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Turnips return

December 14, 2009

The turnip greens growing leafier on my balcony despite recent morning frosts have made me think it was time I dug up an article I wrote last year, before this blog existed. It was published in the Los Altos Town Crier Dec. 10, 2008 Food and Wine section under the title “Turnips add subtle flavor to roast and gratin.” Most interesting to me in retrospect: the recipe for duck with root vegetables, which reflects my–at the time–recent shift to being a no-longer vegetarian.

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Americans associate autumn with the indigenous pumpkin, whose vibrant heft brims Thanksgiving pieshells and glows as Halloween jack-o-lanterns. When I requested that we privilege the turnip (and dispense with pumpkin) at the Thanksgiving table, I was unwittingly positioning myself in an old trans-continental food conversation.

Before jag-toothed pumpkins illuminated All Hallow’s Eve, jack-o-lanterns were hollowed out of turnips. Early Irish settlers had imported a tradition centered on a ubiquitous Old World crop; but they soon opted for the more colorful local pumpkin to make their seasonal “lamps.” The turnip may have lost this visible role, but it deserves to be rediscovered as an ingredient in the holiday roasts and gratins that warm up cold-weather months.

After 4000 years of cultivation in Europe, the modest mauve-tinged turnip was first planted in North America by Virginia colonists as food and livestock fodder. Turnips subsequently entered the produce exchange between colonists and Native Americans. Early turnip connoisseurs, the Romans had multiple names to describe the flat, round, white-fleshed, and yellow-fleshed varieties; and thanks to their empire’s expansion, the common European variety of Brassica rapa was growing in France by the 1st century. The English word “turnip,” in fact, comes from the Latin napus, which became the Old English naep, then the Middle English nepe. (The turn comes from its shape, as though turned on a lathe.)

Perhaps turnips have their non-finicky soil demands to thank for their longevity as a crop. Then again, they present the advantage of versatility from a cook’s perspective. Boiled or steamed, turnip greens have piquancy, like their relatives, mustard greens. The young shoots can be eaten in salad. But the plant’s most common feature is its root bulb.

With its relatively mild flavor and unassuming hue, turnip root may seem an unlikely candidate for starring culinary roles. It appears most frequently, however, in a mash—solo or with other starchy subterranean vegetables. Like its cousin the radish, the turnip does have an earthy pungency one wouldn’t expect from its translucent white flesh. For purists, butter or cream adds depth and richness to turnips mashed alone or with potatoes. Parsnips or carrots can contribute a touch of sweetness that provides a base for bolder seasonings such as nutmeg or caraway. The bold may hazard a touch of horseradish, bringing out the mustardy bite.

A cautionary note about boiling, however: sulfurous undertones—a cabbage family trait—can give boiled turnips a bad name; being careful not to overcook them, and boiling with the lid off, mitigates the flavor.

The French learned early on that roasting turnips weakens the sulfur notes and brings out the vegetable’s flavor. For a main-dish gratin, marry turnips with other fall vegetables such as leeks, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, or Brussels sprouts, and top with Gruyere cheese, nutmeg, sage, or rosemary. As part of an oven-roasted vegetable dish, turnips harmonize well with flavorful meets such as duck, rabbit, and lamb. Bacon or pancetta make common appearances in gratins or mashes. And as a devoted soup-maker, I’ve found that turnips add a wonderful depth to soup broth.

Roasted duck with root vegetables

Serves 4

1 medium Muscovy duck, fat trimmed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 shallots, peeled and halved
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tsp. butter, softened
2 large parsnips, 2 turnips, 2 carrots, and 1 onion, cut into quarters or large pieces
olive oil
sage or rosemary
1/2 cup vegetable stock

1. Preheat oven to 400°. Rinse duck, dry lightly, season cavity with salt and pepper, stuff with shallots and garlic, and truss with string. Rub skin with butter, season with salt and pepper, and place duck, breast side down, in a medium roasting pan.

2. Toss vegetables in olive oil and seasoning, place in pan around duck, and roast, basting as desired, for 20 minutes. Turn duck breast side up and continue roasting until juices run clear, about 30 minutes more. Removing duck from oven, add vegetable broth and continue roasting vegetables 10-15 minutes, or until tender.

3. Carve duck, arrange on platter with roasted vegetables, moisten meat with pan juices, and serve.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. jilly permalink
    December 14, 2009 2:49 pm

    Interesting. So turnips had quite a history before they came to North America. They’re so tasty – wonder why they were used for fodder and animals. But reading about the mustard green, cabbage and radish connection makes me wonder if the leaves or root can be eaten raw like those vegetables. Have you tried?

  2. December 15, 2009 5:53 pm

    Thanks for clueing me in to the etymology of the word “turnip.” The Scots name for them – neeps, as in neeps and tatties, the classic Burns’ Night mash dish – makes a lot more sense now!

  3. January 30, 2010 5:52 pm

    I’m loving your culinary opinions (turnips, persimmons, and beets? Fantastic), but I’m also deeply enjoying all the outside knowledge and food history you incorporate. The “roots” behind the food on my plate have always fascinated me. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and love of cooking with the rest of us.

    One of my favorite turnip recipes (and winter recipes in general) is a roasted root vegetable stew. Turnips, beets, pumpkin, potato (sweet, red, yellow), onion, garlic (whole cloves) and whatever else you care to add roast with olive oil until everything is deliciously browned and softened. Move the pan to the stove, add a little broth (not much, this stew is best hearty and thick), and let thicken. As much as I love my beets and sweet potato, the turnip is the indispensable star here. Its subtle tang brightens the stew to a new level of flavor.

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