Foodie Underground: For the Love of Roots and Cookbooks

ColumnThe joy of delving into a good cookbook.

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!

Can you share one of your favorite recipes with us?

While I have many favorite recipes in the book, I am delighted with the Red Velvet Cupcakes because it is so unexpected and most folks think red velvet cake is made with food coloring, when, in fact, the gorgeous magenta color of the cupcakes comes from pureeing fresh-roasted beets.

Red Velvet Cupcakes with Orange Buttercream

These darling magenta-hued cupcakes are brilliantly colored all the way through. No food coloring is used here; the color comes from pureeing freshly roasted beets. I tested the recipe with canned beets and the color is drab and faded, but given how easy it is to roast beets this simple step can be done while you measure and prepare the ingredients for the cupcakes and buttercream. I finely chop the roasted beets and then puree them in a food processor. It is important to let the machine run for a couple of minutes, scraping down the sides of the workbowl once or twice, until the puree is completely smooth.

Makes 12 cupcakes


  • 2 cups/200 g sifted cake/soft-wheat flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp kosher or sea salt
  • 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups/342 g puréed red roasted beets
  • 1 cup plus 2 tbsp/225 g granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 2/3 cup/180 ml canola oil
  • 3/4 tsp pure vanilla extract

Orange Buttercream

  • 1 1/4 cups/280 g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 2 cups confectioners’/icing sugar
  • 1 tbsp heavy (whipping)/double cream
  • 1/2 tsp pure orange oil (see Cook’s Notes)
  • 1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 2 to 3 tbsp fresh orange juice

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°F/180°C/gas 4. Line a standard 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the beets, sugar, eggs, oil, and vanilla. Using a rubber spatula, stir in one-third of the flour mixture, and continue stirring just until the flour disappears. Do not beat or overmix. Repeat, adding the remaining flour mixture in 2 batches.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups, dividing the batter evenly and filling each cup almost to the top of the liner. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cupcakes comes out clean. Let the cupcakes rest in the pan, set on a wire rack, for 10 minutes. Transfer the cupcakes to the wire rack to cool completely, about an hour.

To make the buttercream, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a mixing bowl with a handheld electric mixer, cream the butter on low speed. Add the sugar, cream, orange oil, and vanilla, and beat until incorporated, about 2 minutes. Add the orange juice, a little at a time, until the buttercream is fluffy and smooth.

When the cupcakes are completely cool, spread a thick layer of buttercream over the tops, swirling the frosting to decorate the tops. Alternatively, the frosting can be transferred to a pastry bag and piped around the tops of the cupcakes. The cupcakes can be made up to 2 days in advance. Store, covered, at room temperature.

Cook’s Notes
Pure orange oil is an essential oil cold pressed from the rind of oranges. It is different from pure orange extract. Look for pure orange oil in the baking section of natural foods stores, at baking supply stores, or Middle Eastern grocers. Two brands I see often is Boyajian or Frontier.

The cupcakes freeze well and are handy to have on hand for a party. Freeze the cupcakes unwrapped on a baking sheet/tray. Once frozen, wrap them individually, first with plastic wrap/cling film and then with aluminum foil. The cupcakes can be frozen up to 1 month. Unwrap the cupcakes and thaw at room temperature.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.