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Texas Book Festival authors talk root vegetables, our changing relationship with meat

Addie Broyles
Yuca fries with creamy cilantro lime dipping sauce is one of the recipes in "Roots, " which is Diane Morgan's 17th cookbook.

If you’re headed to the Texas Book Festival, don’t forget to stop by the cooking tent on 11th Street on the south side of the Capitol. Throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday, cookbook authors from around the country will be hosting cooking demonstrations to talk about their latest cookbooks. You can find the full food line-up, including the non-cooking food sessions, inside the book festival tab in today’s paper, but ahead of the event, we chatted with two veteran authors about how their respective industries have changed and what keeps them writing food books.

Food writer Diane Morgan set out to write her latest cookbook, “Roots: The Definitive Compendium,” for admittedly selfish reasons.

Morgan, who has written 16 cookbooks over the years, had started to notice a variety of new-to-her root vegetables at local farmers markets and grocery stores in the Portland area, but she didn’t really know what to do with them. “I realized that this book I wanted to own didn’t exist,” she says. She started researching the wide world of roots, from grocery store staples like carrots and potatoes to unfamiliar (to Americans) ones like burdock root, crosne and malanga and developing recipes to show just how versatile they really are.

“Farmers are growing some of these roots, like parsley root, that my grandmother used,” Morgan says. “These vegetables went by the wayside when we got into supermarkets, but they are being revived at farmers markets and in (community supported agriculture) programs.”

Some of the roots, like rutabaga and turnips, have garnered a somewhat unfavorable reputation as being bland and boring, while others, like galangal and fresh turmeric and horseradish, are both pungent and relatively new to many American cooks.

Supermarkets catering to an international audience have long sold many of these lesser-known roots, but farmers are growing them as a way to diversify their product line and stand out in an increasingly crowded market. (Many of the vegetables have different names in various parts of the world, so Morgan lists some of the alternative names and varieties.)

Fresh turmeric is one of her favorite discoveries. “I fell in love with that rhizome,” says Morgan, who uses fresh turmeric to boost the flavor of okra, rice, chicken and kohlrabi in the book.

In recent years, the health benefits of turmeric, including its anti-inflammatory properties, have become better known in the U.S., but most Americans only know the bright yellow power that’s available in the spice section.

Even though the book is technically based on the part of the vegetable that grows underground, Morgan makes a case for eating the green leafy carrot, beet or turnip tops that are often tossed. In the book, she shares a recipe for carrot top pesto, which will carry you through the winter when your basil pesto runs out.

Morgan will be teaching a class at Lake Austin Spa and Resort ahead of her demonstration at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the book festival cooking tent.

Meat has become a lot more complicated than it was 30 years ago when Bruce Aidells started a sausage company in the San Francisco area.

There are new cuts, new channels through which to buy them, new techniques to cook them and, not the least, new politics about how the animals are raised and the implications of eating meat in the first place.

Aidells tackles them all in his new book, “The Great Meat Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Buy and Cook Today’s Meat” (Houghton Mifflin, $40), co-written by Anne-Marie Ramo, which he’ll be talking about at 2 p.m. Sunday in the cooking tent at the Texas Book Festival.

Aidells, who sold his stake in the eponymous sausage company that still bears his name many years ago, covered many of these issues in his 1998 cookbook, “The Complete Meat Cookbook,” which he regrets calling “complete.” (“Not a good tactical move,” he says now, with a laugh.)

But so much can change in a decade, especially consumer awareness about sustainably raised meats and the unique cuts that smaller ranchers will often sell in an attempt to use up every part of the animal. “Along with that is a much greater availability of meat with more farmers’ raising that kind of meat, the expansion of farmers’ markets and even places to order meat online,” he says. Plus, through his travels and cooking in his own kitchen, Aidells had collected a book’s worth of new recipes to share.

So much of knowing how to prepare meat correctly is to know how to buy the meat correctly, he says. “I want people to know how to buy the meat they think they are buying. How to decipher labels, how to read between the lines of ‘natural’ and ‘naturally raised’,” a nebulous term that the U.S. Department of Agriculture created in 2009 but hasn’t yet cleared for official use.

“The most heinous term is ‘natural’,” he says. “All fresh meat is ‘natural,’ but as it is used in common parlance, it means naturally raised without hormones and antibiotics.” But if a cut of beef is simply label “natural,” the animal can still have been given antibiotics, hormones and kept in feedlots.

“Allowing raw beef to be labeled ‘natural’ is as meaningless as allowing bottled water to be labeled ‘cholesterol-free’,” he writes in the opening chapter.

In this book, Aidells addresses the effect of the recent drought on meat prices and takes into account the fact that many American carnivores are just eating less meat, either because they are “recovering vegetarians” or they are shopping on tight budgets.

Most people can’t afford to only eat roasts and steaks but they might not know how to cook anything else, he says. “That’s where the underappreciated cuts come in.”

He incorporates a number of dishes, including those inspired by his global travels, that use meat as a flavoring ingredient instead of the bulk of the calories for a meal. “You don’t go to Cambodia and eat a 2-pound steak.”

On Sunday, he’ll be demonstrating a braised chuck steak with tomato, orange and “a fair amount of tequila,” which he knew would go over well in Texas.

In the end, Aidells just wants to see people feel more confident in the kitchen. “I’m happy with anyone who wants to cook from scratch,” Aidells says. “I want their experience cooking with meat to be positive and expand their horizons.”

Yuca Fries with Creamy Cilantro-Lime Dipping Sauce