I was reading an ode to root vegetables recently. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who wrote it or where it was published. But, between that modern approach and my recent reading about Colonial kitchen gardening, I’ve been inspired to buy and eat more turnips and even a bag of locally grown parnsips recently. While I do certainly enjoy many root vegetables—from the lowly potato to the alien celeriac and exotic malanga—we tend to forget about the turnip. The neglected turnip is a great addition to your diet, though, and can absorb many flavors.
It’s not often celebrated by celebrity chefs, and sometimes isn’t even in your common grocery store. Or, it is, but it’s shrink wrapped, lightly browned across the top, and looks like it’s been through the wars. In others words, about as appealing as a cracked egg. Keep reading, though, and you may find the turnip can go places you’ve never taken it.
The turnip filled an important place, if a proletarian slot, in culinary history from about 2000 BC, when it was a tough bulbous stem topped by edible greens. Romans depended on turnips early in the empire. Turnips, and rutabagas, were especially important in American Colonial and northern European gardens prior to the adoption of the nightshades (aka potatoes). Primarily, it was an excellent keeper for the cold winter months and grew well in poor soils. Second, it had both the vital calories needed but also a number of important nutrients.
Turnips can help fill a different need today. Eating them, of course, adds another food to your diet and improves the variety aspect. However, they are also handy because they are lower in calories (30 to 40 cal per cup) and starch than potatoes. Substituting them for potatoes is a nice way to help reduce calories and turn potato dishes into reasonable choices for those watching their blood sugar. Switching to half turnip, half potato may be one modest change, but several modest changes help keep New Year’s Resolutions!
How to serve turnips? Well, if you can find the tender white ones (hakurei turnips), scrub and slice them thinly to serve with any dip you like. Well, maybe not marinara sauce. Serve them with any dip that you would use for raw vegetables, like hummus, ranch dressing, bagna crudo, artichoke dip, etc. I promise they will revolutionize your idea of a turnip. If not, try shredding 3 turnips, tossing with enough milk (about 3-4 tablespoons) to coat them, and steaming until just heated through (5 minutes or so). Add a little pepper, a tablespoon of minced fresh dill, and a pinch of salt for a better-than-coleslaw side dish.
Otherwise, peel, dice, and substitute in for vegetables like the potato or carrot. Add one to vegetable soup, chicken soup, vegetable curry, or to your mashed potatoes. Roast them like the Romans. Boil them and coat in butter and lemon. Braise them, in milk, olive oil or water flavored by herbs. Bake them in Potatoes Anna, or scalloped potatoes, or potato gratin. Boil them in a miso broth, or coat cooked turnips in a miso-based dressing. Some of the flavors that complement them include curry, miso, onions, cream, dill, lemon, bay, and garlic.
However you eat your roots, be sure to thank the hunter-gathers who first decided to cultivate the lowly turnip and persistent growers who bred them into the varieties we have today.
• Mature turnips take longer to cook than potatoes. If you are cooking them together, either blanche the turnips first or add them to the pot about 5 to 10 minutes before you would add a potato.
• Look for turnips with firm skins. Like a potato, the occasional blemish is fine but avoid extensive damage.
• If the greens are attached, chop them off and eat them. (Two vegetables for one! What a deal.) Substitute for mustard greens.
• Eat turnips throughout the year, but look for young tender ones at the beginning of the growing season and the end of the growing season.