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They're at the root of the hearty winter meal.

In past centuries the mainstay of the human diet, root vegetables are regaining popularity nationwide for their versatility and flavor.

Cooks have moved far beyond basic potatoes and onions. The Food Channel predicted the rise of root vegetables -- particularly in upscale side dishes -- as a major restaurant trend for 2011. Chefs, already enamored with heirloom beets, are rediscovering the joys of turnips, parsnips and other old-time favorites.

"Really big so far this year are yellow or golden turnips," said Suzanne Ashworth of Del Rio Botanical, a West Sacramento, Calif., organic farm that caters to many local restaurants' chefs. "They're doing for turnips what yellow potatoes did for potatoes -- they're sweeter and they look like they're buttered."

Recently, Bon Appetit magazine announced, "We dig root vegetables."

New cookbooks such as "Recipes From the Root Cellar: 250 Fresh Ways To Enjoy Winter Vegetables" by Andrea Chesman (Storey Publishing, $18.95, 387 pages) and "The Complete Root Cellar Book" by Steve Maxwell and Jennifer Mac Kenzie (Robert Rose, $24.95, 256 pages) are tapping roots in new ways.

Why all the attention? Root vegetables are nutritional powerhouses, packed with vitamins and flavor. At grocery stores and farmers' markets, they're relatively cheap. They can be stored for weeks or even months. And, of course, they're fresh just in time for comforting winter meals.

Chesman, who lives in rural Vermont, appreciates root vegetables for their longevity and versatility.

"Roasting is the best thing to do to root vegetables," she said in a phone interview. "It brings out their natural sugars."

Roasting is easy: Peel and cut roots into 1-inch wedges or cubes. (Baby beets, turnips and carrots can be left whole.) Spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle with a little olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Add some thyme, oregano or other herbs if desired. Roast for 45 minutes to an hour at 350 degrees or until fork tender.

Roasting takes time, but root veggies can be quick, too. "What surprised me is that I discovered I could shred just about any root vegetable and cook it quickly in a skillet as a stir-fry," Chesman said. "It was ready in just 10 minutes."

>Rooting around

Shopping: Look for root vegetables with firm flesh and smooth skin. Avoid any that have mushy spots. Smaller veggies usually taste sweeter.

Storage: Kept at 32 to 40 degrees, root cellars allow long-term storage (up to four months) of most root vegetables. But in Sacramento, with daytime temperatures above 40 degrees, root vegetables keep best in the refrigerator. Wrap in paper towels, then place inside a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator's crisper. Most will keep crisp two to four weeks; age turns turnips and rutabagas bitter.

Store turnips and beets with their leaves, which can be used as greens. Trim carrot tops back to 1 inch before storing. Remove radish, parsnip and salsify leaves before storing.

Peeling: Peel to remove any dirt, feeder roots or wax (used to inhibit mold if commercially shipped).

To peel celeriac or jicama, slice off the top and bottom. Stand upright on one end. Using a sharp knife, slice off the peel vertically from the sides. Put peeled celeriac in water with lemon juice to keep it white.

Baby beets and carrots can be cooked unpeeled, but scrub first to remove dirt. Well-scrubbed sunchokes can be left unpeeled, too. To scrub, use a soft-bristle brush.

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>Beets in Sour Cream

1 1/2 pounds beets

1 shallot, minced

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or more to taste

1 cup sour cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap beets individually in aluminum foil. Roast for 50 to 60 minutes until fork-tender. Unwrap and let cool.

Peel beets and cut into 1/2 -inch cubes. Transfer to a bowl with minced shallot. Mix in vinegar and sour cream. Add salt, pepper to taste. Serve or refrigerate up to 8 hours. Serves 4.

From "Recipes from the Root Cellar" by Andrea Chesman.

Three tablespoons minced red onion may be substituted for the shallot. Also, the beets may be boiled instead of roasted. Boil gently for 40 minutes or until fork-tender. Drain, let cool and peel.

Per serving: 206 cal.; 5g pro.; 21 gcarb.; 12g fat (8 sat., 4 monounsat., no polyunsat.); 26mg chol.; 154 mg sod.; 1g fiber; no sugar; 52 percent calories from fat.

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>Parsnip Latkes

1 pound parsnips, peeled and grated

2 tablespoons salt

1/2 cup minced leek (just white part)

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme

Freshly cracked black pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

Creme fraiche for serving

Season parsnips with salt, cover with a damp towel and set aside in colander for 30 minutes, to leach out some moisture.

Rinse thoroughly under cold water, drain, place on clean dry linen and ring out extra water. In stainless bowl, combine rinsed parsnips, leek, eggs, thyme and pepper. Heat nonstick saute pan to medium-high heat, add olive oil.

Drop latke mixture into hot oil (about 2 to 3 tablespoons per latke), flattening a little with a spatula. Brown on both sides then remove to a paper towel to drain. (Do this in batches.) Serve with creme fraiche. Makes 15 to 18 three-inch latkes.

From Roots Restaurant and Cellar, Milwaukee.

Per latke based on 16 latkes: 67 cal.; 1g pro.; 6g carb.; 4g fat (1 sat., 3 monounsat., no polyunsat.); 29mg chol.; 160g sod.; 1g fiber; no sugar; 58 percent calories from fat.

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>Root Vegetable Stir-Fry

1 tablespoon peeled and diced ginger

1 green onion

1/4 bunch cilantro

Juice of 1/2 orange

1 to 2 tablespoons parsley

1/2 teaspoon garlic

1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil

1/4 cup mirin wine

1 tablespoon olive oil

3/4 cup julienned carrots

3/4 cup julienned parsnips

3/4 cup julienned Daikon radish

3/4 cup julienned yellow beet

3/4 cup julienned celeriac (celery root)

3/4 cup julienned turnip

Hot cooked jasmine or basmati rice

To prepare sauce, place ginger, green onion, cilantro, orange juice, parsley, garlic, sesame oil and mirin in blender and puree until smooth.

Heat olive oil in saute pan over high heat. Add carrots, parsnips, Daikon radish, yellow beet, celery root (celery root) and turnip and quickly saute a minute or two, keeping vegetables moving. Add sauce, toss a couple times and cook 2 minutes, keeping vegetables moving, until they are crisp-tender. Serve with rice.

Serves 4. Recipe from Cafe Manna in Brookfield, Wis.

Per serving without rice: 177 cal.; 2g pro.; 20g carb.; 9g fat (1 sat., 5 monounsat., 3 polyunsat.); no chol.; 67mg sod.; 4g fiber; 12g sugar; 44 percent.