Turnips remind me a little bit of the kid who got picked last in gym class. Compared to its fellow Brassica cousins, it lacks the royal pedigree of cauliflower and the modern cachet of kale. Instead, the humble turnip has stuck to its working class roots, often subbing for the ubiquitous potato. (Mashed turnips anyone?) But as everything old is new again, is it poised to become a greenmarket favorite? If kale can, so can the turnip.
A Brief History
The origin of the turnip is a bit of a mystery. Already an important agricultural crop by the time of the Romans, its history before the Greeks is less defined. Based on the discovery of neolithic era turnip seeds, it likely grew in the wild from Europe to Asia, prized for its spicy leaves and the oil from its seeds — it is a member of the mustard family after all. Once spindly in their wild form, centuries of human tinkering bred the round turnips that we know today. By the first century BCE, Pliny the Elder regarded them as one of the most important vegetables of his time.
Despite such praise, the turnip has taken quite a tumble over the last two millennia, going from Roman favorite to cover crop and feed for livestock. It also became a food staple of the poor, a cultural association that it still maintains. Not known for its caloric heft, turnips were likely popular for their availability and the cooler climate it needs to survive. In fact, before the introduction of the potato from the New World, turnips were part of the daily diet of the working class.
Today, turnips suffer from low popularity in this country, often overlooked in favor of the potato. Detractors complain either of bitterness or a simple "we never ate turnips growing up." While more popular in Europe and Asia, here they are relegated to regional recipes. In the south, the turnip green takes its place alongside collards as a cultural staple.
- The turnip is a cruciferous vegetable, a distinction it shares with cabbage, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts and cauliflower. The word derives from Latin, referring to the cross formed by its four petals.
- Although we think of the turnip as a root vegetable, it's technically the swollen base of a stem. Ancient turnips would have looked more like a carrot instead of the round variety that we know today.
- Don't confuse the turnip with the swede (aka the rutabaga, aka the Swedish turnip). While similar, they are from different families — Brassica rapa and B. napobrassica respectively.
- The Irish carved turnips, not pumpkins, for their jack-o'-lanterns. When they immigrated to America, they modified the tradition in favor of pumpkins, which were more readily available. Check out my RFRN colleague Megan's post in this series about pumpkins. She even has a link to an image of a turnip jack-o'-lantern. Scary! I mean seriously scary, like haunt your dreams scary.
In the United States, turnips are more farm stand favorite than cash crop. They grow easily and cheaply, making them a good addition to the backyard garden. Should you wish to grow turnips yourself, they thrive in rich, loose and well-drained soil. Plant your seeds before the first frost, during those luscious Indian summer days, and you'll have turnips in the autumn.
As an alternative to growing for human consumption, turnips make a great cover crop. Turned under, they revitalize the soil of nutrients and provide grazing for livestock during the winter. Turnips are also a water intensive crop. Keep soil moist unless you want your turnips woody. They also love cool weather, which is why they’re so bountiful in your winter CSA.
Planted in the spring, baby turnips show up in the farmers market in the summer. Sweeter and milder than their larger counterparts, baby turnips are perfect for eating raw, roasting or tossing in salads as you would a radish. Fully matured, November and December is prime turnip season and because they store well, they are bountiful into late winter when not much else is growing.
As turnips are not commercially grown in large quantities in the United States, they have minimal environmental impact compared to the potato. But upwards of fifty chemicals may have been used to grown your conventional turnip. Yuck! Since they are so plentiful in farmers markets this time of year, turnips are an easy vegetable to source organically.
Turnips also have a large water footprint and thus a much larger impact in countries where turnips are grown on a larger scale. China, with its less than stellar environmental record, is one of the largest growers in the world.
While turnips are known for their classic two tone color scheme — purple on the top, white on the bottom — they come in other colors, from heirloom amber to white and green. Spring turnips, prized for their sweetness, are smaller and all white.
What to look for
Turnips should be firm, blemish-free and crisp; a rubbery consistency is a sign of poor storage. If still in their possession of their tops, they should be bright green and fresh. Look for smaller turnips as larger ones tend to be woody and bitter.
Nutrition and effects on the body
Turnips are rich in Vitamin C and contain good amounts of B6, A and K in addition to trace minerals. But it’s the greens that packs a nutritional punch with a hefty dose of Vitamins A, C, K, calcium, folic acid and manganese. Turnips are also low in calories as they are mostly fiber and water.
What to Do with It
If you're a CSA member, you've invariably come across a common winter dilemma: a bounty of turnips and a lack of ideas of what to do with them. Before you cook your turnips, give them a good scrub first. As a rule, larger turnips need to be peeled first. Tender baby turnips can be eaten raw or cooked without peeling.
Beyond the standard mashing and roasting, there are other ways to eat down the lot. They can be pureed with celery root, braised with apples and soups — not to mention turnip greens, a southern classic.
Turnips store very well, which is one of the reasons you see them long into the winter season. Once its green top is removed, the root will keep for a few months in a dry, sealed container, much like the potato and other root vegetables.
If you’re put off by the sometimes bitter flavor of turnips, make sure you generously peel them before cooking. For instance, when you slice a turnip in half, you’ll notice a yellow line about a quarter of an inch into the root. Peeling beyond that line is a way to prevent a bitter batch of turnips. Some also claim that boiling turnips with a potato will decrease bitterness.
Stretching your food dollars through preservation
Turnips' peppery flavor makes them perfect for pickling. You can also freeze your winter haul of by peeling, slicing and blanching the turnips. After a plunge in an ice bath to stop the cooking process, you can vacuum seal your turnips and store in your freezer for months.
Like many of its Brassica cousins, turnips have a sharp flavor similar to radishes. You may find them bitter — or delightful — depending on your palate. Often overlooked, turnips deserve a second chance, especially as they are bountiful during the winter months and store well. The crispiness of the kale and the richness of the pancetta make for more than fitting companions. For an extra dimension of flavor, drizzle a reduction of balsamic vinegar on top.
Roasted Turnips with Kale and Pancetta
2 medium sized turnips, peeled and chopped into 1 inch long chunks (about 2 cups)
1 cup kale, rinsed, patted dry, and chopped into thumb sized ribbons (Tuscan kale is best)
2 slices of pancetta or bacon
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar (optional)
1 tablespoon butter + 1/2 tablespoon for balsamic reduction
Serves 4 as a side dish. Ingredients can be easily doubled.
1. Preheat oven to 425 F.
2. In a mixing bowl, toss chopped turnips and kale ribbons with a glug of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of sea salt. Set aside.
3. In a skillet, cook pancetta slices until brown and crispy. Then remove to plate and set aside.
4. Place turnip and kale mixture into an oven safe roasting dish. I like to cook my veggies in a cast iron pan. Roast until the turnips are tender — about 20 minutes or until easily pierced with a fork. Halfway through roasting, it's a good idea to give the vegetables a good stir to keep it cooking at an even rate. The kale bits will get nice and crispy, adding an interesting duo of textures.
5. If you'd like to make a quick balsamic reduction, bring 1/3 cup to a low boil in a small, non-reactive sauce pan. It doesn't take long for the balsamic vinegar to reduce to a syrup-like consistency that coats the back of a spoon. This can be easily done while the turnips cook, but keep your eye on the reduction because the sugar in the balsamic vinegar can easily burn. When the the vinegar has reduced, stir in a half tablespoon of butter. Worth the effort as the end result adds a complex level of flavor to a hearty yet basic dish.
6. When the vegetables are removed from the oven and still hot, toss in a tablespoon of butter. Sprinkle the top with pancetta bits and drizzle with balsamic reduction if desired.