, first discovering the flamboyant stem colors and rich flavors of myriad chard varieties (a close relative to beets), then edible taproots, some red, some white. It wasn’t until the 1530’s that the first documentations of blood red, turnip-shaped roots began to appear, touting their unparalleled delicacy.

In a time before sugar cane and candy aisles, when most people’s diets were dominated by humble vegetables, beets must have seemed truly extraordinary—a root that tasted of honey, soft and rich as an organ, an aroma of minerals, humus and spice. Called Roman beets, these selections were more likely developed in northern Europe, where the caloric, well-keeping roots would have been of greater importance to people withstanding harsh winters than the tender leaves so beloved by the Romans.

Other types of beets, such as the immense mangel-wurzel, were selected specifically as livestock feed. A turnip-colored beet with extra-large roots, mangel-wurzel (literally, “chard root” in German) was a relatively easy and abundant fodder for pigs and cattle to survive the winter.

The sweetness of beetroots comes from sucrose, the same compound extracted from sugarcane that constitutes the crystalline powder we know as sugar. This discovery, made by Russian chemist Andreas Marggraf in the 1750’s, was the beet’s most commercially significant transformation. Since Marggraf, sugar beets have been improved to increase their sucrose content and soon became an important commercial crop, now accounting for 20% of worldwide sugar production.

The earthy scent and flavor of red beets, arguably their most notorious trait, comes from geosmin, a chemical compound released by microbe activity in the soil, which also contributes to the olfactory experience of rain-moistened earth following a dry spell, or freshly dug soil. The human nose is particularly sensitive to geosmin, detecting it at concentrations as low as 5 parts per trillion, which may account for impassioned responses to beets on either side of the fence.

From sandy coastal soils to humus-rich gardens, beets and their microbial allies have unraveled alluring flavor and beauty over thousands of years, and continue even into our contemporary times. Beetroots exist in greater variety today than ever before, making now as good a time as any for new beet innovations. These are not the beets of your past, flavored by cans or too much vinegar. Today’s beets are fresh, unadulterated sugar and earth, with a breath of sea breeze nudging them onward.

Kalapuya Calendar

The Kalapuya, native people of the Willamette and Umpqua Valleys, divided their year into twelve lunar months, beginning with the first new moon of autumn. Anyone who has spent a year or two in this area can appreciate the familiar cycle their calendar represents, especially the short summer and extended spring. Being a transplant from the Midwest, I often have difficulty distinguishing the nuances of fall winter and spring in the PNW, and often think of this region as only having two seasons: wet and dry. The Kalapuya add a touch more poetry:

(Our August/September)  This first month was a time of abundance: living in dispersed summer camps, the people gathered and stored nuts, berries and roots.

(Our September/October)  “Hair falls off,” a reference to the dropping deciduous leaves. Camps move to where wapato grows and harvest of that root begins.

(Our October/November)  Winter approaches and it is time to prepare winter camps and lodgings.

(Our November/December)  “Good Month,” when Kalapuya moved into winter camps.

(Our December/January)  “Month of the burned breast,” when the weather turns cold and the elders sit in close to the fire, perhaps singing the breast of their clothing.

(Our January/February) “Out of provision month,” a hungry time when winter stores begin to run low and hunters begin to go looking for food in the woods.

(Our February/March)  “First Spring.” Brief camping trips yield young camas shoots and other greens.

(Our March/April)  “Budding Month,” when food collection on the valley floor begins in earnest.

(Our April/May)  “Flower time,” when camas blooms and the winter camps disperse into smaller, widely scattered summer camps. Spring runs of salmon bring a flush of color to the diet.

(Our May/June)  Month of camas, when the bulbs are full-size and ready to collect and dry. Fishing and berry collecting are in full swing.

(Our June/July)  “Half-summer-time.” Summer drought is in full, and the weather is hot and dry.

