"Nature from the field to the table" also this week, proposes new itineraries in search of Italian excellence. In this episode the protagonists will be the roots and tubers we will meet farmers, producers and artisans who have chosen to enhance the land where they were born by telling traditions On Saturday 12 March at 11.00 live on 7Gold and simultaneously on Facebook "Le Nostre Radici" will be broadcast.
EDIBLE ROOTS: WHAT ARE THEY AND WHY ARE THEY DIFFERENT?
Edible roots were among the first food resources of our ancestors in prehistoric times, who collected them in nature, like fruits and seeds. Since then, the ways of consumption have evolved, differentiating in the various territorial cultures, even if not infrequently they have maintained simple customs and uses, of very ancient origins. But what are the roots that we can eat and what peculiarities distinguish them? After having described the numerous types of potatoes grown in the world, this time we will try to learn more about these vegetable forms to be rediscovered, for their nutritional and gastronomic value.
EDIBLE ROOTS: ORIGINS AND CONSUMPTION
When the primitives set out in search of food, vegetables represented the most readily available and available food source, which did not require great physical effort or the facing of particular dangers. Our ancient ancestors who lived before the introduction of agriculture, in fact, were gatherers-hunters. In addition to the products that could be taken above the surface of the ground – fruits, herbs and seeds – even underground, nature offered important resources to feed oneself. The edible roots were and are many, as we are about to see. Many of these can be eaten raw, while others require boiling. Progressively, the evolution of tastes and techniques in the kitchen have introduced consumption methods that are increasingly suitable for individual essences, such as drying and grinding, even if the use of roots, in general, continues to prefer minimal or almost void, as was the case at the dawn of civilization. Today globalization and the encounter between different gastronomic traditions allow us to taste foods from all over the world, an aspect that also applies to edible roots. Many of these, not surprisingly, come from other continents. Some have already had great success in our latitudes, while others are still to be considered niche goods, with respect to which, however, interest is growing, especially among vegetarians, vegans and health-conscious, but also by those who love to experiment new tastes. In recent years, however, haute cuisine has been rediscovering its roots, which find space in different types of preparations, demonstrating their versatility.
ROOTS AND TUBERS: WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES?
Before describing the individual varieties of edible roots, it is important to clarify the difference between these plants and tubers, an aspect that is not always clear and often confused. In summary, that’s what they stand out for.
• The roots are the part of the plant intended solely to collect nutrients from the soil and have no vegetative capacity, ie they cannot generate sprouts, a fundamental aspect for recognizing them. Most of the edible roots, which contain mainly minerals and vitamins, are those defined tuberiforms, with a squat shape and rich in water inside, even if some of the woody and non-tuberified ones, such as licorice, can be used in kitchen.
• The tubers, on the other hand, act as “reservoirs” of nourishment for the vegetables, to accumulate starch, water and other substances. Unlike the roots, they are part of the stem and have vegetative capacity, so they can sprout a new plant, a phenomenon that in the case of potatoes can be prevented before sale, with the conservative irradiation technique. Almost all the tubers are found underground, although some, called t. planes, develop well above the ground surface. In nutritional comparison with the roots, tubers are generally richer in carbohydrates, so much so that, traditionally, for human consumption they represent the second source of these nutrients after cereals.
• The bulbs are recognized by the series of scales one inside the other that form them; they are often covered with a peel, called a tunic, reminiscent of paper, as in the case of garlic and onion.
• Rhizomes are stems that grow horizontally, above or just below the soil surface, such as ginger, turmeric and lotus.
• The corms are modified stems, generally rounded and solid inside, which include taro, of Asian origin and used for soups.
EDIBLE ROOTS: WHAT ARE THEY?
Although they share particular botanical characteristics, edible roots can be very different from each other, not only in shapes and colors. On the palate, in fact, it ranges from sweet to spicy, from bitter to slightly salty, with more or less solid, crunchy or mellow textures. Classifying them first of all according to their origin, here are the most consumed and appreciated in the world.
THE MOST KNOWN IN EUROPE
Speaking of edible roots, it is impossible not to start with carrots (Daucus carota), of which there are numerous varieties, which differ in color and shape. Extremely versatile in the kitchen, they can be eaten raw, boiled or baked, for savory or sweet preparations, of different textures and formats. Carrots have excellent antioxidant and purifying properties, which are not limited to eye health, the best known aspect attributed to vitamin A. In recent years, black and purple carrots have been rediscovered, particularly rich in anthocyanins, as well as aesthetically curious.
There are also different varieties of turnips (Brassica rapa). Of the white or common one you can consume both the root – used for soups, creams and other typical dishes of poor cuisine – and the tops. Associated with generally derogatory slang expressions, this vegetable of ancient tradition – potentially without parts to be discarded – deserves to find space on Italian tables.
Beets or red turnips (Beta vulgaris), on the other hand, can be consumed both the root and the leaves, raw or cooked. The radical part, bright red in color, is rich in antioxidants, minerals, fibers and vitamins, but also in sugars, which contribute to creating its characteristic taste, enhanced in various recipes. Celeriac (Apium graveolens rapaceum), in its various subspecies, combines the taste of celery with the shapes of the common turnip and is very suitable for preparing soups, purées and other winter dishes.
