By GLYNIS VALENTI
Times Leader Staff Writer
Root vegetables as a rule aren't pretty. They aren't like that baby pepper that transforms into a shiny, chiseled green block or like a plump, sun-kissed heirloom tomato. They are the workhorse veggies, staples that (no pun intended) ground the meal.
Beets are multi-faceted. They have a unique antioxidant package, are healthy for the digestive tract, were developed for and are still used for sugar production and can be enjoyed raw or lightly cooked.
Parsnips are a plain food and often substituted for potatoes. Great in winter soups and with roasted chicken or beef, they pair well with other vegetables and are high in Vitamin C.
Sweet potatoes need little dressing up. Naturally sweet, the healthiest way to eat them is to steam or boil and add a bit olive oil or some crushed walnuts to enhance the Vitamin A benefits.
Long before industrial agriculture and year-round availability of produce at the grocery store, root vegetables were harvested late, stored in "root" cellars and eaten during the cold, lean months of winter. And with good reason-root vegetables are just that-roots that store all of the nutrition for their plants above ground. All of the energy (starch and sugar), vitamins and minerals are beneficial to humans, too.
Carrots and potatoes are the standard root vegetables, but three others-parsnips, beets and sweet potatoes-are inexpensive and have some unique qualities that add nutrition and variety to favorite winter dishes.
Parsnips look like large, pale carrots but are used more like potatoes. Researchers say the plant originated in Europe, and ancient Romans ate it, though they called carrots and parsnips by the same name. Before sugar cane, parsnips were used to sweeten foods, and farmers developed plumper, fleshier parsnips and harvested them later in the season to develop the sugar. Vegetables in the same family include carrots, celery, parsley, fennel, celeriac and chervil.
Nutritionally, parsnips are high in fiber, low calorie, low fat and cholesterol free. One cup of parsnip slices contains 100 calories (mainly from 24 grams of carbohydrates), 1.9 grams of protein and less than half a gram of fat. It also has 6.5 grams of fiber (26 percent of the USDA daily value recommendation based on 2,000 calories per day, or DV), 38 percent of the DV for Vitamin C, 37 percent of the DV for Vitamin K (for blood and bones), 22 percent of the DV for folate and 13 percent of the DV for Vitamin E. Among the minerals parsnips contain are copper (80 percent of the DV), potassium (14 percent of the DV), magnesium (10 percent of the DV) and phosphorus (9 percent of the DV). They also harbor valuable omega fatty acids: 4 mg of omega-3 and 54.5 mg of omega-6.
When purchasing parsnips, look for a firm, medium sized root. Avoid shriveled or soft parsnips, and if the greens are attached, they should be fresh and moist-looking, not wilted. In general, parsnips can replace potatoes in recipes because of their similar physical properties. Try dicing them for soups or mashing them with potatoes or cauliflower to add some nutritional and flavor zip.
Beets, related to the turnip and to spinach, have their own unusual properties and benefits, most obviously the betalain pigments that give beets their rich colors. Yellow beets contain betaxanthins, and red and purple beets contain betacyanins. As with many phytonutrients, these betalains provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support, but these combined with beet levels of Vitamin C and manganese seem to target eye health and nerve tissue.
Regarding anti-inflammatory benefits, preliminary research indicates that phytonutrients in beets inhibit COX-1 and COX-2 activity (cyclo-oxygenase enzymes). These enzymes help produce cell messages that trigger inflammation-useful when necessary. However, in cases of chronic inflammation like heart disease, atherosclerosis and resulting Type II diabetes, stopping these molecules will help eliminate the inflammation. Because of this, scientists have been doing tests on various tumor cells and beets. The results are promising. Research on another nutrient found in beets, betaine, is showing links beneficial to cardiovascular system inflammation.
There are indications that the beet was cultivated along the Mediterranean as early as 2000 BC and was in China during the first millennium AD. During this time, though, beets were grown mainly for their greens above ground, which are also quite nutritious. In the 19th century, sugar beets were developed in Germany and harvested as an alternative to sugar cane. Even today one-third of the world's sugar supply comes from beets.
Aside from the benefits mentioned above, beets are also low-calorie (35 per one-half cup) with no fat and no cholesterol. This serving has eight grams of carbs (around 7 g sugar and 2 g dietary fiber) and one gram of protein. It has six percent of the DV of Vitamin C, four percent of iron and two percent of calcium requirements.
