For the Love of Cookbooks and Roots
When I was home earlier this summer, I asked my mother for a recipe. She pulled out her worn 3-ring binder. This binder is blue, has yellowed pages falling out of it and has sat in the same place on the bookshelf for as long as I can remember. In it are recipes scratched in her handwriting of her earlier years, additions by her sisters, and almost four decades’ worth of recipe inspiration ripped from magazines.
My natural instinct when I need a recipe is to go to that online thing that starts with G. For my mother, it’s to go to her recipe shelf. If it’s not in the blue book then there has to be a recipe that can be improvised on elsewhere among the culinary titles. In fact, it was only recently that she called to tell me that she was wondering about a specific recipe and went to her computer herself to search around the internet for it (normally she calls me and has me cull the pages and select a few links, her personal search engine so to say).
I am ashamed to say that I have not started such a recipe collection myself. Raised in the digital age, my own is a mish-mash of bookmarked links and emails that I always plan to organize but never get around to. But although I am quick to tap in a search query that combines a few ingredients that I have lying around and I don’t know what to do with (raspberry, kale, go…), I have an affinity for my small cookbook stash.
The collection is small because I have limited space, and it’s worth committing to the tried and true: The Essential New York Times Cookbook (Amanda Hesser what would I do without you?), Vår Kokbok(a Swedish essential) Swedish Cakes and Cookies, a few from Moosewood Collective, Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Cooking, and Sheila Lutkins’ All Around the World Cookbook. There are a few others here and there, but that is the staple collection and it doesn’t shift very much. I have a favorite recipe in each, and they all have numerous dog eared pages.
In need of dinner inspiration? Sit on the couch with a few of the books and a pen and paper and good things are bound to happen.
There is something that happens with cookbooks that doesn’t happen with food blogs or obsessively looking at food porn on Pinterest. Away from the screen, you engage with a recipe in a different way. You take time to think about the preparation and the process. That is why I prefer predominantly text cookbooks; you are not seduced by photos the way you are int he digital world, your are swayed by words and culinary combinations. A good cookbook is the one you can put your trust in; let it guide you through the cooking process.
And that is what a cookbook should be: a guidebook, a resource. The kind of thing you can go to again and again and again. Not because you loved one recipe, but because no matter how many times you read it, you’ll always learn something new. That is what I discovered in Roots: The Definitive Compendium with more than 225 Recipes, which arrived at my doorstep just a couple of weeks ago.
Let me restate the fact that I am hesitant to add new cookbooks to the collection; my appetite for more food inspiration is countered by an acceptance of the reality of space, and the fact that too many cookbooks can be a bad thing. But Roots was meant to be added to that space, it hit all of my cookbook expectations. It’s a resource (and a good one at that), the photos are beautiful but the recipes aren’t over dominated by them, the story is personal, and in reading it, you get a lesson in food. For example, I had no idea that carrots are believed to have originated in Afghanistan.
I had never given root vegetables much thought, but after reading through numerous sections I soon wondered how I had gone without this book for so long. Sauteed beet greens with a little lemon juice will now certainly be a regular concoction.
Newly obsessed with root vegetables, I caught up with Roots author Diane Morgan to learn more about the cookbook, the most underrated root vegetable out there and her favorite recipe (hint: it might be the only time I am ever tempted to make a cupcake, because these look good).
This book is such a valuable resource. Why do you think something like it hasn’t been done before?
There are a couple of much older books focused on the “common” root vegetables (beets, turnips, rutabagas, sweet potatoes), and there are encyclopedic books written on vegetables, but an encyclopedic book written on the large family of root vegetables along with a large selection of recipes hasn’t been written until now. I went looking for the book I wanted to own and realized it didn’t exist, so I decided to tackle the subject and write the book I wanted to own.
As a very comprehensive guide, this cookbook packs in a lot of information. How long did the research and writing process for it take? Any glitches along the way?
It took me two and a half years to develop the book proposal, and then research and write the entire book. I am not a botanist(!), so the research to make sure I found all the edible roots that exist was challenging. Even as I was turning in the manuscript I would double check some exotic root to make sure it was classified properly. With regard to glitches, there is a lot of confusion between malanga and taro and it took me time to resolve the distinctions. They are fascinating roots with interesting cooking properties. The high starch factor makes them delightful to mash and terrific as fritters.
I am assuming you ate a lot of root vegetable dishes while doing recipe development. Are you sick of them now? Or do you incorporate more roots into your diet than before?
I have never tired of eating roots. They are so varied and so seasonal that something that goes out of season, such as celery root, delivered a new-found excitement when I see it again the next season.
What was the most interesting thing you learned while writing the book?
There were many interesting discoveries, but I did love learning about all the edible tops – beet greens, radish tops, carrot tops, turnip tops – all are edible and highly nutritious.
Which is the most underrated root?
It would be a toss up between rutabagas and burdock root! Rutabagas take on many flavors – they are delicious when braised in beer and also paired with apples for a wonderful wintertime sweet galette. On the other hand, burdock root, used commonly in Japanese cuisine, is amazing when paired with mussels. If you love mussels then you must try my recipes for Steamed Mussels with Burdock Root, Shallots, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes.
If you had to pick one, what is your favorite root and why?
That’s like asking which is your favorite child. They all have such unique characteristics! However, since writing the book, I have incorporated the dark orange-fleshed sweet potatoes into my diet more often. They are an incredible superfood, packed with vitamins. I roast them or even grill-roast them and then rewarm them for breakfast. Skip your morning toast and eat a sweet potato!
For Diane’s Red Velvet Cupcakes with Orange Buttercream (made with beets of course), click here.