Friday, October 15, 2010

Focus: TURNIPS (Brassica Rapa)

If I had to pick the most underdog vegetable - the vegetable most maligned and least understood or appreciated -  I would have to choose the turnip root.  (Turnip greens, a beautiful food, can be a topic for another day.)  Maybe it is the way the word sounds.  Stolid.  Curt.  Akin to a frog croak.  Anglo Saxon all the way.  But until Madison Ave. takes on a turnip rebranding project, we need to work with what we have. 

And what we have is a very nutritious, practical and resilient food.  A turnip is not a prima donna.  A turnip is not a fad.  A turnip is not high maintenance.  A turnip is a work horse. A turnip is a friend when you need one.  Turnips are not going away any time soon.  So we might as well learn how to  enjoy them.

Some turnip history
Turnips have been nourishing people for a very long time - even before the advent of agriculture.  Over five thousand years ago women - who were doing the foraging while the guys were out killing large mammals with clubs and projectile points- were digging up turnip roots and roasting them.  They knew a good thing when they saw it.  Maybe they though of turnips as a plan B to mastodon or woolly mammoth.  Or simply a side dish.    "What's for dinner honey?  Giant beaver and turnips AGAIN?"   (Giant mammals did once roam in Minnesota.  You can read all about it here. http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/young_naturalists/pleistocene_megafauna.html)

Turnip nutrition
Turnip roots are a fine source of potassium and other vitamins and minerals.  There are 36 calories in a cup of cubed, cooked roots.

Turnip storage
Place in well ventilated plastic bag and refrigerate - should keep for weeks in the refrigerator.  If you have an even colder place that is not too dry, the turnips, loosely wrapped in plastic, can keep for many weeks and even several months.

Turnip preparation
Fall and winter turnips, which are larger than spring turnips, must be peeled.  They take well to roasting, braising, mashing or pureeing, glazing or grating.  They can be eaten cooked or raw.  They are excellent added to some soups and stews if you are thoughtful about the flavor combinations.  They have a fairly mild and cabbagelike taste and are slightly sweet.  They combine well with the flavors of carrots, rutabagas, potatoes or leeks.  Herbs to use with turnips include parsley, dill or thyme.   You can substitute turnips for almost any recipe calling for rutabagas.  In French cuisine turnips are a classic accompaniment to roast duck.

If you have not yet become accustomed to the flavor of turnips, combine with other more familiar vegetables like potatoes, carrots or kohlrabi.  Some day you will be able to eat them "straight".

Recipes using turnips

Peppery Turnip Treat (adapted from Jane Brody's Good Food Book) (even Jane Brody understands the role of a little sugar and fat to help the vegetables go down.)

1 T. butter
2 T. honey or real maple syrup
1 pound turnips, peeled, diced into 1/4 inch cubes
1/4 t. pepper
1 T. minced fresh parsley (optional)
Melt butter and honey in a saucepan.  Add turnips and pepper.  Cover and cook turnips about 10 minutes - until tender.  They should brown lightly.  Serve sprinkled with parsley.
Variation -- substitute half the turnips with diced carrots or diced kohlrabi.

Turnip Gratin with Potatoes and Dill (serves 4-6)
1 pound turnips, peeled and coarsely grated
3/4 pound potatoes, peeled and coarsely grated (boiling type)
2 T. butter
2 T. fresh chopped dill
salt and pepper
3/4 cup heavy cream or whole milk
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
3/4 cup bread crumbs

Saute turnips and potatoes in butter for about 10 minutes.  Mix with dill, salt and pepper and place into shallow greased gratin dish.  Mix together cream and stock and pour over vegetables.  Sprinkle with bread crumbs.  Bake in the middle of a 425 degree oven about 25 minutes or until top is golden brown.

You could add some diced ham and cheese to the vegetables before you bake this and it would be a full meal.  Serve with a crunchy turnip and radish salad (see below) for a turnip double feature. 

Turnip and potato soup
For a puree - follow the same directions but use about one cup of broth and just mash vegetables with a potato masher.
1 pound turnips, peeled and cut up
1/2 pound potatoes, peeled and cut up - same size as turnips
1 medium onion or a leek
2 T. butter or bacon fat or - if you are lucky enough to have it - duck fat
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
Saute onion or leek in butter or other fat about 5 minutes.  Add cut up potato and turnip and saute a few minutes more.  Add stock and bring to a boil. Then lower heat and simmer, partially covered, about 15 more minutes or until vegetables are tender.   Puree with an immersion blender or let cool and put in a blender.  Add salt or pepper if desired.  Serve with chopped parsley or even a little fresh thyme.

This is my new favorite salad
Turnip and daikon salad with Russian dressing  (Adapted from the Root Vegetable Cookbook by Sally and Martin Stone.)
This is a wonderful salad.  The acid of the pickles and capers, the bite of the horseradish and the crunch of the raw turnip and radish make for a perfect foil to winter food that can sometimes be heavy or bland.  If you can enjoy turnip and radish salad, who needs lettuce?  I think peeled and julienned kohlrabi would also work in this dish.
Vegetables:  One pound total of turnips, daikon radish (I used red daikon).  Equal parts of each, peeled and cut into 1/8 inch julienne or matchsticks.  Plus about 1/3 cup thinly sliced onion (I used red).  Shallots would be nice too.

Russian dressing (should be enough for one pound of vegetables.  Can be doubled if you wish)
1/2 cup mayonnaise (or 1/4 c mayo and 1/4 cup yogurt or sour cream)
2 T. ketchup
1 T. grated prepared horseradish (see my post on horseradish if you want to try making your own.)
1/4 c. diced sweet gherkin pickles
1/2 t. Worcestershire sauce
1 T. drained small capers, whole or chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare vegetables.  Prepare dressing.  Stir together.  Serve.  Enjoy.

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