(Our July/August)  “End of Summer,” when it is still hot and dry, but the eyes turn toward winter and the necessary preparations of hunting and harvesting wild foods.

Source: The World of the Kalapuya by Judy Rycraft Juntunen, May D. Dasch and Ann Bennett Rogers.


My first farming experience was with garlic. The woman I worked for grew organic seed garlic, which means most of the bulbs we tended and coddled were never tasted by anyone. Despite its utilitarian destiny, this was, and still remains, the most perfect garlic I have ever seen. Dozens of varieties passed through our hands, and at the cleaning table I studied each for its unique qualities. Some of the bulbs’ papers were painted with purple streaks, some with pink or brown. Many were dull white, though a special few varieties had papers that seemed to glow, shimmering like the surface of a pearl.

Not long before I began working on the garlic farm, I was reading the newly released Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and learned that garlic is only harvested once a year. The fact astonished me at the time. Garlic is something I eat nearly every day, that mesmerizes me each time I add it to hot oil, but I was completely clueless as to who it was. I knew it only as an ingredient, not a living thing.

My first month there, we worked the rows on our knees, pulling weeds. We would make our way through the acre or so of garlic only to have to start again at the beginning. The soil had a lot of clay, so it was sticky and tight when wet, nearly impenetrable when dry. Even so, the work was made light by good conversation, the chirping of frogs in a nearby pond. Every so often we would look up from the microcosm of weeds to a panoramic view of the mountain valley we lived in: the valley’s bowl crowned by a stretch of mountains blanketed in conifers, a few distant, rocky peaks.

Long before we harvested our first bulb, the garlic began its offerings. First came the garlic shoots, young plants I found sprouting in the compost pile. I plucked a bundle of them to take home. Like scallions, we minced them into sautés, sprinkled them on eggs, stirred them into quiche. Their flavor is softer than scallions, green and herbal with a background aroma of garlic without the bite.

Next were the scapes, leafless stems that arose from the top of the plant, at the end what looked like a large flower bud. As it grows, a scape twists around making one curly loop and another, before uncurling and stretching straight again. This peculiar dance gives this category of garlic (the “hardnecks”) its scientific name, Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon, coming from the root word ophis, Greek for snake. We cut these serpent scapes to promote bulb development, filling cartloads of them that we dumped in the compost. I took bagfuls home to experiment with, making a very strong pesto that I found too overpowering to eat a second time, and mellower sautéed stalks, something like a garlicky asparagus.

As the bud-like tips at the end of the scapes burst open, they revealed an aggregate globe of tiny white kernels. My farmer friend explained to me that they are called bulbils, and are essentially like the cloves of the garlic bulb—each containing the same genetic material as the parent plant, rather than seeds, which are the result of pollination. I took some from varieties that had larger bulbils, about the size of a small chickpea, to peel and brine in vinegar. The results looked like tiny pearl onions and tasted fantastic on a salad or just right out of the jar, but the process of peeling all those tiny things took over an hour, so it remains my first and only attempt at garlic bulbil pickles.

By the time harvest came, the soil was dry and hard around the bulbs. Some rows we felt more like we were chiseling than digging, breaking clods of dirt in two to reveal a perfect garlic bulb inside. As we lifted them from the ground, brushed dirt from their roots, and loaded the garlic into carts, we stirred up a pleasing aroma: the humus and minerals of soil mixed with the softest scent garlic can make, not unlike when it’s sautéing in the pan but with more perfume and freshness. This nectar lingered in the air, filled the barn where we hung them to cure, faded finally as they dried so that when it was time to clean and grade, the bulbs hardly had a scent at all.

Garlic came alive for me that summer, as other plants and vegetables have since then, each with its unique cycle, its story. I grow a patch of garlic every year and wait eagerly for the moment of unearthing, when the hidden bulbs are made visible and the aroma of soil and garlic fills the air—its ephemeral delicacy.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, November 1, 2012)


Of all the food processing methods I know, fermentation holds the greatest allure. Baking is transformative, grilling primal. Canning and freezing create links between present and future. Chopping, slicing, salting and seasoning achieve distinct, even revelatory flavors. Marinades tenderize, eggs can do anything, sugar turns water to silk, and fats are the cook’s currency. But none of these create change that is alive.

