Root Vegetables

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Root Vegetables

2012-12-10 04:21

When I tell people I love to cook from cookbooks that are 150 to 200 years old, I am always surprised by those who cringe. The first question is always, “Eew – how could it be any good?” Second question, with a look of disgust on the face is, “What did they eat back then?” Answer: same as we do! People have always loved good food. The other reaction is that everyone thinks the food was so rich; cream and butter everywhere. While it is true, Mrs. Emlen does use a lot of butter in her kitchen, that is because butter was used instead of oil. In reality, Mrs. Emlen’s cookbook offers a wide range of recipes, from rich with butter and cream to very healthy with very little fat added. Today I want to share one of each, one for turnips and the other for beets.

It’s winter now in Philadelphia, time for root vegetables. Potatoes, yams, turnips, and beets fill out my CSA share. Each week I receive a box of 7-9 vegetables, locally grown, harvested in season and  organic. This is an easy way to remind me how Mrs. Emlen and her family would have eaten. There was no refrigeration nor any jets from Chile, bringing up summer fruits and vegetables. The winter diet of fresh vegetables would have been very limited. At the moment I am looking for turnip recipes to break up the monotony. Time to try Mrs. Emlen’s turnip recipe on pg. 48. I would not have noticed or remembered this one except that it is the second recipe for turnips, next to the first recipe in the book is a note:  a better at 48th page.


Pare & cut them in thin slices, put them into water that is boiling hard, boil fast for 1/2 an hour or a little more, press out every drop of water through a colander mashing them perfectly smooth. To 1/2 peck, which makes a large dish, Take 3 jills of milk, boil it, stir into the milk 1/4lb. of butter, which has been mixed with 2 teaspoons of flour, a teaspoonful white sugar some pepper & salt let this cook a little. Put the turnips into this sauce, & stew 1/4 of an hour __ They are excellent. Mrs. Camac

  • 1lb. Turnips
  • 1 1/2c milk
  • 1/2c butter at room temp.
  • 2 t flour
  • 1 t white sugar
  • salt and pepper to taste

Slice the turnips very thin and boil until cooked. They are very watery so it is a good idea to follow the recommendations and press out as much water through a dense colander or sieve before mashing them. In a small bowl, mix the butter, flour, sugar, salt and pepper together until smooth. Put the milk into a pot that will also accommodate the amount of mashed turnips you have. Bring the milk to just under boiling. With a whisk, stir in the butter mixture. This will take a few minutes before the butter melts. After the butter has melted completely and you see the sauce thicken, turn the heat to low and mix in the mashed turnips. Adjust salt and pepper as needed. I have to agree with Mrs. Emlen – these are excellent!

This recipe does validate the comment - everything was so rich back then! Yes, the milk would have been whole milk, possibly still with the cream mixed in, plus 1/2c of butter? That is a very rich dish. But it is possible to make this dish with 1% or even non-fat milk and it will still be creamy. If you’ve never made sauce like this before – it takes a bit of practice, but once you’ve got it, it will work for any sauce, including gravy.

  • 1lb turnips
  • 2c 1% milk
  • 2T flour (yes tablespoons here)
  • 1t sugar – this smooths out the flavor of the turnips
  • salt and pepper

Boil and mash turnips as above. In a large pot, bring 1 1/2c milk, sugar, salt and pepper to just under boiling. Have ready the extra 1/2c milk with 2T flour mixed in. The best way to do this I’ve found is to put the flour into a jam jar with a lid and add the milk. Screw the lid on tightly and shake vigorously. You want all of the flour suspended in the milk. When you see that the milk in the pot is ready, give your jam jar one more shake, remove the lid and start stirring the milk in the pot at a medium speed. As you continue stirring, slowly pour the milk/flour mixture in. Keep stirring after you’ve poured it all in. Watch the sauce while you stir and in about a minute or two the sauce will instantly become thicker. Stir for another minute, turn the heat to low and add the turnips. Cook for another 5 minutes.

To dispel the myth of only rich food, I offer my other favorite root vegetable dish from Mrs. Emlen; beets. This week in my CSA share I got blond beets, aren’t they beautiful? They taste exactly the same as the red ones but are bright orangey-yellow.


Put young beets into boiling water, with a handful of salt, & keep them boiling hard, for an hour, then dip them in cold water, the skin will pull off whole cut them in quarters, put to them a large piece of butter a teaspoonful of vinegar, a little black pepper & salt. Be particular not to cut tops & tails. E.B.C [Mrs. Camac]

  • 1 – 2lbs beets
  • 1/4c salt
  • 1-2tsp butter
  • 1tsp white vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste.

Boil the beets for 30-40 minutes depending on what they need (and I would cut tops and tails). They are done when you put a fork in and they are mostly soft with a little resistance. Dip each beet into cold water separately and gently pull on the skin – it will slip right off. Quarter the beats and put them in a bowl, add the butter while they are still hot so that it melts. Add the vinegar and flavor with salt and pepper. Toss to coat everything. If you want a completely non-fat dish, leave out the butter, but really, you aren’t adding that much so it’s okay. The vinegar is what makes the flavor amazing.

For more delicious recipes for 1865, check out the facsimile of Mrs. Emlen’s cookbook available in HSP’s online shop here.

This will be my last foodie blog post for the season. I hope you've enjoyed reading and have tried some of the recipes for yourselves. I wish you Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year!


Submitted by Terry (not verified) on

Mrs. Emlen's recipe for beets works wonderfully with golden beets!!

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