Even though the weather outside might be turning nasty, you don’t have to settle for canned corn or asparagus from Peru. Though winter may not be a season you associate with flavourful, fresh vegetables, there’s a bounty of unsung cold-weather vegetables to help you break out of the winter cooking blues. From vibrant beets to lumpy celery root, hearty winter vegetables provide a number of nutrients that runners need for training. They can also be inexpensive. You can probably score five-pounds of rutabagas at the farmers’ market for a buck. Many of these subterranean wonders are now available year round, but they’re at their best when the local weather turns chilly – cool temperatures convert the starches to sugar, making them that much sweeter. Here are the best winter vegetables to help tide you over until asparagus season:
Frumpy celery root, also called celeriac, is exactly what its moniker claims it to be: it comes from a celery plant. The creamy white flesh tastes like a cross between celery and parsley with a starchy, potato-like texture. What celery root lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for with hefty amounts of vitamin K, vital for proper blood clotting and bone strength. Celery root must be peeled generously with a sharp knife prior to eating. Choose small-to-medium roots that are firm, heavy for their size and free of soft spots (especially on the bottom). Large roots tend to be woody inside. Grate peeled celery root into salads and slaws, or steam and mash like potatoes.
One of the more fetching root vegetables, turnips have violet tops fading to bright white. The flesh is crispy with a peppery zing and plenty of vitamin C, a potent antioxidant, necessary for healthy tendons and ligaments. An Archives of Internal Medicine study discovered that subjects with the highest blood vitamin C levels were less likely to develop diabetes. Look for turnips that are smooth, hard and free of soft spots, sprouts or cracks. Once scrubbed, there is no need to peel them. Slice turnips into wedges and serve with a dip, shred into salads or roast with other root vegetables.
Nutty and slightly sweet parsnips look a lot like Bugs Bunny’s favourite veggie except for their ivory complexion. Just one cup of this ghostly vegetable packs in a whopping seven grams of fibre – three more grams than orange carrots. The highest recommended intake of fibre – about 30 grams per day for men and 25 grams for women – cuts the risk of dying from chronic diseases such as heart disease by up to 60 per cent, according to a recent Archives of Internal Medicine study.
Buy parsnips that are firm, crisp and free of cracks. Size does matter: smaller, thinner ones are sweeter. Unlike their orange look-alikes, parsnips are almost always better when cooked. Roasting, pureeing into soups and stir-frying also works well.
This hourglass-like gourd is blessed with a deep orange flesh that has a silky texture and taste reminiscent of sweet potato bathed in butter. Butternut squash is an impressive source of a slew of nutrients including potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, fibre and beta-carotene. In the body, the antioxidant beta-carotene can be converted to vitamin A to improve eye health and boost immunity, which may reduce respiratory infections in runners. Darker fleshed winter squash like butternut and acorn are a bigger storehouse of beta-carotene. Roast butternut squash with maple syrup or add cooked pureed butternut squash to pancake and muffin batter instead of some of the fat and sugar.
The yellow-tinged, creamy flesh of the rutabaga is milder and slightly sweeter than its cousin, the turnip. It contains good amounts of vitamin C, waist-whittling fibre and potassium to keep blood-pressure numbers in check and improve muscle functioning. Like many other root vegetables, they keep well, lasting – when properly stored in a cool, dry place – for a number of weeks. Look for smooth, hard, heavy-for-their-size rutabagas without any blemishes. Roots that are 10 centimetres or less in diameter will be more toothsome. Unlike turnip, rutabaga should be peeled before cooking. Toss chunks into curries, vegetable soups and root vegetable medleys for roasting.
Sometimes called Jerusalem artichokes, though not related to artichokes and not from Israel, sunchokes are gnarled starchy tubers of a sunflower plant. Their crunchy white flesh adds a bright flavor similar to a mix of jicama, water chestnuts and apple to the winter menu. Sunchokes are an unexpected good source of energy-boosting iron and are well-endowed with the soluble fibre inulin. Inulin helps feed the good bacteria in the gut, helping maintain intestinal health. The best sunchokes are firm with a uniform light brown hue. Steer clear of those with sprouts, wrinkled skin or blotches. Their thin skin does not need to be peeled before eating. Sunchokes can be enjoyed raw, boiled, roasted, steamed, pickled or pureed.
Rosy beets are notable for their sweetness – they have the highest sugar content of any veggie – and leaving their mark in the kitchen. Their cutting-board, finger and shirt-staining red dye betacyanin is a powerful antioxidant, which helps remove disease-provoking free radicals. One beet has only 35 calories and is full of folate, a B vitamin essential for heart health. The perfect two-for-one vegetable, edible beet greens are brimming with vitamin C and vitamin A to support immune defence. Many colourful varieties of beets are now available including golden and candy-cane guises. Look for relatively smooth, hard beets with deep colour and no larger than five centimetres in diameter. If attached, beet greens should be bright, dark green, and fresh looking. Because the greens draw moisture from the root, cut them off before storing. Not a raw beet superfan? Roasting them brings their natural sweetness to the forefront. Try sautéing beet greens with sesame oil and garlic.
Matt Kadey, MSc, RD, is an Ontario-based dietician, nutrition writer and recipe developer. Find him at mattkadey.ca or mufftinmania.com.