At its most basic, fermentation is a chemical process that converts sugar into energy without the use of oxygen. We have all experienced this, whether we know it or not, the last time we went for a sprint. Human muscle cells are capable of fermenting sugar into lactic acid for brief bursts of energy otherwise known as that burning sensation in your calves. The kind of fermentation I am referring to here, however, is one facilitated by bacteria.

Alcohol fermentation is likely the most familiar of the bunch. Yeast, a form of bacteria, breaks sugar down into smaller particles, releasing alcohol along the way. Bread, unless it is sourdough, relies on a quick and controlled fermentation of the grain using isolated bacteria in the form of store-bought yeast. (Sourdough captures yeasts that exist in the air through a much slower, and perhaps more thorough, ferment.) Various methods of bacterial fermentation have been used throughout history to preserve food or unlock its nutrient potential: think cheese, miso, salami and vinegar. Lesser known in our contemporary culture, however, is lacto-fermentation, a process that harnesses lactobacillus bacteria to preserve, enrich and fundamentally transform a whole spectrum of foods.

The list of traditional foods prepared using the same basic principles is diverse. If you were raised in New York, you know of sour pickles, cucumbers fermented in salty brine to crispy and sometimes effervescent perfection. Those raised in or nearby Korean diasporas have likely tasted kimchee at some point in their lives. Ancestors of Slavic immigrants may have regularly drunk a cup of homemade kefir. Nearly all of us know the results of lacto-fermented milk in the form of yogurt, though unless the label specifically mentions “live, active cultures,” commercial yogurt is pasteurized post-fermentation and has lost its living flavor.

Growing up in Wisconsin, the first living lacto-fermented food I tasted was sauerkraut. Kraut that comes in shelf-stable jars is uninspiring stuff, fermented long ago, pasteurized and pressure canned, killing the bacteria and with it much of the flavor. One summer, sauerkraut was piled onto my bratwurst straight from a crock. The flavor was unlike anything I had tasted previously in my life—salty, sour, buttery smoothness that twisted into a yeasty tang, and something more, something full and exciting and entirely new. The whole package was a flavor so satisfyingly delicious I wanted to go back and ask for seconds, sans the brat.

For many, the taste of fermented foods takes some getting used to. It can be a powerful force in the mouth, rising up the navel passages like a herd of wild horses, activating, it seems, nearly all the taste buds at once. Yet, the flavors of fermented foods are an acquired taste only because we have, as a culture, nearly abandoned them. Wherever your family came from, your ancestors knew and appreciated the flavors of ferments. Surely they are more familiar and valuable to our species than the chemical agents we rely on now to preserve and flavor our food.

But, you ask, why should you want more (not fewer) bacteria in your food? Because not all bacteria are created equally. We have become used to viewing bacteria as transmitters of sickness. Armed with a host of antibacterial products, we clean our homes and hands of them without discretion. But many bacteria are our allies, existing within our bodies and throughout our environments in symbiosis. Lactobacilli already live naturally in our gut and so it behooves our digestive system to diversify the collection by eating lacto-fermented foods. And that is just what we know so far. Recent studies, such as one linking gut bacteria to mood enhancement profiled last September in The Economist , hint at deeper connections between microbes and consciousness.

The microbes fostered by fermentation have evolved along with our human cultures. It seems to me that the “something else” I first tasted in the sauerkraut, a dynamic flavor I feel compelled to seek out and recreate in my own kitchen, is this living component, carrying with it connections to thousands of years of my species’ evolution. It takes time to peel away from the fats and sweeteners of processed foods and begin tasting real food again. But your mouth will remember.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, September 6, 2012)