At the market, beets are best when small to medium-large size. Larger roots tend to be tougher. Watch for small bruises or holes because the pigments are contained within the skin and will leak from a punctured root. To conserve the pigment and nutrients, beets should be cooked with their skins intact and with about an inch of stem still on the root. The valuable betalains are somewhat susceptible to heat, so recommended steaming time should be kept to less than 15 minutes and roasting or baking time to less than one hour. When removing the outer skins wear rubber or disposable gloves to keep the pigment from coloring the hands. Root skins should peel off easily with a paper towel.
Beets can be used as other root vegetables: with roasts, in a root veggie medley or shredded raw on salads like carrots. Just be aware that the pigments could tint the other foods to some extent.
There are over 400 varieties of sweet potatoes throughout the world, but only two varieties are commonly grown in the United States. One has a gold colored skin and white to yellow flesh with a somewhat grainy texture. The other has a tan or brown skin with orange flesh and is commonly called a yam. However, it is not even in the same botanical family as a true yam, which is grown only in tropical climates, nor is it related to the common potato. The misnomer began when African slaves coined the North American sweet potato "nyami," the Senegalese term for the similar-looking root grown in Africa.
Ten thousand years ago inhabitants of Peru were growing the sweet potato, which is actually part of the morning glory family. Columbus took them to Spain after his visit to the New World, and the Spanish and Portuguese grew them and exported them around Europe, Africa, the Philippines and Asia after that. Native Americans in the south were already growing them, called "batatas," and sweet potatoes are still a southern cooking staple today.
Health benefits of this root veggie are legendary. The darker the flesh, the more beta-carotene available, and this is the type of beta-carotene from which human bodies can directly produce Vitamin A. In Africa and India, school children are fed sweet potatoes for this purpose, as they are important for healthy eyes, bones, skin and immune systems. It's said that the sweet potato sustained Civil War soldiers during the winter months.
A one-half cup serving contains 90 calories, 21 grams of carbs (6 g sugar and 3 g dietary fiber), two grams of protein, no fat and no cholesterol. It packs 38.4 percent of the DV for Vitamin A, 33 percent of the DV for Vitamin C and four percent each of calcium and iron.
Other phytonutrients and antioxidants related to the root's flesh color (particularly in the purple varieties) show signs of affecting the presence of heavy metal and oxygen radicals. Research indicates that sweet potatoes could be very beneficial to persons with intestinal tract maladies or those with high levels of mercury, cadmium or arsenic in their system. Because sweet potatoes produce their own healing nutrients, sporamins, when the root's flesh is damaged, and scientists have discovered that these nutrients are stored in the vegetable flesh, humans ingesting the vegetable may be benefiting from these healing antioxidants, as well.
Sweet potato phytonutrients like anthocyanin are also powerful anti-inflammatory substances. Animal research shows that consumption of sweet potatoes reduces production of several inflammatory enzymes, decreasing the inflammatory response. These studies show improvement in both brain tissue and nerve tissue throughout the rest of the body.
An unusual benefit to those with Type II diabetes has to do with the body's production of insulin regulator adiponectin. This hormone is produced by the body's fat cells. People with normal blood sugar levels have more adiponectin; those with diabetes have less. Studies are showing that sweet potatoes increase the production of this hormone, and contrary to the usual avoidance of starch for diabetics, one medium sweet potato boiled or steamed will provide about three grams of dietary fiber and only register around 50 on the glycemic index.
When choosing sweet potatoes, follow the same guidelines: firm with no bruises or cracks. Don't purchase refrigerated sweet potatoes or store uncooked ones in the frig because refrigeration affects the taste. Peel before or after cooking if they are not organically grown because of possible added dyes or wax on the skin.
Boiling and mashing seems to be the best way to preserve the nutrients and keep the glycemic index low. In tests, roasting sweet potatoes yielded a GI rate of 82; baking yielded a GI rate of 94; boiling resulted in a GI rate of 46. Studies also show that the beta-carotene is best absorbed when eaten with a small amount of fat. Adding a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil or some crushed walnuts to a medium steamed or boiled sweet potato will be enough to reap the benefits.
True, root vegetables look a little rough on the outside, but so do diamonds when they're first dug out of the ground. Using each of these in a winter dish every week could save a bit in the budget and add a boost to the immune system. It's what's inside that counts.