The numerous varieties of radishes (Raphanus sativus), originally from East Asia but widespread throughout the world, share crunchiness and anti-inflammatory, digestive and purifying properties. In Italy they are eaten raw, but in many countries it is much more common to eat them cooked.
Not everyone knows that parsley (Petroselinum crispum) and chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) can also be eaten at the roots, with their delicate taste and typical of Eastern European Jewish cuisine. Rich in beneficial properties for the digestive system, for the skin and circulation, they can also be used in the preparation of decoctions and herbal teas.
Unlike all the other plants that we will mention, licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) has a woody root used since ancient times in the medicinal field, thanks to its digestive, expectorant, anti-inflammatory and refreshing properties. Furthermore, the great aromatic power makes this essence excellent for making extracts, liqueurs and sweets, but also unusual combinations with salty foods. The root of horseradish (genus Raphanus) can be eaten raw or cooked and is distinguished by its pungent odor, while its diuretic and digestive properties are noted. This perennial plant is not difficult to find even in the wild, near inland waters and humid places. The root of the parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) – whose name should not be confused with that of the parsnip, the fish also called ray – is similar to the carrot but has a whitish color and a sweeter and more sour taste. Once very widespread in Europe, it was supplanted by the potato starting from the eighteenth century, and today it is quite rare. It is eaten cooked and is suitable for preparing soups.
EXOTIC ROOTS APPRECIATED ALL OVER THE WORLD
Some of the most common edible roots in the world today have Asian origins and are the protagonists of oriental cuisines. Ginseng (genus Panax, the species are various) stands out for its energizing and stimulating properties, excellent for starting the day, facing study sessions or sports training. Moreover, more recently, several studies have shown aphrodisiac effects. In the wild, these slow-growing plants can reach a century of life, with roots that are vaguely similar to those of humans.
Daikon (Raphanus sativus longipinnatus) is a particular radish from East Asia, of which there are several varieties, to be used raw or cooked. This root, very versatile in the kitchen and similar to a large white carrot, has draining, mucolytic and purifying properties, while the caloric intake it provides is very low. Native to Central and South America, cassava (Manihot esculenta), also called cassava or yuca, is widely spread in the tropical belts of Asia and Africa, due to the activity of European colonizers. Today Nigeria is the world’s leading producer of this starchy, gluten-free vegetable, which, like the potato, is suitable for many different uses, including the production of flour. The skin of this tuberous root is thick and woody, while the internal pulp, with anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties, is clear and fibrous. For the populations of the tropical areas of the world, cassava represents one of the main sources of carbohydrates, an aspect that also applies to sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas, various varieties) tuberiform roots of American origin, with antioxidant power and suitable for the preparation of tasty recipes.
LESS KNOWN EDIBLE ROOTS
There are edible roots that are little known in Europe, but still important for the nutrition of people far away from us. Arracacha (Arracacia xanthorrhiza, various varieties), for example, is native to the Andean region of Peru and Colombia and has been cultivated since the times of the Incas, although today it is widespread only in the limited areas of cultivation. The root, similar to a small squat carrot, stands out for its characteristic taste, is very nutritionally rich and also contains good amounts of protein. The use of arracacha, which requires boiling, ranges from the production of flour to the preparation of desserts. It is no coincidence that the calcatreppola (genus Eryngium) is also called fetid, due to the annoying smell it releases. The roots, however, are edible and can give a pleasant and characteristic aroma to the dishes. In the past, this wild European plant, thorny and showy, was used in the food sector, while today this tradition is very rarely practiced. With the root of the burdock (genus Arctium), a spontaneous plant widespread in Europe and Asia, decoctions can be prepared with beneficial properties for the skin, stomach and diuresis. Hawknut root (Conopodium majus) is called chestnut heart, due to the aroma similar to that of this fruit, but also attributable to that of hazelnuts and sweet potatoes. This wild plant is common in Europe and North Africa. Native to Central America and exported to East Asia is the jicama or Mexican potato (Pachyrhizus erosus), which can weigh up to 20 kilograms. The white, sweet and crunchy inner part of the root of this vine can be eaten raw or cooked. The root of sedanina (Sium sisarum), with a sweet taste, is used in a similar way to that of the common turnip. This spontaneous plant, from the Apiaceae family, is mainly used in central and northern Europe. Maca (Lepidium meyenii), known as “ginseng of the Andes”, has recently entered the list of the most celebrated and in vogue superfoods – mentioned in our study on the gentrification of food. This root, with its restorative, purifying and aphrodisiac properties, is grown in the Andean Cordillera of Peru and Bolivia at very high altitudes of 4000-4500 meters. Consumed and appreciated by the Incas, it was noticed by the Spaniards at the time of colonization. Among the trendiest superfoods, we should also mention the ube or purple potato (Dioscorea alata), a very sweet edible tuberous root with a bright purple paste. Native to Southeast Asia and Oceania, it has spread to Africa and South America, where the tropical climate allowed cultivation. Rich in antioxidants, it is mainly used to prepare desserts and ice creams, but also savory dishes.
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